Sermon (i) preached on the ninth Sunday after Trinity (5 August 2012) by The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean

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Sermon (i) preached on the ninth Sunday after Trinity (5 August 2012) by The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean

The Dean of St Paul's looks at passion and sex in the Bible, particularly in the Song of Songs.

Song of Songs 5:2 - end

'I slept, but my heart was awake. Listen, my beloved is knocking. Open to me my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one... I arose to open to my beloved, and my inmost being yearned for him.' Words from the beginning of this morning's reading from the Bible, the Song of Solomon.

There's a Christian organisation called the Gideons who aim to put a copy of the bible in every hotel room. But it was reported recently that one hotel had replaced its Gideon bibles with copies of the currently fashionable but not very well-written sado-masochistic novel, 50 Shades of Grey. I suspect that the hotel owners, like most readers of the Bible, were unaware of quite how passionate some parts of the Bible like the Song of Solomon can be; and also unaware of how far our society’s obsessions with sex short-change people and damage their lives.

What you may ask are we doing talking about sex from the pulpit? Well, it's a part of life, and it's in the Bible – specifically in today's reading from the Song of Songs. I'll come on to that in a moment. But the main thing about sex is that it's part of life for a reason: it's not an end in itself, but a means – it's there to help us do other things, and it needs to be properly integrated into our lives: it needs to be about love.

However, little of what you see in the media is about sexual love; most of it is about sex – and who's doing what to whom. There have been a large number of sex education programmes on television, which seem to be about performance and mechanics, rather than asking the prior questions about love and commitment which make the ability to perform much less of an issue. The internet is awash with pictures and videos of people doing private, intimate and sometimes dangerous things in public for the gratification of others.

The novel 50 Shades of Grey is concerned with sex as dominance over another. It's part of this perversion of sexuality in our culture, where people concentrate on sexual acts and how to 'spice it up' with 'love toys' and violence. The word 'erotic', which means loving desire for another, has been debased into being another word for pornography, the depiction of sex for sale.

Let's be clear. Sexuality is created by God and is therefore a good thing, even though human beings so often abuse it selfishly and use it as a means of power and control. But sex needs to be integrated into our lives as a whole, and put in its place: its primary purpose is about having children for those who can, and its secondary purpose is to help cement the bond of intimacy between a couple in a committed and lifelong relationship.

Sex is *not* a recreational or spectator sport; sex is not necessary for a human being to flourish, as so many single and celibate people show; sex is not the same as intimacy. What people really need, as the Bible tells us, is to be loved and to love, in relation to God and to other human beings. And healthy sexuality works in that context.

Here's a tip to help get sex in perspective. If in our sexualised society you see people or pictures which evoke a sexual response in you, then give that to God. Pray for the person or persons at whom you're looking – how do they really feel about what they do? Despite the fantasies of pornographers, many of those involved are doing it for money and would rather be doing something more wholesome; many of them are being exploited or even coerced or trafficked into doing it – and if you want to know more about the reality of sexual trafficking, have a look at the 'Stop the Traffik' display in the north aisle. And some of them don't yet know the wonder and intimacy of sexual love. Pray that each person you see may find freedom in the love of God, that you may look at everyone with God's love for them in your heart, and not be drawn into using other people's bodies for your own pleasure.

Why was the Song of Songs included in the Bible? It wasn’t just because it was an allegory of divine love; it wasn’t simply reproducing secular love poetry or drinking songs, although Rabbis protested at the way some Jews sang the Song of Songs over a pint of wine down in the local tavern – and you can imagine the nudges and winks at the imagery the Song contains (our vineyards are in blossom – ere, what about that Levi? Is your misses vineyard still blooming? HaHa!) Even more than passion, religion is terrified of vulgarity.

The kind of desire seen in the Song of Songs is meant by God as a power for good, and particularly to point people beyond themselves and own selfishness to God who is behind it all. For how many selfish teenagers or self-obsessed adults is the passionate love of another the beginning of the end of their self-absorption, the beginning of learning what true love and service to another is – so that we can learn the wholeness of love, of which sexual love is but a small part?

If you know what passionate love with another person is, then you've tasted a little bit of the passionate love which God has for you, and which God invites you to turn into self-giving love for others. Not an erotic love which wants to possess and dominate another person, but the genuine love of God which sets others free to love in return.

Let’s not be obsessed by or fearful about sex, but put it in its proper place. Let's be passionate people – passionate in love and life and faith – not afraid of passion, as God in Christ wasn’t afraid of living in extravagant love and dying in his passionate agony for us upon the cross. As the Song of Songs reading ends, so may we say, not only of our significant other, but also of our Lord, something which sex hardly begins to say: 'this is my beloved and this is my friend'.