Year B, Epiphany 2 January 14, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’”
When I first read the epistle for today, 1st Corinthians 6, with its fornication and prostitutes and becoming one body, my first thought was “I am glad this is not youth Sunday.”
So this is a passage about sex. Well, it is a passage about the relationship between our bodies, our physical manifestation, and God, that within which we live and move and have our beings. St. Paul is telling us that our bodies, that how we use our bodies is totally tied up in our relationship with God; inseparable. Actually, what he specifically says is, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Our bodies are God’s, gifts to us given by grace alone, therefore what we do with them matters. I think that is the sermon, the center of an Episcopal-Anglican sexual ethic is that our bodies are a gift from God and what we do with them matters. But what should we do with them? That is a big question.
Doesn’t it seem like almost everything you hear about Christianity in the media has something to do with sex? Abortion. Birth Control. Abstinence only sex education. Purity rings and purity balls and purity pledges. (That whole movement is tied directly to this passage from 1st Cor). And of course there are bathrooms, gay weddings, gay wedding cakes, and the on-going horror of clergy sexual abuse in parishes and schools of all sorts. The image I get from popular culture is that we, Christians, spend every Sunday prudishly tut-tut-tutting about what everyone is or is not supposed to be doing in their bedrooms. But I don’t know about you, but in my forty something years in Congregational, Unitarian and Episcopal congregations I have never heard a sermon about sex, sexual conduct, sexual ethics, what is right or wrong or what we should or should not be doing. Like sex outside the bonds of sacramental marriage… that is pretty basic. Anyone know what our teaching is on that? Some Christians might talk too much about this subject; some of us probably not enough.
Human sexuality is not a comfortable topic for many of us. For some it is triggering, sex is right at the front of your mind, be it from trauma suffered or a sexualized world-view, desires swirling about, blinding you at times. Some of us avoid thinking about it all: it may be a source of pain or shame, loss or loneliness, confusion, or maybe it doesn’t feel relevant to your life, or at least what the church has to say about it is not relevant to your life. But it is. Relevant. Our sexuality is a central part of our existence, maybe not as a solitary individual at this moment in your life, but it has been, it may be in the future. Each of us are here because two people at some point had sexual intercourse. And look at the paper, go to the check-out line of any grocery store, open your junk mail folder, sex is everywhere, it is an important part of the fabric of our society, and it, sex, as with everything that we do physically in the world God created, matters. It matters in our relationship with God and with our neighbor. So let’s take a moment and shine the light of faith on this most intimate topic.
So what is the Church’s teaching on human sexuality? Well maybe a better question is does the church, our Episcopal church, have teachings? Yes it does. But the authority of those teachings is different than, say our Roman Catholic friends. Ours is not Mother Church with her magisterium whose teachings are God’s teachings. Our church offers guidance. It offers rules for the conduct of the church itself which then informs us. So, for instance, we learn of the church’s stance on say same-sex marriage through a commission’s theological study and reflection which then offered input to our General Convention which eventually authorized “I will Bless you and you will be a Blessing,” our authorized liturgy for sacrament of marriage for same sex couples. That is how teachings manifest in our church, or roughly so, that’s the most concrete manifestation. We don’t, as a church, offer much in the way of definitive rules governing our lives, but we do offer reflection and guidance, reinforced with our life in Common Prayer together. And that is pretty good.
But by what authority? Where does a church teaching come from? How is God’s word revealed to us so that we may live as disciples of Christ in this beautiful and confusing world? Because there is a lot of stuff in the bible that is very specific about our sexual conduct. Same gender sex is forbidden. Polygamy isn’t. Women are consistently placed in an inferior position, like in our passage today. The soul in peril is the man joining with the prostitute. The prostitute is purely the object, the occasion for sin, not an independent actor, not a human being, certainly not a victim of systematic patriarchal oppression that values her only for what value she, or her body, offers to men. Scripture can be complicated.
We get a lot of flak from more conservative Protestants because we regularly teach what is not scriptural, or in the case of a lot of sexuality issues, expressly against the scriptural record. Yes we do. And that is as Anglican as it gets. You’ve heard of the three legged stool? Richard Hooker, our great English Reformation theologian in the 1590s proposed that God’s will is discernible from multiple sources, not simply the sola scriptura, scripture alone, taught by the continental reformers like Calvin and Luther. Scripture is our primary source material, but tradition and reason are also sources from which we can discern God’s will. Tradition is how we’ve done it in the past. From the church fathers and mothers and stories of our saints, to church canons and rules, to Holy Orders, the calendar, our liturgy… the voices of our ancestors are heard in our traditions. They don’t get a veto, but they do get a vote.
And reason, most modern Episcopalian’s favorite. It is not just intellectual process, but is more that God’s revelation is not sealed, and therefore we need to be open to it. We can learn, grow, evolve and individuals, as a society and even as a church. Among other things, we now know that the world was not created in six literal days. We know that women are not property, that slavery is evil, that we don’t have dominion over the creation (and should not try to). Reason keeps God alive through our capacity to think, dream, imagine, and discern.
So when it comes to same sex marriage, or say the permissibility of sexual relationship outside the bounds of holy matrimony, yes, scripture is clear: People have been doing it for a long time and they ought not to be. Tradition is also clear: people have been doing it for a long time and the church has always said that they ought not to be. Reason though, that has revealed to us a different take.
Sex in scripture and tradition has always been understood as a category of human experience held in the context of marriage and family. Proper sex is married sex. Traditionally, the church taught that sex was primarily for procreation. There were allowances for mutual society, for relationship, for the intimacy and bond exchanged and created in sexual relations, that is an acceptable reason to have sex, but far secondary to procreation. A third reason that sex in marriage was permissible was as a remedy for sin. Paul was clear that celibacy was preferred, but if you can’t help yourself, get married so your needs aren’t met sinfully.
