The following service was streamed live via Zoom on August 29th at 10:30am.
The entire text for the service is printed below for home use by those who are not ready to return to public gatherings or who are otherwise not able to be at church on the day. Even though the service is streamed live, those who are unable to participate online may use this material at any time for their private devotions. If ‘two or three’ are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church.
There are also links to YouTube files for music and, should you rather listen than read, sound files for some of the text, including the sermon . [I’m sorry about the commercials that sometimes come with YouTube clips. Be sure to click on the “Skip Ad” box if and when it appears in the lower right of the YouTube clip] When a YouTube clip has finished, simply click on the ‘back’ button of your browser to return to this page. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.
Good sex can make even an agnostic see God.
(The words of the above quote have be altered to minimise offence.)
CALL TO CELEBRATION
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms and the larger circle of lovers, whose hands are joined in a dance, and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it, except in fragments. Let us celebrate the richness and diversity of life.
PRAYER OF AWARENESS
Creating God, extend our vision to perceive that this is your world. You are in it. You pervade it. You enfold it.
It is immersed in you. Open our eyes to see in the depth of reality your grace, your goodness, your glory; to see that we dwell in you. May it be so.
As I note in the sermon, there aren’t any hymns in our hymn book that relate to the theme presented in our chosen texts, so I have turned to modern love songs.
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Meditation: “Spring” by Marjorie Dobson
Spring is full of energy – like its name. It coils and tenses and waits and then jumps out at us, bursting with vigour and new life, and shouts its presence with a this-is-what-you’ve-been-waiting-for attitude.
Spring blesses us in an aggressive new way. Bare trees suddenly thrusting out new leaves. Flowers shaking their defiant colours, even at the occasional return of wintry weather. Animals and birds proudly parade young ones. Lawns and hedges cry out for mowers and trimmers. And the sun gains strength and length of days and by its energy urges us to get out and do something…
We give thanks for the urgent message of renewal that blesses us with each spring.
Let us be still for a few moments and co-create a space for more gratitude, greater compassion, sensitive understanding, soft human emotions, and honesty. (30 seconds of silence)
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of the beautiful Christ, we bring to you the story of our lives, some of it written in gold letters, but much of it written in grey, and some in the red ink of shame.
Help us to cherish the golden times, and to reinforce our desire to serve you better by remembering those good times with gratitude and pleasure.
Help us to face up to the grey and the red with ruthless self honesty, neither making excuses nor wallowing in guilt, but repenting of our sins and accepting from you the saving grace which totally forgives even the most ugly of our deeds or words.
O Saviour-Friend, please increase your restoration work in us so that more of the loveliness of Christ may shine through us in the coming days. For your love’s sake and to your eternal glory. Amen!
L: Let everyone take heart!: Though your sins be as scarlet you shall be washed whiter than snow. If we confess our sins, God can be relied on to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all the ugliness of evil, so I declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us.
R: Thanks be to God!
WISDOM FROM OUR TRADITIONS
L: Wisdom is not just special knowledge about something. Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” May we be struck by the wisdom of these words and marked by hearing them.
R: For within story lies meaning, and within meaning, the wisdom for which we seek.
INTRODUCTION TO READINGS
The readings this morning are for the romantically inclined among you. Psalm 45 was written for the celebration of a wedding; the Song of Songs is romantic poetry; real Mills and Boon stuff. The reading from the Song of Solomon, as it is also known, begins with the maiden speaking. She has been savouring the anticipation of her lover’s arrival, imagining her love touching, embracing her. It is an intensely private moment. She is utterly absorbed in thoughts of love. Then he is there. You can almost hear her heart beat faster. The time for dreaming is over; it is time for love, and it is not just holding hands. The final image of the fig, reemphasises the ripeness of the time.
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
2 You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
6 Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal sceptre is a sceptre of equity;
7 you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh & aloes & cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honour;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
Song of Songs 2:8-13
8 The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The 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.
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Sol. 2:13b)
This Song does not set out to judge love or to teach promiscuity, but there is no doubt of its erotic nature. It sets one to wondering how a book that never once mentions God, that is devoted to sexual love, ever made it into the Bible. Over the centuries scholars have searched for deeper meanings, hidden meanings, rather than contemplate the obvious: that this book of poetry is nothing more, nothing less, than the celebration of love, inviting us to acknowledge the bounty which God has spread before us in the gift of sexuality.
