Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

a sermon on the ELCA human sexuality social statement* and Romans 13:9-10 and Psalm 139

 

As we begin, I expect two things.

First, I expect if you knew about the ELCA’s process of ethical discernment and social statements, it might be because of this on sexuality.

Second, I expect for Bible readings you probably didn’t expect that from Romans 13 (even though the chapter has recently suffered odd applications also from the Attorney General). You probably anticipated something else to go with this topic, since almost always sexuality is approached with Bible bullets and proof-texting.

Maybe third, though we consider ourselves open and affirming, I expect there’s some discomfort in this room to talk about sex. It’s in this preacher, if nothing else.

So, adopted by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, this social statement famously passed the 2/3 threshold by one vote, and had a tornado go over the convention center at that moment. There’s also the notoriety that since then ELCA membership has gone down more than 10%, half a million people, a statistic often blamed on the decision by critics, as over 700 congregations have voted to leave the denomination.

I can tell you straight off that most of those people have never read this careful and care-filled theology, much less engaged in almost two decades of study and reflection before the vote. The headlines (and this was almost certainly the only social statement with headlines!) were about what the ELCA thinks about homosexuality. While the statement does include some of that, in grace-filled language—reminding us of the benefits of committed loving relationships, that all our bodies are created in the image of God, that we’re all responsible to love and to stop hate—yet it doesn’t go much farther than the sort of support a predecessor denomination was able to declare nearly 50 years ago in 1970.

Besides hesitancy on same-gendered relationships, it has little to say about gender expression and identity. Admittedly, our society as a whole has learned much on that since 2009. The statement is also meager on women and justice, but couldn’t have anticipated #MeToo movements about sexual abuse of power. Still, recognizing it “does not offer once-for-all answers to contemporary questions. Rather, [it says,] it seeks to tap the deep roots of Scripture and the Lutheran theological tradition…to discern what is responsible and faithful action in the midst of the complexity of daily life.”

That helps point us to a bigger purpose. Though there are social statements about a single issue (like abortion or the death penalty), and while this may have been prompted by a narrow question, the statement is certainly not only something like “what does God think about gays?”

In reality, I suspect a lot of the time that question gets asked because this topic makes us squirm and, for most of us, that’s a way to direct it away from our own daily life. We focus on somebody else’s behavior or identity not have to grapple with our own.

But of course the social statement won’t let us do that. It very nicely is about and for all of us. It’s intended for us who are in marriage, and us who are couples, and us who have been through some part of divorces or break-ups, and us going through puberty or changes or trying to figure out our bodies in whatever way, and us wondering who we are in relationships, and us who are single for various reasons, and us who are children, and us who are much older, and us who have been part of any kind of families. It’s for all of us, because all of us are human. Even though it gets lived out or practiced or not practiced in such a variety of ways, gender and sexuality is part of what it means to be human, to live together, to be created and formed by God, in each of our very, very, very different bodies, to be seen by God as very, very good.

That breadth of understanding may make the allegedly racy topic seem almost bland. Which shows we need to re-evaluate our expectations on sexuality. I was asked with concern this week about how graphic this would be and how I was going to keep it G-rated since there would be children present.

But we clearly know our children are nothing like secluded from this. The social statement laments that exposure, from media and marketing and all that culture throws at them, and at all of us. In one way, we attempt to address that concern with things like our Parish Protection Program. The statement commends the church in such safe-guarding concern for the vulnerable.

But it’s not only about putting up barriers or pretending we can ignore the world around us. It’s not only preventing the negative, but how do we encourage and practice the positive? If we don’t talk about sexuality in church, that leaves it to be defined by commercials, magazines, movies, books, peer pressures, clothing fads, political discourse, bullying and hate groups, pornography, and so on. So not talking about it at church only leaves out the loving voice of God.

In society that severely limits types of body that are called attractive, with brief beauty, we likely need to hear God say again, “It is good. You are good.” Amid a sense that anything about sex is secret and so shameful and somehow wrong, we need to be reminded it is not “intrinsically dirty and dangerous.” When so much is devalued, we re-assert the value. Since it has such power, we need to be reminded you don’t only “do it” because it feels good to you, but requires trust and love, that it has some of the most power for causing harm but also for sharing joy.

In this, I hope you’re already hearing this ELCA perspective is not only different from what our culture normally conveys about sexuality, but also not what we’d usually expect from religions. This is not typical categorical judgments and finger-wagging condemnations and threats. Here in church we don’t need to be shamed or excluded; we need to rejoice in what goes right and lament what doesn’t, in society, but even more in our own lives.

