An X-Rated sermon…almost

It’s Rally Day, and whether you are here in person or joining worship on livestream nearby or from afar, this is the day we hope you will, well, rally and renew your engagement with the life and ministry of the Cathedral.  There is a particular kind of pressure on the preacher for Rally Day.  The preacher wants to wake up the congregation from its drowsy summer slumber.  The preacher wants to provide a spiritual jolt.  So here goes…

Last week the Family Thompson finally watched every single movie or television show offered on Netflix, HBOMax, and Amazon Prime.  (That’s only a slight exaggeration.)  So, we did the only thing a family can do in this lingering pandemic: We subscribed to Hulu.  Suddenly, a whole new list of cinematic offerings is before us.  And one of the first things to pop up on the Hulu feed was a new documentary on the history of nudity in film, entitled “Skin.”  (Ah! Suddenly the summer somnolence is fading.  Did Dean Thompson just mention nudity from the pulpit?!?  Yes, I think he did.)

To be clear (and for the recording), I have not watched the documentary “Skin.” But I did read the description, and it mentions Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated feature film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.  Then I looked at the readings for today and realized that the Old Testament reading is from the Song of Songs, the Bible’s very own erotic love poem.  So, maybe an X-rated sermon is just the right thing to jolt us on Rally Day. 

But then it occurred to me that I hope to remain dean of the Cathedral for quite some time yet.  Plus, the Bishop is on sabbatical, and I’d hate for him to be disturbed with all those calls he’d suddenly receive from Cathedral parishioners.  I’ll aim for a PG-13 rating.

Which 2019 Streaming Service Is Right for You? | GQ

Song of Songs really is, on a primary level, a sensuous love poem.  It is a about a young man and a young woman brimming with passion for one another.  Its language is, in places, ridiculously overblown.  Today, for instance, the young woman says this: “Look, my beloved comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.”  If my college-age son wrote like that in a creative writing class, the professor would roll her eyes. 

Even so, there is something authentic and deeply earnest about the language in Song of Songs, and part of that is its terrible turns of phrase.  These young lovers really do yearn for each other.  Their love is really real, and, for all that, it captivates us today as it has captivated people for eons.          

But Song of Songs also turns dark.  In chapter five, beyond today’s reading, the young woman goes out into the city at night to find her lover.  And the city turns out to be dangerous place.  She gets lost.  Plaintively, she says, “I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer.  Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the wall.”

What’s happening here needs no translation.  The young woman is abused in every way by those who are supposed to be her protectors.  She is left wounded and naked.

This all happens in the middle of the book, which makes curious a line from the first chapter, which we read today.  In chapter 1, one lover says to the other (in words we recall having heard read at weddings), “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Do you see what happens here?  Do you see why it is curious?  At the very outset of the love poem, the lovers declare that all storm clouds have parted, that they have emerged from all trial, and that their world and lives together are now joyous and free.  But we know, as the reader, that this is not actually the case.  The world continues to be dark, dangerous, and injurious.  Either the lovers are completely naïve, or something else is going on here.

Stable Days: Leaping Beauties --- Gazelles

There are hints throughout the poem, and especially at its end, that the couple aren’t naïve and never were.  But if they aren’t naïve, how can they speak of light and joy at the outset of the poem, when the world around them is actually so ominous and dark?

It’s time for me to share with you a theological term.  (This is why I jolted you awake a few minutes ago, so you’d be alert for this part!)  The word is prolepsis.  Prolepsis means to live now as if some future event has already occurred.  To live now as if living in the future.

At first blush, prolepsis can seem like escapism, but it is actually a seminal concept in the biblical witness.  Prolepsis seasons Genesis all the way to Revelation.  The Gospels are proleptic.  So is Paul. 