After the Reformation, these notions began to shift, and trended to accepting our sexual activity as first relating to mutual society, the bonds of sexual companionship rather than procreation. Hence we don’t have bans on contraception, and our abortion debate is more complex. More recently, moral theologians have been focused on pleasure, and the positive aspects of pleasure and that pleasure is a gift from God and something to be sought and enjoyed, not something seen as simply an occasion for sin.
So in discerning if same gender sex or sex outside of the bonds of marriage, scripture and tradition tell us things, and so does our experience of the world, historical and cultural reflection, the natural and social sciences. All of that together can lead us to a statement such as this, that was issued in the General Convention of 2000 as resolution D039: “…we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships…” We recognize that this, long-term committed relationships outside of marriage occur and we don’t condemn them, or call them sinful, but we do have expectations of them. “…we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see each other in the image of God.” That’s how we should conduct ourselves in the world sexually: in committed, loving and respectful relationships. Sex within the bonds of sacramental marriage is preferred, that sacrament isn’t superfluous, but we understand that other forms of relationship are good, too, they need not be site of sin.
So what should we not be doing? Some churches have a list. We don’t, not a specific one anyway. The resolution continues, “…we denounce promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in relationships of any of our members…” I’m not generally taken by Resolutions of Convention, locally or nationally, but that is pretty good. That is a pretty good explanation of proper and Godly conduct of the sexual aspect of our being. And it opened up theologically, the possibility for same sex couples to have sexual relationships that weren’t considered sinful. See that, theologically, has been the major barrier. If sex can only occur within the bounds of marriage, and if same sex couples can’t marry, then all same sex sex would be by definition sinful. Well, it is not. Our gift of reason has revealed this to us and we are maturing as a people. And now everyone can get married!
So that is all well and good. We have technical/theological/legalistic grounds for our sexual conduct, that is important, for as we see in far too much of our public discourse, our sexual conduct can have communal, societal consequences. But our individual sexual lives are not characterized by technicalities, theological nuance or legalism. Our sexual lives are much more organic, move much more with the rising of the sun, the movement of the tides and the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
Our sexuality is a gift from God. It is a source of joy. Of intimate connection. Of deepening love and commitment. Of wild pleasure: the pleasure of being pleased and the pleasure of pleasing someone else. Our sexuality is the source of life itself. It is where we come from and it can be something we offer to the world in intimate partnership with another human being. It is a gift for which we should be grateful.
With all gifts from God, though, great responsibility comes with our sexuality. Like Paul says, quoting Genesis, “The two shall become one flesh.” When our bodies are that open our spirits are too, wide open. There is a vulnerability like no other in sexual union. And it is risky. If you have been in intimate relationships likely you have experienced pain, you have been hurt in intimate relationship. That is why we emphasize commitment, fidelity and monogamy as the context for expressing ourselves sexually. Casual sex is not only physiologically risky, with the myriad infection risks and potential for unintended pregnancy, but psychologically and spiritually risky. Our spirits are exposed, and if you don’t know that person, well, and love them and expect that they love you, bad things can happen.
And bad things do happen, all the time. Our sexuality, the thrill of desires satisfied that is a gift, but like most gifts from God, there is a shadow side, a sinful side that we, as humans, seem to have a lot of trouble with. Like good food, what a gift, but it can so easily turn to gluttony. Rest is a gift from God, but sloth is just around the corner. Desire drives us. Drives us to great heights, sexual desire in particular, it runs deep, brain stem, base of the spine, in the guts deep. I have never seen the force of life so obviously on display as in a buck in the midst of a goat herd in heat. We had this little goat, Sweet William, a dwarf Nigerian about this tall. He was separated from the does by a seven foot high welded steel fencing panel. One day he ran along the wall like Trinity in the opening scene of The Matrix and flung himself over the top of the fence like a high jumper, his inflexible little body slamming on to the barn floor, but on the right side of the fence and the excitement continued. The force of it! Impressive.
It drives us, too, right into the ground sometimes. We can become enslaved to our desires, leading us to make terrible decisions that hurt those we love the most. It can lead some, many, to prey upon others, to put their own gratification and satisfaction before everything else. It can lead some to disregard themselves, to devalue your humanity, your needs, bending to the will of others for their sake, not yours. Sexual exploitation, abuse and violence are endemic and devastating.
Our sexuality is powerful. So much of our identities, self-worth, self-image, notions of others as objects and subjects of desire are wrapped up in our sexuality. Are we desirable? Can we perform? Are we alone in the cosmos? What do you have to give? What can you receive? Our deepest beings are all tied up in sexuality. It is powerful, it is like fire: it will sustain your life, but left untended, it can take it, too, and it can take the lives of others.
Sex isn’t bad, but we can do bad things with it. It isn’t dirty, but we can soil and pervert the gift we have been given. Being a sexual being isn’t shameful, but we can treat others and ourselves shamefully.
Our bodies are part of the created order. They are, as one theologian writes, “the piece of the world that we are and for which we bear responsibility.” We have the freedom to make choices for how we live our lives, how we use our bodies. As you walk in this world as the sexual being that we each are, be mindful of that. What you do physically and in your mind has consequences for yourself, for those you share intimacy with, for the community in which those relationships exist, and across the creation. We are interdependent. So enjoy your body. God has blessed you with it. Enjoy the body of the one who gives their body to you. That is a most precious gift. And always remember, what we do with our bodies, matters. AMEN