Healthy sex: Drawing the line(s) | October 20

This is Part 3 of a 4 week series on Healthy Sexuality

Week 1: Our bodies – God’s image

Week 2: (Pro)Creative intimacy

Week 4: Sexuality and spirituality: When all is one

Texts: Songs of Songs, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Speaker: Joel Miller

GK Chesterton once wrote: “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” (1)

In the fine print of a pastor’s job description, so fine it cannot be seen by the naked eye but is surely there, is the expectation that, should the pastor ever be asked privately or need to comment publicly about sex, that the pastor steer the conversation toward lines.  Lines that differentiate the good from the bad.  Lines that should not be crossed.

I don’t know if that’s part of the CMC pastor’s job description.  Maybe some of you will let me know after this sermon!  Either way, I’m going to take the bait.  As long as I can talk about lines the way GK Chesterton does: “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”

In other words, what makes healthy sexuality healthy as opposed to unhealthy?

If you’re already starting to get a bit nervous, now might be a good time to take a large bite of chocolate.

I think it’s fair to say that the church’s main contribution to the sex conversation has been one big heavy line.

That line, in case you need reminded, can be summarized as: Celibacy, no sex, for singles.  Sex only within marriage.  That’s one way of wielding the line.  The line is a rule.  It values covenant and the commitment of marriage vows.  Check.  It’s clear, kind of, because how far is too far?  It’s easy to remember.  Check, check.  It elevates marriage as the only relationship in which sex is appropriate/good/not sinful.  In itself it has nothing to say about what might make for a good and healthy sexual relationship between two people.  Or a healthy sexual relationship with oneself.  It proposes two very distinct eras in one’s life, or one era in which sex is experienced only as temptation.

It’s a line.  Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

It’s not the only line.

In the Old Testament the lines of sexuality occur around the importance of procreation within a male centered world.

The first commandment in the Bible is for humans to be fruitful and multiply.  It’s been observed that this is perhaps the only commandment we’ve actually fulfilled.  7 and ¾ billion and counting.

The first couple to get extended coverage in the Bible is Abram and Sarai.  The line between having no children and having children is so pronounced that they are both literally given a new name to accompany the Divine promise that they will have many descendants.  Now Abraham and Sarah.  Like two eras of their lives.  But Sarah is, as the text says, barren.    Her solution to infertility is to offer her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, as a second wife for Abraham.  She tells Abraham to have sex with Hagar, so he can have a child through her to carry on the family lineage.  Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, through whom Muslims trace their lineage.  Later, Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac, through whom Jews trace their lineage.  Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar indeed become parents of a multitude.  This is seen as a divine blessing, the favored side of the line, even though it involves a practice like multiple wives that we would now look on as morally suspect.

When Tamar tricks Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Judah into having sex with her because Judah has withheld his third son from having sexual relations with Tamar because Tamar had been married to the first son who had died and then the second son who had died and Judah doesn’t want his third son to die like them but her third son has a duty to have a child through Tamar in order to continue the family line of the first son so Tamar gets back at Judah for dishonoring her and his first son by tricking Judah into having sex with her and she has twin boys through Judah which fulfills her duty to carry on the family line of her first husband which was Judah’s oldest son…when all this happens Tamar is declared to be more righteous than Judah for fulfilling these duties.  How’s that for a moral line?  Read Genesis 38 for all the details.

Much later the descendants of Abraham and Sarah and Judah and Tamar choose to draw the line in a different way.  After having their own land, then being exiled to Babylon, the Jews are allowed to return to their homeland under Persian rule.  The people are facing an existential crisis.  Will they survive as a distinct people or will they be culturally assimilated and absorbed into the wider population?  The priest Ezra prays long and hard about it and makes a declaration that all the men who have married foreign wives are to send them away.  It will only be permissible for Jews to marry other Jews, therefore having Jewish children, and therefore continuing the survival of the people.  Despite having the story of the Egyptian Hagar as a part of their collective memory, sexual relations with foreigners are now seen as being on the unacceptable side of the line.  It should be noted that there were dissenting voices to this decision of Ezra’s.  How and where to draw the line has always been a matter of discernment.

And then there’s the Song of Songs – a biblical book like no other.  It’s an extended love poem.  The lovers are young and unmarried.  They are burning with desire for one another, and are unashamed in proclaiming it.  They are enamored with each other’s bodies and go into significant poetic detail about the body parts that are especially delightful.  We opted not to include all of this for Kristen and Peter to recite to each other in front of all of us.  But this couple also has an audience.  Their friends are celebrating their passion, even as the young woman asks them not to interrupt their embrace.  The line here is not about a rule or permission or procreation.  On one side of the line is separation and unfulfilled longing, and on the other side of the line is the thrill of mutual desire, naked togetherness, and physical embrace.

The New Testament takes a remarkable turn toward minimizing the importance of procreation, and this was carried forward into the growing church.  This was directly related to the belief that in Jesus the line between the earthly and the heavenly was forever ruptured.  Not so much that Christians had to remain non-sexual in order to go to heaven, but that heaven was coming at them, with urgency, and the need for pair bonding and having children to outlive them and perpetuate the human race was now less urgent.

