Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
August 29, 2021
Scripture: Song of Solomon 2:8–13
As I survey the tumult and turmoil of a world in crisis—the continuing cases of and deaths from COVID‑19 and the fighting over masks and vaccines, the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the humanitarian crisis of violent repression and score-settling for those who aided American troops, the Kabul airport bombing that killed over 170 people and 13 U.S. service members aiding in the evacuation—I keep wondering if a love poem from the Song of Solomon is enough of a word for the moment. With all the punditry, policymaking, and expert analyses applied to the big issues and questions we are now confronting, it can feel kind of unserious and unrealistic to exhort people and leaders to choose love in response. And yet, it is often the faithful readers of sacred texts, inspired by the witnesses to God’s steadfast love in the midst of slavery, genocide, and persecution and by those transformed by Jesus’ commandment—and his embodiment of that commandment—to love God and neighbor, who are compelled to rely on the call to love in the midst of crises.
The Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, is a rather confusing, if still quite an appropriate book to read in this moment. It has been confusing readers as long as it has been included as an authoritative sacred writing for the faithful. With all our modern advancements in historical, literary, and form criticism in biblical interpretation, we still wrestle with this book of poetry. Who wrote it? Did they write all of it as a unit or did several people add verses over time? Is it even poetry in the way we understand it? Whatever it is, there is no denying that the theme of the Song of Solomon is love. Perhaps, it is always appropriate to reflect on the theme of love when things get bad and we become disconnected from what is good and right. But that theme of love in Song of Solomon is personal and intimate, featuring the erotic poetry of two lovers utterly and unwaveringly committed and connected.
In the passage we read today, over and over the poet speaks about “my beloved”: the voice of my beloved; my beloved is like a young stag; my beloved speaks. The language is so flowery and intimate, rather sweet and sappy, and so erotic that many faithful readers have been a little embarrassed and scandalized by it and are satisfied to pursue reading it solely as allegory . . . perhaps this poetry is about God’s love of Israel or Jesus’ love for the church. And while those allegories have a rich history and provide satisfying theological truths about how steadfast love builds God’s people, I hope we let this expression of love invite us to see the power and the mystery of love in all of its expressions and manifestations as the antidote to the ugliness and nastiness of war and pandemic.
The cry of the poet that her lover speaks to her to arise and come away with him is not a meaningless recitation of inconsequential romantic words. Rather, this connection between lovers is animated by a material change in the environment. Even if the words are ultimately metaphorical or allegorical, the love portrayed here flourishes with newness and possibility, “for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.” Whenever this was written and whoever wrote it, regardless of the identity of the two people involved or the allegories we can glean from it, there is a truth about the power and mystery of love: Love changes things. Real love, the active, transformative, committed kind of love, transforms the spaces and places that are overwhelmed by violence, oppression, and domination.
The language of these lovers may be embarrassing and scandalous to our ears, their passion and eroticism may cause some discomfort, but they open a window into the “divine-human drama” of committed, covenant relationship. The flowery, romantic language reveals the possibilities of covenant commitment, and the invitation to “arise, my love, and come away,” also reveals the demands and expectations of love. That’s right, if love is to be more than just a feeling, it comes with a host of expectations. If love is to be more than a lyric soon forgotten in the whirl of crisis, it must be cultivated and nurtured, constantly shown, offered, and tended to as a way to overcome what separates us and distorts our humanity.
And that raises questions: How do we talk about love? How do we cultivate and nurture love? How do we show love? How do we make love victorious? We have become quite comfortable with the use of the word “love.” We know how to say it sweetly. We know how it feels both romantically and platonically. We even know how painful love can be. We even have some authoritative voices to which we appeal to talk and think about love: the eloquence and expressions of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the power and mystery of love; the images and metaphors of love from Shakespeare, Browning, and Keats; the lyrics and melodies of love from Gershwin and Berlin to the Beatles, Etta James, and Whitney Houston. We are surrounded by convincing rhetoric about the power of love in all its expressions.
And yet, we come up short when the world needs to see the kind of love that transforms. The Church becomes less confident in her witness to the power of love when war, violence, pandemic, and environmental degradation threaten. Whether as allegory or example, what is our response to God’s loving voice, call, and invitation? Are we willing to hear the voice of God beckoning us to get up, to go out into the world, to trust the pull of God’s infectious, unconditional love for us? Do we take the posture of one who deeply loves and is deeply loved and hasten to be near God and one another, dwelling together in peace and safety as an answer to the pain and suffering in the world? I’m talking about nurturing and cultivating love such that our union and expression of love feel like a time of singing and all around us the winter is past and the rain is over.
And I get it. Someone is thinking that love is still not concrete or effective enough to answer the crises of our day. But those who are loved and love in return can be the answer to the crises we face. The good news is that the voice of God, whose steadfast love endures forever, beckons us to God and embraces us within the very being of God. In our relationship with God, we are showered in a radical love that dissolves all the categories and boundaries that separate us from God and each other. In the darkest, scariest moments, love often breaks through. In between the reports of loss, death, and destruction, there will be stories of victorious breakthroughs of love: love that saves a life, that displays of compassion to one thought to be an enemy, that shares food and support to desperate neighbors, that brings together a community to lift each other up.
Just yesterday, the theologian Fleming Rutledge, wrestling with the crises of the world, tweeted what I consider to be a gospel message in just a few characters when she declared, “I don’t know any theological way to interpret the news of planetary illness and good intentions gone wrong except through the lens of NT cosmology: the entire created order is fallen and in the grip of the Powers of Sin and Death. Over these powers, only . . . Love is the victor.” The mysteries of love come clear when we get up and act, when we take the risk of extending ourselves beyond what is safe, familiar, and comfortable to be the very witness to the newness and possibilities of love. That’s why the poet evinces no hesitation or embarrassment about the very intimate, erotic experience of her great love for her lover. Because the covenant itself bears witness to how beautiful and abundant life can be because of love. The mysteries of love come clear when we can actually arise and go away with the God of our understanding, leaving behind all that separates us from what is good and right and neighborly, and embrace the newness, abundance, and flourishing that comes with it: love as an act of relinquishing our hold on power, security, and success so that all of God’s beloved can know the warmth of spring and the time of singing.
Yes, we live with the tragedy of a failed war in Afghanistan and the loss of life throughout the entirety of the conflict. We mourn the losses from COVID-19 even as we lament how polarized we’ve become. Through it all, there is love, a great gift we can embrace, nurture, and cultivate when everything else fails, and when we do, the mysteries of love come clear.