Taboo 6: Sex Sex Sex - thrive UMC Official Blog

Taboo 6: Sex Sex Sex

  Luke 11:37-44; 12:1-7

Today we’ll be wrapping up our ‘Taboo’ series, in order to transition into the season of Lent, which will begin on Ash Wednesday this week.   And through our taboo series, we’ve tried to uncover, and bring to the light, some of the fears and perceived dangers the Church, and Christianity, have been facing for quite some time, with the hope that we, as the thrive community, will be a little bit more courageous, and a little more open to being innovative and renewed.  So it’s our hope that you, too, will be a little more open to facing any anger you might have with God, and the way things have worked out in your life.  We hope you’ll be open to growing up in your faith, and willing to take responsibility for supporting others as they face their own mile-stones and road blocks.  We hope that you won’t get stuck in the face of doubt, and that you’ll have the courage to ask dangerous questions.

And last week, we left you with a dangerous question from Jesus: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and don’t do what I say?’  It’s a question too many in the Church have too often rushed head-on, straight toward the cheap, easy answer –or simply assumed Jesus wasn’t asking them.  So when I lifted it up last week, I had hoped you had the courage to take it home and ask what faithfulness looks like as a family-unit.   I had hoped you took it to work with you, and started the process of wondering how God is bringing life through your job, and how your business impacts the Kingdom of God.  I had hoped you took it with you into your moments of privacy and recreation to discern who God is constantly re-creating you to become.

But I’m suspecting that, for a lot of you, the question didn’t make it that far.   And I don’t say this as an accusation any sort, but only because that’s how I’ve found things so often in my own life.  Somewhere in the transition from church to lunch to home, to work, the questions and teachings of Jesus just get dropped somewhere along the way.  Sure, I can sip on them slowly among a crowd of like-minded Christians, even if we’re only seated in a cafeteria we call ‘church’, but taking it outside can sometimes seem like a trespass –a crossing of boundaries.   So sometimes just remembering that question past 11:15 on a Sunday morning feels like trying to go home from the bar while still holding a drink in your hand.  You approach the exit only to find the sign that reads: ‘No beverages beyond this point.’  In other words, perhaps some part of us senses that this particular spirit, along with the state of being it induces, isn’t welcome out in the real world we live in.

Often it seems like maybe we just live in a world that compels us to keep Jesus in the church-box, and family affairs and drama in the home-box, and politics at the news-box, and your thoughts and opinions in your own tiny little heart-shaped box.  Maybe ours is the kind of world where there’s a nice little place for everything, so that if we just have all the right pieces in the right spaces, then we’ll all be whole and well and life will be as it should be –is that it?  Maybe Jesus is just another item on the grocery-list of our souls: bread and peanut butter–check; Redbox DVD –check; job –check; friends: 2,000 on Facebook –check; iPhone 6 –check; 50 Shades of Gray, or the internet and a credit card, or an additional warm body for the night –check; money –eh, still working on that one; antidepressants –well I’ve got Jesus, so check!

Do we ever even stop to wonder, or even take a second look, at how we approach life, the world, and ourselves?  Because it’s scary, some of the things that can happen to us if we just put our lives on auto-pilot.

Last week during prayer time, I had given you all the opportunity to ask dangerous questions, and when I looked at them, I was surprised to see again a theme that keeps popping up, over and over and over again in my interactions around church.  Questions like:  Am I doing enough of the right things?  Do I think, or believe, the right stuff?  Do I give enough?  Am I being judged by people at the church?  Am I accepted?  Will God let me into heaven?  All of which, I think, in one way or another beg the next question of: am I a good person?  And then, more generally, just: am I okay?’

Once I started to read your questions and spent some time with them, I was startled by a sense of uncertainty about where to take them, or what to do next.  They suddenly revealed to me that your hearts weren’t quite where I had assumed them to be.  After they came in, it no longer seemed appropriate to just put them up on social media, like so many other impersonal declarations.  And I found myself inexplicably trying to ignore them, since they exposed my own misjudgments of what I had thought would come out of your questions.  And it was suddenly hard to imagine how to respond without resorting to cheapening answers.

Then, as I let the questions settle in with me over the week, I started wondering why these are the questions that keep getting asked.  What truth or knowledge are they trying to uncover; and where does this particular brand of uncertainty come from?  After all, shouldn’t people just kind of know whether or not they’re good people?  Shouldn’t you kind of be able to feel if you’re okay or not?  But why don’t we?

