This is Part 1 of a 4 week series on Healthy Sexuality
Week 2: (Pro)Creative Intimacy
Week 3: Healthy sex: Drawing the line(s)
The audio recording includes a follow up reflection from Jenny Campagna, beginning around minute 18.
Genesis 1:26-31, John 1:14
Speaker: Joel Miller
One of the more daunting aspects of speaking about sex and sexuality in a congregation, is just how many differences we bring into the room. In the few conversations I’ve had anticipating this Healthy Sexuality series, a wide range of life experience has already showed up. For one person, growing up in the free love sexual revolution of the 60’s resulted in a need to form more disciplined habits and attitudes toward sex later in life. For another person, growing up in the evangelical purity culture of the 90’s included a shame based view of the body and sex that still lingers.
Sexuality, by its very nature, is intensely personal. It speaks to our deep needs and most raw vulnerabilities. Sexuality is expressed differently at different stages of life, whether we are single or partnered. Sexual violence is pervasive, and the resulting trauma can be a life’s work to heal. Sexual intimacy can be profoundly meaningful, pleasurable, and restorative. All this is true.
And, oh yeah, sex is still the main way people make babies. Infertility, miscarriage, birthing and parenting, family- making in both traditional and non-traditional configurations are all connected to sexuality.
In the past few decades when the church has talked about sexuality it has been almost entirely about how people who identify as gay, lesbian, queer or gender-nonconforming are or aren’t welcome in the church. That means for most of us, we’ve been talking about other people’s sexuality. Which hasn’t really been all that fun, but it’s been a nice distraction for us straight folks from having to talk about our own issues.
This four week series is a humble attempt to widen the conversation. To acknowledge that we are all sexual beings. To recognize this as a good gift of God. To think deeper than our immediate cultural polarities about healthy sexuality. To hold all this in the light of grace. If just one of those things can happen to a small degree, we’ll call it a good thing.
We bring such vast differences to this, but for today we’ll focus on something we have in common.
What we have in common is that we have bodies. How’s that for the Captain Obvious award of the week? From birth to death, we live in, we live with, we live as these bodies of ours. Human existence is an embodied existence. And our bodies are charged up with energy, with longing, with a drive for connection.
Genesis pictures the Creator Yahweh Elohim forming humanity out of the dust of the ground. The name Adam is a play on the word for ground, Adamah. You and I are direct descendants of a Hebrew pun. So from the very beginning people were encouraged to have at least a little sense of humor about the body. From the same ground Yahweh Elohim forms every living creature. From the same ground grows the plants that fill the fields and forests of this earth. It is all charged with energy, infused with a gifted aliveness. We are material kindred with all that lives and breathes.
That we are made of earth-stuff was not a unique idea in the ancient world. The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus, born right when the Apostle Paul was writing his letters to the young churches, wrote a discourse in which Zeus tells him that Epictetus, like his fellows, is made of “clay cunningly compounded.”
(Epictetus, Discourses 1.1.11, Oldfather, ed, Epictetus, 1:8-10.)
It was thoughtful of Zeus to speak in a way that makes for good alliteration when translated into English. Clay cunningly compounded.
In our scientific age, we could offer that we are conscious carbon, ever evolving, or something like that.
We may share ground and clay in common with the world of creatures, and sex for that matter, but we seem to have a unique relationship with our bodies. Not only are we conscious carbon, but we are self-conscious. When it comes to our relationship status with our bodies, the typical experience is: It’s complicated.
We emerge from childhood with the confounding ability to see ourselves through the eyes of what we think others are seeing when they see us. One psychologist summarizes that phenomenon this way: I see you seeing me. I see the me I think you see.
Mark let me know that today’s youth Sunday school class will include each of them getting a sticker to put on their mirrors at home that says, “Warning: Objects in mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of ‘beauty.’” Not that any adults need one of those, but if you would like one, for a friend, I’m sure Mark can let you know where to get one.
How we see our bodies, and how we think others see our bodies impacts our sexuality. Our sense of selfhood. Our belief that we are even worth loving.
This seeing ourselves through the eyes of others includes others we’ve never met. It includes whole traditions we inherit. Our complicated relationship with our bodies goes way back.
During the Roman era in which Christianity was formed the going theory was that males were fetuses that had reached their full potential. The right amount of heat and vital spirit in the womb created a male child. Male semen was believed to contain all the vital energies emblematic of masculine power. Females were failed males, landing them rungs lower on the great chain of being ascending toward the divine. All this was affirmed by leading Roman doctors of the day. It was into this world that the Jesus movement expanded beyond Palestine, and churches were formed.
