Rev. Douglas Olds
Summer of Love Sermon Series
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA)
16 July 2017
Song of Songs 2.8-17
The 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.
14O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
15Catch us the foxes,
the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
for our vineyards are in blossom.”
16My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.
17Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the cleft mountains.
Let's go back fifty years. 1967's mind-bending summer came after winters of discontent. Discontent with the status quo, discontent with the national security state. Discontent with the church and economic establishment. Nationally, groups were experimenting with social change. With its crowds of playful, skateboarding, face-painted hippies and slogan of “music, love and flowers", San Francisco drew crowds trying out peacemaking, play, and obliterated boundaries. The ongoing Vietnam War was a border war on a global scale, and the war's protesters presented themselves in the Summer of Love by an explicitly political context. Presenting themselves as patriotic “Volunteers,” they urged Americans to “tear down the walls” so that “we can be together.”[i]
On the other hand, I was an 8-year-old in Michigan where there was an opposed experiment toward social change: by violence—in what were called "race riots" in Detroit and in my hometown of Grand Rapids. Returning late one night from Expo '67 in Canada, my family's station wagon was stopped by shotgun wielding police. They demanded of my father why we were breaking curfew enacted to combat local rioting and arson.
I was young so didn't participate immediately in either experiment with social change, yet unknowingly that summer was born in my soul. From these small dreams in the summer of 1967, my older peers began to try out a civilization with love as its foundation. Practitioners in personal liberation let their love live as if all were watching, and lived as if their love could create primeval nature anew, could bring down boundaries, lived out in a delirious festival of live and let live, personal liberation, and playful passion.
Ira Chernus writes that "The psychedelic rock shows, light shows, and posters were all meant to turn life into that single swirling stream, dissolving every imaginable boundary line, and so teaching that reality itself is just such a stream. To quote the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman (as so many did [that summer]), let yourself be “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines” and “you are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.”[ii] In this, the seekers accepted the "Be-In" with its traditional Christian emphasis of a divinely-ordained, benign order to the universe.
However by 1967, young "people had gotten tired of the austerities of Christian discipline and the misanthropy of the [church’s] Doctrine of Original Sin."[iii] Indeed, Original Sin found no place in the reunited Presbyterian Church’s Confession of 1967—a Confession that could warrant its own sermon regarding the heady days of that time. The environmental crisis was a foremost theme in the Confession of 1967, like for the seekers in the Summer of Love.
By a dream of a civilization founded on love, the young in San Francisco "dramatized for themselves a world that never knew Original Sin, and so still existed in a state of original blessing. In that imagined world it was no sin to ‘dance, sing, feast, make music, and love.’”[iv] They reconnoitered a new Renaissance hand in hand with Spirit and nature, to set up a counter to the puritanism that runs deep in American society which accepted environmental degradation as a consequence of the Fall of humankind from grace.
Yet the Summer of Love’s attempts at a new civilization of unbounded love "accepted the inevitability of insecurity, the truth that in the stream of life, the next moment is always as unpredictable as it is uncontrollable."[v] It was an attempt to recapture both responsibility and innocence. Theologically the era had much to do with our churches recapturing the doctrine of humans universally being made in the image of God, and therefore primevally good.//
Our text this morning suggests the same desire for a liberating, festive love, and a pristine time before the fall of original sin. The Song of Song is scripture’s most delirious and at times psychedelic ode to sexual and playful love set in nature:
Song 6. 4 You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love…
5Turn away your eyes from me,
for they overwhelm me!
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
[streaming] down the slopes of Gilead.
6Your teeth are like a flock of ewes,
that have come up from the washing;
all of them bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
7Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…
…and so it goes, suggesting a surrealistic fascination with the loved one--a psychedelic blending of desire and nature. This is an exploration of what it means to be made in the image of God.
The Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon) has been a curiosity to Biblical readers for millennia. There is no direct mention of God (save 8.6), and its unabashed sexuality and forward female voice were elided by ancient ascetics and later churchmen. In order to downplay the physicality and bring forward theology, premodern commentators primarily read the Song as allegory. That is, the Song of Songs is read as a love poem between Israel’s God and the people, or later, Christ’s love for his church.
In contrast with an allegorical reading, modern interpreters have tended to recover the Song’s historical sense. It is read now as a literal poem of sexual expression and longing for the garden. Our friend Annette Schellenberg formerly at San Francisco Theological Seminary proposed that the Song of Songs was a performed drama at ancient Jewish festivals. If this is the appropriate reading, we may note the Garden metaphors and images, so that God, even if unnamed, might be approving of this mutuality and physical desire for egalitarian closeness that harkens back to the creation of Eden and the male and female Adam and Eve. Unlike in the rest of the Old Testament where sexuality is linked with the need for posterity and procreation, in both the pre-fall Eden and in the Song of Songs, physical closeness and mutuality between the sexes is idealized in and for itself.
The woman’s love is not something to be taken nor even earned—it is given freely, mutually. It is a message for our current age of taking advantage or commercializing love for sex.
The Song of Songs dramatizes physical flourishing and mutuality of an idealized community—a lush primeval Garden outfitted by the Creator for the freely chosen enjoyment of its denizens. The Song of Songs reenacts this innocent and childlike delight in the Creation where sex is unencumbered by violence, commerce, coercion, manipulation or one-sidedness.