So here we are, smack in the middle of an erotic poem. What does the preacher do with it. After all, the Song of Songs only occurs once in the three-year lectionary, and there are few resources to help the preacher deal with it. There aren’t even any hymns that deal with physical love. The closest I could come was the hymn just before the sermon, the second verse of which begins, in one translation, “Our great forefathers groping went…”; however, I doubt the writer has the same thing in mind.
The extent to which scholars have tried to allegorise the Song borders on the absurd. For example, Simon Patrick and the Westminster Assembly of biblical annotators looked at chapter 7, verse 2, in which the man gazes rapturously on his lady and says,
Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat encircled with lilies
Simon Patrick and his mates thought they recognised the two Christian sacraments, the navel being the baptismal font and the belly, the Lord’s Supper! (These fellows were in need of serious help.) We can only guess what they did with the next two lines:
Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
It seems fairly clear that we should be calling a spade a spade or, in this instance, a breast a breast. But for many, acknowledging the eroticism of the Song of Solomon was not possible.
I have no doubt that even now some of you are squirming in your seats, uncomfortable that the topic that has been delivered to our door by today’s text can be nothing other than sexual love: erotic, sweaty, heart-pumping, body-thumping sex. The Church has probably done us all a disservice over the years in its complicity to protect us from the naughty bits in the Song of Songs, and from sex in general. 18th century poet, William Blake was one of the most eloquent of the Church’s critics in this respect. He prefaces one of his Songs of Experience, “A Little Girl Lost,” with these words:
Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love, sweet Love! was thought a crime.
This is the essential message of the another of Blake’s poems: “The Garden of Love.”
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.
The garden and the flowers of this poem parallel the imagery used in the Song of Solomon: the flowers, symbols of spring and love; the garden, a place which the narrator treasured as a child, where she played, innocently. But now she is no longer a child, and love can no longer be viewed as innocent or desirable. The Garden is barred. The gates are shut, “Thou shalt not” is writ over the door. The pleasures associated with love are repressed, deadened; tombs fill the garden and the priests, representing established religion, cast cold shadows over the narrator’s yearning, “binding with briars, my joys and desires.”
In terms of the view which young people have of the Church, I wonder how much has changed. Among the young people I talked with at Deakin when I was chaplain, it was quite clear the Church’s views on sexuality, or what they perceived those views to be, are irrelevant. They assume that a Christian view of sexuality amounts to guilty blushes or saintly abstinence, and they are not interested in either.
Although the view of these young people is not accurate, as long as they perceive “Thou shalt not” to be the full text of the Church’s sexual response, and as long as adults reinforce this view by their unwillingness to talk openly and honestly with them and each other about their sexual joys and desires, they are left with the dubious wisdom and morality of Dolly, Cleo, Playboy and company.
The Uniting Church is to be commended for the way it has handled sexuality, particularly with regard to the homosexuality issue, for it has done much to bring sex (dare I say) out of the closet. I remember seeing the Rev. Gordon Moyes of Wesley Central Mission in Sydney on TV a few years ago. He was ranting about the lack of leadership in the UC, alleging that the poor were being neglected because of the church’s preoccupation with sex. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The UC does as much for the poor as any church and more than most. If there was a preoccupation with sex, it was the preoccupation of those who were trying to suppress the church’s attempt to deal with a topic which is a vital part of being human.
Going back to my opening question: Why is there a book about sexual love in the Bible? Why not? Why should the Bible have something to say about every aspect of being human except sex?
The creation stories provide a beautiful image of the creation of humanity. It is into our human bodies that God breathes his Spirit. We are not disembodied spirits, but created bodies, part of God’s good creation. With the creation of the second human being from the bone of the first, maleness and femaleness are identified, and with it the gift of sexuality is given. It was the understanding of the authors of Genesis and the Song of Songs that sexuality is good, and ordained by God as part of creation.
