Sermon for Sunday September 2nd, 2012
Song of Solomon 2. 8-13
Psalm 45. 1,2,6-9
‘The Life of Slavery and the Life of Liberty’
So we are now coming to the end of the weekend of prayer for the Diocese in what is without doubt a time of exceptional challenge. Not that it is unique in any sense. A document suggesting possible structural adjustments regarding arrangement of parishes and clergy has been circulated to clergy and vestries also will get a look. Not unlike many such documents I saw in my time in England it states that the purpose of the document is to enable Mission, yet it is all about arranging parishes together, – something which we called ‘managed decline’ back in the Church of England. No matter how glossily it was all dressed up, that was the driving rationale behind it all.
And, also as in England, there is little or no self criticism in the document – which suggests a disconnection from the deep roots of our faith. For throughout the entire Old Testament, whenever things turned bad, the community of faith through its prophets always had one explanation, and one alone. Not the times are changing, not people today they are different and we need to adjust. No, the consistent reason given was ‘you have abandoned God’.
When things got tough for the Israelites, they didn’t hold colloquia on the changing nature of society and ‘the need to adapt our methodology’ for a new era – they didn’t go into lengthy discussions of how the technological advances in the Assyrian chariot design had left their puny foot soldiers left behind. No, as it is written ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me teaching human precepts as doctrines’ If things had turned sour, the Israelites did not look for reasons ‘out there’ – they did not focus on the externals and a need to adjust themselves to new circumstances – they looked inside, to the state of their collective hearts – or at least that was where the prophets commanded them to look. ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’
And of course that looking at the externals rather than the internals was precisely the focus of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees – whom he accused of abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human traditions. (We may well in that context think of how our church has itself abandoned the commandment of God and rather, looking to the wider world, shaped itself a faith more in accordance with mere human traditions, but another time). But it is instructive to discover what the command of God it was that Jesus used as an example. Unfortunately, once again the lectionary has cut out the key verses so I will read them to you because they hit right on the root of the matter Then Jesus said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say [Note here in a reversal, that Jesus who says ‘You have heard’, ‘but I tell you – and who always Intensifies the meaning of the Law, here accuses the Pharisees of diluting the Law – ‘You say ] You say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
All this respecting Father and Mother then as now was a very hard call, so the Pharisees had invented what amounted to a religious tax avoidance scheme. The Law was stringent on honouring father and mother – to curse your parents was punished by stoning to death, but the Pharisees had abandoned this commandment to honour father and mother and had established a tradition whereby they could withhold financial support for their parents by declaring the money set apart for God.
But you might say – those words of Moses which Jesus repeats, ‘whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die’ – they are terrible!! Are they?? Why honour your father and mother – because humanly speaking they are the source of your life – without them you have no life. This is made patently clear in the parable of the prodigal, where the son wishes the father dead – he wants him out of the way,and then discovers that apart from the father he has no life – life without the father is no better than eating pigswill. And so when the Israelites discover that their life is pigswill, they know why, ‘they have abandoned the Father who gave them life’ – whose commandments are Good and life giving – ‘that implanted word which has power to save your souls.’
The Pharisees were obsessed with the externals – Israel was to be preserved by rigid adherence to external signs of faith, but signs which had no interior reference, no inward glance, no suggestion that the Salve for their suffering was not by lives that were consciously ordered with respect to the world around them, but by repentance and faith. And one way or another too much in the modern church is exactly the same as the Pharisees – except we go in exactly the opposite direction – The Pharisees thought that their salvation depended upon their distinctiveness from surrounding society – today many in the church think that our salvation depends on our adapting ourselves better to the world in which we live. We are concerned with Relevance, the Pharisees couldn’t care less about relevance, but we are the same for their is no inward glance – no suggestion that we may be where we are because we have abandoned our heavenly parent. We have become like earthly children, living lives of utter independence.
