Vicar's Sermon - 2nd September 2018

Song of Solomon 2.8-13 and Mark 7

Well theirs is not a normal marriage – if indeed there is such a thing. Harry and Meghan have passed their 100 day anniversary. Congratulations to them: only another 21, 815 to go to match that of John and Doreen Moore and their 60th anniversary last week. But a marriage lived out in the public eye. This week Meghan caused a stir for showing us the first Royal, adult, pair of knees since before Queen Victoria. We are, of course, pleased to know that she has knees like the rest of us (well, not like mine…but you know what I mean) but Vogue Magazine described her ‘emboldened’ fashion choice of a dress ‘cut above the knee’ along with her accessories (that’s earrings, heels and clutch bag for the uninitiated!) as less Royal and more ‘Rock and Roll’.  Meghan it seems has brought a frisson of excitement to the Royal Family (and to us all).

Not a normal marriage but a ‘normal wedding’ (again, if there is such a thing). Oh, I know most people don’t marry in Windsor Castle Chapel, or have millions watching on TV. Most people don’t have carriages and fly pasts and military swagger around them; or world-renowned singers and Gospel Choirs and celebrity Bishops. But the great thing about the wedding was that it used this little book: The Common Worship Order of service for Marriage: the exact same words and prayers that everyone else who has a church wedding now uses. And more than that: in their marriage preparation Harry and Meghan had presumably been offered a choice of bible readings that can be found at the back of this book – and they chose the reading from the Song of Solomon, part of which we have heard today.

Their extended reading reminded us of the power of love (remember Bishop Curry’s sermon) and sexual desire and the holiness of both.  This first part of the reading is a great gift. Here we are so clearly reading a love poem. This is gentle and pure but is powerful in its description of longing and desire: it is erotic verse. Think of the conservative culture that produced this ‘hide and seek’ story of lovers meeting. All of the senses are here: this is sensual writing. Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. She hears her beloved. She sees him coming to her and admires his body, his strength. He is present but not quite within reach, hidden by the latticework of the window. The fragrance of spring flowers is in the air, the promise of the taste of figs. He calls her to come to another place where they can share their love secretly. And then he is gone, leaving her to dream, to wake, to search for him again.

When people gather at weddings we hold before them some of the things that we value most. Families are joined: we celebrate them. A community is strengthened: we honour the virtues of faithfulness, love, compassion and forgiveness that make communities strong. And weddings speak of the all that we have inherited from the past (from parents and grandparents, friends and neighbours), all that has made us who we are. But weddings also look towards the future: they speak of a safe place for a sexual relationship, they look forward to the birth of children and the growth of a family. All this and so much more blessed by God: proclaimed to be good, the object of His delight. The Song of Solomon reminds us that joy and gladness, pleasure, tenderness, companionship, love, desire and delight are God’s gifts.

And yet…and yet. Our faith has so often seemed to view sex and love through a lens of suspicion…. somehow ‘unclean’, ‘unspiritual.’ A faith that has at its heart a belief in a Creator who declared His Creation to be good. A faith that proclaims a belief that this God ‘became flesh’ in the person of Jesus Christ somehow has found itself perpetuating a tradition that dishonours the bodies God has gifted to us – the bodies through which we experience His grace.

We struggle don’t we? Just think of that story last week where we learned that Pope Francis has floated the idea that nuns, coming to take a vow of chastity don’t have to come to that vow as virgins (they can have had a previous life or history before their calling to celibacy). Somewhere in that knotty issue and in the backlash against this suggestion there is a sense that if someone has had sex then they can’t ever be pure: what does that say?

And we struggle…because we also know only too well that love and desire and the human sex drive are powerful, powerful things that can be corrupted and directed dangerously or even overwhelm our rationality and lead us astray. That’s there in the nightmare that society is facing (not just in the churches but in sports clubs, hospitals and children’s care homes amongst others) of the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults. It’s there in the news that tells us that our teenage girls are self-harming often because they lack a sense of worth in a culture that is highly sexualized: depressed over their body image, texting and sexting, bullying, peer pressure from boys who have access to a diet of online porn and little sense of how consensual relationships can or should be conducted. It’s there in the #MeToo movement that has highlighted just how powerful men have abused their power to gratify their needs. So much of modern life, let alone our tradition of elevating the spirit above the body pushes Christians towards an overreaction that can’t find anything good to say about one of the greatest joys that human life can bring which is committed, faithful, tender, (and dare I say it) sexual love.

The old story has God saying, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’.  Yes, we must tread carefully and sensitively here. That loneliness does not have to be filled by a marriage partner: Jesus himself never married, some are called to be single, some find themselves single, widowed or alone against their choice. But for many human companionship is focused in their partner. Someone who sees you as you are (even as the years pass) and can still say ‘Arise, my fair one, come away.’ That person whose voice you long to hear. The person whose touch is precious and dear to you. The person with whom you can face whatever tomorrow brings. Oh yes. It can go wrong. The Gospel reading reminds us that sometimes things an look good on the surface when in reality the human heart has twisted and distorted them. Not every marriage is a good marriage. We can use and abuse one another within our closest relationships. We can be cruel and heartless towards those we have made the most sacred of promises: you have seen this and, if you know yourself, you know it’s there within you too, so we should hate the sin but love the sinner (for we are that sinner at times).

But for today let us bless God for those who are married. Let us bless God for those who are enjoying the delights of courtship and romance (that doesn’t have to be a separate group from the married group!). Let us unashamedly bless God for the marriage bed and the delights of human sexuality. Let us bless God that He has made us to be physical beings: we are not bodies who have souls, we are souls expressed through bodies so we bless God for the gifts of touch and taste, for sight, sound and smell. And we bless God that above and beyond and beneath and through and so inspiring all our loving as people there is a Love that gazes upon each of us with nothing but delight. Who for all our failure and sin sees us as pure, holy and chaste: ‘Arise, my fair one and come away’. ‘I am my beloved’s and He is mine and His banner over me is Love.’