A Promiscuous Lent

March 1, 2020

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Preached by Fr Lee Taylor, Priest in Charge at St Michael and All Angels with St Mary the Virgin, using Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 16-end and Luke 15:1-10 at Evensong on Sunday 1st March 2020, the First Sunday of Lent.

The problem with most Christians, indeed the problem with the Church you could say, is that we are not promiscuous enough. The very word is so narrowly defined now that most normal people avoid using it in polite company. Especially if they’ve had the honour of being very graciously invited to preach for the first, and probably last, time. But promiscuous means indiscriminate, not selective, and I think it is what our readings this afternoon are impolitely shouting at us.

Now, I haven’t forgotten that it is Lent and the received wisdom is that we should be hunkering down into misery for the next 40 or so days. Or should we? On Thursday past we celebrated the priest and poet George Herbert, and every Lent I am reminded of the shocking opening to his Lent poem,

“Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,

He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,

But is compos’d of passion.”[1]

Admittedly it’s not one of his finer poems, but the joyful greeting of a season that we often dread, or at best endure, gives us pause to stop and reflect. Herbert’s response is one of joy, even in temperance. And our readings invite us, at the beginning of this holy season, to reflect on our response.

 

All of me

When we think of the book of Deuteronomy we quite rightly think of law, of commandment, and of obligation. But there are two sides to the Law: the giving of it and the response of the people to it. As Moses speaks to the people of Israel he reminds them that they must diligently keep the commandments, they must have them always before them and make sure that they are passed down from generation to generation. Commandments, statutes, obligations. Obedience. This is central to the book of Deuteronomy, the covenant between God and Israel depended on obedience, but that obedience could only ever be sustained if it was in loving response to the God who had rescued them from slavery and called them the people of God.

The response to the loving acts and words of God in the exodus and in creating a people is itself love. And it is a promiscuous love. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” You are to love God with your whole being, all that makes you you, uniquely and beloved you. “The all-encompassing love for God was to find its expression in a willing and joyful obedience of the commandments of God.”[2]

Come to the Party

And it is that joy which is echoed in the parables of Jesus from our Gospel reading. It is because of the negative response of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus’ “promiscuous meal sharing,”[3] that we have this series of parables, culminating in one of the most famous, the Prodigal Son, which we missed this afternoon but it will reappear in Lent! The Pharisees and the scribes are very grumpy that Jesus is welcoming sinners, even tax collectors! The force of the word ‘welcome’ that we have in our translation is actually that Jesus ‘sought out’ tax-collectors and sinners,[4] he doesn’t just politely put up wth them. And so these parables focus on seeking out.

Our focus is normally on the seeking out of the lost, the lost sheep or the lost coin. Or on God as the one who seeks, as the shepherd or as the woman. But the parables, aimed at the grumpy and belligerent Pharisees and scribes, are more about seeking out “the righteous to join the celebration,”[5] “it is the ‘already found’ that the parables are meant to bring to repentance.”[6]

The parables are trying to provoke a different response in the righteous, they are trying to draw them into the eternal celebration of salvation, to the cosmic party where angels and archangels dance eternity away in the celebration of God’s promiscuous mercy. They are laced with joy, and they are intended to elicit joy. We are the ones called by God to rejoice, to rejoice that we have always already been found by God and to rejoice that God is still finding those who consider themselves lost.

Promiscuously Joyful

Hang on though, it is still Lent. Yes, yes it is, but that does not mean our joy disappears, quite the contrary, Lent calls us to joy. For those of you secretly celebrating St David today we are reminded of the words from his final sermon, “Be joyful and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.” Be joyful. Joyful that we have already been found by God, joyful that God calls us to the party of salvation, joyful that we can celebrate the mercy of God.

And in that joy we are called to examine ourselves. We are called to consider whether we love God with all our heart, soul and mind. We are called to identify and deal with those things that might distract us from our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and our relationship with the created world. We are called to fasting, prayer, study of the Word, and acts of charity not in order that we earn the right to be found by God, or somehow find God by our own merit, but because in our seeking of those things is our willingness to be found again by God.

The God who as the shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep to seek out the lost one, bring it back, and then go again to invite people to the party. The God who as the woman will sweep, and tidy, and search for one lost coin, find it, put it back and will go out and invite people to the party. This joyfully active God, who as R S Thomas, the Welsh priest-poet, puts it, “is such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive.”[7] Not in an elusive catch-me-if-you-can kind of way, but in a “come on there is more to experience, more joy to be had, leave those things behind and follow me.” It is like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, you never quite know where he will appear next, bounding here and there.

Brothers and sisters the message of the shepherd, the message of the woman, is the message of God, “Rejoice with me, for I have found … I have found you. Rejoice with me, for I have found, am finding, and will always find you.” Lent is an invitation to rejoice that we have been found by God, and in being found, being loved into the authentic, unique person that God knows that we can be. Stripping away the things that stop us from loving with our whole being. Dealing with those things that might want us not to be found by God. Looking at the way we live in a different light so that we can increase the joy we feel of being a found and loved child of God. As St David reminds us, doing the little things that bring joy to the lives of others and to the world.

Herbert closes his poem with the hope that if we keep a holy Lent everyone “may revell at his doore, not in his parlour; banqueting the poore, and among those his soul.” Revelling, banqueting, feasting and rejoicing. That is ultimately what Lent prepares us for, the celebration of the resurrection, for in the crucified and risen Christ we are all found and brought home. That is our hope, that is our calling, that is our joy.

Brothers and sisters let us go and have a holy and promiscuously joyful and blessed Lent as we rejoice in the truth that we have been found by God.

[1] Lent

[2] Craigie, P.C, The Book of Deuteronomy, (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1983 reprint), p.170

[3] Nixon, G Penny, “Luke 15:1-10” in Bartlett, David L and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17 – Reign of Christ), (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky; 2013), p.69

[4] Bader-Saye, Scott, “Luke 15:1-10” in Bartlett and Taylor, Op cit., p.68

[5] Cousar, Charles B, “Luke 15:1-10” in Bartlett and Taylor, op cit., p.73

[6] Nixon, op cit., p.69

[7] Pigrimages