Unfortunately, the church, under (as I mentioned last week) the influence of Greek philosophy, evolved a rather fractured view of the human person with the notion of a separation of body and spirit; the spirit part being good and the body being evil. Paul struggled against this kind of dualism at Corinth. The spiritual body is not to be considered a spiritualised body, but rather a physical body which has been given life by the Spirit. By the 4th century A.D. the Church had so distorted the biblical teaching on sexuality that all sexual activity, even for the purpose of procreation, was considered to be defiling and dangerous for the soul. The Church has only recently seen the error of its ways, but its early influence still lingers on, underlying much of modern society’s fear of, dysfunction in, and obsession with sex.
It may be that, in neglecting human sexuality, the Church has also neglected a pathway to God. The act of sexual love is more than the expression of a personal relationship between two people, it is a symbol of something beyond the personal. Some have even described sexuality as one of the sacraments of our spirituality. If this sounds a bit over the top, consider that much of what we know of God, we have learned through others. It is often in our unity with the other that we experience our unity with God, and just as letting go in the sexual act often brings pleasure, so letting go in our relationship with God brings a greater sense of God’s peace.
We demonstrate our righteousness, not simply through humility, service and obedience to God, but by giving ourselves as fully and as joyously as we can to the world around us. In the moments when we feel most fully alive, we can sense the presence of God and the reality of God’s love for us. It may be a glorious sunset, a breathtaking view from a mountain top, a surf-swept beach, the intricacies of a particular plant, the fragrant splendour of a rose, the soaring majesty of an eagle in flight, the grace and speed of a kangaroo at full tilt, or the feeling of overcoming fears and succeeding at something you really needed to do. And, of course, God comes in the people around you: a reassuring smile, a kind word, encouragement; the moment you realised someone loved you, the feeling of wanting to give all of yourself, the moment you first cradled your child and, of course, the joys of sexual union. Precious moments. Moments of love.
We must treasure these moments, these glimpses of God. In them we can realise that we are beloved. So rather than deny ourselves these moments, or label ourselves indulgent, or worse, we should be better to be easier on ourselves, and open ourselves to the joyousness of our creation as male and female
A CELEBRATION OF FAITH
L: In response to the word let us share together a celebration of faith: Ever present God, like water bubbling down a mountain stream; washing clean what has been soiled; carving new channels for the river of life; soothing the thirst of explorers, pilgrims and trampers.
L: Like a giant Mountain Ash watching over forests; guardian of ancient wisdom; sanctuary where the small and vulnerable find protection; beauty and stability; enduring strength persisting over the centuries.
R: God in the faces of your people: a rich tapestry of cultures, religions, nationalities and ages; holding difference together within a single family; luring us all towards a shared and generous future.
L: Lord, open the windows of our minds, our imaginations and our deepest sensitivity, so we may know ourselves to be embraced by grace, touched with possibility, and invited to share in the creation of new futures. generously and compassionately.
WE OFFER OUR CONCERNS
Bless those near us or far away whose very being is torn by grief. Come to them through the arms and words of others, that they may be embraced with your comfort.
Bless those near to us or far away who suffering from injury or disease. Let them receive both the outside medical care and the inner resources to fight back to health.
Bless those near or far away whose relationships have soured, and marriages that have become covert or overt feuds. Help them to recognise and take the best way ahead.
Bless those near or far away who are unjustly treated; socially or politically, at work or at home, free or captive. Bring justice and rehabilitation we pray.
Bless those near or far away who feel wronged by their own church. May they and those who may have misused them, be brought to the grace of interpersonal healing.
God of grand purpose and minute providence, please assist us to turn our good intentions into deeds and to carry our prayers over into all the comings and goings of this busy week ahead of us. Through Christ our model and our enabler. Amen!
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name;
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us in the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory
are yours now and forever. Amen.
As we prepare to end this sacred time in which we have celebrated, let us return to our work and school enlivened and renewed. May you know fully and deeply the blessings of each of your heart’s seasons. The inward turning of Winter, Springtime’s lush renewal, The effortless, steady growth of summer, and Autumn’s rich harvest. May your passage from season to season be blessed: eased by hands to hold, and by the light of love to guide you on.