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Beloved

Beloved
Song of Solomon 1:1-8; John 1:1-18
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
19 November 2006


About three months after I got to Royal Lane as the youth minister, we were sitting in one of our monthly youth worker meetings at the Gonzalez’ who had fixed great fajitas. At these meetings we’d talk about upcoming events, but spent most of our time sharing about the youth and what was going on in their lives. We wanted to make sure that we were all aware of the particular needs of our group. During this particular meeting, Christine Gonzalez asked me to lead a series on sex for the youth. The other youth workers agreed, saying that it had been about five years since the topic had been taught, so none of our current kids really had had any good teaching on sex.

Now, imagine that you were me. You’ve only been in this job three months, hardly enough time to establish yourself. They wanted me to take on the riskiest topic one could! Plus, I was a young, single minister. There was no riskier territory than talking about sex!

This is one of those times when I took the advice of others in my ministry team. I didn’t want to talk about sex, for personal and professional reasons. I felt that I needed to spend more time not only building the personal trust with youth, parents, and older church members, but that I needed to also spend time talking about other, more foundational issues like how to interpret the Bible before I ever got into a discussion of sex. So, over my own opinions, I took the advice and began planning for and researching sex.

And when I say research, I mean it. I spent months reading. I read theological and Christian ethical treatments of the topic. I read studies on teen sexuality. I read articles in journals and magazines on ministry. I had determined that I was going to do my homework and cover all my bases before venturing into dangerous territory.

I also spent those months talking to colleagues and church members, seeking their advice and input. I had one extensive conversation with our openly gay middle school Sunday school teacher to make sure that the lessons I was preparing weren’t heterosexist. I sent detailed letters to the youth parents telling them to start talking now to their kids about sex and detailing exactly what topics we would be covering so that they would be fully aware and not surprised by anything. I even decided to spend one whole lesson on the topic of sexual orientation. I decided that if I was going to risk, then I’d risk it all.

And do you know what happened? Doing that study was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had older church members who volunteered to participate. Let me tell you, it is rare that any older church member simply walks up and volunteers to work with youth. But to volunteer to come talk to the youth about sex!?! Out of those volunteers came a number of people who ended up being future youth Sunday school teachers, Wednesday workers, or youth committee members.

The study revealed my willingness to take on difficult and controversial topics, which actually built trust with my youth and even their parents. After that I had parents talk to me about their kids sex lives or sexual orientation. One mother sought my advice when her daughter asked to be on birth control. Some youth came to me to discuss their sex lives. A handful of kids came out to me.

And then there was the impact of this study on my own life. My research taught me that Christianity has a long tradition of positive, healthy teaching about sex that has often been overshadowed by the negative, repressive, unhealthy teaching many of us grew up with. I learned how to value my sexuality and connect it to my spirituality. And my favourite theologian, James McClendon, became my favourite theologian partially through his teaching on this topic. Instead of my original thinking that I needed to deal with more foundational topics before dealing with sex, McClendon treated the body and sex as the first topic in theology. As a result of this study, I had the theological apparatus that allowed me to begin my journey out just a few months later.

Those youth workers didn’t know what they were asking when they asked me to talk about sex!

Whenever I’ve preached or taught on sex, I’ve found that people are hungry for positive Christian messages. After my series with the youth, I had a woman in her sixties ask me when I was going to do a series on sex for people her age.

One of my favourite memories is the time that I was leading a small group of teenage boys in my youth group in Fayetteville. I decided to read some passages from the Song of Solomon to them to illustrate the positive things that scripture had to say about sex. As you can imagine, they were quite surprised and had that adolescent reaction of blushing and laughing.

The Song of Solomon is a highly erotic love poem that the Jewish and Christian faith communities have accepted as holy scripture, a revelation from God about how we are to live our lives. It is about the relationship between a man and a woman and how the love between them finds expression in erotic experience. Tonight we are talking about our closest relationship, that with our beloved, our spouse, partner, lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, or whatever name it takes. The last two weeks I’ve talked about the relationships of friends and family. All of the advice given those two weeks also applies to our relationship with our beloved who is both friend and family to us. With our beloved we should practice humility, celebration, restfulness, forgiveness, and all the other topics we’ve already addressed. But there is one way that our relationship with our beloved is different from all these other relationships, it is our most intimate erotic relationship.

Now let me interrupt my thoughts with a caveat. This sermon isn’t claiming that we have to be partnered to be healthy and faithful Christians. Nor is it claiming that sexuality only finds expression in relationships. Singleness is also a blessed state that itself has healthy sexual expression. But tonight’s sermon is part of a series on relationships, so tonight I will be focusing on the Christian practice of our most intimate erotic relationship.

As I said, the Song of Solomon illustrates that our relationship with our beloved finds expression in intimate erotic behaviour and this is blessed by holy scripture. Since we are all adults here, I want to simply read a few of these passages to illustrate my point:

You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with the glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
Your lips distill nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choices fruits.
Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits.
I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, friends, drink,
and be drunk with love.
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
“Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night.”
I had put off my garment;
how could I put it on again?
I had bathed my feet;
how could I soil them?
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.

I suggest that you don’t take a literal reading of that passage. I assume you understand that that is an allegory rife with metaphors about a whole host of erotic activities. That’s scripture that you and your beloved might want to memorize.

And yes, I am being irreverent. I’m being a little shocking. I want you to find these scriptures funny. This is a joyful celebration of eroticism.

The reason even this crowd still might find these verses of holy scripture surprising or my reading of them shocking is that we have taken on shame and guilt about our bodies and about sex. This shame and guilt are rooted in one strain of Christian teaching and found their fullest expression in the Victorian culture that on its surface, at least, repressed and hid the body and sex and considered discussion of such to be inappropriate. I believe that holy scripture wants to liberate us from those mistaken teachings and free us to understand that our erotic love for one another is a practice of our Christian spirituality.

Eroticism is fundamentally delight in the body – our body and the body of someone else. Bodily delight is quite obvious in the detailed expressions of the Song of Solomon. Christian ethical teaching is rooted in the Christian story. Are there resources in the Christian story that we can draw on for our erotic love of our beloved? Does the Christian story speak to bodily delight?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

You see, in the beginning, God created a physical world that included human bodies crafted out of the mud. God breathed life into these bodies and gave them gender and sex and said that their sexual identity was in the image of God. God looked at these human bodies and declared this creation “very good.”

Then in the fullness of time, God entered into a human body. Jesus is the firstborn of creation, the head of a new body. And through him, those who were “once estranged” are “reconciled in his fleshly body.” St. Paul writes in the letter to the Colossians:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

The Christian story tells us that we are created and redeemed in our bodies. God has delighted in our bodies, so should we. So, in our most intimate relationship, we find bodily delight. We delight in our beloved’s body and our own while, in mutuality, our beloved delights in her or his body and our own.

Our erotic love can be rooted in the Christian story! I think when we understand this we are transformed and liberated. Listen with me as I read from another passage in Colossians. I want you to reflect on how these words can be applied to your relationship with your beloved:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

Our Christian story teaches delight in the body rooted in creation and redemption. It is a delight that finds expression in a variety of ways, but most significantly in our erotic love for our beloved. This bodily delight in and with another will birth compassion, kindness, patience, harmony, peace, and all the other virtues that we need to live in relationship with one another. And as we learn to put those to practice in our most intimate relationship, we will then learn to put them to practice in our other relationships with friends, family, co-workers, and the wider world.

God delights in your body and declares it to be very good. God created you to be sexual. In your erotic relationship with your beloved you give expression to the will of God. I hope you find these words to be a blessing.

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