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Sex and the Sacred – 11/10/2013

Romantic affection, sexual interaction, and reproduction – three spheres that overlap greatly but not completely – have always been of deep concern to human religions. Religion cares so much about them because they are so essential to what it means to be human, and to the very existence of humans, in fact. This sermon is the second in the series, “Why Should We Care?” on the theological roots of the social concerns and justice commitments of our tradition as Unitarian Universalists. Today our subject is sex, and we are going to cover our association’s public positions on sexual education, sexual ethics, same-sex attraction, and same-sex marriage. Reproductive health and freedom will be covered in a future sermon, but know that it’s coming. That’s a lot, so let’s get started.

Our tradition finds deep grounding in respect for and wonder at the capacities of human beings. William Ellery Channing, the greatest of the great names among American Unitarians, did not invent this reverence, but he did articulate it loudly and clearly and at a critical moment. In his sermon, “Likeness to God,” preached in 1828, he described how everything of which the human mind and body are capable is a reflection of God’s attributes. Through learning and growing and doing, cultivating our own innate abilities and putting them to just and holy use, we grow in our likeness to God. We have, from the beginning, divine qualities and we can – and must! – strengthen them in order to become more and more divine. Channing’s particular understanding of God, which some of us might agree with and others not, isn’t as important here as his understanding of humankind – because that is really what we have inherited from him. All human beings have inherently worthy and sacred capacities which need to be worked at and built up.

Among our capacities, it should be clear from even the most basic assessment of human bodies and human behavior, are sexual affection, sexual pleasure, and in many cases sexual reproduction. I am not aware of this dimension of humanness getting much positive attention from our ancestors in the first hundred years after Channing’s sermon. Many of our roots are set in the Puritan soil of New England, and the Puritans are literally synonymous with fear and hatred of all things sexual. It’s an attitude which is neither inherent nor unique to Christianity, but is still very common within it. Most sex, or even all sex, is considered to be sinful and unclean in a number of Christian theologies. Sex is sometimes associated with the doctrine of original sin, and virginity as a state of being completely disconnected from sex and sexuality, is frequently held up as the spiritual ideal. Some Christian sects, including the ancient European Cathars, and the more recent American Shakers, have taken this to the extreme of forbidding their adherents from sexual relations of any kind: celibacy not only for their clergy, but for the laity as well. The early Latter Day Saints movement – the Mormons – encountered sweeping prejudice and mob violence here in the United States in the 1800s because of their original practice of polygamy. This was explicitly not because of any popular feminist concerns about the rights of women in a system where men could have multiple wives, but women only one husband. It was because their practices broke from the specific sexual rules then expected of all Christians and any decent folk.

Coming as we do out of the Christian tradition, all of those influences played a part in our historical relationship to sexuality. It has become one of our signature areas of public commitment. The rights and worthiness of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks, the critical importance of reproductive freedom and comprehensive sexual education – these are perhaps the areas of public policy on which we are most frequently at odds with most other faith groups in our nation. Most of our work in this area, however, is less than fifty years old.

Some years ago, I got to hear the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean preach the story of his life as he was chosen by his colleagues to represent those ministers celebrating 50 years of service. He told us of the fear that he felt as he sought to enter our ministry – fear that the psychological tests required would have discovered him to be a gay man. That was still a disqualifier in 1960. Luckily for us, those tests failed in their bitter intention. Our denomination’s commitment to tolerate, and then accept, and then welcome, and then include, and finally celebrate gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks did not emerge nationally until 1970. That year, our association of congregations publicly called for an end to discrimination against homosexual and bisexual people. The first ordinations of out gay ministers followed soon after, and in 1979 the first few out ministers were called to serve Unitarian Universalist congregations. One of these ministers was the Rev. Mark Belletini, and while he did find a pulpit, it cannot have been an easy process, as one of his poems suggests:

And so one of the members of the search committee asks me “But why do you

people”-he really said that, “you people”-“have to talk about it?”

 

Right.

Well, because

 

Because if I fell in love,

you know, with sonnets and everything,

and wanted to name all the stars of heaven

one at a time with a goofy smile on my face

I’d like to be able to.

 

Because, if I didn’t fall in love,

I’d like to grouse a bit,

or work up a bitter Theory

to explain it.

 

Because if my lover got run over

by a drunk driver (it happens, you know,

remember blue-eyed Stewart?)

I’d like to be able to take a few days off work

to cry and stuff, OK?

 

Because, if my partner-in-life

whom I can’t legally marry because

it upsets someone’s stomach or something

suddenly developed an infection

and got Job’s sores all over his body

and had to go to the hospital

(you know, just like my friend Stephen)

I’d kind of like to take him there

and hold his hand for a few days

and still get paid on family emergency leave

so I could eat food and pay rent and all.

 

Because if my lover left me

after fifteen years I’d like to be able to sob

without consolation

and feel suitable depressions

and not have to smile a lot

and pretend to be stunned for months.

Because lying all the time is still wrong isn’t it?

 

Oh, and because, whether you believe it or not,

my life is just as important to me as yours is to you.[i]

 

That insanely basic yet incredibly radical assertion, that the life of any one person is just as important to them as yours is to you, is at the heart of our movement’s waking up to the rights, value, and basic humanity of everyone who does not identify as straight. It is the natural companion to the Universalist theology which says that every person’s life is as important to God as any other. We were starting to understand that if sex and romantic love are such huge elements of human life, then our capacity for them must be just as divine as the other faculties of our beings.