So bring this forward into our present setting.  Rather than prioritizing procreation, most sex is contracepted, which Microsoft Word says isn’t a word, but you know what I mean.  We have egalitarian values between for women and men, with an awareness of differing sexual orientations and gender expressions.  Heaven is still coming at us, we dearly hope, but the daily human drama continues through the generations.  Many of the taboos surrounding sex are no longer.

We live within these God-given sexual bodies of ours.  And the question remains: What makes healthy sexuality healthy as opposed to unhealthy?

Healthy sexuality has to do with how we as sexual beings might relate to one another in ways that lead to mutual flourishing.  Which makes this a moral conversation, which involves some kind of lines.

To have a body is to have something like a boundary line between oneself and everything else.

But our bodies aren’t self-sufficient, self-contained.  We are fueled by what is not us.  In order to keep living, we must metabolize otherness.  What was once something else becomes a part of us, and so our bodies are renewed.  Such as eating chocolate.

To be human is to have a body, and to have a body is to live with a selectively permeable boundary between what is me, and what is not me.  To be human is to be relational.  This relationality extends well beyond just eating.  We are also emotionally interdependent.  We are charged with desire and drive.  We reach out for one another.  We clash up against each other.  We metabolize, take into ourselves, the affection and energy of others.

This is high stakes stuff.  It’s no wonder traditional cultures developed taboos around the things which break the boundary of the physical body — eating and sex.  You can eat these things.  You can’t eat these things.  They must be prepared in this way.  Sex is OK in these circumstances.  Not OK in these circumstances.  Cultural boundaries, at their best, add extra protections around the body of the individual and, even more importantly for traditional cultures, the body of the community.  That’s at least what Ezra the priest had in mind.

Lines and boundaries change, but the underlying purpose of health and human flourishing remains.  The recent #MeToo movement, for example, is declaring that the most basic moral lines of consent and respect have been far too frequently violated for far too long.  The lines that have been tacitly accepted have been more in the service of exerting and preserving male power than anything resembling healthy relationships.

Discerning the lines of healthy sexuality is the work of all of us.  And this is where I find the other part of the Chesterton quote especially fruitful.  “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”

Might we imagine that the lines that matter here aren’t just the lines that mark boundaries, but the lines that create a picture.  In order for the artist to create what the artist will create, they have to start with a line, somewhere.  And the question becomes what is it that the artist is creating with their choices about where to sketch the lines?  The artist wields the line as an act of creation, lines in conversation with other lines, which begin to form a picture.  And as any artist will tell you, the lines and the form they begin to create take on a life of their own.  It is the artist’s task to stay attuned to what the creation wants to become through the artist.

Scripture was written in a different cultural setting than our own, but it does provide good material for artists in training about the kind of pictures worth creating.  There are stories about liberation.  Stories about healing.  Stories about crossing oppressive boundaries and stories about honoring boundaries.  Stories about treating one another justly, protecting the vulnerable, stories of risk and failure and redemption.  All taking place within the broadest strokes of loving God and neighbor above all.  The passage from 1 Corinthians 13 describes love as patient, and kind.  Love protects.  Love perseveres.

Every person starts their journey as a sexual being somewhere.   Perhaps through an awakening to their own body’s desires and pleasure.  Perhaps through the special feeling that some people give us.  A line forms somewhere, and so the work of each artist begins.

It’s possible to live a healthy, thriving life as a sexual being without engaging in sex.  Through one’s relationships and the way one gives one’s energy to the world, one creates a picture with one’s life.

For other folks, sex will be a small or integral part of one’s life experiences.

Sex can be as noncommittal as two bodies pressed against one another, temporarily transcending the skin boundary, achieving the pleasure of orgasm.  If this is the kind of sex in which one engages, the healthiest side of the moral line includes doing no harm to the other, being safe, mutual consent, basic respect and concern for the other’s inherent worth as a human being.  The artist’s line makes starts and stops with self-discovery, perhaps unsure what it’s drawing.

Sex can also transcend the emotional boundary we keep around ourselves.  It can involve an extended sense of self that expands through a sexual relationship.  With what and who we let it.  What and who we hold back.  Sexuality becomes a constellation of realities that involves interdependence, self-in-community, intimacy, vulnerability, choice and consent, longing and desire, enjoyment and frustration and communication.  The artist’s line takes on depth and dimension.

When sex takes place within a covenanted marriage relationship the partners give themselves to one another in physical, emotional, doing-life-together-including-possibly-raising-children kinds of ways.  They inherit one another’s life experiences, the good and difficult.  The parts that are thriving, the hurting and shameful parts that are much easier to keep hidden.  The life pictures each bring, must somehow fit together in the same landscape, which they are now helping create together.  Sometimes this doesn’t work, and the marriage doesn’t last.  When it does, sex within the bond of marriage has the potential to be a place of growth and healing as the couple keeps taking off their physical and emotional clothes, inviting the other to see and touch.  The couple ages together and goes through different seasons of physical and emotional intimacy.  Changing life circumstances and changing bodies are all a part of this journey.

We are a living, breathing, walking, talking line.  In our physical and emotional bodies.  In the kinds of decisions we make – the healthy ones and the not-as-healthy ones.  And in the kind of picture we are creating through the artistry which is our life-in-relationship with others.

My prayer is that all these lines can lead to flourishing of us as individuals, as couples, and of the wider community.

GK Chesterton  Illustrated London News (May 5, 1928) from the Collected Works of GK Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986).