The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, discovered in a cave in Egypt about 75 years ago, likely written at a similar time as the gospels we have in our Bible. Many of the sayings are similar to ones in the four gospels, others intriguing enough to make you wish they would have made the cut. Like when Jesus says, “If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, ‘Move from here!’ and it will move.” (48) And when Jesus says, “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” (77)
But the final saying of the Gospel of Thomas goes like this: “Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (114).
Equating the male with the rational, spiritual, superior divine nature, and the female with the physical, earthly, lower nature has a long and tired history in the church. Church history is not uniform, but by and large it followed this trajectory of dishonoring the body, and thus, sexuality.
To be clear, I’m not saying Jesus actually said this. I’m saying the Gospel of Thomas said Jesus said this, and it falls in line with where church leaders took teachings on gender and sexuality and the body.
In an essay titled “Sex without Shame,” Keith Graber Miller of Goshen College points to an extreme example of sex negativity in church history. He writes, “During the patristic period and early Middle Ages, sexuality increasingly was perceived as problematic. This is especially clear in the requirements prescribed for various sins in the late medieval English penitentials. The penitentials prescribe 10 years of penance for coitus interruptus and lifelong penance for oral sex. But the same guidelines require only seven years of penance for premeditated murder.” (Published in Sojourners, Sept/Oct 2009)
We in the post sexual revolution West are a far cry from those days, but, depending on what you have been surrounded by, especially in your formative years, there can still be echoes of all this. Forget lifelong penance, how about going straight to Hell? It’s tied up with power and shame and fear. Maybe you feel those echoes in your own body. Maybe you have felt or been told that your body or sexuality will keep you from entering the kingdom of heaven, or just from entering the fullness of life
A number of years ago a couple friends were wondering how they might participate in their college’s Renaissance Fair. This happened at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and Don Miller tells the story in his book Blue Like Jazz. They decided to dress up like medieval priests and set up a confession booth. Only rather than having people confess their sins these friends would confess the sins of the church to anyone who wanted to listen. A reverse confession booth of sorts. If that booth were to be in operation right here and if I were playing the part of the priest, or hey, at least a Mennonite pastor, I might say something like:
Forgive us sisters, for we have sinned against you and God. The church has heaped shame on you, and silenced your voice.
Forgive us brothers, for we have sinned against you and God. In elevating your gender to the top of the hierarchy the church has enabled all kinds of destructive behavior which is also destructive to your own humanity.
Forgive us couple, for we have sinned against you and God. The church has stolen the joy of sex and surrounded it with barbed wire sure to leave a scar.
Forgive us, our queer siblings, for we have sinned against you and God. In condemning your affections the church has rejected love itself and failed to affirm the divine light in you.
It’s not enough to just say it and be done with it, but perhaps it’s a start.
Despite the church’s long failing, the Biblical tradition does have two treasures to offer these bodies of ours. At least two, but I’ll mention just two briefly. One from each testament.
The first is from Genesis One. What Genesis One says, repeatedly, emphatically, enthusiastically, is that material creation, embodied living, is good. Very good indeed.
The opening words of the Bible are “In the beginning God/Elohim created the heavens and the earth.” All of the scriptures that follow tell us very little about the heavens and quite a bit about the earth. Which is to say that the Bible concerns itself primarily with this world, this life, these spirited bodies that we have been given. God works through bodies and bodies are good.
Not only are these bodies good, but humanity is declared to be in the image of God. It was common in the Ancient Near East for the king to be referred to as being the image of God, but Genesis One imagines each person, male and female, as a god-bearer. There is a democratization of divinity, distributed throughout human existence, through embodied living.
Genesis 1 affirms that physical existence is good and that objects in the mirror bear the image of God.
And in the New, a Gospel that did make the cut, John’s Gospel, declares that the Word, the Eternal logos, that divine energy which created the cosmos itself became flesh and dwelt among us. The second treasure in our tradition, a body affirming gift, is incarnation. The whole movement of gospel, of good news is toward embodiment. Through incarnation it is demonstrated that God loves bodies. We might go so far as to say God needs bodies to continue to carry out the work of creation.
Through our bodies we love, and we touch, and we heal, and we extend ourselves to one another. This is what Jesus models for us.
These are the body affirming treasures of our tradition.
So we can affirm the daring words of Mary Oliver who wrote:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
That is a bold body-positive affirmation that when we go to deepest place and our truest self, that we do not have to be good because goodness and the love that fired us into being is already waiting there for us to arrive and live into what we know to be true.
We are just scratching the surface of healthy sexuality, but it is just week One. We bring such vastly different perspectives to this, but we each bring a body, our body, which is a part of the body of Christ. And this is very good, indeed.