Your Sins Are Forgiven
Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Duncan Campbell suggests that the healing power of Christ’s love is needed to overcome our society’s unhealthy attitude to sex.
Today’s Gospel seems very congenial to our modern ears. There is kindness and support shown to a sinner. The sanctimonious and upright are rebuked, in public. We like that.
Certainly in many ways religion can be hijacked by the mean and the sour. People can be made to feel ashamed of any hearty, healthy lust for life. It is too easy to do this. In this passage such people showed a carelessness and callousness that needed condemnation, and got it.
We mustn’t just assume that the lady of the gospel was a sexual sinner, however. Mischievously I have suggested in past sermons that she might have been a money-lender, or a grasping landlady, or a ‘Quisling’ friend to the occupying Romans, even a notorious gossip, or the ‘freethinking’ village atheist. Any of these would have given her ‘a bad name in the town’.
Lots of sermons could be preached about all the other possibilities – money-lending, collaborating, gossiping, free thinking. All could make the same point, about the helpful attitude shown by Jesus, the encouragement to do better, and the transformation that can result – as with Zacchaeus in Jericho.
St Augustine later could put it all so neatly: ‘Hate the sin. Love the sinner’. We don’t need to look very hard to see that many do the very opposite – love the sin, hate the sinner. Is it from envy, or sick disgust with others, or fear of freedom?
I have only one sermon to preach, here, so we had best go along with what may seem likely.
Sexual behaviour is a problem in every culture. Thinkers who know only about Christianity blame Christianity for the problem, but any slight acquaintance with other peoples and other cultures lets us see that it is a general problem. Of course it is.
On this topic I have had years’ experience of working with children of all ages. It is so good to see how friendly and affectionate young children are, and how they love ‘their’ religion. It all changes on their reaching secondary school. Many of the same children then will simply ‘look right through’ me, seem to wish I ‘wasn’t there’. I have asked teenagers I know, why this is so, why so many give up religion. These say, of course, ‘We don’t know! We haven’t given it up!’
There must be causes and issues. We may never know – in fact some older teenagers, now in their twenties, thirties, forties, tell me they don’t know, and didn’t know, then, either! There is peer pressure – the gang finding a feeling of liberation in opposition to everything – and religion is the safest thing to oppose. Many public figures give every encouragement to do so.
However, I think it can be that a sudden sex consciousness, shame and anxiety have come.
I tell young people, those who will talk to me about it, that we must have sexual feelings and imaginings and attitudes. We are men and women. We can walk tall, think big, be proud of it. Our imaginings about it, and secret practices at it, however, can make us feel lonely and ridiculous. Much of the attraction of pornography may be in the ‘outing’ of all that.
I invite the young people to stop, to look at their fantasies, examine them in detail, and then learn quite a lot, about themselves. I suggest they try to become more and more sensible and realistic, to make it all ‘come true’. I quote one of the poet Blake’s mystifying remarks: ‘If the fool would only persist in his folly, he would become wise’.
We might point out the real joys and freedoms found in friendly camaraderie, especially among young men and women. We can urge the vital honesty needed, between partners, in checking that each is ‘comfortable’ in whatever is done together. They should never lose the delight in innocent flirting, the excitement in courting, and being courted.
Old folk cultures helped here, with many lovely customs, costumes, stories, and ceremonies. Is there help like that for our young people now, in pop culture, I wonder. Good preaching, especially about Gospels like this, might do a lot to help; behaving like Jesus would do even more.