What I’ll be doing in the series is to redirect Lenten repentance toward the sinfulness of the social forces in which we dwell. Guilt is not the point, but rather, critical awareness of and detachment from our culture. I’m also trying to understand the richness of the cross. But that’s a lot to do.
I confess that I paint conservative Christians with a broad brush below. Usually I make a point of being careful about “othering” conservative Christians. Perhaps treating a sensitive topic made me too eager to secure my own position in contrast to another.
Luke 4:1-13; Eph 2:1-7
During Lent my sermon series will explore repentance. Someone asked me why I want to spend five weeks on repentance—isn’t that depressing? Not the repentance I want to talk about. It has nothing to do with feeling guilty, or with giving things up for Lent. That’s the old school of Lent and repentance, the way conservative Christians might think about it. Liberal Christians have rightly lost interest in all of that, but then don’t know what to do with Lent. Can we just get even more committed to social justice? Well, that’s fine; but the Bible won’t allow us to ignore repentance. Jesus’ most basic preaching is “The Kingdom of God has drawn near; Repent, and believe in the Good News.” So we need to recover and rethink this idea of repentance. And because it’s Valentine’s Day, I just couldn’t resist beginning with sexuality. But I also begin there because I wanted to take the most stereotypical area of sin—sex, lust—and address it in a completely turned around way. (In Hebrew, teshuva, “repent,” means to turn around or return, and in this series I want to return to the topic of repentance in a way that upturns it, overturns it, and turns it upside-down. I want to repent how we repent—get it?) So today let’s look at sexuality and repentance; in the coming weeks we’ll turn to politics, economics, our sense of self, and finally, religion. I think whether conservative or liberal, any Christian ought to be able to see in all these areas ways that we, and our culture, and our world need to repent. And along the way we will consider also how the key events leading up to Easter—above all, the cross and the resurrection—guide us in our repentance (and our repentance of repentance).
So why is it that our conservative Christian brothers and sisters are so obsessed with sexual sins—infidelity, lust, masturbation, homosexuality, and so on? Well, we can sin in these matters of sexuality; fair enough. But conservatives zoom in on sexuality to the exclusion of almost all else because it allows them to cast sin as a purely personal, individual problem: sin is like a sickness, a dirtiness inhabiting an individual’s passions. In the most private recesses of your twisted heart, they want to say, you are a sinner. Our institutions are not the problem. Our church is not the problem. The Bible is not a problem. You are the problem. You should feel ashamed, and submit to authority for discipline.
The first thing I want to say, very clearly, is that I think these prudish traditionalists are sinning badly by misconstruing the gospel and the Scriptures to fit their ideological agenda. That is a gross abuse of power, a sin that the Bible is very concerned about. It may be unintentional. They take a passage like our reading from Ephesians and can only hear this: “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” They would miss all of the other interesting things going on in that passage, things I’ll talk about later, because they see what they want to see.
But we liberals will turn around (ahem ahem) and say, but why do we need to repent at all? Doesn’t God love us? What more do we need to know other than God loves us and accepts us as we are? (Please don’t quote to me: “Love means never having to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”) It is true, Jesus came proclaiming above all God’s mercy and love. And yet Jesus never reduces God’s righteousness and judgment. God still judges us; indeed, I argued recently that perhaps God judges the church most of all, because we are God’s own people. And so in the Christian life, being loved by God goes right along with repenting before God, and in the middle of these, where mercy and justice kiss, stands forgiveness.
So how is it possible to hold together God’s forgiving love and transforming justice? (I wrote a very obscure book on this topic. There’s much that could be said, but let’s keep it simple.) I think this helps. God loves us at the personal level. God loves us and has compassion on us as the unique and fragile individuals that we are. That’s why God took personal, individual form as Jesus, who always dealt with people in a very personal way (though not always accepting them as they were). But what God most opposes and judges about humanity is the use and abuse of power. The abuse of power is where we dehumanize each other, regarding each other as objects to be manipulated, oppressed, and controlled. We are all individual, personal human beings, but we all, to varying extents, also use and are abused by power. We all dwell in faulty but blessed webs of love, and we all are ensnared in exploitative webs of power. We can and do sin at the personal level, in our close relationships. But I believe that most of human sin and being sinned against happens within those webs of power. So quite simply, God loves us as persons but judges us as abusers of power.
Paul alludes to these sinful webs of power in today’s Ephesians reading when he tells us that we were dead in our sins, “following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” He’s not talking about sinful individuals, but about something powerful yet intangible. In the coming weeks, we will fill in Paul’s vague language, which was also echoed in our call to worship, when he says that Jesus has been placed above “all rule and authority and power and dominion.” His language gives sin an strangely ethereal quality: sin is not just sick individuals or bad behavior and decisions, but something invisible dominating us, entrapping us; sin is the mirror image of the invisible God working to liberate and love us.
That is, sin is something like Satan. In the gospel, Jesus is led by God’s spirit to the wilderness to undergo temptation. Remember that what Jesus does, he does for us. And so he undergoes human temptation, but unlike Israel’s temptation in the wilderness, Jesus remains faithful and true. And thus Jesus became our new humanity, in which we can participate. But notice what this story says about our world. “The devil led him up and showed him in an instant [as if from the air] all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.” So: the devil is in control of the world. We’re not talking the stuff of The Exorcist where the devil possesses individuals. If that were true, Jesus would have to do an exorcism on everyone. Rather, this story has it that the devil possesses the kingdoms and specifically their authority, their power. People are not as such possessed by Satan. Kingdoms, powers, and authorities, however, apparently are. At least that’s one way to look at worldly kingdoms and powers; other scriptures, like Romans 13, give us a very different lens on them. But note that if we go with this passage and imagine the power of the world to be Satanic, we still remain responsible for our life under these powers, especially when we receive advantages from them. The devil does not give us a pass from repenting. And before we leave this passage, just notice, very briefly, that the devil doesn’t tempt Jesus with sex. Nowhere in the Gospels is that an issue. Instead, he is tempted to abandon God for the exploitative power by which the world maintains its supposed security.
