This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on August 30, 2009.
Song of Songs 2:8-13, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“Sensual,” “Soulful,” and “Sacred,” are three words rarely used in the same sentence. The fact that religious people seldom use those three words together shows how difficult it has been for us to reconcile three essential dimensions of our being—our wonderful sensuality, our transcendent soulfulness, and the sacred responsibility we have before God.
We are especially awkward about sensuality. Desire is natural, normal, and God given. We are blessed by God with the wonderful ability to love and be loved. We exist only because we can reproduce, and our ability to reproduce is an essential part of our humanity. Yet, we seem to go out of our way to distance religious faith from this vital part of ourselves.
The book known as Song of Solomon, also known as “Song of Songs” and “Canticles,” is a beautiful series of human love poems written in vivid, sensuous, and even erotic terms. It is plainly part of the Bible. According to Paul, the great Christian apostle, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful …” The Song of Songs is part of Hebrew and Christian scripture. It is useful. Notice, however, that we do not use it very much is worship. It is interesting that even people who profess to believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture work so hard to avoid reading this delightful part of the Bible literally.
At some early point in Jewish religious tradition, the Song of Songs came to be read symbolically as dealing with God’s love for Israel, not the love between two people. Later, the early Christian leaders chose to read the Songs as symbolizing Christ’s love for the Church. We religious people somehow refused to accept the vivid and sensual love poems as love poems between two people.
Instead, we often appear to be puzzled and perplexed—if not phobic—about dealing with sensuality. On one hand, we love to love and love being loved. We love being wanted, needed, admired, and we hope that our need for affection will be returned by someone who wants us, needs us, and admires us. Yet, religion has often taught and acted as if sensuality is something to be avoided rather than embraced. This has caused many people to be puzzled about how to reconcile our sensuality with our call to glorify God. Religious people all too often tend to complain about or condemn human desire, if we speak of it all. You know the saying. “Good people don’t talk about that kind of stuff!” Despite the vivid words in the Song of Songs about romantic love, desire, yearning, and bliss, too many churches and preachers act as if human sensuality, desire, and the joy of sensuality are things to be ashamed about, hidden, or feared, rather than as a blessing for which we should be thankful and celebrate.
That approach is neither honest nor holy. As James, the brother of Jesus Christ wrote at James 1:17, “Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.” (The Message) Sensuality is a gift from God.
We do a disservice to God when we treat sensuality as devilish. Some people have been taught to fear or be ashamed of their God-given sensuality. Some people internalize that fear so much that they come to view themselves as unworthy because they are sensual beings. It is a terrible thing when people are influenced to hate themselves because of what God has given them. Religious teaching that causes people to condemn themselves because they are sensuous hate themselves because they are sensuous is not godly or holy, but hellish.
We have no right to treat sensuality as a curse from God or something about which people we should be ashamed. We are sensual beings because God has made us so. Human sensuality is a gift from God that we should appreciate and celebrate.
This celebration of the gift and joys associated with human love comes through with vivid detail in the Song of Songs. The lovers speak affectionately about each other and their great yearning to be together. Their tender devotion to each other is obvious. They are plainspoken about their desire for love, the delight they experience when together, and their heartsickness when they are apart. These are love poems. They are in the Bible. They call us to accept our sensuality as a gift from God, not a curse or a burden.
For this reason, we should not hide or be ashamed of our sensuality. As Philip Sheldrake has said, “Passion, for all its dangers, needs uncaging if we are to move toward completeness as human beings and if our walking with Christ in faith is to pass beyond the cerebral and the emotionally anaemic.” Human sensuality is an essential part of our humanity. We are created with the capacity to experience it, and our physical, social, and emotional survival depends on it.
A religion that does not equip us to understand sensuality, accept it as a gift from God, and honor God by the way we demonstrate sensuality, runs the risk of producing people who live out a morally cramped, distorted, and unhealthy notion of sensuality and of God. Only a distorted view of God allows us to believe that God has given us the blessing of sensuality in order to condemn us.