Throughout scripture, those who are burdened, those who face trial, those lost in darkness are called to live as though they are, right now, bathed in light.  Part of this expresses a holy defiance, a declaration that darkness cannot win, or, as John puts it, there is a light that darkness cannot overcome.  But there is more to it than that.  It also turns out, again and again, that something about living proleptically—something about living as if the winter is already gone even when it is still snowing—births the reality we are waiting for.   

Prolepsis is, in other words, how we conceive, and gestate, and birth hope.  And hope empowers us to act.  And our actions light candles in the darkness, until, eventually, the shadows flee before the light.  In other words, we are called to live proleptically because doing so births into being the future we so desire.

Living proleptically gives the young couple in the Song of Songs fortitude to endure and courage to act.  It saves them.  It can save us, too.  Despite the one-hundred-degree heat outside, the winter of our world is not over.  Pandemic, global upheaval, and civil strife all cast a dark shadow on these days.  But we are children of the living God, and our God calls us to live today in light of God’s promised tomorrow

Houston Skyline At Sunrise | Stockyard Photos

How do we do that?  Well, maybe it’s time to speak and write in the gushing ebullience of young lovers.  It’s definitely time to get vaccinated and encourage everyone we love to do so as well.  It’s time to recognize that we care for one another; and we care for justice; and we care for our sisters and brothers we find strange and with whom we may vehemently disagree.  

We are called to live as though we will be fully reconciled in every way we are estranged, and to act in this world in favor of those reconciliations even when—or especially when—the world shakes its head at what looks like our naivete. 

Because when we do this, we will first notice that in our own lives the light begins to peek through the darkness.  We’ll then notice that, beyond our own experience, the world around us begins to brighten.  Until finally, the future we have chosen to live becomes the real and actual present.  Our hopes are realized!  And God says to us, “Arise, my loves, my fair ones, for the winter is past.  The flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come.” Now there’s something for which we can rally. 

Solomon the Wise?

Today we read the inauguration of David’s young son Solomon as King of Israel, and we read of Solomon’s incredible request of God: not for riches, or revenge against his enemies, or for expanded power, but for “an understanding mind to govern [the] people, able to discern between good and evil.”  Solomon’s request pleases God, and God responds, “Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

And thus begins the illustrious career of wise King Solomon, known the world over.  Immediately after today’s reading, 1 Kings shares the famous story of two women who come to the king, both claiming to be the mother the same child.  In his sagacity, King Solomon commands that the child be cut in two, granting each mother one half a baby.  Of course, the real mother recoils at this notion and relinquishes her rights to save the baby’s life, and thus wise Solomon discovers the true maternal identity and returns the baby to its home.[i]

Solomon’s discerning wisdom was so great that tradition ascribed to him authorship of the biblical books of the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.  Never mind that Solomon almost certainly didn’t write any of those books.  It is a testament to his legendary wisdom that, when an author is needed for the Wisdom corpus in our canon of scripture, Solomon gets the nod.

Solomon - Wikipedia

There’s only one problem with all of this: the real Solomon was not wise.  He was a terrible, promiscuous, vain, and tyrannical ruler.  Solomon was so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that after building the great Temple to God in Jerusalem—and committing himself to follow God in the mold of his father David—Solomon immediately abandoned the God of Israel and veered toward both abject hedonism and rank idolatry. He mocked the God with whom he’d made covenant and worshiped false gods.

Solomon also conscripted his own citizenry into forced labor for his many building projects, creating a virtually enslaved populace.  In a sparsely-populated country, 1 Kings tells us that “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.  He sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home.”[ii]        

And, Solomon denuded the populace with crushing taxes they could not pay.

In the end, Scripture condemns Solomon with the words it reserves for the worst of rulers.  1 Kings eventually says that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”[iii] 

Once we know all of this about Solomon, then even that legendary story of his wisdom—the one about the two mothers claiming the same child—reads differently.  Rather than addressing them as a sage, we can see Solomon as a capricious tyrant toying with the distraught emotions of a mother, desperate to get her baby back.  There is horror in that story, when Solomon blithely commands that the little child be cut in two.