Again, this is a different religious voice because it is not only saying that whatever happens outside marriage is wrong or what happens inside marriage is right. It’s no sacrament, not something that makes you holier. Like all the rest of daily living, but in one of the most intensified ways, it is where God operates with concern for the sake of life. Where the social statement extensively accentuates marriage, it is because it offers “the highest social and legal support” for our relationships.

Some religions make sexuality only about procreation. Clearly children and families play an important role in the social statement and in our understanding, but to limit it to making babies is a crazy restriction. There’s plenty about touch and intimacy and connection that isn’t only about how we make more people on this planet, or about how we take care of the ones arriving on this planet, but already about relationship as couples, and about what happens in our individual bodies, and about how our bodies interact much more broadly in community.

For that, as a second-to-last point, I want to return to the surprising Bible reading. This social statement is framed by Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a version of which we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans. That may not sound much like sexuality. That’s partly because we tend to distance our neighbors: they are migrant children at our national border, clearly an example this week of why families are important (as if we needed a social statement to clarify that wrong). But even for that, I’d say those aren’t your neighbors Jesus is most concerned about this week.

Your closest and most important neighbors, I’m always striving to help you remember, are the ones who live in your house, in your family, your most regular connections, in your closest relationships. That’s where love is required and most challenging. That is why we’re looking at this statement, not because we need to answer a question about somebody else, but because we need to keep working on it ourselves. How, then, does our conduct or our attitude affect those who are the very nearest to us? How do they feel? How are they loved?

In a last point, in want to tie that loving to the word “consummate.” It’s one of the many euphemisms for sexual relations, but I’d say it’s a vital and correct one. It’s a word that means “be all with,” sharing all of who you are. It’s with some of that sense that we celebrate and share the importance of sexuality. To say it another way that I hope you continue to hear how I use this word, it’s about a communion of souls. See, in biblical usage a soul isn’t a little separate part of you, not the little divine eternal spark. The Bible’s words for soul are about the fullness of who you are as a person—your heart and emotions, your spirit and connection to God, and also your body. Your flesh is not separate from your soul; it is vitally connected. And sexuality is about sharing that soulful all-of-who you are.

So, with the social statement, we recognize it isn’t something trifling, not only about you feeling good or your personal gratifications. It should not or maybe even cannot be momentary, since it’s about the relatedness of all your emotions, about a commitment of being connected most deeply at the heart. That is why it is so high, so important, why it is consummating the soul-whole of who you are with another, being all-in. Far from some mere physical act, this is the whole category of the deepest way we express who God made us to be with each other.

This vulnerability also carries so much weight and hardness and sadness and potential for harm and abuse and struggle and even exploitation. It is weighty and can cause problems in our relationships and carries so much demand for personal discernment and work on it exactly because it is filled—you are filled—with the joy and delight of such God-given potential. And you are good.

A post-script: knowing each of you face it uniquely but this was a blanket message, I absolutely don’t want you to feel left out or that this made something worse, so as always I’m available if it would help to talk more.

 

An excerpt from the ELCA social statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

God created human beings to be in relationship with each other. Sexuality especially involves the powers or capacities to form deep and lasting bonds, to give and receive pleasure, and to conceive and bear children.

Sexuality can be integral to the desire to commit oneself to life with another, to touch and be touched, and to love and be loved. Such powers are complex and ambiguous. They can be used well or badly. They can bring astonishing joy and delight. Such powers can serve God and serve the neighbor. They also can hurt self or hurt the neighbor. Sexuality finds expression at the extreme ends of human experience: in love, care, and security, or lust, cold indifference, and exploitation.

Sexuality consists of a rich and diverse combination of relational, emotional, and physical interactions and possibilities. Erotic desire, in the narrow sense, is only one component of the relational bonds that humans crave as sexual beings. Although some people may remain single, either intentionally or unintentionally, all people need and delight in companionship, and all are vulnerable to loneliness.

The need to share our lives with others is a profound good (Genesis 2:18). Reaching out in love and care is part of who we are. Even if we never have sexual intimacy, we all seek and respond to the bonds and needs of relationships.

Sexual love—the complex interplay of longing, erotic attraction, self-giving, and receiving defined by trust—is a wondrous gift. The longing for connection, however, also can render human beings susceptible to pain, isolation, and harm. The desire for sexual love, therefore, does not by itself constitute a moral justification    for sexual behavior. Giving and receiving love always involves mixed motives and limited understanding of individual and communal consequences.

The sharing of love and sexual intimacy within the mutuality of a mature and trusting relationship can be a rich source of romance, delight, creativity, imagination, restraint, desire, pleasure, safety, and deep contentment that provides the context for individuals, family, and the community to thrive.

 

 

Prayers of intercession:

God of communion, we are all united in you, together as the mystical body of your Son. Lead us to care for and recognize all these body parts in your church.

