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Friday, September 28, 2012

Just Sex (Sunday, September 23, 2012)

For some time now, I have toyed with the idea of adding a visual component to our worship services. I’ve been trying to figure out how we could rig up, say, a Powerpoint, and project pictures, images, on a screen at the front of the sanctuary. Lots of churches do it, and, I don’t know, I thought that illustrating each week’s sermon might, somehow, make it more interesting.

But I don’t think that this Sunday would be the week that I would choose to introduce such a visual innovation. We don’t want the Vice Squad (do police departments still have “Vice Squads”?) battering down our doors, and we don’t want to end up on the front page of the Stoughton Journal that way.

So, there won’t be any pictures to illustrate today’s sermon. We’re just going to talk about sex. Which, in context of a church service, is probably innovative and unusual enough.

Because, let’s be frank, sex is not a topic we broach often within these four walls. We talk about lots of things: culture, the issues of the day, politics, sometimes we even talk about religion. But sex? Hardly. And there, we’re not unusual.

“When I listen to what religion in the West teaches about sexuality,” Matthew Fox has written, “I hear two things. The first… is silence… [The] second is moralizing… If I were to name in one word the message I have received from my religion regarding sexuality over the… years of my life, I would answer: regret.”

From whence comes this silence and regret—and even loathing-- with which, traditionally, mainstream religion has greeted matters of sexuality? Why is there, deep within many of us, this blocking mechanism which brings silence, nervous laughter, or even a feeling of shame, whenever the subject of human sexuality is mentioned?

The American journalist Frank Harris lays the blame for our wounded psyches on St. Paul. In the early years of its development, Harris wrote, “the Christian church was offered two things: the [elevated] spirit of Jesus and the idiotic morality of Paul, and they rejected the higher inspiration and took up the latter.” “Following Paul,” Harris concludes, “we have turned the goddess of love into a fiend, and have degraded the crowning impulse of our being into a capital sin.”

Of course, it’s always easy to blame St. Paul for all of the (real or imagined) sins of Christianity—he was there at the beginning, after all, so it all must have started with him. If there’s something you don’t like about the Christian tradition, blame St. Paul for it!

But even Paul wasn’t completely original; his ideas had to come from somewhere. In developing his own ethic and ideas, he internalized some of the prevailing ideas of his own time, of course Maybe we can go further back, and find even earlier sources we can “blame” for our shame and discomfort about sexuality.

Perhaps we can blame it on Moses and the development of Judaism, the religion of the Old Testament God Yahweh. Yahweh—the sworn enemy of all those gods and goddesses of the polytheistic pagans of the ancient Middle East; the sworn enemy of all those gods and goddesses whose religions so often centered on fertility rites and who (or so we are told by the followers of Yahweh, at least) often incorporated strange, lewd, immoral practices into their religious rituals. Perhaps for all these centuries since, subconsciously and not so subconsciously, we have carried on the Jewish tradition’s battle with paganism and sensuality and sexuality. If we want to let St. Paul off the hook, we can blame it on Moses instead.

Or we can blame it on the Greeks; blame it on Plato, or Aristotle. One of the most important ideas of classical Greek philosophy was its body/soul dualism: its elevation of the soul, and its denigration of all things having to do with our earthly (and earthy) bodies.

In the fourth century, St. Augustine imbibed deeply of this dry spiritual wine of Greek philosophy and started to preach a sexual morality which shunned the senses and the sexual, and saw sexuality in all of its forms (even within marriage) as intrinsically lustful, and thus sinful. All children were conceived in lust, Augustine taught, and thus all children, at birth, were tainted with sin. That’s how the Original Sin of Adam and Even got passed down from generation to generation—in our very conception, in our very birth.

That’s really healthy stuff, isn’t it? No wonder we’re so messed up when it comes to sexual matters! The Catholic Church (its supposedly celibate, all-male hierarchy at least) never really has shaken off this Augustinian nightmare when it comes to matters of sexuality. But our own Protestant forebears weren’t much better. They were hardly “advanced”  (or even healthy) when it came to matters of human sexuality, and instead have given us 400 years of pietism, Puritanism, and Victorianism, none of which exactly rewrote the book on human sexuality.

This has been followed in our own day by a narrowly individualistic and hedonistic “sexual revolution” which has rejected any restraint or underlying moral code whatsoever, which commercializes sex, debases the human body, exploits the weak, denigrates the “un-beautiful”, sexualizes children, and which deserves to judged and even condemned.  

No wonder that the church, usually, just cowers off in a corner somewhere, and shuts it mouth as far as sex is concerned, and turns back toward more “pleasant” and “edifying” subjects. Or, why it just wags its finger in judgment, and equates all human sexuality as “filth”.

Which really misses the point, as far as human sexuality is concerned.  So, maybe it’s time to end the silence, or as Salt N’ Peppa would say: “Let’s talk about sex.” Yes, even in church.

