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Hey, friends, as we get ready for Christmas season, I am so excited for next Sunday, as we start our celebration of Advent, the pre-Christmas season, together. TODAY I also want to acknowledge, real quickly, that at end, a lot of people think about charitable giving this time of year. Reservoir, you probably know, is different than most non-profits in that we don’t fundraise, we don’t talk about money much at all. But to be as vibrant of a church as we are, touching the lives of hundreds, and to be as generous of a church as we are, impacting thousands in our community and beyond, take the time and energy of our paid staff as well as the other costs of this ministry. An enormous appreciation to all of you who together give about $90,000 a month to support this ministry. If you’re not a giver at Reservoir yet, we strongly encourage you to consider beginning, or rebeginning that. I’m dropping two links in the chat – one that talks more about giving at Reservoir and the other a direct link to set up a recurring gift to the ministry. You can do so through our website or the link in the chat. In a church located around transient communities like Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, we really depend on new members and new givers to sustain us and help us grow. We find that giving is a powerful way to invest in the vitality of our church and even our own faith, so whether it be $100 a month, a $100 a week, or whatever amount to which you’re led, consider joining this church’s team of givers today.
So today we finish our Salt of the Earth series, about Reservoir’s place in what we hope will be a healthy and useful future for our faith. We’ll end talking a bit about sex and sexual ethics because churches have had lots to say about this topic, but have said a lot of wrong things in wrong ways and have often done more harm that goo as a result. And yet, as we get more and more post-Christian as a society, it’s not like we’re suddenly finding our own way into life, health, joy, and intimacy around sex either. And I’ve heard some interest in circling back to this topic.
So, I’m aware that this is one short sermon, and I’m just one person, with one set of perspectives. But I’d like to at least try to say something healthy and useful about sex and continue to give permission to have healthy and useful conversations about sex in our community.
I’ll start us off with a scripture reading. I intentionally did not choose one that tries to make an ethical statement about sex. There are some of those in the Bible, but I think they’re mainly yanked out of context. Depending on where and when they were written, they say different things. And these few scriptures are made to do more work than they were meant to, So instead, I give you a story from the life of Jesus where Jesus was confronted with some “no’s” around sex, and may just start to point us toward some “yes’es” instead.
John 8:2-11 (NRSV)
2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
When it comes to sex, it seems we often lead with what we think are other people’s problems.
Throughout the many centuries of church history, when men have talked about sex, and it’s mainly men who have had the power to do so in public, they’ve done so while pointing blaming fingers at women and queer people. There’s been a giant NO said to the sexuality of women, whether it be women who seduce, women who aren’t virgins when they should be, women who want sex too much, women who want sex too little. As in this passage, it’s women who have been the focus of sexual problems and taboos, even though men have had far more agency and power around sexality.
And when women haven’t been shamed or scapegoated, queer people have instead. People whose sexual identities or desires don’t fit the heteronormative grid have served as a convenient scapegoat in many times and places, resulting in the stigmatization of queer people and gay sex, even though this is the experience of relatively smaller number of people.
Women who have been shamed around your sexuality or sexual history, I am so sorry. Women who have been shamed by merely being in the body of a woman, I am so sorry. You deserve so much more honor, love, and respect than this.
And LGBTQ friends, I know you are attuned to the long and deep history of shame and exclusion from the Christian church, which continues in so many places to this day. For this too, I am so sorry. You deserve so much more honor, love, and respect than this.
All of us: our bodies, our sexuality, our sexual history or lack thereof, this is sensitive, tender territory that deserves care, honor, and respect.
We see the utter lack of all this in our story, as a community rallies around somebody else’s sexual problems and engages religion as a weapon against someone else’s sexuality.
Imagine the experience of this woman, dragged out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, after a neighbor had reported the affair she’d been having, or perhaps not even that, perhaps dragged out after being sexually manipulated or even sexually assaulted the night before.
This unnamed woman did not have sex by herself. You cannot commit adultery alone. And yet it’s just her that is dragged into the temple to face shame and await punishment. Again, as if the transgressions or troubles of one woman is that community’s biggest sexual problem.
Now the irony is that the biggest sexual problems in that community were likely the same ones we see today.
They, like us, would have had problems with the interplay of sex and violence. How many millions of people have been raped, sexually abused, sexually assaulted? Sexual violence is at the top of humanity’s sexual problems, and in every community, you’ll find those that have been victims and perpetrators. Part of and adjacent to sexual violence, you have sex that is tied to the abuse of power, inside and outside of religion: sexual harrassment, sexual coercion, and the coverups of those things.
And then on a more mundane level, we’ve had both then and now so much sex that has made us less integrated and whole, not more; less intimately connected, not more. Untender sex, anonymous sex, sex used to satisfy just one of the partners, sexuality that does not bring us into closer, more joyful, more intimate relaitonships.