Your creation is good, very good. When we ignore the world around us or disparage body types, remind and renew in us the promise that you love this world, created us in your image, and were born into our flesh.

We pray for places of brokenness and hurt: for vulnerable children, for places where gender justice is desperately needed, in sex trafficking and abuse, for where people of various sexual orientations or gender identities suffer intense oppression, especially when these are part of religious life, and for the understanding we all need to pursue.

We pray also for our households and families, in celebration for when these good gifts of who we are can be consummated and foster life, but also for the places of brokenness and longing—for the lonely, for those hurting from divorce, for those hurting in relationships and looking for answers, for our bodies when they don’t behave how we want, for all the ways this can be a very personal and very difficult topic for us, be here now with your grace and love.

 

 

 

 

* http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Human-Sexuality

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a wedding sermon

It’s impossible to top those words that included this hemisphere’s greatest poet (Neruda, Sonnet XVII) and some of the most beloved reflections on life (Kahlil Gibran, “On Marriage) and history’s single most famous statement about what love is (1 Corinthians 13). It’s a good thing you didn’t throw in any Shakespeare, or I would’ve just been sunk, rendered mute and useless. We could’ve just signed the marriage license and moved on to cocktails. As it is, there’s no way I can add to the three readings on love, so I’m just going to ignore them and talk about something entirely different.

Instead, I want to talk about jobs or work. For your identity, Emily and Seth, that seems like a vital piece (and even that word “vital” is worth noting in its heft; it comes from the Latin for “life”). Again, then, we often think of jobs or careers with the phrase “making a living.”

Don’t worry; we’re making our way back to the wedding and marriage. But in that trajectory, let’s first highlight how jobs become so much of our self-definition. Who am I? Well, I’m a pastor. Who are they? He’s a teacher. She’s a police officer. This even gets to be a mark of our success from childhood, on how well we’ve followed through on declarations of “what I want to be when I grow up.”

Yet having our lives defined in that way can also be problematic. It can mean that if you’re not part of the workforce or in some special role, then you’re left out. Oh, she’s “just” a stay-at-home mom. He’s unemployed. It’s only punching the clock.

Still, some of us do relate really strongly to our career, as shaping or aligned with our identity. That’s true for you two, right? You are doctors. The medical profession is an embodiment of who you are and also how you relate to each other. Your mutual support includes the ability to understand when something has gone wrong at work and instead of just offering care you also need to be cared for. Am I still saying this fairly?

You’ve also recognized that this role is so fulfilling and so involved that there’s a trap also in the medical field of wanting to work too much, to solve all the new problems. You want to help, want to make a difference to society, to “impact the world and make it better” as you’ve said, and obviously there’s always more care that can be given, more to do.

To stay toward the positives of meaningful work, though, let’s focus on your notion of wanting to make the world better. You also described that as a sense of accountability or trying to do the right thing. With that, I want to add in the term “vocation.”

Vocation is another of those words like “vital” that can be used without the full sense or weight of what they mean. Vocation is a more important word, than just a job. This one has its Latin root in “calling.” You are experiencing a calling. In trying to make sick people better and thereby to make the world better, you are responding to a call. You are answering your vocation.

My point is, this prompts a question for us: If you are responding or answering, who is calling you? Where does the voice that calls you into your vocation come from? Even if it’s simply labeled as trying to do the right thing, how do we determine what is right?

A theologian named Fredrick Buechner famously defined vocation as “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”* It wards off selfishness on the one hand and life-sucking demands on the other. So this isn’t only about what is satisfying or happy, but is also how you’re eager to help where you’re needed, responding as circumstances invite or demand. That sense of vocation may fit fairly well for you, and it may begin to describe the sense of love beckoning you to each other.

But there’s more about where that voice comes from. Some say that the longing to do what’s right is woven into our being, that we have an innate sense of it, or that there are evolutionary reasons for altruism, for acting ethically and humanely, even explanations from evolution for love.

For the Lutheran Christians among us, we say that this calling comes from God. And what is worth emphasizing in our Lutheran view is that this call is really an invitation into life in this world. We don’t believe that God is calling us to flee from the world or escape toward heaven. It’s not that we try to be nice and do the right thing for merits or karma or rewards, to earn points with God.

Our example in Jesus is a call directly into relationships, into life, “for God so loved the world.” In Jesus, not only do we hear that the greatest instruction is to love our neighbors. Even more, we see one who cared for the sick and who welcomed the outcast and who enjoyed plenty of wine at the party. We see Jesus as the embodiment and incarnation of a God who is concerned for your life and the life of those around you and the good of all creation. These are things to delight in and to take care of.

And maybe that, at last, also points us back toward this wedding and that fuller, better sense of vocation and of what you are in life. See, Emily and Seth, it is not only that you are doctors. What we do to make a living isn’t only for getting a paycheck. It is not merely requirements or what makes us happy.

In this Lutheran understanding (which I find has a heckuva lot of truth) our vocation is to be part of this world, engaged with our neighbors. And your closest neighbor, where you find yourselves most primarily and predominantly isn’t at a job. The central vocation and the place most in need of our love and care is within our family, our household. That’s our first place of responsibility, and where we are most cared for.

And so that is why this is a blessed event, a blessed day, because you, Seth and Emily, in this wedding and for this marriage are recognizing the importance of the absolutely central vocation, of being together. You are loved and loving. You are becoming husband and wife, claiming each other as the closest and most important of neighbors, glad and eager to be there for each other. In that, and in this day, you are willing to take up the charge, to answer God’s call, to commit yourselves to each other, to vow what you will be, through better or worse, in sorrow and in joy. And through all of that, it means your love for each other is, indeed, making the world a better place.

You know, it’s a lot of work. It’s worth a lot of prayer and devotion and attention. It’s also well worth a celebration. So blessings and congratulations!

* Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, p119

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My Neighbor Mark

      a newsletter article

My neighbor died last week. I’ve confessed occasionally that—in spite of Jesus admonishing us to love our neighbors—I’m not a very good neighbor. I don’t interact much with those who live next to me. Mark had been an exception.

He grew up in that house. He had a philosophy master’s degree and played jazz saxophone and had taught for a while. After his schizophrenia got bad, he moved back into his parents’ house and continued to live there until last week. The house was yellowed from his cigarettes and the smoke shut inside; he never opened windows. Either the heat was on or the air conditioning. With the help of the police, on Friday we discovered that he’d died there.

Life was pretty small for Mark. Because of tremors from medications, and paranoia, and obsessive/compulsive tendencies, he hardly got out. Trips to Woodmans. Phone calls from his psychiatrist. Otherwise the shape of his life was NPR, Turner Classic Movies, and the Milwaukee Bucks. He shared rhubarb and jokes and sardines and music books and weed-killing advice and movie suggestions. I used to pet his Boston terrier, Sammy, who helped fertilize my flower garden.

After Sammy died, Mark was especially grateful for chances to pet our dog, Doug. From time to time, I got to be helpful to Mark by changing the oil in his lawn mower, staining the trim on his windows, cleaning out his basement, or helping him buy and install a new CD player.

Mostly Mark wanted to talk theology. He fretted over the sins of his earlier life, and also fretted that he still enjoyed the memory of those indiscretions and so wasn’t repentant enough. He longed to die, but also worried that killing himself would exclude him from God’s love. It might be argued that Mark took all this too seriously, either because of the time on his hands or because of the illness in his head. It probably could be better argued that he gave theological questions their just weight, as matters of life and death. Or, in the terms of a good Lutheran theologian, as matters of death and life, the end of our old selves and rising to new beginnings.

Mark seems to have had a heart attack while asleep. It was before he had to move into a nursing home, so his estate will go to charity, just as he had carefully planned in his will and often described longingly. Again, I’d say Mark was more charitable to his neighbors than I frequently am. He was also, by any account, more loving than the God he seemed to believe in—the strict one of his Catholic upbringing, the angry one from the Billy Graham magazines and Chuck Swindoll books he insisted on reading.

People often say that all religions lead to the same place. Well, Mark and I were both talking Christianity, but not with much similarity at all. His outcome was fear and exclusion, that left out certain politicians or homosexuals or other creatures. Once, he tried giving out booklets on the Bible, fearing that a lack of conversion would damn them, and maybe him for lack of effort as well. This religion was about the individual mustering fierce certitude and how insistently they could banish doubts.

It didn’t really work for Mark, which is why we kept talking about it. He would ask what my sermons were about, never quite satisfied that my content and the core truth of the Bible is basically a repetition of “Jesus loves you.” Mark couldn’t go to a worship service, and so in some way our discussions were the most church he got, an example of Jesus coming to find us in our “mutual conversation and consolation” (in the words of Martin Luther), of community that encourages and supports each other.

Through it all, Mark remained skeptical of the good and gracious God in Christ that I was trying to preach to him, one who was more ready to love than we are to accept, whose life stretches long past our faults and brokenness. From early conversations, when I was less than a year out of seminary and these theological arguments were still at the front of my mind, to his last weeks when I’d gotten too distracted to find time to be so insistent. In the end, because I couldn’t convince Mark and couldn’t save him and have to say goodbye, all I can do is commend him—and myself—to this God of love, hoping in grace and trusting in mercy.

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