The Revd Lyndon Webb February 2022
Love joined them living. So may the earth join them in their burial.
O Legge, Gostlin’s heart you still have with you!
These gorgeous words come, as you may know, from the memorial to Thomas Legge on the south wall of chapel. The memorial was erected in 1619 by Legge’s life partner and then master John Gostlin, with whom Legge had lived, as one friend put it, ‘conjunctissime’, or ‘in a most married manner’. And so what better words than Gostlin’s for the start of a sermon at the mid-point of LBGT+ history month and on the eve of the feast of St Valentine – particularly if we dig past all the cheesy Hallmark cards (as much as I love a bit of cheese), and remember the two men at the heart of tomorrow’s feast, both called Valentine, both ordained, and remarkably both martyred around Rome in the third century.
And I say this because at their heart, LBGT+ history month and the history of the martyrs are both histories of people who have fallen in love – with God, with a community, with their own graced humanity – only to find that love suddenly and often violently politicised and persecuted. Both histories have survived only because these persecuted people have resisted the perennial temptation to stay silent, to cover up, to ‘pass’ (be it as straight, cis, or well-behaved Roman citizens). And so both histories, if you like, challenge us with the revelation that whilst falling in love, whether with another person or with God, is not a political act – the choice to speak or to remain silent in the face of injustice is.
This is the choice faced by the young woman in the Song of Songs, who constantly finds herself speaking out against institutions which try to silence her. So in the opening and closing chapters of the Song, the woman’s brothers try to lock her behind high garden walls, afraid of her easy sensuality; and in tonight’s passage, we see one of two encounters between the woman and state security forces who try to stifle her brazen love songs by force.
And of course, down the centuries the church itself has worked hard to silence, contain, and smother the woman’s voice behind thick veils of decency. So translators consistently refer to the central couple as bride and groom, despite the fact that these illicit lovers are never even engaged, let alone living ‘in a most married manner’. Meanwhile much ink has been spilled by interpreters trying to rewrite the Song as an elaborate allegory for the male soul’s ascent away from the messy passions of the flesh towards some tidy spiritual realm. As in queer history, so in the history of the Song, it seems the church has struggled to recognise love as it flourishes outside established patterns of marriage.
Nevertheless, across all these celibate centuries of anxious exegetes, still the young woman speaks the simple truth of her delight; still the text itself seduces us back into its wine-soaked world, where fragrant bodies emerge and elide in vivid, dreamlike conjugations. And nowhere more so than in tonight’s passage, which not only represents the climax of the text’s sensual language, but also reveals most powerfully the element of protest at the heart of the Song.
At start of tonight’s reading we find the woman asleep, dreaming of the young man knocking at the door. Within the space of her dream, the lovers are free to become liquid and porous to one another: as the young man arrives, his dark head is 'wet with dew' and shining 'with the drops of the night’; his touch rouses the woman from her sleep, ‘her guts heaving’, to use the Hebrew phrase, her hands dripping with sensuous and expensive myrrh; and waking she rushes to let the man into her bedroom.
At the door, however, the disappointed woman finds that her lover has vanished along with her dream. And so, driven by what the theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid refers to as the ‘queer restlessness of her heart’, she runs out into the forbidden space of the streets, where women were
not allowed to walk alone. Here, her simple and impulsive response to love is immediately politicised by the sentinels who police the boundaries, both of the city walls and the bodies within them. These men catch and beat the young woman, trying to force her back into the patriarchal closet where decent women belong.
However, far from silencing her, this experience of violence leads our indecent young woman to find her voice with a new boldness, and so she sings of the young man’s beauty with renewed vigour. Far from a naïve love song, worthy of any old Valentine’s card, her song is a lyrical affirmation of love, a sensual protest which stands as firmly against the sentinels as the young man stands on the ‘alabaster columns’ of his sexy legs. And so love emerges in the Song as tenderly and unstoppably as the lilies which blossom along the lover’s lips; and even when the woman does fall
silent, the very landscape itself sings and shouts of the lust and love which greens between her and the young man, as surely as the greening of spring.
And this talk of shouting landscapes brings us to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Luke’s pride parade celebrating love in the face of political forces which try to silence it. Riding at the head of this parade, I think Jesus understands well the predicament of the woman in the Song of Songs: throughout his ministry, he too has been confronted by scared and anxious leaders who have tried to silence his message of love, and to politicise the simple intimacy with which he touches and heals bodies. But like the woman in the Song, Jesus refuses to go back into politically convenient closets: in fact the whole Gospel, if you like, is a history of love’s repeated and glorious coming-outs in the face of fear, anxiety, and anger, a history written in the gestures of Christ’s own body. Like the Song’s sentinels, the great tragedy of the Pharisees is that they can’t see and name and embrace this love for what it is.
But of course as Jesus himself says, God’s love is bigger than any particular political moment, and if the people are silenced, the very stones will shout out in protest, bearing witness to the love which is woven through the earth itself. Indeed, God’s love is bigger even than death, as we will remember when we hear this story again on Palm Sunday, and as the history of the martyrs affirms. After all, who are the martyrs if not that queer company of people who come out again and again as lovers of the living God, despite the political consequences; another great pride parade reminding us down the centuries that love is always marching from the margins into Jerusalem, the fraught political centre. And no wall, or door, or closet can keep it out – or ‘in’, as the case may be.
And at a time when bodies are still dragged before synods debating their decency, when flags can be raised or lowered at a fearful whim, when hard-won rights can seemingly be removed in a single presidential tweet, LBGT+ history month is a good time to be reminded of these biblical voices and their defiant songs of love. And where better to be reminded than in this chapel, this chapel where even if we were all to fall silent, the very stones themselves would continue to shout, regardless of any politics going on beyond and above these walls. This February, may God’s laughter rise through all our loves, and give us the courage to shout with these blessed stones:
Love joined them living; so may the earth join them in their burial.
O Legge, Gostlin’s heart you still have with you!