“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the market place. ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. ’Wisdom will be vindicated by her actions.”
Wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds. In Jesus’ words, we can here the dim echoes of a time gone by. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the Old Testament books of Proverbs and Job, in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of. In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when God was busy with creation and she declares: “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”
Who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.” In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as ” quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”
You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures was. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.” In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. There were no spaces between the words. Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters. Upper and lower case letters were not used. Unlike our system were personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Words do not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us. When you read the texts that describe wisdom, it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about wisdom as though wisdom were a person. Sophia is wisdom personified. Sophia is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before creation. She was with Yahweh at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence. Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them. She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her. She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things. She is the way to life abundant. She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done. You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered Sophia standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in Sophia’s playful dance. Sophia’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people. But his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
Jesus declares: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”. Jesus harkens back to the images of Sophia in the Scriptures and insists that, “wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.” Sophia’s reputation as a trickster who accomplishes great deeds through play and Jesus’ reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes to the world eating and drinking aren’t usually emphasized by those who tout their religion in the public square.
I can honestly say I have never heard of members of the religious right taking to the airwaves to encourage society to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, this stuff is in the Bible. The Bible describes playfulness as an important part of the God in whose image we are created. All too often those of us who profess to follow Jesus, refuse to hear Jesus: ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.”
Jesus is calling us out to play. Yes, I know it is summer and I just go out to the lake and splash and play in the water. I can’t help myself. I just want to let Jesus’ words take me back to the words of Sophia, so that we can play together in the words of the scriptures.
In the Bible, it is Sophia who is first given the task of calling God’s people out to play, and that playfulness goes way beyond dancing. Despite the church’s attempts to contain and or constrain our playfulness Jesus continues to call us out to play!
On this glorious summer Sunday, on a weekend when it is meet right and salutary to celebrate, we can listen to the tune Jesus is piping and we can dance for joy for we are wondrously and gloriously made. Weekends are not the only things designed for play, we are. In the books of the Old Testament that are known as Wisdom Literature, it is made very clear that our bodies are blessings given by God so that we might delight in them. Playfulness, includes exploring the pleasures that one body can give to another body. There’s a little book in the Bible called that we call the Song of Solomon, but that for centuries was simply known as the Song of Songs and there you will find words that can make televangelists positively apoplectic. “Look, there my love stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Let my love kiss me with kisses on the mouth!”
How did this get into the Bible? The Song of Solomon, or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs is surely the most erotic book of the Bible. This erotic song of songs is a long poem in which a woman, “Black and beautiful,” and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and every taste. The radiant young man declares to his lover, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” and she tells anyone who will listen that, “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” He responds by exclaiming that her, “two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. I am my beloved’s” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”
The Song of Songs is a song about desire, and so it is also a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, and of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings with palpable yearning, “and that his right hand embraced me!” and when her lover knocked on her door and she hesitated for a moment to open it, the woman speaks some of the sexist lines in any literature.
“My beloved thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.” When she opens the door, however, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him. “I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”
I know, I know, enough already. This is a church! Surely eroticism doesn’t belong within the sacred walls of a sanctuary! How did this erotic love poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of human yearning for God and God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with humanity. The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that God delivered Israel from slavery not only because God was bound by the covenant to do so, but also because God loved the people of Israel and desired goodness for them. The ancient Christian writer Bernard of Clarvaux wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song without even making it past the third chapter. According to Clarvaux the poem provided a means by which the individual believer could come into intimate relationship with God. Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain a wide range of interpretations. But it resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings and God. Clairvaux warned young monks and nuns not to read it until their faith matured, because of the sexual feelings it is able to inspire.
The song is so erotic, that to this day, orthodox Jews are cautioned not to read it until they reach the age of forty. For to read the Song of Solomon without the wisdom that comes from age could cause the reader to unwisely give in to their own passionate desires. From the pages of scripture sacred to Jews and Christians alike, the Song of Songs remains a testimony to mutuality in love, to the beauty of the human body, to the goodness of sexual desire and the power of love. The Song proclaims that “Love is as strong as death, and passion fierce as the grave.” Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.” And we’re not talking about agape here. No this is not the agape love shared between friends or members of a faith community. We’re talking about eros. The love that is expressed in the passionate embrace of bodies.
So how did we get from the Song of Solomon, to a church that has spent centuries laying down (pardon the pun) laying down the law when it comes to the desires of the flesh? How did the church become such an instrument of repression, drowning out the sounds of Jesus flute beckoning us to dance? How did the church manage to tie itself up in knots about sex? I’ve come to believe that the church’s failure to embrace the playfulness with which we are all blessed comes not from the teaching of Jesus but from the teaching of the Apostle Paul. The knots began to tighten in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where the Apostle declares: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my physical body another law at war with the law of my mind making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my body.”
How did we move from the erotic God given pleasures of physical love, to Paul’s tortured agonizing worries about the sin that dwells in his body and makes it impossible for him to “do the good that he wants to do, but only to do the evil that he does not want to do.”
Now I know that Biblical scholars would point out that Paul was a product of his times. After all, Paul was writing to the church in Rome. The very people to whom he was writing would have been all too familiar with the Greek and Roman philosophers, who divided the world up in to the real and the ideal, matter and that ideal which lies beyond matter; flesh and spirit, body and soul. Scholars will argue that when Paul is ranting and raving against the body and the flesh, he doesn’t really have anything against real flesh and bone, but is arguing for a concern with things of a more spiritual nature. Now this may well be true. But for almost 2,000 years now the church has had to live under the tyranny of those folks who insist on interpreting the words of Paul literally. And you must admit that the Apostle Paul, had a few problems when it came to the body. Modern psychologists have had a field day trying to diagnose Paul’s sexual hang-ups. Not even marriage escaped Paul’s derision. He insisted that it was better to remain celibate and single rather than to marry, but if one couldn’t overcome the needs of the flesh, then by all means marry, for surely it is better to succumb to marriage than it is to burn in hell.
