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s155o04 Lockleys Lent 3 14/3/04

"delight yourself in rich food" Isaiah 55.3

This doesn't sound like Lent to me!

There is, I suspect, an attempt to make the Sundays in Lent more penitential. It is curious that the two Sundays of the year where flora features - posies on Mothering Sunday and palms on Palm Sunday are both in Lent, when, of course, we do not have flowers in church :-) Sundays in Lent, the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 tells us, are always feast days. Abstinence in Lent happens during the week. I am grateful to our two Jill's - that we have some colour in our sanctuary on Sundays, which the Prayer Books tell us are feast days in honour of the resurrection of our Lord - even the ones "in Lent".

So in today's readings, there are solemn warnings in Paul about misbehaviour and by Jesus against Jerusalem. But these dire and solemn warnings are relieved by some of Isaiah's words, such as my text for today: "delight yourself in rich food" and "he will abundantly pardon". There is that which is not bread - though it must be masquerading as bread - but which does not satisfy. And that which is abundantly provided, is provided free of charge! And it is not just water for the thirsty, but wine and milk. So discernment rather than abstinence is called for.

And I suspect that it is precisely that lack of discernment that so often can bring our downfall. We look at the words of St Paul and focus on the sexual immorality that the people got up to - all 23, 000 of them in a single day, and overlook the fact that these are set - in parentheses - by acts of idolatry and complaining. So the term sexual immorality is most likely, in my view, a pejorative term for adopting the gods of the nations around them.

There were three classic ways of turning away from the God of Israel. The first was to make their own idols, like the golden calf that Aaron made, the second was to worship the gods of the nations around about them, and the third was to complain against God as they did with Moses for the difficulties they found themselves in - in the wilderness. So, again in my view, this has nothing at all to do with acts of intimacy between people who are not married.

I have no doubt that the devil delights in our focus on sexuality - it makes the Church appear judgemental rather than trusting - and no one actually wants to be in a judgemental atmosphere - unless one has no choice. At least these days we do have a choice and we are perhaps beginning to be seen as trusting rather than judgemental. But of course, many will not realise our change of attitude, for they have long since ceased to listen to the Church.

The things that God gives are good. Isaiah lists them - water, wine, milk, bread, rich food, sure love, glory, and abundant pardon. Yet this beneficent God is not enough for some. Those who want power over others reject this God, because they reject being included in the gathering God would wish, "as a hen gathers her brood under her wings".

It is this gathering and all-inclusive God to whom we turn - who is ever to the chagrin of those who would make god into a judgemental and exclusive god. It is these who are the idolaters, it is these who are turning to another god, and it is these who are so often complaining because others are included.

So I do not find any justification in the Bible for the generally held belief that sexual intimacy between consenting couples before marriage is the greatest sin, and persons who have done so are consigned to hell. Indeed I would actually go further than this and say that I don't think it is a sin. I think that we as the Church tread on very dangerous ground morally, categorising an activity engaged in, out of love, as inherently sinful simply because we deem it premature or ill-advised. I could well imagine people resenting having to repent of the most beautiful activity they had ever undertaken in their lives, and this would only serve to reinforce a (seemingly common) perception of just how out of touch the Church is. I am well aware however that not all sexual activity is engaged in out of love, either before or after marriage, and that much of the Church's teachings over the years are inspired by wishing to protect people from hurt. Would that it was possible to do this! And yet no. If we do not grieve, we can hardly love.

I talked about what was not bread and that which does not satisfy. God seeks our upbuilding so all that God gives does satisfy. Judgementalism seeks others compliance and so is inevitably less nutritious. With judgementalism one can never feel entirely whole.

I am grateful to Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ, who teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne who wrote in the March edition of Eureka Street, in an article entitled the Theology of Conversation:

"Good conversation also emphasises what is central to human living. It does not focus on the defects of messy ways of coping with hardship. To attack, for example, the use of condoms by AIDS victims instead of encouraging people in relationships blighted by suffering to nurture their love for one another, condemns young people to see a rich tradition as harsh and distorted.

"When entering their tradition through conversation, the young must believe that they can contribute to the wisdom of the group. To stress the unique authority of the elders distracts the young from the rich patterns of human living that tradition commends.

"The language in which wisdom is passed on is one of simple words and simple human gesture. The Catholic rhetoric of sexuality &emdash; partly legal, partly philosophical, and in part lushly theological &emdash; often forgets its roots, which is in an humble language spoken by ordinary people."

Today after our service we are having our annual vestry meeting, and if our attitudes of caring, listening and respecting others doesn't flow from this service to that meeting, it is not likely to flow out to and to be evident to the wider community.

Do we have rich food for others as well as for ourselves? If we have found something that sustains us in this community of faith, be it word or sacrament, music or fellowship, purpose and meaning - then whatever this is - it is no less offered as freely to others as it has been freely offered to us. We are ordinary people and we speak in an humble language.

And of course there could not be a more ordinary picture of human existence and welcome than those final words of Jesus: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers he brood under her wings". God tries to gather people together, and so often it is us who are not willing, when we realise that we have to share the warmth of God's love with others.


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