Aug. 29, 2021

Prayer of the Day

O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.Amen.

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

8The voice of my beloved!
  Look, he comes,
 leaping upon the mountains,
  bounding over the hills.
9My beloved is like a gazelle
  or a young stag.
 Look, there he stands
  behind our wall,
 gazing in at the windows,
  looking through the lattice.
10My beloved speaks and says to me:
 “Arise, my love, my fair one,
  and come away;
11for now the winter is past,
  the rain is over and gone.
12The flowers appear on the earth;
  the time of singing has come,
 and the voice of the turtledove
  is heard in our land.
13The fig tree puts forth its figs,
  and the vines are in blossom;
  they give forth fragrance.
 Arise, my love, my fair one,
  and come away.”

Like Deer Leaping Mountains, Peter Koenig

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9

1My heart is stirring with a noble song; let me recite what I have fashioned | for the king;
  my tongue shall be the pen of a | skillful writer.
2You are the noblest a- | mong the people;
  grace flows from your lips, because God has blessed | you forever. 
6Your throne, O God, endures forev- | er and ever,
  a scepter of righteousness is the scepter | of your kingdom.
7You love righteousness and | hate iniquity;
  therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above | your companions.
8All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, al- | oes, and cassia,
  and the music of strings from ivory palaces | makes you glad.
9Kings’ daughters stand among the ladies | of the court;
  on your right hand is the queen, adorned with the | gold of Ophir. 

James 1:17-27

17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

  19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
  22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
  26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion 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.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
  14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

I may get home and think I was crazy to preach on the Song of Songs, a more accurate name for the book. Before I moved to Nampa in 2010, I never felt a need to preach on such a text. But that was before I met people who have been hurt by the way parts of the broader church have talked about sex and the church.

Earlier this week I was on a video call with people from across the country. Two of us who grew up in the ELCA Lutheran Church, or its predecessors, agreed that we have plenty we would like to reform about the ELCA, another conversation. But we have also learned to recognize that neither of us was damaged by the church’s purity culture, like so many people we have gotten to know in the last 10 years.

So what exactly is purity culture? It is a term often used to promote a biblical view of sexual purity. The language of purity comes specifically from 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8: 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honor, 5not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Taken alone, those verses are not the problem. The problem is what was built on top of those verses. Purity culture itself has a lot of claims that are not life-giving: women are responsible for men’s sexual sin, women’s bodies are something to be ashamed of, no one, but especially women, should have sexual desires, and of course sex only belongs in relationships between men and women. In addition, purity culture never addresses such helpful concepts as consent in sexual relationships. Mos importantly, the purity teachings that permeated the 1990s-2000s white evangelical churches had this common theme: a shame-based introduction to adolescence which has left deep, and I mean deep, scars through adulthood. 

Author Linda Klein puts it this way, “This theory that if we taught people about purity–which really is not an accurate way to frame it, it’s more if we shamed people into remaining pure…then they were going to have a fantastic, blissful life. They were going to be safe, they were going to be healthy, and they’re going to have awesome sex in their marriage.” (Sojourners, Mar. 7, 2019).

We might ask, how could purity come to exist alongside the Song of Songs, so clearly about the joys of loving relationship, a relationship that obviously includes physical desires? We have to understand how the Song of Songs has been interpreted throughout history. 

Pastor and theologian Nadia Boltz-Weber sums the history up this way, “since Song of Songs is a poem primarily about female sexual desire it should surprise no one that for most of its history, in the hands of male clergy, scholars, and theologians, it was not seen as such. It was read as allegory” (Shameless, 169).  

First it was read as an allegory of the love between God and Israel. Later Christians would read the same text as an allegory for Christ’s love for his church. We can trace a lot of this back to Origen, a man living in Alexandria in the 200s. Like so many people of his time, he took seriously the Platonic notion that the spirit is of a higher plane than the flesh. Combine this with the school of thought, very popular on and off through the ages, that Jesus could not himself be embodied. Yes, there were people who could not deal with the incarnation, so crucial to the Christian faith. And so, Song of Songs was transformed “into a spiritual drama, free from all carnality.” (Marvin Pope). 

It is truly bizarre that the Christian religion, based on the merging of things human and divine–a religion based on God choosing to have, of all things, a human body; a faith whose central practice is a shared meal of bread and wine, an embodied meal in which we say Jesus is truly present–could develop into such a body and pleasure-fearing religion. 