Let’s face it folks, the writings of Paul have left the church in a terrible state. For almost 2000 years now the church has been absolutely terrified of sex. Physical relationships between human beings are the most natural thing in creation. Scripture is full of people enjoying God’s gift of physical pleasure. Sex, is a beautiful gift from God, and yet the church has for generations waved its finger in admonition against those of us who take pleasure in God’s gift. Allying themselves with ancient Greek and Roman philosophies as they were handed down by Paul, the church has been almost exclusively interested in the spirituality of the individual—“the individual alone with God” or the spirituality of the corporate body—“the group together with God.” But when it comes to two people mutually sharing in the God given gift of sexuality, the Church chucks out the parts of scripture that it doesn’t like and gets up on its high horse and begins to pontificate.
The Song of Songs doesn’t stand a chance against the dictates of Rome, or the councils of men, when it comes to human sexuality. Throughout most of Christian history, the church and the councils of the church have been willing to allow sex amongst its members but only just enough sex to ensure the continuation of humanity.
In the second century, Clement of Alexandria allowed unenjoyed and procreative sex and only during the twelve hours of darkness. By the Middle Ages, the Church had drawn up a whole set of rules which prohibited its married members from engaging in sexual activity 40 days before Christmas, 40 days before Easter, eight days after Pentecost, the eves of feast days, on Sundays, On Wednesdays, during pregnancy and 30 days after birth, 40 days if the child was female, during menstruation, and five days before receiving holy communion! This all adds up to 252 days when sex between married couples was forbidden, not counting feast days. If there were 30 of those which is just a guess, which may in fact be on the conservative side, that leaves about 83 remaining days in the year when, provided, of course, that the woman did not happen to be pregnant or menstruating or in the post natal period, and provided that they intended to engage in the act strictly for the purpose of procreation, a couple could with permission of the Church have indulged in, but not enjoyed sexual activity. That is unless they planned to receive communion on Sunday morning.
Now you may laugh at this. But our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic tradition cannot to this day receive the blessing of the church to engage in sex for pleasure. Most mainline denominations, Lutherans included still have rules on the books about sex outside of marriage. Sex between consenting adults is rarely discussed in most denominations.
Even though most of our members (pun intended) are busy enjoying the pleasures of consensual sex before, during and long after some marriages are over. As far as Pastors are concerned, well the church is so afraid of that subject of pastors having sex of any kind that “MUM” is the word. Now saying nothing may be the best that our church can offer; but this silence on the subject has been abused time and time again by those in power who at the very least seek to control the activities of various individuals, and at worst seek to exclude honest, healthy and whole people from full participation in the life of the church.
Some scholars have suggested that the “thorn in his side” that Paul often asked God to remove, had something to do with Paul’s sexual desires. If this is true then, the thorn in Paul’s side, has become the thorn in the side of the church whose very presence has infected the bodies, minds and spirits of the followers of Christ. It’s time to open up the Song of Solomon. It’s time to read the writings of Paul in their historical context. It’s time to pull the thorn out of our sides and allow our wounds to heal. In the Song of Songs, we find no anxiety about erotic desire’s power to deny us the freedom to be who God intends us to be. In the Song of Songs, desire is portrayed as the force that binds us to the world. The relationship described in the Song is one of mutuality; the lovers are evenly matched in the force of their desire. They are equally vulnerable in their desire to be desired by the other; they are equally determined to give and to receive pleasure.
For centuries, the church has selected particular pieces of scripture in order to say, “no” to the pleasures of sex in any way shape or form. Paul has been given precedence over the Song of Solomon. In addition to his ranting and raving about the desires of the flesh, Paul also suggested that slaves should be obedient to their masters, and women should keep silent in the church and obey their husbands.
It took far too many centuries for the church to realize that these teachings of Paul contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus declared that “wisdom will be vindicated by wise deeds.” Surely wisdom is vindicated in relationships so intimate and satisfying that they draw us out of ourselves and more deeply into the life of the world? Relationships in which pleasure is given and received with joy. Relationships in which knowledge of the body is sought with care and gentleness, in which the body is pronounced beautiful over and over again.
As we come to experience the erotic as sacred, we can begin to know ourselves as holy and to imagine ourselves sharing in creation with one another for our common well-being. When we recognize the face of the Christ in the face of our lover as well as in our own face, we can begin to feel at ease in our bodies. God moves among us. God is born and embodied in our midst. The thorn that Paul placed firmly in the side of the church has burdened us long enough. Jesus implores us: “come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yolk is easy, and my burden is light.”
Open up the Song of Solomon and rejoice: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s desire is for me. Come, my beloved let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early into the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. Then I will give you my love.”
According to the Scriptures Sophia stood out in the streets and invited the people to come and play–to tell jokes–to laugh at our blunders. In today’s gospel Jesus compares his generation to children who sit and won’t play. Let it not be said of this generation that we refused to play, that the delights and pleasures that come to us as gifts from God were shunned or wasted. Our bodies are sacred instruments designed to play. In the sacred dance of desire we are opened to the transforming power of love.
So, remember to give and take delight in your play. Let yourselves be transformed. Let your bodies open you to the wonders of life and for God’s sake dance! Amen.