Though 1 Kings tries mightily to maintain the notion of Solomon’s wisdom alongside his foolishness, the proof is in what happened immediately after Solomon died.  Without his domineering personality to maintain fear and order, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel immediately revolted against Solomon’s son, and the nation of Israel was split forever.[iv]  With that knowledge, we go back and re-read with irony God’s promise to the young Solomon.  God had told Solomon, “No one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”  No kidding.  Solomon was truly one-of-a-kind.  The kingdom that David had labored so long to create was ripped asunder by the folly of the king legend credits with wisdom.

For anyone interested in either scripture or history, the story of Solomon is endlessly fascinating, but, as this is a sermon rather than a lecture, the question remains, is it also more than that?  Beyond what it tells us about the distant past, does it mean anything for our own present and future? 

I am a fan of the historian Barbara Tuchman, and her best book is The March of Folly.  The book charts several historical events that move from promise to folly: the Protestant Reformation, the British loss in the American Revolutionary War, and the American morass in Vietnam.  Tuchman shows in clear relief the markers along the way of each, where the actors could have and should have seen the looming disaster ahead.  But those actors had such myopic vision, were so self-indulgent, and were so obsessed with the immediate that they failed to note the bigger picture and marched tragically into doom. 

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam: Tuchman, Barbara W.:  9780345308238: Books

I have often thought that Barbara Tuchman could have added a chapter about King Solomon to her celebrated book.  Solomon started with a kingdom that had, under David’s canny leadership, positioned itself as mighty in its own right and as a power broker between larger kingdoms.  Solomon must have shown enormous early promise, or else the chronicle of his God-given wisdom never would have emerged.  And yet, little by little, decision by decision, he strayed from discerning wisdom.  He squandered God’s gift.  He listened to untrustworthy voices that whispered not the truth or the good for the kingdom, but selfish motive and what Solomon wanted to hear.  And in his comfort, his harem, his indulgences, his brutal exercise of power, Solomon paid attention only to what was immediately in front of him and ignored the long-term consequences of his actions.  The result was folly, the destruction of all that had been entrusted to Solomon and all that he held dear.

Beyond a doubt, Solomon’s story, like Tuchman’s book, has much to say to our age and our society beyond historical note.  There was a time, I believe, when we were wise, wisdom being defined, at least in large part, as the willingness to compromise for the common good, to seek truth and knowledge without subterfuge, and to embody the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know, all to make the world in which we live —and which we all share—a marginally better place.  Our wisdom was surely flawed, but it was something. 

Today, too often, we fail in all these measures of wisdom.  Compromise for the common good has been replaced by a self-righteous, rigid stridency on all sides, masquerading as virtue.  Humility in the face of our ignorance has been replaced by the folly that we are all experts because we have read a few unsourced lines of text on the internet. Worst of all, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by some with propaganda disguised as fact that seeks to obfuscate and confuse vulnerable people. 

In all of this, we think we are wise, but we are too clever by half, and the results are tearing apart our societal bonds.  I’m talking about all of us.  I’m talking about me.

Collectively, our society is squandering God’s gift and shedding wisdom for folly.  And now, finally, the result is death.  Every day, because of willful folly in the form of the politicization of the coronavirus and misinformation willfully disseminated about COVID vaccines, people are dying.  A pandemic that could have been in its last days is instead, due to overwhelmed hospitals, imperiling even people who need medical care unrelated to COVID, all because we have lacked wisdom. 

Italy has a world-class health system. The coronavirus has pushed it to the  breaking point.

The question before us is, then, how do we reclaim wisdom?  Of us, what does wisdom require?  The key is found (as it is always found) in the Gospel.  Today, Jesus speaks to a confused crowd who misunderstand, and yet Jesus persists in proclaiming that which gives light and life.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not, in his frustration, castigate or denigrate the crowd.  He won’t play that game and devolve into folly.  He simply speaks, again and again and again, the truth in love.  Always the truth.  Always in love.  He moves people from where they are to a new place.  His message is the bread of life. 

