“Falling In Love at Duke Divinity”
Song of Songs 2:8-13
September 5, 2012
How many of you have ever been in madly, goofily in love? Let’s see the hands. This sermon is for you. (I’m too poor a poet to describe carnal desire to those of you who are innocent of it).
Our text: A poetic overstatement by two overwrought adolescents (or, according to Professor Griffith’s recent commentary, a kinky depiction of Catholic sacramental theology). You make the call.
“My love is like a gazelle, or a young stag.” My love is “a raging flame”. This “desire” is found only three times in the Old Testament, so let’s enjoy its rare appearance. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on Song of Songs, and didn’t get further than the Chapter 2!
As a former college chaplain I’m suspicious of sensuousness among the young, but particularly among heart happy Methodists.
“Do you use the Lectionary?” I ask a pastor before I visit.
“Bishop, we just want you to come out here and just share your heart,” says the maudlin cleric.
“Trust me,” I reply, “you couldn’t take what’s on my heart.”
“The winter is past, rain is over, flowers appear, the voice of the turtledove sings, fig tree loaded with figs, vines fragrant with blossom.” It’s like, well, it’s like a whole new world, fragrant, fecund and fertile. Ellen Davis evocatively notes that whereas our sin got us kicked out of the primal garden God intended for us (Gen. 3:16), Song of Songs depicts a new, restored garden, brimming with life, a “vineyard made of the curse” (Auden). Or as a sappy undergraduate once put it, day after he fell headlong into lust, er love, “I’m not living in the same world.”
Some of you are here more eager to snag a life partner than to inculcate principles for good hermeneutics. I want you to hear Song of Songs as a God’s word to you in your first weeks at Duke Divinity School.
Others of you may be committed to pure, chaste, repressed Evangelical George (whom you dated your senior year of college). I hope that you are open to playing the field, fooling around, and risk falling into the arms of Saul of Tarsus, Catherine of Sienna, or John of Aldersgate.
Even platonic Plato noted connection between eros and learning; you can’t know a subject unless you are willing to risk seduction.
Though I’ve been an active faculty member for only two weeks that does not constrain me from wild generalizations about our faculty. Be warned. Divinity School faculty are not harmless; the best of them crave not only for your understanding of their theology but also for erotic attachment to the subject.
Take Dr. Ellen Davis: A recent divinity school graduate, now serving God in the wilds of Birmingham, told me how much he enjoyed Hebrew with Dr. Davis though, “She did rough me up a bit before one class.” What?
“I strolled into Dr. Davis’ class, after a big party weekend, unprepared. She glared at me, suggested that I was a disgrace to the school, questioned my vocation, then she got really nasty.”
“Never seen that side of Professor Davis,” I said, stunned.
“I was a fool to slack off with a professor so passionately in love with Hebrew. Learned my lesson.”
Thus in a recent Divinity School promo video Dr. Davis unashamedly proclaims, “We are here for more than a head trip.”
And so are many of you. You are here, not out of idle interest in religious ideas but rather because you heard the voice of the Beloved, as if a turtle dove, and your spirit rose, and it was spring in your soul. Though in many ways you are not loveable, the Beloved lovingly whispered sweet nothings to you that you heard as summons, vocation. Your dry desert burst into bloom.
Jesus has that effect.
I hear Song of Songs as a wild, uninhibited love song to God. But isn’t it wonderful how this ancient love poem attempts to heat up our love God by working analogously from punch drunk young love? You will grow and mature in your knowledge of God, once we faculty have our way with you. But in a weird way, some of you insouciant, callow youth know more about God (in the biblical sense of knowing) than we faculty. I pray not to quench your sappy, kinky adolescent love of God through my classes.
It is the nature of the Incarnate Word to personalize truth, quickly to move beyond the superficiality of the rational, to violate boundaries, to transpose cool deliberation into white hot, go all the way, sweaty engagement.
Jesus never asked us to work justice toward our enemies; he commanded us to love. They accused Jesus of lots of things; nobody accused him of being reasonable or moderate.
When I was where you are, my first week, Yale Divinity, in orienting us to theological education the Dean urged, “Don’t limit yourselves to academic studies. Get to know the delightful diversity of your fellow students, take time for others, make friends.”
As he gathered his papers the Dean added, “And, uh, while you are making friends, don’t neglect those buried in the library. There, you’ve got thousands of saints who walked this way before you, eager to seduce you, dead but just dying to be your new best friend.”
The words and ideas I’ve laid on you are not the highlight of this service, because the Christian faith is more than mere words and ideas. At heart, what is all this about? Have some bread, take some wine. Admit your hunger, your carnal need, your deepest desire. How loving of the Lover to deal with us as the creatures we are. Allow Jesus to have his way with you, soul and body, passionate, heated, unrestrained, risky, too much for words. Amen.