Communities very much need to have conversations about these problems, and yet these are not the conversation most faith communities are having about sex, now and then.
It’s interesting to me that in this moment with Jesus, and the woman caught in adultery, and the judging crowd, some traditions have it that when Jesus bent down to write on the ground, he started writing down the sins of the judging crowd. Marking their own sins, sexual and otherwise, in the dirt, while daring them to continue in their judgement of others. Now for various reasons, I don’t think that’s what happened, but can you imagine?
If Jesus has said: you, who rush through sex with your wife without giving her pleasure, you cast the first stone. You, who glare at your employee’s bodies and make unwelcome sexual advances, do you have a right to condemn another?
There’s a lot more to talk about than a single woman’s sexual choices she bitterly regrets. Sexual violence, sex without consent, untender and unintimate sex that doesn’t foster love, these and other things very much call for our attention. That’s why the other year, we had our Speak Out Sunday, for instance, focused on sexual violence. We want to give our community permission to focus on the real NOs we need to talk about when it comes to sexuality.
But again, it’s interesting to me, that Jesus didn’t just move his community from one “no” to another. I think Jesus took the “no” of this moment – that neither this woman nor anyone else should commit adultery, and Jesus affirmed that tacitly, but he also pivoted to “yeses” that needed to be affirmed.
Jesus says no to this woman’s adultery. He tells her privately, gently: Go and sin no more.
But there were other “no’s” being said here that Jesus will not affirm. The community said “no” to men’s accountability. They drag one woman forward in judgement, practicing their own version of the awful practice that we’ve called “slut shaming” in our times. Jesus won’t have it. This community also said “no” to this woman’s life and freedom and hopeful future. They judge her, they condemn her, they would stone her if they could. But Jesus, now and then, is convinced that none of us should be defined by our worst act. That we all deserve grace and the chance to find a better way forward toward life and health and freedom.
So for Jesus, there are “yeses” in this scene that apply to our sexualty still, I believe.
For Jesus , there is a yes to universal accountability. We all could use greater health and wholeness in our sexuality. Jesus invites the whole community of John 8 and by extension all of us as well not to focus our attention on judging others but doing our work for our sexuality – along with the rest of our lives – to be as healthy and constructive as possible.
Jesus also says yes to radical grace – neither do I condemn you. You, regardless of your sexual history; you, regardless of the condemnation you have faced in your own eyes or in anyone else’s – you are not condemned.
And I think Jesus says yes here as well to freedom. Go your own way, and from now on don’t sin. Don’t do harm. Don’t give up your dignity. Don’t tether your sexuality to people you’ll regret. We could fill in more don’ts here, but to me the most powerful words are again not the “no” but the “yes.” Yes to freedom, yes to the possibility of healing, yes to joy, yes to love.
Thinking about what God’s yes to our sexuality might be makes me ask, when it comes to church, the good news faith of Jesus, and our sexuality, how do we “sex positive” our message and experience? How do we move from secrecy, shame, and judgement, toward honesty, freedom, and health?
I know it might sound funny for some of us to hear the phrase “sex positive” at church, let alone in a sermon, the Bible does contain a whole book of erotic poetry. Right at the end of the Bible’s ancient wisdom literature, just before the prophets begin, is the Song of Songs.
It’s very old Hebrew poetry, so the imagery is kind of weird to most of us, more tactile and abstract than visual, but once you get into it, it’s racy. And I don’t say this to shock or titillate, just as the editors who pulled the Bible together in the first place didn’t include it for those reasons.
I think it’s there to affirm that sex and sexuality are powerful and beautiful.
Our sexuality is not a problem to be overcome, but a gift to receive in gratitude. Song of Songs affirms the utter delight sex can be. The swooning over another’s beauty, inside and out. The ecstasy in our own minds and bodies as fall in love and as live in loving relationships.
Song of Songs affirms the power of sex, that it is among the strongest forces we ever experience. Sex can be a powerful motivator, a powerful bonding agent between two people, and – between the wrong people or practiced in the wrong ways – a powerful harm as well. Song of Songs compares sex to all the beauty of nature in its delight, to fire in its intensity, and to death in its strength.
And Song of Songs in its Jewish and Christian interpretive tradition over the centuries has linked our sexuality with our spirituality. Because the longing, the ecstasy, the delight we experience are adjacent to the longings, the ecstasy, the delights that call to us to long for God.
Friends, we could do well to ask ourselves today: how have I believed my sexuality to be a problem to overcome, and how can I welcome it as a gift instead?
We could do well if we are partnered to ask: how can I experience more delight, play, intimacy, and fire in my sexual relationship? This is not a how-to sermon, so I’ll leave it brief here, but for some of us this means practicing more emotional intimacy with our spouse, since vulnerable hearts make vulnerable bodies easier. For some of us, this means becoming open again to our own pleasure and delight, if we were never encouraged to value that. And for some of us, this means putting energy and thought and care into our partner’s safety and joy and delight, if we’ve not been particularly creative or thoughtful about seeking the pleasure and joy of our partner.