Bear with me for a few moments as I tell a story that’s going to seem completely irrelevant at first. v

A few years ago, I had the privilege of sitting at a table with three or four middle-school girls while they were eating pizza before our Wednesday night youth group.  They were going back and forth about school activities and the various personalities involved, when one of them stops to ask if Mrs. So-and-so had had her baby yet.  From there the conversation was a popcorn mixture of tests, baby pictures, and Mrs. Whoever’s visible discomfort at the front of the classroom.  At about that point, one of the girls –we’ll call her ‘Stacy’- stops and goes: “Yeah, but it’s so cute because she seems so excited to become a mom and everything…” and she suddenly stops.  Then Stacy’s face kind of scrunches up before she continues on in a whisper “…but it’s kind of creepy to know how she got that way…  I don’t even like to think about it.”

At about that point, she glanced over at me, remembering I was still at the table, and immediately turned about 50 shades of red.

‘Why, whatever do you mean Stacy –how did that baby get in there?  It wasn’t like, something she ate, was it?’

[‘Ew, Jeremy, that is disgusting!’]

And for me, that moment serves as a perfect snap-shot of the human condition.  There are some things about life and people that we’re immediately drawn to, and make us happy.  Those particular middle school girls loved, in their own way, their teacher, and they were actively participating in her joy, and they even sympathized a little with her discomfort.  The stories they told that day over pizza were meant to build a shared experience around a common good together.  It was a brief snapshot of life in community.  But as they let their story grow, and the connections led them onward, they got to a part that seemed weird to them.  They went on to discover a part they only understood abstractly, from textbooks and not through experience: about how creating new life worked.  And they didn’t yet know what it meant.  And because it was foreign territory to them, involving circumstances and forms of encounter they couldn’t yet fully imagine, the whole ordeal seemed bizarre.  But also, perhaps, a little intriguing.  Since they hadn’t yet formed impressions of their own yet about that particular act, they were relying on the assessments of others.  And at that point in their lives, the general consensus was revulsion …but of course, the verdict was far from being finalized.

The reason I bring that story up is because, in the context of the Church, there seems to be a strong parallel between asking whether or not you are a good person, and an awkwardly phrased question that came up a few times my high school students: is it okay to have sex?

And it was always such a difficult question to untangle because so many of the suddenly attentive teenagers perked up because they hadn’t had sex yet, but the prospect of it was on their minds a lot.  And they were looking for permission to follow their imaginations and impulses, should the opportunity arise.  Meanwhile, a few others in the room were invested in the question, because the encounters of their bodies had already extended themselves beyond the reach of their emotional understanding, and they were having a lot of trouble knowing things like whether or not they were okay, and if God still loved them, and if they’d be welcome and safe at church anymore.

Thankfully, I had adult helpers –most of whom were parents of the youth in attendance- who were ready and waiting to jump in with an answer to that question.  In fact, they had lots of answers to questions the youth hadn’t even gotten around to asking yet.

One night, after a particularly open High School Bible study, one of my adult servants approached me to say, “Jeremy, I saw this video on Youtube that you have to show the youth.  You just have to.  It’s so great, but you might need some permission slips from the parents saying they can watch it, because its…. Because it’s about …. [whisper] sex. But they have to see it –they just have to, it’s so important and it’s so much better than what they told us when I was a kid.’

So she e-mails me this link to the aforementioned ‘sex video,’ which, to be honest I was too afraid to open at church.  But when I did get home, what I found was –I’m not kidding you- a cartoon that likened sex to dying in an airplane crash.  ‘Teenagers always want to know: how far can one go without going “too far”?  Well if you were an airplane pilot, you wouldn’t ask ‘how close to the trees can I fly without crashing’, would you?  No, a wise pilot once made a rule for himself: he decided to stay at least 500 feet above the trees, to avoid any unnecessary danger.  Therefore, we recommend you just don’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in front of your parents [think of your parents, think of your parents, -here’s a picture of Jesus, who does not look happy with impure teenagers].’

And while technically nothing about the video was wrong, or bad advice all I could think of was: ‘that was better than what you were told as a kid?’  What were they telling you?  ‘Well kids, if you ever find yourself having “sexual” feelings, and are absolutely sure you want to express them, we recommend you start with a porcupine for a partner –because that’s what happens to your soul when you fornicate!’