So, in light of what these passages tell us about sin and the powers that be, what does it mean for us to repent of how we repent of sexuality? First of all, let’s set aside shame and guilt. They never do any good, I say. I was full of sexual guilt when I was a teenager and it was destructive. It took me a long struggle and a failed marriage to get over it. It took me years to realize that sexuality is good just in itself; it’s not shameful. And I finally saw that because it occurred to me that sexuality is indeed very close so spirituality. Sexuality is spiritual because it is inherently communicative and interpersonal; all the more so, the better the sex it is. Because in intimacy we live and delight in and through another’s delight; and that’s exactly the shape of our spirit when we are in love with God. That’s why great mystics of all ages, reading the highly erotic Song of Songs, have seen that sexual love and divine love take the same shape. So as far as I can see, sexuality that is fully interpersonal and mutually generous is good, regardless of whether it matches cultural expectations of genders and practices—all of that can just become a tyranny of the law, as Paul would say. And so I salute you for recognizing that and for becoming an Open and Affirming congregation. But of course a relationship that is fully interpersonal and mutually generous is most likely going to foster a monogamous and lifelong partnership. But I suggest we not put the cart before the horse and try to restrict sexuality using manipulative tools of guilt and shame. (Yes, my child is only three. Ask me again in 12 years, right?)
But while dismissing shame and guilt, let’s admit frankly that sexuality in our culture—in the power of the air—is greatly amiss. Not because people are just too lusty or not straight enough, but because of the historical and social forces that influence and dominate our attitudes toward sexuality. I am no expert here, but let’s start with the historical fact that the age of marriage in the world of the Bible was often right around puberty. Our modern extended adolescence, which is getting longer and longer, creates a big problem that the Bible never foresaw of maintaining chastity before marriage.
For that and other reasons, the Bible is not always a reliable guide on sexuality. The Biblical world often saw sexuality as a dangerous force, a thing in us, to be regulated with laws. Tragically, this approach already separates sexuality from the warmth of a personal relationship in which it is most at home. Sex became seen as an urge, lust, that must be controlled to prevent chaos. And so the church got sex all mixed up with maintaining control—with power and authority, the stuff that Luke tells us is of the devil. And so the church attempted to regulate and repress the sexual urge, forgetting that this is also God’s creation and a result of God’s command to take delight in the garden, and to be fruitful and multiply. The celibate priests were deemed particularly holy for suppressing their sexuality, and the laity were urged to emulate them: you may have sex to produce children, just don’t enjoy it.
Now, we’re not Catholic, but this legacy is still with us to some extent. So I think we need to repent of it, this legacy of repression. But the story gets more complicated. Women and men did not take easily to repressing something so natural and enjoyable, and so they rebelled, rightly; often they threw out the church baby with the festering bathwater of ecclesial repression. Hooray, we’re free to do whatever we want! But they thereby lost the spiritual guidance that allows us to see sexuality not as an urge, or just an act, but as an intense celebration of being interpersonal, indeed, spiritual—of delighting in and through another’s delight. Without that, sex can easily become something I choose to do, perhaps just for kicks, like the other various entertainment options I have at my disposal.
And here is where our free-market economy comes into the picture. Marketers had no interest in repressing sexuality, but in another way they very much agreed with the repressive old church: sex is a force, an urge, a power to be controlled…or exploited. Our marketing industry wants one thing from you: buy as much as you can. They want you to see your life as all about pursuing happiness by making purchases. And so it’s their job to stimulate your appetite as much as possible. That is why our entire media machine, with the possible exception of public tv and radio, rides on the back of advertising. And so just about everything in the world of media—one of our greatest principalities and powers—is designed to catch your attention and stimulate your appetite. And what’s the easiest way to do that? You guessed it—sex.
Mind you, not real, good-created sexuality that is all about connecting interpersonally with a lover. That God-given gift stimulates love and mutual giving, not appetites. And so our marketers and media moguls continued the fallacy of seeing sex as a thing, an object that provokes desire, an image we create and manipulate—in short, an idol. And the sad thing is that they, who are very powerful, encourage us to see ourselves as sexual objects—not interpersonal human beings—but objects capable of stimulating some faceless appetite.
And so, the last time I went to a mall (not my regular haunt), I was treated to a poster featuring Aeropostale’s “Best Booty Ever” campaign. Young woman’s bottom in leggings. And this objectification has an effect on us, more so on women, but on all of us. I admit that I’ve wondered, perhaps while at the gym surrounded by mirrors on all sides, whether I possess my best booty ever. But this is embarrassing, isn’t it? Do we need Ecclesiastes or any revelation whatsoever to inform us that this is vanity? But such is the world that our powers have created, the world into which we and our children are inducted. We don’t have to be horrified by it; making ourselves into objects of desire can be redeemed within a loving relationship. (Happy Valentine’s Day.) But for some people, that is all there is. And but for the grace of God, there go we.
Thankfully for us, as vicious as our economy’s effort to manipulate sexuality is, we can smile and mock it all, mock the powers that think they can own us. Because God has conquered all of this by the cross. More on that to come.
And so for Lent, maybe we should think not of giving something up, something that will help us control and repress our natural appetites—giving up chocolate, or sex. Instead we could think about renouncing the miasma of exploitative sexuality all around us. See it for what it is, and subject it to scorn and derision. And then resolve to celebrate the passionate human love in our relationships, not just our romantic ones, but all of them. Take delight in the delight of others. And God help the powers who take delight in enslaving us.