September 2, 2018

2018 Sept2

Proper 17 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

Earlier this week, Pastor Karen Siegfriedt posted a quote on Facebook:

 

“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”

 

What should be added to that is

 

    sex.

 

We have been taught to avoid talking about sex, and we have developed a society that has an unhealthy relationship with the subject of sex, and a Church – of all denominations – that has an unhealthy obsession with sex. Yet, we have a book of the Bible that is devoted to erotic sex. There are only 2 times in the Sunday Lectionary that we hear from the Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon), and it is today’s selection both times.


Yes, the Song of Solomon is about the offering of erotic, passionate sex between a man and a woman. It is written in several different voices, and clearly was written by several different authors who did not collaborate with one another. The poems were not written by, or for King Solomon, but it is thought that attribution made it easier for it to be included in the Hebrew Bible, and therefore the Christian Bible.


The concept of the Song as an allegory between God and the Israelites or Jesus and the Church was endorsed for several millennia. But modern scholarship, no longer under the thumb of ecclesiastical control, overwhelmingly asserts that this is about pre-marital or non-marital passionate, erotic sex. Importantly, the sex is consensual.

 

Throughout this sermon, any references to sex are assumed to be fully consensual. Sex that is not fully consensual, whether in the Bible or in today’s real life, is rape.

 

Americans have an unhealthy relationship with the subject of sex, and the Church, including The Episcopal Church, has an unhealthy obsession with sex, particularly sex that other people are having. Yet, my favorite commentary asserts that The Song of Solomon has universal appeal precisely because of its subject matter. And it’s even read in the synagogue at Passover! But, we are so uncomfortable with sex that we refer to is as “sleeping together.” A lecturer and therapist friend of mine would say to students who came to her upset about “sleeping” with someone, “You mean sex? You had sex? That’s doesn’t involve sleeping. Just call it what it is.”


Our problem with sex is that we have turned it into something dirty and immoral. Yet, by the very act comes the children we believe to be precious gifts. Certainly, our children (we ourselves!) do not come from filthy sinful acts. It would be repressive to consider passionate sex that is not for the purpose of procreation as filthy and sinful and utilitarian sex for childbearing right and proper. Yet, some Christian denominations believe precisely that. We need to move toward understanding our sexuality as a gift from God. Interestingly, Song of Solomon is a collection of poems that apparently was intended was to be performed. That would be interesting!!


The Song of Solomon is not the only Biblical reference to sex. There is sex all over the Old Testament! Then, in the New Testament, no one has sex, but Jesus and Paul make judgments against particular situations in which people have sex.


The inclusion of the Song of Solomon in the Bible does not mean that we can be hyper-sexualized beings! When it comes to our bodies, we are to understand ourselves as made in the Image of God and that our bodies, these earthen vessels, are not to be misused and abused. Just like with food and alcohol, two other temptations in the Bible in which humans tend to indulge, we must take an attitude of “everything in moderation”.


There were laws governing sex and sexuality. Sexuality was controlled because the power of sexual attraction and its consequences. If sexuality weren’t controlled, it might threaten the existence of civilization. I think we still carry these beliefs today.


Alongside these sexual poems and accounts of sex in the Bible, the moral code of the Israelites was strict from the beginning. Extra-marital sex – affairs or cheating – was severely punished. But of course, there was a double standard: Adultery was sex with a married woman. So, a married man could have sex with a prostitute, but not someone else’s property…for that was what wives were. There was a cure for adultery, though:

 

“A suspicious husband brought his wife to the temple, where she drank a potion made from holy water, dust from the floor of the sanctuary, and dissolved curse words. At the same time, she answered “amen” to a priestly adjuration that the water would cause her grave consequences if she was guilty. She can then return to her husband, and they can continue normal marital relations.”

 

There weren’t just laws about sex; there was (and still is) a theology of sex. That theology stems from the belief that God is asexual – there is no sexuality in the Godhead. God the Father did not have sex with the Holy Spirit to produce Jesus. It is a common misconception (literally and cognitively) that is routinely corrected in many a Sunday School class, Confirmation class, and among those whose Christian theology is derived from popular media. So, the sexlessness of God means that sex and sexuality are in the profane realm, not the sacred realm. And of course, over thousands of years, the word “profane” has come to mean something dirty and immoral rather than its original meaning in English as something that is simply not sacred. Émile Durkheim explored the sacred-profane dichotomy around the turn of the century, and it was concerned with the holy vs. the mundane, not good vs. evil.


The asexuality of God informs our understanding of The Incarnation. The Virgin Birth: Jesus was not conceived through sexual relations. Some may infer from this that sex is a negative feature of humanity, and God could not come from that. I’m not sure about that, but I do accept that the Incarnation had to involve both the Divine and the Human in order to accomplish what Jesus came to accomplish.


The Epistle of James provides a balance to the freedom of sexual expression in Song of Songs. James is urging his Jewish-Christian community to persevere in patience during difficult times, and to live consistently with the Gospel of Christ that they have come to know, as they mature in their faith in Christ. He condemns particular behaviors, too. Context is everything, though. Recent scholarship suggests that the author was indeed James the Brother of Jesus writing from Jerusalem. If it was written in the late 50s, before James was martyred in 62, the setting would have been violent and dangerous, with the growth of turmoil and violence in that region, with increasing corruption and poverty. This, of course, led to war with Rome, which eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, which I referred to last week. So, if the Epistle seems to contradict Song of Solomon, we must remember that context is everything.


Regardless of how we interpret the Bible and the laws governing our sexuality, both in the Bible and in the moral framework of the modern Church, humans are sexual beings.

 

It is unhealthy for us to deny any

aspect of our being, and to do so

is contrary to our theology of

Creation.

 

Yet, we have spent thousands of years believing that our sexuality is bad. Therefore, we have not talked about it, leading us to have a lack of understanding of a difficult topic.


Song of Songs illustrates that erotic yearnings are complementary, never in contrast, to emotions and feelings. That is healthy and can be holy. What the Song also teaches us is that women can be in positions of power. Men have spent centuries trying to control women’s bodies. Like with the Old Testament laws on adulty, women are always the ones blamed for sex. Even today, men proudly have multiple sex partners, but women are shamed for it. However, the Song of Solomon is predominantly female voices who have full control over their bodies and their sexuality.

 

 

So, we learn from this unique

book of the Bible that women

should have the same autonomy

over their bodies, their feelings,

their emotions and their

sexuality as men do.

 

The Gospel is where we discover that our personal and corporate piety skew our attitudes toward sex:

 

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

 

It is from this that we could continue to believe that our sexuality is ungodly. But that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus reminds us that, when we keep our hearts and minds focused on what it means to be in relationship with God, we don’t abandon our sexual desires; we direct them in ways that lead to holiness.

 

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: Fornication, adultery…these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

 

It is not sex that defiles us; it is our unhealthy relationship with and obsession with sex. Fornication and adultery – or wonton, selfish sex, extra-marital sex – are what defile because they harm others and ourselves.

 

With our sexuality, as with the

rest of who we are as persons,

we can glorify God or defile

ourselves.

 

It depends on how we use the gift of our bodies that we have been given by God.
What today’s readings are telling us is that sex is part of being human, and when one has a healthy understanding of sex and one’s own sexuality, and the heart is in the right place, it is a loving and holy act. There may be no sexuality in the Divine realm, but there IS in the Human realm. Thanks be to God!
Amen.

 

The painting is Alba Lavermicocca, Cantico dei Cantici 1:7

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Connected Sound - Websites for the Barbershop Community