I mean, what could be less helpful to a teenager than the metaphor ‘stay 500 feet away from [sexual] danger?’  Especially when Jesus, in the 5th chapter of Matthew, tells a crowd that ‘every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart,’ before proscribing the lopping off of body parts.  It sure beats going to hell, says Jesus. Matthew 5:17-30 –go look that up.  That stuff gave me nightmares for the better part of a decade –because at the time it looked like my choices were an eternity of fiery torment, or spending the rest of my life blind and paralyzed from the neck down.  I mean, is there a plan ‘c’ here, or what?

So I’d go around looking for loopholes: was I off the hook because I wasn’t married yet?  What exactly is it that constitutes ‘looking at a woman lustfully’?  These are the ethical questions a Bible-reading pastor’s kid ends up asking himself, when confronted again, at the age of 14, with things like Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’  Because you talk about purity and boundary issues, and that movie is an absolute moral debacle –I mean, does Prince Eric even know about the line in Leviticus against bestiality –or is it totally okay after her tail turns into legs? Furthermore, did Ariel and Eric bother to discuss how they were going to approach the topic of Christmas with the in-laws before they got married?

Because SO much about human sexuality is so incredibly complicated, right?  It’s never just about the act, but it’s always about who we are, our value, and our purpose on this planet. The emotions, the physiology of attraction, the implications relationships involving sex have on family units and public social structures, your sense of personal identity and worth, and life itself –all these and more are at stake when you breech this topic summarized in a meager the three letters.  Our sexuality isn’t just one personal, private facet we each have among many, as we’re so often told; but it is a very significant part of the fabric that holds society together (and tears it apart).

Take, for instance, the reality that all of us –excepting those of us who are test-tube babies, or miraculous conceptions, like myself and my kids, you all were brought into being through sex.  And typically, if you’re a participant in the act that leads to new life, you’re also expected to have continued responsibility for the development of that new life –at the very least in the form of financial support.  So you might say that it has more than just a small role in defining families, and you could go on to illustrate how it affects a wide variety of other social structures.  Therefore, sex is immensely creative and powerful.  It’s kind of like a gun you can kill people with, except it takes two people, and it’s the exact opposite.   I mean, can you imagine just giving a 13-year-old half of a working gun and telling them not to partner up with anyone until they’re sure they’re ready to spend the rest of their life in prison with that person?  At least, that’s how the church’s teachings sound to a lot of people out there these days.

Meanwhile, if you’ll listen to any secular radio station at all, you’ll hear ballad after ballad praising the joys of shooting for shooting’s sake.  If you don’t believe me on this, there’s actually a popular song, called ‘Bang Bang’ sung by a trio of famous female pop artists.  The chorus starts out: ‘Bang bang into the room (I know you want it); bang bang all over you (I’ll let you have it).’  And I might be going out on a limb a bit here, but I don’t think ‘it’ refers to a lasting, monogamous relationship.  Or, on a list of 2014’s best love songs, according to Buzzfeed.com, the number one song shared this profound vision of romance: “Boom clap, the sound of my heart, the beat goes on and on and on and on and.  Boom clap you make me feel good. Come on to me. Come on to me now.”  And the longer you listen to the radio, the more often you’ll recognize thematic depictions of a love that feels like substance abuse; or experiencing other people as disposable commodities.

And yet, most Christians have nothing more to say other than ‘quick, turn the station to LIFE 107.1!’ or ‘listen kids, don’t trust those sinners!  Sex is dangerous and could possibly kill you.’

Because their –the church’s answer to the question ‘is sex okay?’ is overwhelmingly ‘no, unless…’ And secular society’s answer tends to be more along the lines of ‘yes, if…’  And then they both get caught up in the details, and the semantics, and the contingencies –all of which distract and completely overlook the essential question: what is sex an expression of?

A while back, I knew a guy who grew up in another country, and in his community, sex was an expression of masculinity.  So on his 13th birthday, some of his male relatives took him to a brothel and paid for his time with a prostitute.  Even after 15 years, all he could say about it was that he was he was embarrassed, and it was ‘weird.’  While in college I noticed a disturbing trend that happened year after year of a few freshman girls who had a number of one-night-stands with guys on campus and without fail, by about the end of the first semester, the gossip chain would reach back to them and they wouldn’t return for semester two.

