This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 29 August, 2021. (Pentecost 14B)
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” Song of Solomon 2:13
In our City library, each the books of fiction is adorned with a sticker that give a clue about the main theme of the book. Now you will remember that over the past few weeks we’ve had Old Testament readings from the books of Samuel and Kings — and these would have had a sticker showing a castle, to show that they were historical in their main theme. We’ve moved today to a book that would have a large red heart on its spine — a steamy romance!
For we have moved from the history section, based on the stories of kings — Saul, David and Solomon, to some of the books that the names of David and Solomon are associated with. We have moved into what are referred to as “the Wisdom literature”, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon — together with some of the apocryphal books. These books are largely poetical in their form, and explore some of the great themes of human life — love, virtue, right living, suffering, death. And in the midst of this poetry, some of the great insights into the nature of God are set out and examined.
When you read the whole of this short book, you are caught up in the dialogue between a young man and a young woman who describe themselves as “faint with love” and who gaze upon one another with considerable delight in their bodies, expressed in great detail and in romantic, not to say erotic, poetry. But they go on to speak of the exquisite pain of separation, and of longing for union. Today’s passage is spoken by the woman, delighting in her lover, and seeing in the promise of spring, something of her hope for the consummation of their love.
There has been a tradition in the life of the Church to interpret this love-story as a picture of our longing for union with God, the eternal Lover. That may or may not be a helpful idea for us today: but we can also listen to it as a gracious permission for us to delight both in the experience of human love, in the goodness of our bodies, and in the awakening that we see around us as we pass from winter into spring. For the daffodils are blooming, the prunus is in blossom, the trees are putting forth their almost translucent leaves, the days are getting perceptibly longer, and, every now and then, the sun peeks through! We may even begin to feel stirrings of liberation — “arise, come away”!
So how does this tie in with the somewhat stern moral teaching expressed in the letter of James from which our second reading came, or even the catalogue of “evil intentions” from which we are invited to take “gospel”, “good news” in the Gospel reading?
Our planners studied these scriptures the other day, and have asked us to ponder this question: Law, or Liberty? For out of the reading from James popped this little gem, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty…will be blessed in their doing” Clearly for the author, law and liberty are intimately and organically connected.
Part of the way that we might understand this connection is to think in terms of the balance between privileges and responsibilities, delights and duties, our good and the common good. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” may express a delight experienced and hoped for, but is it what is best for me in the long run?
We might think of what we see as our privileged position of freedom in the live-with-the-COVID-virus space. Sure, we can complain about having to sing with masks on, and to use the QR code to check in, to have to sit down for morning tea, but those limitations of our liberty — the “laws” under which we are living — are in large measure responsible for our schools being open, our liberty to travel more than 2 Kilometres from our homes, to enjoy a meal in a restaurant or a drink at the pub — even to come to church and worship! Perhaps those pharisaic regulations in the gospel reading had some point to them, being reflected as we live with the new realities of regular sanitizing of our hands, or the “deep cleaning” of premises. Now these “human precepts” are not “commandments of God” or even “doctrines”, but we abide by them in order to be able to enjoy the freedoms — freedoms not enjoyed by large numbers of our fellows!
Last Sunday at Parish Sharing we were discussing John’s paper suggesting a re-writing of the Sunday collects. One of the greatest concerns expressed was about what we are “allowed” to change! Are we free to change the words of our prayer book — a book agreed on by the central decision-making authority of our Church? I was brought up in the Methodist Church, where the prayers on any particular occasion were made up “ex tempore” as they say in Latin — “according to the time”, “appropriate to the day”. In following those prayers as a member of the congregation, I always felt at least one step behind the leader — I had to wait until I had heard what he had said, decide whether I understood it, and then whether it reflected my concern, my experience before saying a mental “Amen”, “Yes” to that prayer. When I experienced the Anglican way of prayer, and realised that I knew beforehand what was being said, I felt much more a part of that praying, that worshipping, that learning than through the patterns of my youth. Being “people of the book” has a discipline about it that allows us to be more free in our worship and participation. You can see which way I found more helpful!
The ordering of our lives by what we might call “law” comes sometimes from authorities outside ourselves, but we also impose these disciplines on ourselves, as well, and those self-imposed disciplines also set us free. These maybe in everyday things like what we have for breakfast — we are set free from the necessity to provide endless varieties of products in our pantry in case we should decide on a particular day that fruit loops are necessary instead of the customary corn flakes. It may be about when and where we do our daily praying, or how often we attend worship — things that we might describe as our “rule of life” or less formally as “the way we do things”. Each pattern that we commit to sets us free from the decisions as to which of the almost infinite number of alternative patterns we will follow on a particular day. We are set free to get on with our lives!
One of the prayers used at Morning prayer in the BCP pattern prays, “O God the author and lover of peace…whose service is perfect freedom”. Last Sunday our prayer for the day, or collect, was based on Saint Augustine’s prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” It is in a pattern of life that places God at the centre and principal authority of all we do and say, so that we can find the true freedom that deep down we long for — the freedom to be ourselves, to be what someone has described as “the strange and wonderful creatures” that we are designed to be. May we find that freedom, and rejoice in the “law of liberty” — in union with our great lover. In this discipline may we find the springtime of our lives!