SERMON PREACHED AT
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
ORDINARY SUNDAY 22
ORDINARY SUNDAY 22
(30th August) 2015
Song of Solomon 2:1-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
When it comes to the Song of Songs we need to discover our inner adolescent. We need to do that because for many centuries the Christian community was afraid of this majestic and erotic love poem. We turned it into a complex parable, because that was almost less scary that its being the outpouring of erotic devotion by a bride awaiting her lover. We didn’t, especially in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, want to think too much about that icky stuff.
We reached our deepest frozen depths in the era of Queen Victoria, of course, when we covered up our piano legs. Actually we didn’t – it was a story made up by a travel writer named Frederick Marryat, and he was probably sold a furphy (can I use that word in New Zealand?) or was particularly imbalanced himself, but it makes for a good illustration. Certainly D.H. Lawrence was convinced that Christians and their God were a vapid lot, and he spent his bizarre life attempting to replace the God of his Congregationalist up-bringing with dark gods of his own borrowing or sometimes of his own making – somewhat unsuccessfully, it might be added.
The rather intriguing philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich, born the same year as Lawrence, dared to speak of the relationship between worshippers and our God as one of eros. To some, whether their piano legs were covered or not, this was altogether too much, and a fit of the vapours was almost certainly going to ensue. But I suspect Tillich is telling us something important.
The Song of Solomon is about a bride’s longing for her lover, but as many have theoretically seen but not altogether enacted, it can be about our longing for God and God’s for us. We tended to put trouser legs onto the notion of the Church as bride of Christ, covering up the urgency and the Captain Corelli “temporary madness” dimension of eros. Yet we do ourselves a favour when we recapture that madness, when our love for God is not a love for all things done decently and in order, but a mad and manic dance.
As Anglicans, of course, our sense of salvation by good taste (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from an Australian bishop) ensures that if we do dance it is with a terribly slow and measured step, far removed from the embarrassing ecstasy of Pentecostals. I don’t want to be a Pentecostal for other reasons, but I do want us to remember what Jane Austen would never let us forget, that even beneath the very measured and rational decency of Englishness there can be torrents of dangerous and sometimes near-fatal attraction. I suspect though we need to lose Jane Austen for a while, even in Anglicanism, and while not jettisoning the careful and perhaps flirtatious craft of liturgy, need to let our hair down and let our senses go wild.
For the language that surrounds much of our faith is indeed deeply tactile and sometimes even erotic. A woman anoints Jesus and dries his feet with her hair. The psalmist drips with oils and aloes and myrrh, as do the nativity stories. Last week some of us saw young baptizand McMullan Pomare covered on almost every spare pore with the oils that symbolize the crazy generosity of our redeeming God. The wise men bring the baby Jesus rich fragrances of incense, the raw visual seduction of gold, and the deeply therapeutic gooeyness of aloes. Jesus touches with saliva, touches the untouchable with bare skin, and speaks of his own brutal self-sacrifice in terms of eating flesh and drinking blood.
These are hugely tactile, visceral images, sometimes powerfully repulsive and sometimes powerfully attractive images, a part of a mad dancing relationship between God and God’s often rather luke-warm beloveds.
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
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.
As and if we allow ourselves to be embraced again by this holy madness, this crazy devotion, this intimate knowledge that God offers, then we cease to be the frozen people of God. In the movie Frozen Queen Elsa suddenly realizes she has nothing left to lose, and breaks out in mad song and dance:
The fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all
It's time to see what I can do,
to test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
This does not mean throwing out all inhibitions and control, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me.” Rules are sometimes useful moderators of behaviour, and Paul Tillich, with whom I began, somewhat lost sight of one or two of those moderations. There’s rules and rules though, and, as the oil merchant might have said some rules ain’t rules. By and large, if we dance naked down the street (metaphorically or literally), we might be considered to have stepped outside the acceptable boundaries of normality (though biblical King David was known to push those boundaries, too, beyond the expected norms in the ecstasy of his love for God).
But neither should we confuse being afraid to live with assumed maturity and sophistication: we are called to dance with God, with the Wind “that blows through a thousand paddocks,” with the Christ who is the Lord of the Dance, who throws stars across the sky a billionfold further than we can comprehend, who feeds the thousands, eats with defiled hands, and places unnecessary numbers of fish into fishers’ nets. As we discover that freedom we can lose the compassion fatigue and the building fatigue and the where’s the next dollar going to come from fatigue that cripples the people of God, we can cease to be bowed down by fear of the next crisis and instead dance madly with the one who calls “arise, my love.”