The Song of Songs’ desire is not a modern eroticism. It is mutual, other-directed, and not narcissistic. The Song's desire is the desire for the God-given qualities of the lover. The metaphors of creation and of peaceful and harmonious communal life in the Garden thus locate the desire in God’s peace and wholeness. Reading the Song of Songs has us meditate on the lovers’ desire for noble qualities in the other—what is God-given--and not on some base qualities or shallow characteristics.
There is no sense of that modern affliction, narcissism, in view of the Song of Songs. Narcissism is concerned with fulfilling the self's objectives. At one point, the lover notes the object of her affection likewise desires her. But she shows no inordinate thrill at this prospect, other than idealizing the mutuality of desire, clearly God’s intention for love.
So much of modern erotic desire fulfills the narcissist’s craving. The movie Jerry Maguire had the line, “you complete me.” The narcissist’s desire is on personal fulfillment, the “You complete me” which is not in view in the Song of Songs. Seeing myself in the lover's eyes is not in view of the Song of Songs. Concerned with commerce and market relationships of supply and demand, the modern Don Juan narcissist commercializes sex and derives self-worth from a bevy of lovers admiring his sexual "fitness."
The Song of Songs does not have such commercial or market aspects to sexuality. The woman is not given in marriage by her parents, but freely chooses her beloved. We indeed encounter an ancient’s understanding of what erotic love is inside a Garden of beauty and sufficiency (which is not to say glut or hoard). And in that ideal Garden space, love is other directed, playful, and mutual. This is a world in which marriage's highest values are loyalty and care taking, not personal fulfillment or the self's private happiness. Such a love mirrors the divine love, the ideal desire for what is beautiful, elegant, and good.
The Love desire in the Song of Songs might therefore be seen as an invitation by God to Israel to be created anew by love and then take part in further new creation through it. It is the love shown by the woman who poured pure nard on Jesus’ feet, unconcerned with its scarcity, unconcerned with its interpretation by onlookers. It is lavish and sensual, a Garden-pruning act readied by virtuous servant-love. It brings harmony and solidarity to the family, neighborhood, and nation.
In the Song of Songs, we hear the invitation to come into such a garden of new creation: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”
Come, dear ones, into a world of grace! This world has transformative power in relationships, in nature, and in creation. However grim things may have been in seasons past, winter will yield to spring, [degradation to flourishing, suffering to joy]. The rain will go, flowers will appear, and the season of glad songs will arrive at last.
Who does not know the joy of the end of winter? People shed their heavy coats and scarves, trading them in on shorts and flip-flops. Gratefully they gather on college campuses or in public parks to enjoy a picnic…in the sun, listening to music from the park stage, pretending not to notice as lovers kiss, turning to catch a glimpse of a game of Frisbee from the corner of their eyes. In such a [summer], love delights and explodes in [a boundless stream of] playfulness.
Indian theologian K. P. Aleaz [suggests], “God starts the play, with God as the starting point and then proceeds to [the Garden] creation. Humans, on the other hand, start the play in creation and then proceed to God. Both meet by play[ing in the Garden]. The connecting [movement between God and human] is play.”
In today’s passage from the Song of [Songs], [festive] love and playfulness are profoundly integrated with all of life’s realities. Even when love is frozen, hurricanes devastate…,or [withering climate change is in on the horizon], God’s love for creation and creation’s interplay with God explodes and blossoms anew. God’s grace transforms the world, even as the grace of the world transforms God. Playful grace causes all kinds of metamorphoses to take place.[vi]
These metamorphoses proceed when we alter our landscapes of violence and apathy with festive love of neighbor. The Bible, like our seekers from 1967, has the deep ethical trajectory to make love and not war. Violence and playfulness are opposed. //
As a postscript to Detroit’s 1967 “racial unrest:” by the Summer of 1968 it avoided a recrudescence of violence by being brought together in the World Series run of its baseball team Tigers. The Detroit Tigers’ success brought neighbors together in a way that avoided other city and police riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was festive love on a city level. People could sense the garden in the play of the ballpark. Detroiters broke down the borders between neighborhoods and took up the spirit of the Summer of Love.
The Song of Songs is telling us that when lovers are happy, the community flourishes in the guidance of its God. God, who created the Garden, invites us to complete the Garden by our love and not by our oppression. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang at the time: “We got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” God has put it in our hands to restore the garden. We finish God’s Good Garden by combating coercion, climate change, injustice, and apathetic destruction of life. This coheres with what the seekers of 1967 were experimenting.
Don’t look for someone or something to complete you—to take away your hard-wiring for suffering. Look instead for someone you can love completely and can help you build God's world! This is the kind of love in view in the Song of Songs and for the adored in Psalm 45. May we all be privileged to glimpse this festive, selfless love from our lover and in our neighborhoods. Imagine a world that could be, even though those in power insist such a world is both impossible and undesirable. Instead, we all have the grace to reach toward a festive love, garden world. Let us take up anew the vanguard of the Summer of Love with playfulness and without narcissism's self-regard.
Let it be so for you and me.
[i] Ira Chernus, The Summer of Love Had the Right Idea: Tear Down Those Walls So We Can Be Together, Alternet June 19, 2017. http://www.alternet.org/human-rights/psychedelic-spin-national-security accessed 27 June 2017.
[vi] Henry-Crowe, S. T. (2009). Pastoral Perspective on Song of Solomon 2:8–13. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 4, p. 4). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.