Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Mystery of Sex

When I was thinking about what to preach about this morning, I had three thoughts. The first, was why don't you preach about something which is really wonderful? The second thought was, try for something different. Why don't you preach about something that is really confusing and difficult?

My third thought was this, Why don't you preach about something that people struggle with, fight about? Then I thought, why don't you put all together in one sermon? Why not preach about something really wonderful, pretty confusing, and that people struggle with --all at the same time? In other words, why not say something about sex?

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, writes, "Sex, contrary to the prude, Mrs. Grundy, sex is not sin and contrary to the publisher of Playboy, Hugh Heffner, it is not salvation, either. It is more like nitroglycerin: it can be used to blow up bridges or to heal hearts."

I think the first and most obvious thing to say about the religious meaning of sex is that sex is --or should be, personal. But to tell you the truth, that is not a very obvious thing about sex: in our culture, most of what passes as sex is not about persons. It is about body parts.

The problem with Playboy magazine, Baywatch, pornographic materials and male hunks is not that they are too sexual. It is that they are really anti-sexual. They have little, if anything, to do with two people in relationship. I think most of the people involved in those things are the real Puritans, because they are frightened to death of a sexual relationship between two people.

When we learn to relate to one another as body parts, when we learn to objectify others, turning them into objects for our gratification, we kill them -- spiritually, we kill them. Or we kill ourselves by taking away the human, the personal dimension of sex.

In the Episcopal Church, we talk of sex as sacramental. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a kiss, four lips in closest proximity, a kiss is sacramental. The outward and visible and pleasureful sign...communicates an inward and spiritual grace -- or something else quite different.

A kiss can be an act of love and affirmation or it can be a lie -- it can be an inward and spiritual lie, an inward and spiritual manipulation, an inward and spiritual homicide. When we touch one another, we are sacramentally involved with that person, whether that is a touch on the arm, an embrace, a kiss, or an act of sexual intercourse.

It is no wonder that so much of our healing comes through touch, because God works sacramentally, incarnationally. God works through our touching, through our embracing. I think one of the reasons the church takes sex so seriously is that the sexual act mirrors the relationship between God and the Church. God becomes incarnate in who we are, in what we do -- there is that interpenetration of being with absolute commitment. We offer ourselves to God: God becomes one with us through the Holy Spirit. There is nothing casual about it, though its purpose is joy and rejoicing and communion. Sex is meant to be personal: it is sacramental.

And, third, sex is only one of hundreds of ways one human can love another.One of the terrible things drilled in the minds of so many men is that there is only one way to love, really love a woman -- and that is sexually. There are hundreds, thousands of ways to love a woman or a man that don't involve sex. I think that's part of the problem for our young people. There is such pressure to go from A to Z in one fell swoop -- too many miss the rest of the alphabet of loving and learning to love a partner. And it's all those letters between A and Z which provide the context for sex. It's all the myriad ways of learning to love another person that give the depth and the sacramental quality to the sexual expression of love.

So what do we say to our children? What do we say to ourselves? Most importantly, I think, is that we need to think about the context for sex -- all the ways we can love another person or be loved by that person. I think most of us find it difficult to ask for what we want or need -- sometimes even to know what we want or need. Some of that has to do with our level of self-esteem. I think of a teen-age girl who wants nothing more than to be heard and to be told she is special and to be honored for who she is and for how she is trying to deal with all that's been handed her; but what she settles for is sex -- because she doesn't know she's worth asking for and receiving what she really needs.

I think of middle-aged and older men who need above all else personal support and encouragement and a way of dealing with all that middle-age and the later years bring, who judge their lives or their marriages or themselves by the amount or quality or quantity of sex in their relationship.

Here are some questions and concerns for any of us, maybe especially for teen-agers, but probably for us all. For that teen-age girl: What do you want -- what do you really want with him? How can the two of you work toward that? What would it feel like to be honored. . .really honored by someone you adored, by someone you are drawn to? Don't skip over the letters of the alphabet.

And a second thing: there is a difference between having a feeling, an urge and acting on that feeling, that urge. We know that about our anger; but we have trouble with our sexual urges. I can be so angry with someone that I want to kill him. . .but I don't. I know the difference between having the feeling, the urge and acting on it. But with our sexual urges we have such trouble -- like there is no choice. It is like that urge is inextricably bound up with action.

There is a ctitical difference between having a feeling, an urge and acting on that feeling, that urge. The more deeply we know that, the more control we have in our lives, the happier our lives -- and the more we can enjoy and appreciate our urges without being dominated or victimized by them.

In the context of struggle and deeply shared lives, sex really is like nitroglycerin: it can heal hearts and make them strong. In the context of fear and insecurity and the absence of shared trust, sex can blow up bridges, leaving things and people in shambles.

In the Episcopal Church, sex has always been seen, at least officially, as a gift for pleasure, for procreation, and for the celebration of loving relationship. And that gift has been given to us by God.

Three last things, briefly. First, I am very much aware that in talking about sex, I have talked about sexual intercourse, while there is an enormous range of ways we can be sexual with one another -- holding hands, flirtatious looks, embracing, kissing. Our being sexual covers a lot of territory -- and it shortchanges our whole sexuality to talk about it only in terms of sexual intercourse.

Second, I wish we had better ways to reassure people that masturbation is not sinful. It can be misused, but on the whole it can be a matter of self-affirmation and self-care. When I try to tote up the amount of guilt, shame, and furtiveness that surrounds the whole matter of masturbation, I am appalled. Masturbation is nothing to feel guilty about, ashamed about. . .it's part of our sexuality.

And third, our sexuality is tied up with our spirituality. There is a built-in sense of incompleteness in each one of us -- that wanting to be known, that wanting to give ourselves completely, that wanting to be held, to be reassured that we are completely safe and secure. All the way through the Bible -- not just in the Song of Songs, but running all the way through the Bible -- there are sexual images of our relationship to God. There is Christ the Bridegroom, the Church the Bride; the notion of incarnation, of giving ourselves over to the loving arms of God. But. . . now we see dimly.

Each of us is on a journey. Some parts of the journey are easy. Some are so very, very difficult. How we deal with ourselves, and with others, as sexual beings is one of the most puzzling and difficult things there is in life. . .for everyone. And no wonder our young people are so confused. Sex, again, is not sin, but neither is it our salvation. Again, much more, so much more, it is like nitroglycerin: capable of blowing up bridges or healing hearts.

Let us pray:Our hearts are restless, dear God, and our hearts will be restless until they find their home in you. Help us as we live our lives, to be wise, to be thoughtful and loving, help us to rejoice in all the gifts you give us, help us to honor ourselves and all those you have given us. Forgive our confusion, guide us into the paths of joy, all for the sake of your kingdom. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is exactly what I was looking for.

Dave said...

A very eloquent sermon, Tom, but I wonder why you stop here, with lips: "In a kiss, four lips in closest proximity, a kiss is sacramental. The outward and visible and pleasureful sign...communicates an inward and spiritual grace -- or something else quite different."

Why not follow the sacramental and Incarnational path all the way back to a teleology of gender and the whole body? Our specific sexual physiologies, male and female, speak to specfic expressions that are irreducible, intimately bound to the "parts" themselves. It is just as dehumanizing to reduce one another to mere body parts as it is to ignore the spirituality and teleology bound up in those body parts.

This it seems to me is one of those areas where many Christians of a more progressive mindset stop and go no further, because the poetic and spiritual specificity of "body parts" are dramatically affirmed in a robust Incarnational Christianity; a specificity that speaks of teleology, which in turn speaks of morality.