Sermon preached at Mattins on the Second Sunday of Lent (17 March 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Mattins on the Second Sunday of Lent (17 March 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain asks us to see Lent as a time when we may consider renewing our commitment to God wholeheartedly. 

I’d like to look for a moment at the Venite et revitamur which you will find if you ‘turn back’ (as the prophet recommends) on page 6 of your order of service. 

It is our opening canticle at Matins in this season of Lent and it is the most beautiful passage from the prophecy of Hosea. In fact it is the only beautiful bit of Hosea (apart from a very few other verses).

It is by far the best known bit of Hosea, and it colours most people’s perceptions of the prophet. For many years it was the only bit of Hosea I knew, and I knew it because of a hymn, Come back to me, that was, in the 80s and 90s, one of an enormously popular collection of songs by the composer  and founder of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, John Michael Talbot. His music inspired a generation in the early days of the charismatic renewal movement in the Catholic church, and so it came as something of a surprise to me when I read the rest of Hosea some time later. 

I had intended at this point to read you some passages from the book but it’s just too awful, I couldn’t bear it!

And when it comes around in the lectionary as the portion of scripture appointed for our early morning daily prayer here at the Cathedral, and we read through it day after day, for just over two weeks, I can sense all the clergy with me praying for those who happen to find themselves listening to it with us; as it can come as a bit of a shock to the senses at 7.30 in the morning.

Hosea is 13 chapters stuffed full of adultery and prostitution. It is not an easy listen at all, it is a hard read, and the discomfort of the reader is evident. And I would not draw your attention to it (indeed I could have easily avoided mentioning it this morning) except that, as easy as it would be to say that it is horrific, and politically, socially, morally, intellectually and culturally beyond the pale, the message of the metaphor, of the faithless spouse, remains as important to hear today as it was when it was written. 

And I dare to draw your attention to it this morning because you might at some time past have found yourself surprised by the awfulness of some of the scripture that you have heard read or referred to; or you could - at any moment in the future - find yourself tripped up by it.

The Bible is a work of literature and as such its authors use many and diverse literary devices to convey meaning. If you think about it even for a moment, it can’t really be women that are being referred to in this exclamation of God’s grievances against his people; it is quite clear to me that it is to men that the prophet is first and foremost speaking because it is men who govern the society into which he is speaking and are therefore responsible for either upholding justice, or enabling corruption; and who lead the people in worship, and are therefore to be held accountable for its purity of purpose. 

The problem for us of the archetype of the faithless wife or prostitute is that this particular trope has been too readily drawn upon to undermine women in general. Interesting then that other gender based images such as the drunkard, to which there at least as many references in scripture, do not in any way lead us to assume or to imply that all men are drunkards.

Gender aside then, marriage is a fruitful image to use to describe the covenant relationship between God and humankind. 

God is the faithful spouse, whose love for us is enduring regardless of our lapses, (if we are honest, our love is like the morning mist, like the dew that goes early away). We are inconsistent, forgetful, half-hearted, easily distracted and tempted away, from serving the Gospel, and yet when we come to our senses, we always find God waiting patiently, lovingly, mercifully to heal us, bind up our wounds, and revive us.

It’s interesting that here we have an image of marriage that is arguably quite modern, not marriage for political or dynastic convenience but one of true love.

If we adopt a gender neutral reading of the text then perhaps we can engage more creatively with this text and Lent then may become for us a time where, if we were to stretch the analogy of marriage, we might want to consider renewing our vows, our commitment to God, and the demands that places upon us; in particular with regard to worship - and by worship I don’t mean Matins. For true worship to Hosea was not simply the performance of religious ritual, but the activity of integrity, justice, compassion, mercy and love. 

Where are we currently lacking in a wholehearted rather than half-hearted commitment to integrity, justice, compassion, mercy and love?

In what ways might each of us recognise that we are being called to renew our commitment to this faithfulness in worship, through loving service? And how might recognising that this service is true worship help us to return to the Lord, in this Lent season?

Because this is a love that can not only heal and revive us, but also our stricken world.