5 Pentecost; July 5, 2020
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Songs 2:8-13;
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I love the Song of Solomon. I love the Song, but we don’t often hear from it on Sunday mornings.
That’s not really surprising. I don’t think the Song ever mentions God, which is quite something in a book of the Bible. The Song is a collection of love poems, some of which are startlingly sexy. Our passage for this morning is not especially sexy, but it is otherwise typical.
As it begins, a young woman is speaking about her beloved. She is at home, waiting eagerly for him. She hears his voice. He is coming to her, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills, like a young stag or a gazelle. He calls to her. “Rise up,” he says. “My love, my beauty, come away.” The rains are over, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, the figs are in season. “Rise up,” he says again. “Come away.”
That’s heady stuff! I read it to Carrie, and she was reminded of our courtship. Indeed, she says she still thinks of me as a stag bounding over the hills and inviting her to a garden of delights. And since we are maintaining social distance, you are just going to have to take my word for that!
The entire Song of Songs is more or less like our passage. It is full of passionate longing. These lovers are desperate to be together.
And yet something always seems to get in their way.
Even in our passage, the man can’t reach his beloved. He calls to her from behind a wall. He gazes in the window. He peeks through the lattice. But that is as close as he can get. Despite his calls, and despite her own eager desire, the woman remains stuck behind those walls, the window, the lattice. They can barely even see each other, much less be together.
The Song is beautiful poetry. But it’s not yet clear why it would be part of the Bible, or why we would ever hear it on a Sunday morning.
But here is an amazing thing: beginning at least as early as the second century, and continuing for more than a thousand years, many Christian writers considered the Song to be the most exalted expression of Christian spirituality in the entire Bible.
These Christian writers read the Song as an allegory. We are the young woman stuck in her house. Jesus is the beloved who comes to us, who wants to free us from whatever it is that keeps us stuck, who invites us to join him in a celebration of God’s creation and God’s love.
Like the woman in the Song, we long to accept Christ’s invitation. We long to be with Christ. And yet something holds us back. Something keeps us cooped up in our house. That’s an image I suspect we can all relate to these days!
Now we are going to turn to Paul. As we do, hold that image in your head, that image of us stuck in our homes, full of longing but somehow unable to accept Christ’s invitation into deeper and more joyful relationship with him. Strange as it may sound, that is what Paul is talking about in our reading.
Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Paul longs to do the right thing. But Paul can’t do it. Paul is stuck. Paul is like that woman in her house, listening to the call of the beloved and tragically unable even to answer, much less to join him.
That stuckness is sin. Or rather, sin is what sticks us, the sin that dwells within us, as Paul says, three times in our passage.
I suspect virtually all of us can identify with Paul’s frustration at his own inability to do right.
We had this same passage for Morning Prayer on Wednesday, so some of you may already have heard about a few of my own struggles. One that will not surprise any of you is my struggle with sweets.
This happens all the time. I wake up in the morning, and I decide to myself, I am not going to eat any cookies today. Within an hour, I have already failed. Miserably! Throughout the day, over and over again, I decide one cookie wouldn’t hurt. So I take two. And then a couple more. And then a handful for the road, by which I mean the trip up the stairs.
(Beulah is my main cookie supplier, and I am hoping for a new batch of homemade cookies after this service. If it works out, I look forward to continuing the struggle this week, and continuing to fail. But at least some of the time, my resolution to abstain from cookies for a day is sincere, if always feeble.)
If you pause to think about it, that inability to not eat cookies is weird. But it is exactly what Paul is talking about. It is like I have two voices in my head. One tells me to do the right thing, which sometimes means no cookies. The other voice has very different ideas and, among other things, ALWAYS encourages me to eat cookies.
I wish cookies were the worst of it, but of course they are not.
So here is the really weird thing. Just about everyone in the world agrees that a life of generosity and love is better, and more fulfilling, and more pleasurable than a life of pettiness and meanness. And yet we all act in petty and mean-spirited ways at least some of the time. We get
stuck in our own pettiness. We become slaves to the voice that leads us in the wrong direction even when we want to go in the right direction.
Christ calls us to new and better life. But we just can’t answer Christ’s call. We are too trapped behind the walls and windows and lattice-work of our own worst impulses. We are stuck in our sin, and so we can’t be with our beloved Lord.
Speaking for all of us who are stuck, Paul laments, “Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
And here is the good news. Paul answers his own question. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Now we can circle back to the Song. The woman who represents us is stuck in her home, behind the lattice and the window and the walls. Her beloved is the outside, and she can’t get to him.
But, this is the good news again, he can get to her. Every once in a while, her beloved forces his way in, and they can be together. Those are the moments when we feel God’s presence with us, when we are touched by God’s Spirit and renewed by God’s love.
Those moments are like a promise. God will not leave us stuck in our homes. Christ will not abandon us as we struggle, almost helplessly, with our own worst impulses. Christ is our heavenly bridegroom. And someday there will be a great wedding feast, and we will never be stuck again.
Even now I give thanks to God for our Beloved, who comes to us, and keeps coming, and will eventually free us from our sins and give us the greatest gift of all, perfect intimacy with him. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan