July 7,
2019 // Summer of Love Series: “Looking for Love: Oh God!” // Rev. Christina G.
Kukuk // First Congregational UCC, Ashland, Oregon // “Kiss Me!”: Psalm 63 (Call to Worship); Song of Songs 3:1-4; “Twenty-One
Love Poems: III” by Adrienne Rich from The
Dream of a Common Language


She came to see the pastor at the recommendation
of a friend.

She had been troubled for years, seeing one psychiatrist after another and not
getting any better. She arranged to meet the pastor by phone, so when she
walked into his study, it was the first time this particular woman had met this
particular pastor. He will never forget the first thing she said:

I guess you want to know all about my sex life. That’s what they always want to
know.” [Pause]

that is what you want to talk about, I’ll listen,” said the pastor. “But what
I’d really be interested in finding out about is your prayer life.”

woman did not think this particular pastor, Eugene Peterson, was serious. But
he was. And he wasn’t just being overly pietistic or uber-religious. He was
interested in the details of her prayer life for the same reason that her
psychiatrists had been interested in the details of her sex life – to find out
how she handled intimate relationships.[1] To the pastor, it did not really matter where they started – her life
with God or her life with lovers – the path led the same direction: a heart
made to love and be loved. Sooner or later our horizontal love relationships
intersect with our vertical love relationship.


Let me use a bit of adolescent Sunday school
the heydays of my evangelical high school youth group, do you know what one bit
of juicy gossip was the surest red flag that two teenagers would soon find
themselves battling what a good Baptist preacher would call the “temptations of
the flesh”? If they had started sharing devotions. You know, reading the Bible
and praying together. (Does that sound to you like a reliable recipe for gettin’
it on?)  It was! It was the ones who
prayed together who always got pregnant. Why? (Well, the pregnancy part was
because they also didn’t teach us about birth control, but…) Sexuality and Prayer. They are related.
Sexuality and prayer are – from different directions – about the same business.
Because sexuality and prayer are two sides of the same equation. Because at
their core, both sexuality (our expression of our embodied being in the world) and
prayer enable human beings to do the same thing: draw close to Another. We
expose ourselves, body and soul, and pray that what we have revealed will be
handled tenderly, reverently, lovingly. “Both sexuality and prayer are aspects
of a single, created thing,” Peterson writes, “a capacity for intimacy.” We
long to be known and to know another. It’s how we are made. We long to share
with another our “tender vulnerable core”[2] and have those tender,
exposed parts of ourselves cherished, honored, and loved. We long for intimacy. We search for intimacy. Our whole lives long.


The Song of Songs, a little book in that library
we call Bible, gives voice to that quest with the boldest poetry.
This morning we heard
from chapter three, verses 1-4:

Upon my bed at night, I sought the one whom my
soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

“I will rise now and go about the city, in the
streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.”

I sought him, but found him not.

The sentinels found me, as they went about in
the city.

“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him
whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go until I
brought him into my mother’s house,

into the chamber of her that conceived me.

These verses come from a poem, a love song,
really, a rompingly suggestive ode to romantic love. [They tell the tale of one
Shulamite’s search for intimacy; It’s a dialogue between the Shulamite and her

I bet you never studied this in
Sunday school. (I was once respectively turned away from a Sunday School class
on this book because I was not yet married; maybe this sermon series is my
revenge.) In Hebrew, this book is titled, “the most excellent of songs,” and
attributed to Solomon — even though the primary voice, and the first voice in
the song, is that of a woman’s. Reading the first chapter again last week, I
was struck by its bold sensuality: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his
mouth! … I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem… Tell me, you whom
my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at
noon.” (Pause) “When do you get off work?” Or “Where and when do you take your
break?” (Pause) This is like an ancient version of Lizzo’s hit song “Juice.”
(Or “Boys” — more here?) The Song of Songs celebrates physical beauty and
romantic love unlike any other sacred scripture. It can only be described as
erotic. It will make you blush.  My
purpose is not to leave any of us all hot and bothered. For worship this summer,
I’ve avoided the most suggestive portions. (Though you are free, and I
encourage you to try this at home, changing the pronouns as needed.) My purpose is to ask with you, what, in heaven’s name, is it doing in
our Bibles?
[Pause] Well, the
ancients thought it might help us pray. I tend to think they were on to
More evocatively than any other scripture, this song, which
never once mentions God, captures both our human search for intimacy – the
longing and the struggle – and our capacity to share intimacy with exuberance
and freedom. In Hebrew, its first words are, “Kiss Me!” It’s a direct, urgent,
appeal to know and be known by Another, to share pleasure and joy. Now, you may
hear people say, such a secular romp ended up in our sacred book by accident:
The ancients sort of unknowingly interpreted it as a description of God’s
loving relationship with God’s people. (But that would require a very naïve
reading indeed. Just wait until you get to the earnest climbing of fruit trees
a little later on.) You also may hear people dismiss the Song as nothing more
than a celebration of sex, proof that God delights in embodied love, and that
God isn’t half as self-conscious about our bodies as we are. Both of those
explanations contain some truth, but the Song is also more than either of those
theories. I think the Song is a gift God
gives us through human poets and singers to help repair us where we are often most
broken: our capacity for intimacy with God and with Another.