The lesson from Mark’s gospel provides an example of such a morally cramped, distorted, and unhealthy notion of sensuality and of God in the attitude of the religious people who challenged Jesus about why his disciples did not follow the rules about washing food. The disciples were enjoying the sensual delight of eating. The religious leaders were less concerned about people celebrating the blessing of food and the joy of eating and more interested in whether the food had been prepared in the right pots and washed the correct number of times. Those leaders had such a distorted concept of God and righteousness that they defined righteousness in terms of food-washing. They were devoted to their rules more than to a relationship with God.
As the Song of Songs shows, God has given us the blessing of sensuality in order that we may enjoy its fellowship through our devotion to each other. We have the divine gift of sensuality as rational souls who are able to choose our mates and enjoy love with them. We are blessed with soulful sensuality, with all the moral potential that goes with it.
As Pat and I watched the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy yesterday, I was struck by what one commentator said about the impact of Kennedy’s widow, Vickie, on his life. The commentator said, “Vickie saved Kennedy. She helped him live in ways that he had stopped believing were possible.” This is the wonderful moral potential of human love. We are enlarged when we love, and we enlarge the people we love by our devotion and commitment in loving.
Yes, it is painful when the people we have known and loved leave us, either by death or by choice. But we cannot love without the risk of that pain. Our hearts ache when we lose the people we love because love redefines who we are. Love makes us larger than we might otherwise be. We see and feel things because of love that we cannot otherwise experience. The devotion and commitment that love demands widens our outlook and challenges us to think of more than our own interests, our own desires, and our own concerns.
In this sense, the human love relationship points us toward the sacred relationship between God and us. The passion of the lovers in Song of Songs opens the way for us to realize God’s passion for us. God’s love for us is not trite or flighty. God is not interested in an overnight fling with us. God is not trying to love us on the cheap, and is not ashamed to love us. Just as the lovers in the Song of Songs are committed to each other, passionate about their devotion to each other, and most joyful when they can celebrate their mutual devotion together, God loves us passionately. God is devoted to us. God yearns to be with us like the lovers in the Song yearn to be together.
The great question in the Song of Songs is whether the lovers will get together. Will they see each other or remain burdened by distance? Will self-indulgent “foxes” steal what the lovers have set apart only for one another? Will their sensuality become sacred, or will it be stolen, misused, and treated as something casual?
The same kinds of questions apply to God’s great love for humanity. Will God and humanity get together? Yes, there is an attraction. But will the lovers connect? The burden of human sinfulness has convinced many people that God cannot and will not love them. The travesty of hellish religion has caused many people to believe that they should not love themselves and that no one else will love them.
But one wonderful feature about love is its persistent devotion. In the Song of Songs, that devotion comes through between the lovers in the way they talk about constantly seeking each other. Day and night, at work and at rest, the lovers cannot stop yearning for each other. Temptations occur, yet they yearn for each other. Seasons change, still the yearning does not stop. No matter what the circumstances, their devotion perseveres, burns, and refuses to die.
What we see in their love gives us reason to rejoice and take comfort about God’s love. God’s love shines through despite the seasons and circumstances of sin that would separate us from Him. This persistent devotion of love that we read about in the Song of Songs is what God has demonstrated to humanity in so many ways. Day by day, God calls to us. Year by year, God woos us. The foxes of sin may work to steal us from to us from God, but God will not let us go.
The highest demonstration of that persistent devotion is what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see that God will not let us go. In Christ, we see God loving humanity with a persistent passion that embraces us when we are sick, receives us when we are rejected, heals us when we hurt, and comforts us when we are troubled. In Christ, we see the love that suffers for us, prays for us, and is patient with us. In Christ, we learn that God’s love has the power to save us, yes even save us from ourselves! It does so because of God’s great determination to love us.
Let us take what God has made so powerfully obvious for us in human sensuality and love and apply it to God and our relationship with Him. God loves us. Do we love Him? God yearns for us. Do we yearn for Him? God will not let us go, but has come to us in Christ. Let the lovers come together! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.