You’ll notice, though, that I haven’t talked about marriage at all yet, even though Chrisitan teaching about sex has often boiled down to: don’t have sex if you’re not married. And if you are married, don’t have sex to anyone else, and within your marriage – do what you want, or sometimes, do what you must. Churches have had a pretty limited conversation on these matters.
And when I was a kid and a young adult, this conversation got especially intense for a while. If you’re in your 20s-40s, and you grew up in a Christian environment, there’s a decent chance you were exposed to what was called the purity movement.
In response to the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, and along with the rise of the religious right, sex education around churches and – in some places – in the public as well – became super-focused on abstinence education. True love waits. Put a ring on it. Save it to marriage.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of marriage and of marital sex. Along with Pastors Lydia and Ivy, I officiate weddings. I help couples with premarital coaching. I offer short-term pastoral counseling to couples in our church here and there. In a week, I’ll be celebrating with my wife Grace our 24th anniversary. And as with many other people, my own marriage has been the greatest of gifts, in so many ways, including sexually.
But this purity movement that had only two things to say about sex – if you’re not married, don’t; and if you’re married, do – it’s pretty clear it did more harm than good. On average, abstinence only education managed to get people to delay sexual activity by a couple years, not usually to marriage, by the way. But abstinence only education also made it more likely that young people’s early sexual experiences would be less safe – leading to more unwanted pregnancies and abortions. And, as with most Christian teaching on sex in the past, its obsession with virginity and its shaming of people to try to get them to be so-called “sexually pure” was talked about with both genders, but the fixation was really on girls and women. This cult of female virginity and this fear and shaming of girls and women did a lot of damage to the faith and sexuality and souls of those girls and women. Again, if that was your experience, I’m so sorry for that.
I wonder if instead of the giant NOs of the purity movement, we could tenderly hold four YESes instead. I’ll be brief, as I’ve got to wrap soon, but four things.
- Yes to covenant and commitment. Good sex is a powerful bonding agent between two people. And the safest, most delightful sex occurs between people who are emotionally and relationally intimate and who have made commitments to one another. Marriage is a great way to do this, but unlike biblical cultures, we live in a time when over half of adults – at least around here – are not married. And when people’s marriages often take place 20 years or more after puberty. That’s a long time. Somewhat unprecedented compared to most cultures. So truth is, most unmarried people are having sex at some point. Honoring that more commitment, more emotional intimacy is better, and keeping conversations about marriage on the table still makes sense to me, though.
- Yes to discernment – which means figuring things out in a complicated world, rather than just pointing to a black and white rule. Christiaity, compared to most religions, and frankly compared to most secular ways of life, is not very rule-based. Jesus, and his most significant early followers and interpreters, encouraged a law of love – to love God, neighbor, and self profoundly – and within that law, a fair bit of freedom. So when it comes to our sexual ethics and relationships, we need to encourage all of us to firstly ask: how do I love God with my body and sexuality? And how do I love my neighbor – including any current or future sexual partners, friends, children – how do I love my neighbor? And lastly, how do I love and honor myself? If we’re carefully, seriously asking these questions, we’ll take care of all the baselines when it comes to sexuality – consent, safety, kindness, love, tenderness, and beyond that, we’ll likely do alright.
- Yes to singleness and for some of us – old school word here – chastity. Jesus, the New Testament, and the early church all honored singleness and its potential for freedom and devotion to God – above marriage. And they all honored and respected people who while single, embraced chastity – abstaining from sex during that season and devoting one’s love, energy and body to love of God and nieghbor. This isn’t for everyone, but listen, in our society – church included – you get more scrutiny and exclusion, not honor, for being single. And if you’re abstinent, either for life or for a season, you get talked about like you’re immature or there’s something wrong with you. I say shame on that. I’m not telling anyone you need to be single or abstinent, but if you are, good for you. I hope you can receive and find the honor and the gift in that.
- And lastly, for all of us, but especially for those of us who are single, and especially for those of us who are single during this pandemic, Yes to sensuality. I already talked about sex and spirituality – about longing, delight, pleasure – how central these are in life. But we could broaden this to talk about sensuality. Many of life’s deepest, most transcendent experiences are really bodily. The pleasures not just of sex, but the delicous taste of food. The bracing feel of cold air and water, and the comfort of those same things warm. The delight of singing and dancing for some of us, of exercise for others, of making things with our hands. We were made for all of this. So if you’re not even hugging or touching anyone these days, let alone sexually active, you likely need more, not less sensuality in your life.
Friends, I’m ending here, but my prayer and longing for us all is for responsibility, kindness, love, grace, and freedom in our sexuality. May you be blessed to know that no one condemns you. And may you be blessed in freedom to go your way, free from sin, in love, delight, and joy.