So, the allegorical reading probably allowed the book to become sacred scripture. And yet the Christian faith has at its heart an embodied divine. What then are we to do today with this secular poem about unmarried, human lovers? I think we use it to celebrate our embodied selves and to start to accept that our sexual desires are part of our embodiment. Most important, maybe the poems in Song of Songs can help us get rid of some of the shame people are carrying around as a result of the purity culture.

What all of that will look like needs to vary depending on lots of things. Are you a man, a woman, transgender? Are you single or married? Are you heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual? Are you divorced or widowed? Are you a teenager, a middle-aged adult, a senior citizen? Context matters whether we are talking about the spiritual, emotional, sexual, mental, physical journey of life. 

So now let’s turn to the poetry itself. Song of Songs is really a pretty interesting and well written series of dialogue. Even when one partner speaks at length, someone is presumed to be listening. The lovers often respond to each other and echo words in the other’s speech. Such dialogue reveals love not only as an emotion, but as the interaction and mutual influence of two equals. 

Did you catch that, “two equals.” If the ancient and more recent men doing most of the translating, teaching, and preaching needed one more reason to read the Song of Songs allegorically, it would be that the voices in the poem are equals. The couple’s relationship is strikingly egalitarian. Social constraints restrict the girl far more than the boy. Still, within the one-to-one relationship their possession is mutual. Their desires are indistinguishable, and their description of each other of much the same sort. This is, to be sure, an idealization of love, but one not devoid of roots in real experience. 

Chapter 2 verses 8-13 contains romantic lyrics sung by an unnamed young woman to her equally young “beloved.” One unique aspect of the Song of Songs, referred to earlier, is that the woman’s voice dominates the book. And, unlike some other biblical references to sexualized relationships, this book does not contain domination of the woman by her lover. That’s the egalitarianism mentioned already. This woman claims her voice, her desire, and her lover as her own, and does so proudly and poetically. 

Today’s portion of the woman’s song opens with her admiring her beloved from afar, comparing his physique to a majestic creature that can navigate any barriers to her. She watches him watching her. Her delight with him is palpable. We read “My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’” We hear him beckoning her, through her voice.

Some of the most captivating poetry appears in these later verses where the woman shares the man’s words through references to springtime. We hear imagery of growth and fecundity fitting the season (flowers, turtledove, blossom, fragrance). Song of Songs’ singer uses her springtime scene to describe the wondrous newness of her relationship. We are drawn into the poetry, first recalling our joy at the return of spring each year and then move to our own experiences of new or renewed love. Remember, this is poetry, not nonfiction, not even a novel. Much is left unknown and unclear about the relationship. 

What I hope to have made clear is that physical expressions of love, sexuality, consent, and desire are not foreign to the Bible or the religious experience. They should not be off topic for this platform or for our conversations as people of faith. And they are not just topics for weddings. Today is only a start, but perhaps we as the church would be better off if we tried to create at least a little comfort in discussing these topics in our community of faith. It has to be better than relegating them to either popular culture or to the shame infused purity culture.

We follow a God who was born in human flesh–Immanuel, God with us. We worship a God who created us in God’s image–every single one of us. We trust a God who is moving among us still. The Holy Spirit keeps healing the community of creation. Might a recovery of the Song of Songs be part of that healing. Amen.

Prayers of Intercession (Sundays and Seasons)

Made children and heirs of God’s promise, we pray for the church, the world, and all in need.

We pray for the church, that it is a safe haven for all who seek your presence. Fill it with pastors, deacons, and leaders who echo your expansive and generous welcome. Lord, in your mercy,hear our prayer.

We pray for the whole of creation, that plants and animals have the habitat and resources to thrive and flourish. Inspire us to protect threatened habitats and ensure a sustainable future for generations to come. Lord, in your mercy,hear our prayer.

We pray for individuals in positions of authority (national and local leaders may be named). Raise up wise and discerning leaders in federal, state, and local governments and guide them to seek the benefit of every person. Lord, in your mercy,hear our prayer.

We pray for all who are in need. Support and encourage those who are unemployed, underemployed, or experiencing poverty. Bring food, shelter, clothes, and stability for daily life. Lord, in your mercy,hear our prayer.

We pray for this congregation, especially those beginning a new school year (students, teachers, or others may be named here). Empower teachers and school administrators. Guide students in their learning and development. Accompany parents, foster parents, and caregivers who provide encouragement and love. Lord, in your mercy,hear our prayer.

Here other intercessions may be offered.We give thanks for the faithful departed who showed us how to honor God with our heart. Inspire us by their example and renew our faith, trusting that we will be united with them in glory. Lord, in your mercy,hear our prayer.

Receive these prayers, O God, and those in our hearts known only to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen.

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