Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 16, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.
Is it too much?
Maybe with our participation in Ames Pridefest, listing preferred pronouns in our public material, and our now-burned pride banner, we have gone too far. Maybe it is time to tone down our affirmation of queer people a bit, press pause on our witness, now that the virtual has become the actual.
None of us wants to be the next Pulse Nightclub.
Believe me, I am tired of thinking through how to respond to someone standing up in one of these pews during worship and taking aim.
But when we are tired, when we feel anxious, and when we need answers, we do not stop at our anxiety or our fatigue.
We have learned through our lives of seeking, doubting, and even having faith, that we are better, and better together, when we allow ourselves to be guided by prayer, scripture, and the kind of understanding that can only occur in a gathered body of Christ.
Here we are gathered and here we have already prayed a bit, so now is the time to look to scripture.
And an aside for those of you who are newer to our church: We take the ancient stories and letters and hymns that make up the Bible very seriously. But not literally.
Our hermeneutic of suspicion, and great respect of the Holy Spirit, stands in contrast to other approaches to the Bible, like that of the pastor in Tennessee who just preached that all queer people should be executed by the government.
We here are mature enough in our faith to recognize that there are eternal truths and some massive biological and historical errors in this sacred writ. That understanding doesn’t make the Bible any less sacred to us or our devotion to it any less valid.
So how does today’s story, actually today’s poem, guide us in our public witness?
SONG OF SONGS
The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, also known as Canticles, could rightly be called The Song of All Songs. As in the ultimate song. As in the ultimate love song:
(My lover’s) eyes are like doves by streams of water bathing in milk, dwelling by a pool (5.12)
All of this love talk is in the Hebrew Bible section called the Ketuvim, or the writings, in the Jewish organization of scripture. In the Christian organization of the Hebrew Bible we put it in a section called the Wisdom Books. Either way, it is not considered historic or prophetic. It hasn’t even always been considered scripture.
With lines like this,
A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me, all night between my breasts (1.13)
Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies (4.5)
How can the Song be about faith, about peoples’ lifelong walk with God?
Sometimes through some pretty grasping interpretations and because of prudishness and resistance to seeing sex as a good part of our God-given bodies, both Judaism and Christianity have at times worked really hard to claim this book is just a metaphor. In Judaism, a metaphor for the love between Israel and God; in Christianity, between Christ and the Church.
But it isn’t. The Song of Songs is about love and sex shared by humans without any explicit religious concerns.
Except that the kind of love and sex it describes, and its inclusion in the Bible, does make it a matter of religious concern. And one very pertinent to our question of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity and witness.
How many of you have heard the phrase “Biblical marriage” used to condemn gay marriage? Probably a lot. It is used to imply that the Bible exclusively promotes what would more rightly be called a nuclear family, a pairing of a man and a woman, cisgendered of course, and their 2.3 children.
That is a false representation of the Bible. Marriage in the Bible also includes polyamory, polygamy, and rape, with no comment on which is better or worse.
The Song of Songs doesn’t promote so-called Biblical marriage either. That lover standing behind a wall we hear about today, the one peering through windows, and peeping through crannies, is no proper gent. In fact, propriety is a non-issue in the Song. There is no mention of wedding, no father giving away a daughter, no concern for chastity or virginity.
The Song doesn’t care about the statuses and institutions that Christians can get so whipped up about preserving.
But it does care about the pleasure and happiness of all people.
The voices in this poem are masculine and they are feminine, with the women celebrating their sexual desire and fulfillment as boldly and equally as any man. Not mere objects for the satisfaction of men, these women are equal partners in their own delight.
The Song of Songs is a poem that is ripe, even lush, verdant, sun-lit, and sweat-soaked, reveling in creation’s gift of our bodies and the gift we may choose to make of our bodies to others without any regard for the social structures we tend to put in place to control sex.
Which is the real problem here, because we humans like to try to control sex.
That’s what the reaction of our neighbor to our pride flag and that Tennessee pastor are all about. It isn’t about being a blessing for the Lord in executing vengeance, as our neighbor said on TV, it is about wanting to control what is not understood: queer bodies and queer sex.
I can’t tell you how many times, on coming out to someone as gay, I have been asked who the man is in my sexual relationship. (My wife’s response to her dad on that question was, “No one is, that’s the point.”) When people meet someone who is gay or trans or non-binary, the first thought (and hopefully not the first speech) is often about how we do it, what do we physically do it with, and with whom. And if we are asexual, there is an additional set of inappropriate questions.
I say that without judgment. Heteronormative sex and gender roles and practices are so entrenched that it is natural to be curious about what is different. The problem is when difference becomes justification for violence, for death.
Queer people stir up fear and the subsequent need to control because we defy expectations of bodies and desire. But that does not make us unholy. The Song of Songs itself is about defying expectations of bodies and desire, freely. Here in our most precious book is a celebration of heart and flesh connection outside the strictures of relational custom, disruptive of all gendered assumptions.
And we need to talk about that in church.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
We need to talk about all of our bodies and our desires in the context of our faith and as a faith community. We so need to name the sex practices that are dangerous and can be harmful, like addiction to porn, marital assault, and the abuse of minors. We also need to speak aloud those gender truths that are without threat to any person, and only serve to set people free.
The Bible tells us so.
If this vandalism, this prideful act of burning our pride, as the perpetrator said, has taught us nothing else it is that sexuality, sex, and bodies still frighten.
But, to go back to the beginning of my time, we are a people who understand how to respond to fear. We confront fear through stories that make us both brave and honest. We unpack fear with the ongoing revelations of the Holy Spirit in prayer and science. We ease fear at the open table of God.
As long as the rate of murders against transwomen of color continue to rise, as long as pastors get to keep their pulpits while advocating the murder of all LGBTQIA people, as long as legislation and policies restricting rights and denying the humanity of queer people continue to be passed, our rainbow flag will still hang. And it will hang as an act of faithful witness to creation’s gift of the divine multiplicity of bodies and desire.
The Song of All Songs tells us that all genders are equal and consensual sex is sacred. And in the 8th chapter and 7th verse it assures us that
Many waters cannot put out love, nor rivers sweep it away.
Neither can hate. Neither can fear.