No matter what the state of affairs today, I believe in the persuasive, transformative, redemptive, wisdom of love. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wisely reminds us that “Love is not a sentiment.  Love is a commitment to the common good.”[v]  I believe when the disciples of love—that’s us—act and speak in ways that uplift our neighbors and our community rather than indulge the self, then wisdom will be reclaimed.  If ever there were such a moment for such a Gospel it is right now.  The biblical work “repentance” means “to follow another path.”  It also means “to rise above our own minds,” which includes the mutually-destructive thought processes to which we are prone.[vi]  In our relationships, in our politics, in our public health, we can arrest the march of folly and walk instead in the way of God’s wisdom.  We—us, here—can become the very bread of life to a starving, ailing world.  To be that food, to offer light and life, is our sacred calling in these days.  When we hear misinformation touted as fact; when we hear apprehension or fear of vaccines; when we encounter those, from any quarter, who seek to tear down and divide, let us be wise, and speak the truth in love.  We are the Body of Christ.  We are the bread of life. 

[i] 1 Kings 3:16-28

[ii] 1 Kings 5:13-14

[iii] 1 Kings 11:6

[iv] 1 Kings 12, ff.


[vi] Metanoia in Greek


One day a man was hiking in the mountains when he came upon an exceedingly hungry grizzly bear.  The bear raised up on its hind legs, let out a roar, and prepared to charge.  Panicked, the hiker started to run, but he soon realized he’d never outrun the bear.  Now, the hiker was, at best, a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian, so he didn’t rightly recall all those good, rich prayers from the Prayer Book, but he did drop to his knees and in his desperation pray, “Dear God, please make this bear a good Christian bear!”  To the hiker’s surprise, in an instant the bear stopped charging, dropped to its own knees, reverently folded its paws, and began to pray.  Just as the hiker was about to walk on in relief, however, he heard the bear say, “Thank you, Lord, for this meal I’m about to receive…”

Teeth-baring brown bear chases ski instructor in 3 minutes of 'horror'

It is safe to say that we live in a hunger-obsessed world, and the Gospel lessons last week, this week, and for the next several weeks are all about hunger.  Last week, we read the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection itself) that appears in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Each Gospel tells the story differently, but they all agree on one thing: A huge crowd has followed Jesus and is hungry, and the disciples are a bit freaked out at the prospect of having to feed them all.  What follows may be an example of Harry Potter-like wizardry on Jesus’ part, or it may be an example of miraculous generosity and change of heart on the part of people in the crowd who are hoarding their picnics.  But either way, the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel and the extended speech Jesus gives following it—and which begins today—are a theological treatise on hunger.

The University of Michigan Health Science Center describes three aspects of hunger.[i]   See if these resonate with you.  The first aspect, hunger itself, is described as the “normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs.”  Makes sense.  The second aspect is “fullness,” which is the “feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that it is full. Normally, this feeling causes you to stop eating and not think about food again for several hours.”  That also makes sense.  Would that these two descriptors told the whole story!  But third, there is “appetite,” which is “a desire for food, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food.”  And here’s the coda, say the Michigan experts: “Even after you feel full, your appetite can make you keep eating.”

That’s revealing.  At its root, hunger is not only about the need for sustenance.  Hunger is about desire, and desire can be an insidious thing.  Long after one feels full, desire can nevertheless create an insatiable appetite. 

This can be physiological, of course, but it can also be existential.  We all know that our hungers, our appetites, our cravings, our desires are about a whole lot more than chicken and dumplings.  Our hunger can be for things rational and irrational, healthy and perverse.  So, for what, besides food, are we hungry?  Success, lust, wealth, esteem in the eyes of our fellows, material possessions, a yearning to be loved, vicarious living through our children, or some obsessive pursuit inexplicable to anyone else: Any of these and innumerable others can be the objects of our hunger, of the gnawing appetite that pangs within even after we know we should feel full.