Our sexuality refers to our totality as individual persons, especially those aspects that relate particularly to our being male or female. Sexuality encompasses all the ways in which we express ourselves in our drive to know and to relate to other beings. Our sexuality encompasses all the ways in which we are turned on by other people—and in only a small percentage of cases is that “turn on” of a narrowly physical, much less genital, nature. If we view our sexuality as being not just of the body alone, but of our whole beings, of our whole lives, then I think it clarifies for us the relationship between sexuality and religion.

The first declaration of a just sexuality is that men and women are equal, and that male and female sexuality are equal gifts in the eyes of God. This may seem obvious to us; but if we look at the abuses women have suffered at the hands of religion in the West (and I think in the East as well), then it bears repeating. The early Church Fathers may have mused that women were not really created in the image and likeness of God as men were. But we must also remember that Jesus himself befriended women openly (something not done in his time), and seemed to have no problem welcoming women as his disciples. He may even have been married. Even St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “In Christ there is neither male nor female,” and this seems to have been the bottom line for him on this issue.

So, the first declaration of faith in matters sexual is that are all equal—not all the same, not all alike, but equal.  

The second declaration of just sex is that there is great diversity inherent within human sexuality, and that, if we’re going to judge morality, then we need to use the same criteria for both homosexual and heterosexual relations. That criteria is what Matthew Fox calls “the test of justice”:

Just sexual relationships, whether gay or straight, should enable the individuals involved to realize the same degree of wholeness and empowerment in their lives.

Just sexual relationships are about exercising “power with” one another, and not “power over”.

Just sexual relationships are about treating the other person as a living being, and not as an object.

Diversity among sexual orientations is as much a blessing as the diversity in any other aspect of this amazing creation.

The third declaration that a just sexuality makes is that sex is good, that our sexuality is an important part of the original blessing of creation. Leave out all of the commentary and analysis, and the basic story of the first chapters of Genesis is this: “God created them male and female… they became one flesh… they were fruitful and multiplied… and it was good.” The Old Testament myth of the Garden of Eden reminds us that in the beginning we were created as sexual beings, and were invited to express our sexuality in a creative manner—and that this is the way the Creator intended it to be. It’s not a sin, then, to be glad that we’re sexual beings and that we yearn for ways to express ourselves sexuality.

Which is not to say that all the ways in which human beings express themselves sexually are always good.  Hardly. Abuses of human sexuality can readily become means of distrust and fear and brokenness. In a world which we share with other beings, who are living out their callings and finding ways of expressing who they are, a selfish and self-centered philosophy of  “If it feels good, do it” can never take the place of a healthy sexual ethic.

We are most true to our deepest humanity, I think, when we strike an inner balance between eros (on the one hand) and chastity (on the other). It is through the dialogue between eros and chastity that our sexual relationships can best meet the test of justice. If our sexuality is only about selfishness and exploitation and promiscuity—about getting what we want when want it-- then it is going to flunk the test of justice. But if we let chastity reign in our narrower and more selfish instincts, then justice can be done.

The fourth declaration of a just sexuality is that sexuality is related both to body and spirit. Listen to how sensuous, how en-bodied ancient scriptures can be. This is from the “Song of Songs” in the Hebrew Bible:

“Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from washing…

Now we, obviously, might want to update our metaphors a little. (Don’t try “Your hair is like a flock of goats” as a pickup line in a bar, for instance.) But think of how completely free of the loathing of the body which characterizes so much of Western religion these words are.  

A just view of sexuality glorifies the joy of communion on both the physical and the spiritual levels. It celebrates the fact that, in a truly loving and just relationship, the spiritual and physical cannot, in effect, be divided one from another. You often can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, and that’s really the point. Two lovers, in their very speaking—touching-- reaching out to each other—are engaging in the spiritual act of two becoming one. Feelings yield thoughts; touches yield words; and through physical communion and communication, two souls become one.

Fifth (and finally) a just sexuality reminds us that human sexuality can serve as a means of transcendence. Through our sexuality, we can transcend the limitations of this linear-rational, mundane existence, and come to know some sense of mystical union with the Absolute—some sense of the grace of God.

As the theologian Dorothy Soelle has written:

“Both religion and sexuality heal the split between ourselves and the universe. We discover that we are indeed ‘part of everything’ and one with the mystery of life. To talk about God in relation to our sexuality means to be aware of love moving in us, for ‘in God we live and move and have our being’.”

Through our intimate sexual relationships, we can experience a great breakthrough to the Spirit of Life that makes all things new. We can receive—and give-- a deep and profound gift of grace.

Matthew Fox has written that when two people discover each other in love, the wings of the seraphim and cherubim beat with joy. The sacred heart of Creation is echoed in the heartbeat of lovers.

When we find one another in the full expression of our love, the daily dances of our lives become sacred rituals; the days of our lives are made holy and whole.

When we reach out, in love, and in justice, to touch one another, we reach out beyond ourselves as well; we reach out and bless the Earth and all of its creatures. And we reclaim once again, perhaps just in the momentary beating of two hearts as one, a small piece of the Garden of Eden.


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