In popular culture, scripture is often invoked to justify homophobia and heterosexism. There is actually less material for this in the Hebrew bible and Christian testaments than most people think; it’s a matter of a handful of phrases. Even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – which is so synonymous with homosexuality that nearly all sex acts that do not involve both a penis and a vagina at the same time have been referred to, collectively, as sodomy – even that story isn’t actually about same-sex attraction or intercourse. It’s about hospitality and contempt for the stranger. The citizens of Sodom are so unabashedly evil that they seek out travelers visiting their city in order to rape them. The rape is the problem here, not the fact that it is being attempted by men against other men. A friend of mine recently shared an article on this interpretation of the passage from Genesis, marveling at its novelty. I pointed out that it is basically the second lesson taught in any Hebrew Bible 101 class at any non-fundamentalist seminary. This is not a controversial interpretation – it is generally accepted by scholars, yet it remains largely unknown in the wider culture.

But sex between two people of the same sex is explicitly called out in a few places in the bible. Words in Hebrew and Greek that our commonly translated as ‘abomination’ and ‘reprobate’ are used to defame such behavior. For those denominations which take the bible as the inerrant word of God, this poses a challenge for adherents who also believe the essential message of the bible is infinite mercy, magnanimous justice, and all-encompassing love. Some creative and impressive counter-readings have been developed by smart, faithful people in order to work around this problem, and if you’re interested I’ll be happy to walk you through some of them sometime. But as Unitarian Universalists, we do not need to rely on these, because our faith allows a particular freedom which I deeply, deeply treasure: when the bible is flatly wrong, we are free to say it is wrong.

Sexual behavior – of many different kinds, not only between people of the same sex – is referred to in certain biblical passages as making one unclean. That word abomination crops up again. Judaism and Christianity, among many other religions, have a long fascination with purity, so that certain actions and behaviors can render one impure, unfit, and inherently unclean. These things go beyond mere badness or even evil, provoking a basic spiritual disgust. By my reading, our tradition does not permit us this attitude. Wrong is still wrong, evil still needs to be confronted, justice still needs to be restored, but we do not have the luxury of treating any person as an abomination, no matter what they have done. As the great Universalist evangelist Hosea Ballou laid out the question, “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled.  You cleanse it and array it in clean robes.  The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it?  Or, did you wash it because you loved it?”[ii] The idea of spiritual pollution is at best a minor distraction from the prevailing truth of our lives – everyone of us is precious, everyone of us is lovable. The challenge is to face the world without losing sight of this.

Acting together as congregations we have, since the 1970s, ordained ministers regardless of sexual orientation, and called these ordinands to our pulpits. We have stood publicly for the full rights and dignity of people who love people of the same sex. We have been performing religious weddings and unions for same-sex couples since even before 1970, establishing it as a general practice of the association in 1984 and calling for equal marriage under the law in 1996. And in case you need to be reminded, the first same-sex marriage recognized by state law was performed by the then-president of our association at our national headquarters in 2004.[iii]

The goodness we are capable of as human beings is holy. Among these sacred capacities is our sexuality, which can be used variously to create intimacy, share pleasure, and to bring forth new life. As with any other human practice or behavior, the only measure of wrong in regards to sex is when it does harm. So two consenting adults enjoying each other cannot be said to be bad, no matter how “icky” someone might think it is. Consent – clear, definite, uncoerced, unimpaired, fully-aware and fully-informed consent – is the only measure of right and wrong here. Like anything else, sex is something that you should only do in ways that respect yourself and anyone else you are doing it with. So the need for accurate sexual education is pressing, which is why it has been one of our movement’s priorities for over forty years. There is no separate but equal in our theology – as the Rev. Forrest Church said, “Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.”[iv] So our theology of marriage has to include all couples: it is a covenant for loving, enduring commitment. It is a means – not the only means, but a powerful one – of expressing and expanding the divine sexual capacity that has been entrusted to each of us.

We are healthiest when we learn from each other. The opportunity to acknowledge our differing relationships, affections, and infatuations – straight, gay, or otherwise – makes us more whole. The specific example of same-sex marriage is so far from being the be-all and end-all of LGBTQ-civil rights, but it also addresses fundamental needs and rights of real people. Which is why our tradition has been so bound up with the cause. But in addition to just being the right side of history, letting same-sex couples take their rightful place at the table of full respect and reverence can and should help reshape how we understand marriage as an institution. Its origins are violent, coercive, and patriarchical – more on this, again, in a coming sermon in this series. If we hope to redeem broken but precious institutions – and as a Universalist, I am never inclined to think anything precious is too broken to be redeemed – such an effort requires reimagining them. And personally, my friends and neighbors who are in same-sex marriages have taught me some of the most important lessons about how to be the partner and husband I ought to be. The framework of partnership – the word partner, which I and my spouse use in describing each other – is a practice we absorbed from friends who were used it because they were being denied the right to say, ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. Our sacred work as human beings is to realize our divine potential: to build justice, struggle for peace, and share love. Doing so requires not only flexing those spiritual muscles, but also being open to the lessons of our lives and the lives around us.



[i] This poem’s title is, “Because”.

[ii] From his essay, “Salvation Irrespective of Character,” as quoted by Janeen Kelley Grohsmeyer in, “A Lamp in Every Corner”.

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