Hold on to your seats, folks (and maybe your Bibles too). We are going to do a quick look at two unique books of the Bible. We have been looking at the Old Testament texts all summer, especially the stories about David and Solomon. But when I looked at today’s Old Testament text and saw it was from Song of Solomon, my first reaction was to say, "No way! I do not want to tackle that." But then Taylor handed me a commentary by two of her Harvard professors, Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell, and the more I read, the more intrigued I was.
There is no other book in the Bible that resembles Song of Solomon. It is a love poem, interchanges between a male and female, with very eloquent comparisons of each other to animals and flowers and rivers, to fragrances and tastes. Nowhere does the book refer directly to God. As you might imagine, at least in Christian tradition, it has been used mostly for readings in weddings.
Yet there is more to the book. Teresa of Avila (in the 16th century) meditated on it as it was written in Latin, not knowing what it meant but savoring and being inspired by the flow of it. Even when it was translated for her, she said she did not understand it, but felt it almost as music, relaying a sense of God’s voice. Throughout the ages, it has been read allegorically or metaphorically, rather than literally. Even though God’s name is not mentioned, rabbinical tradition saw the book as depicting the relationship between God and Israel. Even Paul uses the image of husband and wife to describe Christ and the church. Some see Christ as calling to the church, "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." Early Christian interpreters even saw the Song as a way to express their desire for Jesus, and their difficulty in finding him. Or some see it as Christ’s love song to the church.
But at its simplest level, it is a love song. There were many similar love songs in ancient literature. One of the striking differences between this song and others is the equality of the lovers. The woman is as avid in her pursuit of the man as he is for her. That would not fit the standards of that time, or of many centuries since. And yet there it is, the woman on an equal par with the man. Yet if we read more of the book, we would see that they have to hide their relationship; they sneak off to rendezvous in hidden places. It is as if society wants to keep them apart for reasons that are not expressed but that was can only guess. Maybe they were from different races or statuses. In an era where marriages were arranged, maybe she was promised to someone else. And their love is very organic. It is almost as if their love for one another grows out of their love for the earth.
There is much we can learn from the study of such a book when we look at it as a whole, and when we look at the whole message of the Bible. Perhaps it is in the Bible as a counter to the other love songs that were even more erotic. Maybe it points to a way of loving that goes deeper than just desire. And the theme of love is prevalent throughout the scriptures, God’s love for us, and God’s desire that we love another with respect and peace.
Though the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, is attributed to Solomon, most scholars do not think he wrote it. In ancient times, attributing a writing to someone well known would give it more status.
When we looked at the Scriptures for the next several weeks, we decided to concentrate for a few weeks on another seldom used book from the New Testament, the Letter of James. James is the first of what are called the "Catholic," or "general" epistles, because they are not addressed to any particular church (like Romans, or Corinthians, or Ephesians). But James is unique among the letters because it is not really a letter; nor is it a sermon. It is perhaps best described as an moral exhortation, or even, some suggest, as a wisdom writing. The other wisdom writings are in the Old Testament – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Job. Wisdom literature gives advice on how to live, sometimes with short, pithy sayings, like Proverbs.
The style and vocabulary of James is unique to this book. No other NT book is written quite this way. It has been traditionally attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. But with the clear and sometimes eloquent Greek style, allusions to the Torah, and only a few mentions of the name of Jesus, it is unlikely that his uneducated fisherman brother James was the actual author. But, again, attributing it to someone who became a leader of the church after Jesus’ resurrection, would give the book status. Even so, because it is so different in its approach, the book has been controversial throughout the centuries. Martin Luther wanted to take it out, because he saw it as going against Paul’s important teaching about justification by faith alone, whereas James emphasizes the necessity for faith and works.
Somewhat like the prophets, James disdains those who work for their own gain, the rich, especially those who oppress others to do so. James separates "wisdom from above," what we learn from God, from "wisdom from below," the earthly knowledge that prevails. We will look more at this interesting letter in the nest weeks.