No one in the past hundred years has understood and articulated this as brilliantly as C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape LettersThe Screwtape Letters consists, as many will know, of the correspondence between the demon Screwtape and his apprentice Wormwood.  The demons’ project is to encourage, to urge, the voracious appetites that drive us.  The demons cultivate our desire to consume, and subsume, and absorb all that is around us so that the world becomes merely food for us, the object of our desire. 

Throughout the book, the apprentice demon Wormwood attempts to corrupt his “patient,” a human who, like all of us, struggles with our appetites and desires.  There are twists and turns, moments of hope and near-despair, but in the end Wormwood ultimately fails in his task.  And as a failed demon, Wormwood then becomes food for his mentor demon Screwtape.  In the end, the master says to the apprentice, “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie…Rest assured that…I have always desired you…I think I they will give you to me now…Love you?  Why, yes.  As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.”[ii]

Screwtape Sounds Off on “Christian Fiction” | The New Authors Fellowship

The demons in Lewis’ book are characterized by their fantastical, voracious, insatiable hunger.  In other words, they are us taken to an absurd extreme.  The demons want to consume anything and everyone—including each other—into themselves.  And as always, C.S. Lewis is both entrancing and discomfiting because his fable reads so true.  Our own hungers sometimes border on the insatiable, to the point that we, too, may skirt the demonic.

The story of David and Bathsheba, which also began last week and continues today, is the quintessential biblical example of such hunger.  Down through Christian history, Bathsheba has gotten a grossly unfair and unjustified bad rap, but make no mistake: David is the demon of this story.  His hunger for another man’s wife—that of his friend and companion—is insatiable, and he uses irresistible kingly power to consume his heart’s desire.  And the dessert of this unholy meal is Uriah’s murder at David’s behest.

King David, Screwtape, the innumerable, everyday, mundane examples of our own insatiable and destructive hunger…What is the remedy?  The world has provided all sorts of band-aids, distractions, temporary existential diet pills that suppress our pangs and cravings.  But our faith tells us that there is but one cure.  Beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and continuing through Jesus’ long discourse which begins today, Jesus reveals that he—who is the icon and embodiment of the presence of God among us and provided to us—is the bread of life.  Reliance upon that bread and nothing else to fill our insatiable hunger, is the only relief from our craving for all those things that can never satisfy. 

In our own day, just as when we combat our physical hunger with whatever gimmick or diet fad is in season, we can seek to satisfy our existential hungers with Oprah’s newest secular self-help program, or with new age spiritualities, or with a shallow, smorgasbord dabbling in different religious traditions that doesn’t respect the integrity of any of them.  But just as with our physical hunger, when we do so we will repeatedly find ourselves frustrated, disappointed, and binging all over again.  “I am the bread of life,” the Incarnate God says today.  “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.”

We know this.  Our tradition has always known it.  Whether we turn to St. Augustine, who famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you”; or to the great mystics of the Church whose desire, greater than any demon’s, found its satiation in God; or to our modern, deeply spiritual twelve-step movement in which recovering addicts acknowledge the necessity of relying completely on a higher power in place of their substance or behavioral cravings; or to my own recent study and teaching about the cessation of clinging and living and loving both fully and non-attached, all speak to a redirection of the heart, the mind, the will, the appetite,to satisfy our hunger only and entirely in God.  This is what the feeding of the famished crowd is all about.  This is what Jesus means when he says he is the bread of life. This is not about believing the right things, and it is certainly not about moral rectitude and holier-than-thou living.  It is about directing our hungers to the source of all and receiving back true sustenance.  The only and true satiation is in God, in whom we are filled. 

[i], emphasis mine.

[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, pg. 171.