If we are to get to the healing, we will have to
dodge a few hazards. We have to proceed with some caution: with care and with
prayer. Here is where I insert a few disclaimers:
The Song’s good news
shouldn’t exclude anyone if it is really good news and good news for all. Church
does not exist exclusively for married couples with 2.5 children, and that this
sermon series does not either. I want to say up front that I am not through
this sermon series implying that marriage is normative. The Song’s blessing is
not limited to married people – that would be the case even if the two lovers
in it were married, which they are not. (They are always rendezvousing out in
the fields or in each other’s mother’s houses.) The Song’s wisdom also is not
limited to sexual relationships, although we are sexual beings our whole life
long. Though we’ve said sex and prayer are related, any real relationship of
depth – whether they be with friends, siblings, or lovers – is an exercise in
intimacy. (A romantic covenant, like marriage, may be one of the most intense
expressions of that intimacy, but it is not the only place we experience
intimacy.) Other hazards dot our path during this sermon series also: Whenever
we speak of love and lovers, of intimacy and spirituality, we do so with the
baggage of our culture’s gender stereotypes and heterosexism, which we are
trying actively in this community to dismantle. [I couldn’t imagine, for
example, the opening anecdote reversed: a man in my congregation coming into my
office, saying the same thing to me as a woman pastor for many reasons, most of
them having to do with power and gender.] If we needed proof that our most
intimate relationships with God and others are in many places broken and in
need of mending, the short list of caveats provides it. But if we can navigate
between these potholes, and listen to some of the continuing wisdom from poets
like Adrienne Rich, for example, I think
each of us could receive the Song as a gift to our faith: gay, straight or bi;
single, widowed, divorced, never married; young, middling or advanced in years.
This summer I invite us to reflect on both sexuality and prayer and our own
search for intimacy.


Our two Hebrew scripture readings this morning
describe our search for intimacy, our search for love.
In the Psalm used for
the Call to Worship, someone yearns with very physical language to be near God.
And then in the Song, a young woman walks the streets at night on a quest to
find the one other human, with whom she can bare her soul. So what is the Good News for these longing ones and for us? What is the
Good News to we who look for love in these relationship with God and others?


For those of us who follow Jesus, the Good News comes
to us so often in the Gospels, which though they scarcely mention sex or
intimacy, make known to us a Jesus who comes to heal, to make whole.
In one place, it’s the
fever that’s incapacitated Simon’s mother-in-law, then all sorts of diseases
and demons afflicting the rest of the people who come to him. Another time it
will be leprosy. But what most ails us today may be more invisible than fevers
or skin diseases. Our most debilitating
diseases today are afflictions of the heart.
Earlier in the life of social
media, it struck me that many people’s Facebook profiles looked like digital
versions of the Song’s first line: Kiss Me! We crave intimacy. We’ve also been
burned – sometimes in our intimate relationship with God (a place where the
church itself has left many wounds and bruises) and other times in our most
intimate relationships with other people. Because our experience of human
intimacy is so closely intertwined with our spirituality, a brokenness in one
direction can incapacitate us in the other. One of us gets betrayed or violated
by a friend or family member, and it can hurt our relationship with God. Examples
of that abound. But the reverse is also
true: Because our experience of human intimacy is so closely intertwined with
our spirituality, healing in one direction also can lead to greater wholeness
in the other.
It almost doesn’t matter where we start: with God or with a
flesh-and-blood loved one… whose “thighs are like marble.” (That’s a biblical
quote, by the way.)


Peterson says it this way: “The personal relationships for which we were
created and in which we are confused because of the sin and brokenness in this
world, are recreated by salvation.”[3] If Christ came with power
to heal, Christ came with power to heal our broken hearts.

Thanks be
to God. Amen.

Peterson, 24.



Peterson, 27.