As we see in today’s passage, James says that every gift comes from God, the Father of lights, or in other words, the Creator of earthly and heavenly light. God created us as a kind of first fruit, the cream of the crop for an example to the world. These first two verses of our passage talk about God, but then the author turns to the readers, with advice on how to live rightly as God’s people. We will see as we continue in the Letter of James that how we speak is very important to him. "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger," is a good motto for pastors, for Stephen Ministers, and for our newly elected officers, if not for us all. James sees no worth in anger, and a great need for self-control. He says that we cannot sit and listen, as in Sunday School or church, and then leave as if we heard nothing, that to do so is like looking in a mirror and forgetting what we saw. To hear the Word, for James, means to act accordingly in the way we live. Perhaps the crux of the message, for him, is in the last verse: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
Reading and reflecting on these two Scriptures all week, and hearing the news of another shooting, carried out in a very public way in our world where everything is so accessible, two other readings struck me as helpful to help us cope.
Each morning I read a devotional from the Henri Nouwen society. They pull short pieces from his many writings, and on the day after the shooting in Virginia, I awoke to read "Being Ready to Die – from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey." So apt to the tragedy of the day before, it said:
"Death happens so suddenly. A car accident, a plane crash, a fatal fight, a war, a flood, and so on. When we feel healthy and full of energy, we do not think much about our deaths. Still, death might come unexpectedly.
How can we be prepared to die? By not having any unfinished relational business. The question is: Have I forgiven those who have hurt me and asked forgiveness of those I have hurt? When I feel at peace with all the people I live with, my death might cause great grief, but it will not cause guilt or anger.
When we are ready to die at any moment, we also are ready to live at any moment."
Both of our Scripture passages seem to encourage us to live life fully, with a love that is pure, organic, unselfish, and following God’s good will for us and all creation, not just on Sunday mornings, but every moment of our lives. "When we are ready to die at any moment, we also are ready to live at any moment."
The other reading was an article in The New York Times, called "The Widening World of Hand-Picked Truths," by George Johnson. The author talks about how the concept of what is "true" is broadening so much, with the great accessibility of information, or misinformation, available night and day through the internet and the non-stop media, so much so that it is harder to declare any one truth to all people. For example, in a more scientific age, those who believe in creation in a literal sense have come up with an "intelligent design" theory, maybe to give more scientific validity to God’s creative powers. The debate about vaccinating children seems to hinge on whether to believe those who have found research that vaccines are harmful, or those who have researched and say they are not harmful. There are those, in the debate over global warming, who regard the scientists as "manufacturing" facts that are just not true, in order to persuade others to their viewpoint. There just seems to be no more black and white, no absolute right and wrong, no clear true and false.
The author of the article says:
"Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies – narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality – the ‘dominant paradigm’- on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version [of the truth]."
In such a world, it is much easier to be divided rather than united. It almost encourages us to hunker down in our own little corners, protecting ourselves from the onslaught of news, information and opinion, but perhaps deep inside, we wish for something or someone to tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false.
That, my friends, is when and why we still need the Word of God and the community of the church in our lives. In a world "gone postal," "gone to pot," always logged on with Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and so much more, we need, we long for, somewhere to just bring us a few moments of silence. We need a time and place to breath and to think and to feel, as well as a place where we know that there are some guidelines for living in such a busy and chaotic world. These texts we have read today, and the message of the Bible as a whole, can remind us that living well really all boils down to love and respect – love for the creation God has given us (the earth and all its creatures), for one another (despite our differences), for God and for the church. The church should and can be a place where everyone is respected and accepted as they are, and where we work together in love to both make sense of the world and to better the world, as we truly become "doers of the Word." It may sound trite, but if we can learn how to live and work together in love in this place, maybe we can help make the world a better place. Let’s give it a try. To remind us, let’s repeat the last line of the call to worship together: "Let us not just hear – let us act – and, with God’s help, live lives of praise." All glory be to God. Amen.
Boring, M. Eugene & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s Commentary (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 2004)
Cox, Harvey & Stephanie Paulsell, Lamentations & The Song of Songs (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 2012)
Johnson, George, "The Widening World of Hand-Picked Truths" in The New York Times, August 24, 2015
The Henri Nouwen Society Daily Meditation – "Being Ready to Die – from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey"