082921 Pentecost 15 Holy Healing Erotic Love

The sermon begins at minute 21:00 of the video.

Song of Songs 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-8, 14

       The British novelist Martin Amis tells a story in his memoir that illuminates today’s passage in Song of Songs. After years of unrelenting tooth pain and disease, all of his teeth were removed and replaced. For several weeks during the long, excruciating process, he had to wear a prosthetic device that filled his mouth with saliva, made it difficult for him to talk or eat, and made him feel distinctly unlovely and undesirable. In a letter he later wrote to his wife, he described the night after he had been fitted with the false teeth: That night you came belly dancing out of the bathroom wearing your silk bathrobe and my teeth. Both were then removed. This was the war against shame. The next morning, I woke early and lay there quietly laughing and weeping into the pillow. I felt fragile, guileless, and exquisitely consoled.

       This morning’s Gospel and lesson from Song of Songs invite us to that guileless and consoled place free from guilt and shame around sex and a host of other issues of purity. Religion often increases our shame around sex when it should heal and console us. We know in our heads that sex is a joyful gift from God. Yet religion often turns it into a depressing source of humiliating shame or hurtful rebellion. Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders over hand washing, and the erotic poetry of Song of Songs, invite us to turn our mourning into dancing, our shame into pleasure, and to let ourselves be clothed with joy. God knows we need some joy clothes these days with all the sadness and violence going around!

       One of the battlelines that Jesus had to confront to bring good news to first century Palestine was the purity code. The religious leaders had taken Jewish laws about purity and multiplied them to the Nth degree so that no one outside of their group could be pure enough. Jesus wanted to free people from that oppression because it robbed their joy. He didn’t want to abolish the law. He wanted to fulfill its true intent. In today’s passage around hand washing. Jesus confronted the religious leaders with their hypocrisy: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They manipulated laws to make themselves look pure and make others look impure.

       Today the world faces the purity police in many places, and they are definitely robbing joy wherever they show up. Many Afghans are risking their lives to escape the Taliban, whose purity codes punish women, children, artists, and minority groups. In this country, many of the groups that support(ed) the January 6 insurrection, including much of the evangelical church, did it in part to defend a purity code – an artificial, conspiratorial one, but a purity code, nonetheless. One of those groups, QAnon, frames its message around purity: the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation. They justify using violence to rid the government of their impurity. These same groups speak positively of the Taliban, and reveal that similar purity codes are at play among them and the Taliban.      If you think I’m making this up, listen to some quotes. Michelle Malkin wrote, The Taliban is a conservative, religious force, the U.S. is godless and liberal. The defeat of the U.S. government in Afghanistan is unequivocally a positive development. Tucker Carlson put it more bluntly: The Taliban don’t hate their own masculinity. They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque. 

   The false use of purity codes rises from many sources. But when it comes to sexual purity, one source is the failure of religion to celebrate God’s gift of sex. When religious groups do speak about sex, the message is usually negative. Rarely do we hear positive messages about sex in religious settings. Yet wise people in many cultures know that sexuality is healthy only when it’s connected to spirituality. We want to get to that place where sex is celebrated. But most people who have opened up to me about their sex lives need healing before they can celebrate. Their wounds have shamed, excluded, and abused them, and distorted their view of sex. A gospel of sex must start with good news about the gift of sex, face the bad news of the wounds that keep us from that gift, and only then reclaim and celebrate the gift we have missed in our woundedness.

       The Song of Songs is full of that gift – erotic literature that managed to squeak past the censors. A Gospel of sex affirms that to experience the gift of sex, we must understand and celebrate the erotic dimension of life in its fullness. Christians have often feared the erotic. The church has often censored or reinterpreted it. The Song gives an image of mutual desire: lovers evenly matched in the force of their desire, equally vulnerable in their longing to be desired, and equally determined to give and receive pleasure.

       In human experience, desire is mixed with the pain of separation; joy is mixed with sadness; and freedom is mixed with commitment. We find those same themes in the Song. What we don’t find is anxiety about desire’s power to deny us the freedom to be who God intends us to be. Desire is the force that binds us to the world. The Song shows us a path through desire toward receiving the world. That path is motivated by love and speaks of God’s own passionate creativity. In seeking the pleasure of another we may find our own deepest pleasure; in commitment to another we may come to know ecstasy.

       James Nelson sees the divine eros as the fundamental energy of the universe – the passion for connection and hence the hunger for justice and the yearning for life­giving communion. (Nelson, 186) The poet Audre Lorde teaches that the erotic is that which allows us deep connection with others, giving joy, creative energy, and the capacity for feeling; that which empowers persons to change the world; that which is the deep yes within the self. (Paulsell, 144).

       What is it that distorts the gift of sex and limits our experience of the fullness God? The church has often focused on the wrong thing, and turned Jesus’ teaching upside down. Across the centuries, the church has confronted wounded adults about their private sexual practice, while leaving unquestioned those in power who have defined the rules. In other words, we’ve told those whom Jesus healed to repent, and placed those whom Jesus called to repent in the judgment seat.

       The wound that needs to be healed takes many forms. Sexual abuse and harassment, addiction, exclusion, moralism, secrecy, avoidance, and avoiding the subject altogether. What will bring healing to these distortions of the gift of sex? My own experience tells me that it must have something to do with bringing our sex life into the affirming light of Christ. Abuse, addiction, exclusion, moralism, and shame all thrive on secrecy. The shame that so many of us have suffered in the church has forced sex into hiding. The very connection we seek through sex is cut off, and sex becomes merely physical. To receive the gift of sex we must come out of hiding. We don’t have to tell our secrets to the whole world. But to know healing and hope we need a friend or partner who knows our secrets and not only accepts us, but recognizes in our secret an inner beauty that we had only viewed through the lens of shame.

       As the opening story of Martin Amis shows, sexual intimacy with a loving partner can bring deep healing. The physical act of sex is not all that complicated. But a casual acquaintance will not come to you as you lie toothless in bed and make love to you in a way that returns to you your best self. That is the focus of our deepest longings. Sex that is exquisitely consoling can only be had when two people make themselves vulnerable to one another, not when one is being exploited. What a fine line there is between what heals and what wounds. That is why the consolations of sexual intimacy are so profound. It may not heal the whole world all at once. But bringing it into the light may reduce the sexual oppression of so many people, and increase joy in our lives and in the world. Let’s do it!