Because sex, and how we treat it, says something about who we are, and how we value ourselves and others.  And while the pagan world has used sex as a merit badge of pleasure, conquest and manipulation, the Church has adopted an almost opposite picture of sexual virtue –pretending as if people can be asexual, at least until marriage; and many people, especially young people, feel the church has no room for them because of the guilt, pride and confusion they carry around related to their sexual history.  And there’s the danger in that perspective, too, of becoming dehumanizing. As well as, perhaps, disconnected and dishonest.

And that brings us back to our original question: are you okay?  Are you a good person?

Of course you are!  You’re a great person!  God made you special –a unique snowflake in the blizzard of humanity!  You’re better than good and you deserve to be happy!  You deserve to have someone who adores you and treats you with respect!  You deserve to have a job that you love and makes a lot of money!  You deserve to be healthy and beautiful, and live to a ripe old age! You deserve a big house, and that bold, new Toyota Camry, and an ice-cold Budweiser.  Hell, you deserve to drink that ice-cold Budweiser, while driving that shiny new Camry!  Why not?  You go to church, so God owes you, right? He’ll take care of everything!

At least, that’s what the commercials tell you, isn’t it?.  You should have it –whatever it is, because you’re good.  Aren’t you good?  Don’t you pay your taxes and work really hard?  Don’t you own a bible and pray sometimes?  Don’t you keep your nose out of other people’s business?  And don’t you put up with that Jack-hole of a boss, and your whiny kids and your demanding significant other?  Sure you do –so here’s your stuff as a reward for how good you are —and oh don’t worry, we take credit cards –or do I need to call someone from our financing department?

On the other hand, if you realize that a good person looks exactly like Jesus, you’ll get a different answer.  In that case, are you a good person?  I can tell you what seems very clear to me: the answer is no.  Nothing you could ever do could repay the debt you have in being alive.  No good works, no compassionate heart, no ideology –regardless of how rich or true it happens to be- can save you from the accounting of God.  Because on your own, there is no you.  Without the breath of God, you’re just a pile of dust, and before too long people will see that’s true about you again.  Without your parents and that act that’s uncomfortable for most of us to think about, there’d be no you.  Without the care, support, investment, patience, and love of the hundreds of people who nurtured you since birth, you’d be something less.  Without the air you breathe, and the organic matter you eat, and the complex bacterial systems living in you to digest it, there would be no you.  Without the power companies, and government, and economy, and complex network of jobs, you wouldn’t have the life you lead.  Without your friends, relatives and coworkers, who teach you, and encourage you, and constantly affirm that you matter, though perhaps not as much as they do to themselves, you’d find yourself unable to continue on.  Because the truth is, if you’d look far enough to see it, is that –far from being the center of the universe- you are its ultimate contingency.  The material, spiritual, rational realms of being conspired to let you happen.  So, no, you don’t deserve life, love, happiness, or a new Camry.  Because you never had anything to do with your being alive in the first place.  And that’s a debt you can never, ever pay back.

But friends, the good news of Christ is that you don’t have to.  You don’t need to earn God’s love, or that of another.  God doesn’t expect you to pay Him back.  And most of all, you don’t have to be good.  Let me say that again: the saving gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is that you don’t … have … to be … good.  You don’t have to good looking, or successful, or funny, or smart, or right, or rich, or smiley, or even kind or whatever.  But instead, you get to be you.  Precisely because you didn’t deserve it.  Because that’s how God’s love works.  That’s who God is –generous, without score-keeping.  And everything we have, and everything we are, is always a gift from God.  It’s grace –all of it.  Our spirits, but also our bodies.  Our high minded thoughts, and also our sexuality.  Our compassion and generosity, but also our need and desperation.  The most wonderful people in our lives, and our dysfunctional neighbors.  All of that stuff is a part of the bigger picture of God’s miraculous creativity.

You see, brothers and sisters, God, and the teachings of Christ are not just one more box to add to the clutter, but they are the spiritual, metaphysical reality that holds absolutely everything together.  God, who’s been called ‘Love,’ is what binds everything in relationship.   He’s the living connection that runs through, and with all things, and sets creation in motion and blesses it with life.  And you’re a part of it.  Not out of necessity, but out of inexplicable grace.  You have been chosen to be.  And your calling is simply this: to be the best, most grateful, compassionate, open, faithful, serving, and loving human being God has empowered you to be.  And hopefully, God will allow us to recognize that grace in one another, and the rest of creation too.

Let us hear our good news, as Jesus shows us how to be, and tells us what we’re worth.  This reading is from Luke 11:37-44; 12:1-7.  Let us read together.

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