There is a spirit alive and well in the church that thinks that we have in a sense ‘come of age’ as human beings, that we can now make our own plans, carve out our own paths – we can live without reference to the Commandment of God. ‘We know better now’ is the mantra of our age – we are free! So we would like to believe. But we are not – rather we are slaves, slaves to the desires of our hearts. We believe we have an absolute right to happiness and fulfillment on our own terms, and there are many who would abandon the commandment of God and take hold of enticing human traditions that promise us something elusive, not hearing the words of St Augustine, that we are made for God and that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee’. We are made For God, and that to seek happiness or meaning elsewhere is in fact a form of Slavery, slavery to our own desires, slavery to Externals to the detriment of our hearts
Our first reading this morning may well have cause one or two to blush – My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
We may well ask what is such poetry doing in the Bible, and I might say – ‘that’s nothing! you should read the rest of it!!’ or, less flippantly ‘well of course the Bible is about all of human life, so why not’ – but rather I want to put it to you in line with the tradition of the church down through the ages, that the Song of Solomon stands here as testament to the passionate love that is betwixt Christ and his church and between God and the soul of the individual believer. That here figured is the glorious liberty known only in and through an all consuming love of God for his creatures and their response of love to him.
Christ says to his church as he says to us each as members of that church, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away’ Come away from what we may ask – to which the answer is ‘that slavery to your own desires, for I have set you free – why do you live enslaved in Egypt when you could dwell with me in the land of Promise. And these desires that we are enslaved to are So puny . . . as CS Lewis puts it in ‘The Weight of Glory’
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Put another way we were created for something far far greater than the love of those things which our hearts desire all to readily, that which the Bible calls ‘Idols’ – we were created for the Love of God. How many of us I wonder can read the Song of Songs – put ourselves in the place of the beloved and gasp with wonder and delight to find ourselves not only the object of such love, but the giver of such love in return – that we love God with all that we have and all that we are.
I must admit I search for signs of such passionate ardour for God in Diocesan documents and the like, and I search in vain – for the mark of a body that loves God with all its heart and all its soul and all its mind and all its strength.
But perhaps that is unsurprising. Bernard of Clairvaux, the C12 founder of the Cistercian monastic order gave a lengthy series of sermons on the Songs of Songs. In it he says that in order to love God we must be free of our false loves, we must reject all our false suitors. Put another way we must stop our restless searching anywhere else for our Life than in God himself. Bernard tells us that we are not ready for the Song of Songs, we are not ready for that love, until we have fully learnt the lessons of the two books which precede it in the Scriptures. Firstly Ecclesiastes, which details the search of the wise man for meaning in his work, in pleasure, in all the things of the world, which after extensive enquiry he declares to be a chasing after winds, Vanity, futility. Such is the Life that seeks its meaning in the world, such is the way of a church which seems to make itself relevant and reasonable, like a rather pathetic lover, seeking to please the object of its affection.
Then freed from the love of the world, Bernard says we must learn from Proverbs, we must stop learning to trust our own wisdom, but as James tells us, we must ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word which has power to save our souls’. Freed from the tyranny of slavery to pleasing the world, from the tyranny of our own opinions and desires, we are set free – truly free, free to Love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.
Such poor teachers has the church had down through the years that this fundamental aspect of our faith is all but ignored. We hear so many many sermons on loving neighbour, we may hear many about how we are loved by God, but how many on the our Love For God – the first commandment – that we might utterly Love our heavenly parent, that we might wait patiently and with great desire for his word of command – for we live and Love to do His will. For here is the great Paradox, that it is in our complete submission to God our Father that we know what it truly is to be free. And if I have lost sight of prayers for the Diocese in all this? My prayer for the Diocese is that we would turn back to the great lover of our souls, the only source of our life, and I end with a prayer – again of St Augustine – Let us pray
who art the light of the minds that know thee,
the life of the souls that love thee,
and the strength of the wills that serve thee;
help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee;
so to love thee that we may fully serve thee,
whom to serve is perfect freedom.