Sermon on Song of Songs – Preached 30 August 2009

I want to begin this morning with a little story from a previous phase of my ministry.

People sometimes ask me what I did before becoming a priest – I long to be able to say something exotic or exciting or even slightly noble. Something where it sounds as though you gave up a lot in order to pursue a true vocation.

The true answer to what I did before becoming a priest is that I worked in the church. I was a lay worker in an ecumenical chaplaincy in the University of London – one of two periods of university chaplaincy ministry that I’ve had. I have to say that I’ve always enjoyed Chaplaincy ministry. Working in universities was probably the most successful home mission effort that the Anglican churches in the UK ever committed themselves to. Certainly it would be true of quite a few people here that university was a time when they connected with faith in a way that has been life-changing. It was true for me – I found my way into the Episcopal church through the ministry of University Chaplains and it was only natural that I should consequently spend quite a lot of my subsequent ministry hanging around university coffee bars, staff clubs and corridors meeting with staff and students alike. We used to call it “loitering with intent.”

If I have a regret about University Chaplaincy it is that the church seems to be forgetting how to do it and how to make it a priority. Though I must remind myself that academic life has changed and in the hurly and burly of life not everyone has time for the kind of university chaplaincy which helped me to form my faith. However that is to digress.

Let me go back to where I wanted to begin. There I was in London at a University Dinner. Quite a grand occasion. Groaning tables of food. Staff and students doing their best to dress up for the event. I had been seated next to the senior academic present. I was inexperienced in those days. I had not realised that you only ever get to sit at the top table if they want you to do something and the chances are if there is food around, they want you to say grace.

Sure enough, just as we were to begin proceedings, the senior academic stood up and without giving me warning said, “Pray silence. The Chaplain will say Grace”. That is what he said as he stood up. What he said as he was sitting down and as I was standing was delivered in more of a hissed whisper. “Remember Chaplain, this is a secular university. Don’t you start mentioning God!”

I paused for a moment and though. Then I asked everyone to stand. (Which gave me more time to think). They I proclaimed in as loud and confident voice as I could, “Let us all pause for a moment of thankfulness…….” and there was a long pregnant silence. And I said loudly and even more confidently. “AMEN!”

It is that business of not mentioning God which I want to just dwell on for a moment this morning. And the thing that has prompted me to remember that story this morning is the first reading.

We don’t get much of the Song of Songs in our pattern of Bible Readings. In fact, rather sadly, I think, we only get it on one Sunday in our three year cycle. That’s a pity, I think, and I one of the things I want to encourage you to do this week is to read it through for it is a great read.

But why, I hear you ask, did the Song of Songs make me think about that experience of saying grace before an indigestion inducing meal so long ago.

Well, the answer is to do with that business of not mentioning God.

You see, the wee gem of a book the Song of Songs, from which our first reading came this morning never does. It never mentions God at all. There is nothing, nothing at all about God. No mention of God’s opinions. No mention of God’s hopes or desires. Nothing about divine punishment nor reward. God is just, ….not there.

It seems strange, doesn’t it, to have a book in the Bible where God is not mentioned.

That little moment when I was forbidden from mentioning God whilst attempting to say grace is a little icon, a symbol of the anxieties that people have in speaking about God in the public realm these days. There is a discomfort that generations before us would have found incomprehensible. For it was obvious to them that when you want to speak of the highest, the mightiest, the holiest, the most vulnerable, the most glorious and the most abject, only religious language will do.

Not so now.

Now there are two ways we can react to this. We can either react in a Daily Mail kind of a way or we can react in a Song of Songs kind of a way.

There are those who react to this situation by being grumpy about it and moaning about Christians being discriminated against. It seems to me to be the worst kind of response and the least likely to be successful.

People have studied the song of songs throughout many generations and come to various conclusions about it, not all of which I agree with. But the thing that lots of them agree about is that God must be in there somewhere. Some read this story as an allegory of God’s relationship with God’s people. God gets to be the male lover and the people get cast as the female party. I’m not convinced by that. For a start, I don’t think the two people in the Song of Songs live out the gender stereotypes that are assumed in that reading. I prefer to simply recognise that God is alive and present and at work in the relationships that we have which are good, wholesome and fulfilling.

That little portion of the Song which we had this morning was the good life personified.

The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on earth, the time of singing has come. The voice of the turtle doves is heard in our land.

Now, if you are like me, when you hear those words, you will hear that God is present, dancing through the emotions of that experience. Unmentioned maybe. Unbidden, maybe. But present. Really and truly present.

As I walk into my flat at home, I have a plaque which I see every day which says, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present”. They are the words that were inscribed on Carl Jung’s tomb.

I feel that way about modern culture. Bidden or unbidden. I am sure that God is present. Whether it is in the good times like that reading I just read again. Or in the abject times when we know not where to turn. Whether we name God, call to God, cry to God or address God, God is there with us.

That is what the incarnation means, which is our central doctrine. God has come amongst us. And lurks, waits, hopes and prays that we will want to enter into an encounter with all that is holy and all that is true. In the highways and byways of modern culture, in the crevices and corners of each of our lives, in the corridors and hallways of every place we go, we will find if we look around us, that God is already there. Loitering with intent. Wishing, hoping and praying that we will turn round, and know how much we are loved.



  1. Thanks, Kelvin!

  2. I love the concept of loitering with intent. God seems to do a lot of that. Thank you for a thought-stimulating sermon.

  3. Jim Finnie says

    I am a catholic and happened to read your website via direction from elsewhere and I have found your sermon very much in tune with how I mutter away to myself in my head in the car or walking down the street. Awareness and striving to seek the presence of God is not always easy but should always be the priority.
    I find it so hard to accept the dumbing down, secular phobia about mentioning any theological subject and so found great joy in your lovely sermon tonight.

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