Most people agree with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7: it is wiser to build a house on a solid foundation. I’m less certain that there is general agreement about what constitutes a solid foundation. Before you offer me the obvious, “like Jesus said, build on rock, not on sand,” I am going to remind some of you and inform the rest of you that you are currently sitting in a sanctuary of a “floating church.” When foundation work was being done for this building, it became clear that the bedrock was simply too deep to be reached. An underground stream flows here, and it is deep and wide. Our ancestors in faith decided to build this church on the foundation of oak beams in the stream. As long as the oak beams stay wet, which is as long as the underground stream continues to run, we are sitting on a firm foundation.
I love this little piece of our shared history, because it complicates matters. Not all things are rocks or sand. Sometimes what you have is mud, and even that can make a firm foundation if you do it right!
I’ve been reviewing some of my books about love, romance, and marriage in preparation for preaching today. In the book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, author Stephanie Coontz says, “only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.”1 In fact, other than in the West for the past 200 years, love has NOT been seen as a reason to get married, and most of the time it has often been seen as a good reason not to. For almost all of history, people have thought that love is shifting sand, and not a solid foundation.
We are here today to disagree. As people of faith, especially, we think that love is THE foundation.
Song of Songs helps us disagree. Many scholars believe that the passage we read from Song of Songs today is the culmination of that book. Song of Songs is a celebration of romantic and sexual love. The book delights in physical bodies and articulates the joy that each of the lovers have in being together. The Song is remarkably nonjudgmental about eroticism and sex. (It is the only book in the Bible where a women’s voices dominate, and she uses her voice to speak of her desire and love.)2
The text is often shocking to the modern reader, but while ancient Israel expected fidelity in marriage, it had a positive attitude toward sexual love, in part because it led to propagation of family and society. “Ancient Israel perceived the wonders of human sexuality, fulfilled in marital love, to be a divine blessing.”3
It is always worth wondering about why this text made it into the Bible, and how people have thought about it over time. Scholars have pointed out that today’s text sounds a lot like Isaiah 43:2. Hear again what we read a moment ago:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 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.
– Song of Songs 8:6-7
Isaiah 43:2 says:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
– Isaiah 43:2
The words in Isaiah are attributed to God, and aim to assure the exiles that their exile will come to an end. “The peace and security of the eschatological era is thus evoked … in this verse which affirms that nothing can again disturb the tranquil and profound attachment of the Bride to the Bridegroom.”4 The comparison between the texts makes the claim that love is similarly relentless, and thus solid foundation.
The seal that is placed on the heart and on the arm reminds me of the commandment in Exodus 13:9, “It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt.” Throughout the Song of Songs there is an assumption that “human and divine love mirror each other.”5
As one scholar puts it, Pope, “Love is the only power that can cope with Death.”6 Throughout the entire book, the Song focuses on transforming death to life. A scholar writes, “Love, through metaphor and simile, is the sum of all pleasures; the lovers represent all the creatures and life-forces in the world; now they and that which animates them are set against death, in the context of birth.”7 The same scholar concludes, “If Death overcomes all opposition, it must inevitably engage love, dissever all ties of affection; if Love is of infinite value, it must encounter the ultimate fear, the threat to existence.”8
The Song celebrates human love, I believe, because human love is the closest expression we get to Divine love. (Please note that I’m talking about love broadly, not only about romantic love.) Romans 12 gives instructions how human beings can express God’s love for each other. It says that relationships matter, and God is in the midst of those relationships. To be in relationship with God IS to be in good relationship with those around us. To harm those in our lives IS to harm God.
Eugene Peterson translates verse 10b, which in the NRSV says, “outdo one another in showing honour” as “practice playing second fiddle.” As far as I know, second fiddle is usually a harmony part that supports the melodies. It is a role that is needed, but it isn’t the most prestigious one. Most instrumentalists practice to become the FIRST, the top, of their sections. Romans suggests the goal of reflecting God’s love in the world requires us to practice for the supporting roles sometimes. It is about relationships, not performance. It is about supporting each other along the way.
Romans, too, helps us consider how to build solid foundations. The foundation of two people supporting each other is just a lot stronger than if only one supports the other.
Thomas Moore in his book Soulmates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship says,
The word intimacy means ‘profoundly interior.’ It comes from the superlative form of the Latin word inter, meaning ‘within.’ It could be translated, ‘within-est,’ or ‘most within.” In our intimate relationships, the ‘most within’ dimensions of ourselves and the other are engaged.9
– Soulmates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship
This is how human love and Divine love are reflections of each other. Both relationships Divine and loving relationships between humans are profoundly intimate. They inform each other, build on each other, express each other.
Moore says, “The intimacy we pledge at the wedding is an invitation to open Pandora’s box of soul’s graces and perversities. Marriage digs deep into the stuff of the soul. Lifelong, intense, socially potent relationships don’t exist without touching the deepest, rawest reservoirs of the soul. Few experiences in life reach such remote and uncultivated regions of the heart, unearthing material that is both incredibly fertile and frighteningly primordial.”10 Perhaps this is why for so long, humans lived in fear of romantic love as a foundation. It reaches into the depths of people, and finds the squishy stuff inside.
I keep going back to those those oak beams though. They’re going to hold up this church as long as they stay wet, but they’ll lose their strength if ever they dry out. The foundation is strong as long as the invisible, underground stream keeps flowing. The squishy stuff inside of us, the soul stuff, the primordial stuff, the stuff that intimacy touches – it is wet too. It, too, can look like an unstable foundation, and it too, can keep something like those oak beams strong and steady!
There is enough within us to keep “oak beams” wet and strong too – as long as we keep living into the vulnerable, the primordial, the intimate, the loving. Maybe it sounds weird to build a church on an underground stream – likely because it is. I guess in the course of history it sounds weird to base something so important as marriage on love! But those oak beams have been holding us up for 147 years, and I think there is enough squishiness in love to make a very strong foundation for marriage too. I think Jane and Jim are wise, in building their lives on the foundation of love, and thus on on the reflection of the Divine that is human love. I think their love is as strong as death, and that’s plenty of foundation.
Finally, I remain grateful for the hope that seeing love like theirs offers for all of us. Love, whether romantic, familial, or friendship, gives us glimpses of how the Divine relates to us. And that Divine love is the strongest foundation that I know of, bar none. That love, I’d even go so far as to say, is STRONGER than death. That love is the foundation of the universe. Thanks be to God. Amen
1 Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (USA: Penquin books, 2005) 15.
2 It occurs to me that someone could argue about Ruth, but I don’t think Ruth reflects actual women’s voices so much as a voices ascribed to women by male authors.
3 Roland Murphy The Song of Songs: A Commentary on the Book of Canticles or the Song of Songs in S. Dean McBride Jr, editor Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 99.
4 Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary(Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1977), 674.
5 Murphy, 104.
6 Pope, 210.
7 Francis Landy, Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs(Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1983), 114.
8 Landy, 123.
9 Thomas Moore Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationships (HarperPerennial, 1994), 23