2 Sam 11:26-12:10, 13-15, Luke 7.36-8:3 (Gal 2:15-end)
One of the things I will have had to learn rather quickly when preaching, is to try to grab the attention of my audience within a matter of seconds. Even better of course, was if I could also get teenagers and young adults interested.
Well, then… perhaps we should talk about sex!
The Old Testament reading points clearly to the destructiveness of an illicit sexual relationship and the New Testament one alludes to the moral behaviour of a woman, which some believe has to do with “that thing”. Some preachers would certainly take the opportunity to cover the ground by discussing what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and what the Bible allegedly tells us to do with our sexuality.
I hope you will forgive me for this, but I have listened to too many preachers who I knew had too little integrity or knowledge when preaching on the subject and I will simply not even attempt to go there.
But if there is one single common experience to any human being at some point in their lives at the very least, and that is the starting point of the Gospel story, then it is the poverty that we can experience in our sexual lives. By poverty, I mean the lack of necessary freedom to live our sexuality in its fullness within the context of wholesome relationships. For some that may mean the inability to find a suitable partner, for others it may be the inability to commit to a single one. For some it may be the difficulty they have to enjoy their marriage fully, for others it is the fact that their relationship is not recognised by law. And for some it is their inability to love another as they are, and for others, to love themselves sufficiently to make the relationship sustainable. Our Church remains of the opinion that the ideal for sexual relationships is that they take place within a heterosexual marriage. This said I hope that we can also recognise that marriage is not always the universal panacea we are told to it is and that other forms of relationships can be equally fulfilling.
As I mentioned earlier, we do not know for sure whether the sinful woman was ‘sinful’ because she was an adulteress or even just – as some people would say – ‘easy’, but we know that she had experienced that poverty, fuelled we guess by her own actions, and looked to Christ for healing and forgiveness.
Jesus’ logic seems clear: the ones who experience this poverty the most are also the ones who are able to see their sinfulness most clearly, and grasp how dependant they are on God’s forgiveness and grace. In the same vein as the Beatitudes, poverty or a lack of freedom to live a full life helps us remember and dream of how things ought to be, very much in the same way that the Prodigal Son remembers home, even if we don’t always exactly know how that should look like.
We often lament about how much sex – we think – goes on in our Western societies but I personally doubt this is the issue. If I listen to older members of my family, frankly, I don’t think that things have changed dramatically – we simply probably talk more openly about it.
What might have changed for the worse however, and that is not just limited to sexual relationships but also, for instance, at work, is what the late French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote so much about: objectification – seeing oneself or the other as an object rather than a human being. There lies in my opinion the root of much evil: it is a failure to apprehend and respect the person in her or his whole reality. In Sartre’s words: “I am prevented from determining my own meaning for my action; the judgment of the other imprisons me in a category of meaning that is not mine. I am made into, frozen into, what my body appears to be”.
We are shocked when we hear of stories of child abuse and trafficking, or when we hear how boys in their young teens invite over their friends over to have sex with their girlfriend. I did come across such stories during this short year here in Richmond – no need to beat around the bush: it happens here and it happens now.
Christ invites us to question our lives before we even consider how others live theirs, and the Gospel story is another example of this. I believe that is because we all share responsibility in what happens around us.
A very Western mind-set often leads us to over-legislate, because we believe that it is our best defence mechanism against abuse. But we are also hypocritical because it conveniently takes away our responsibility and hand it over to the State, which will not always act in the victim’s best interest, or worse even, will not always act at all. Talk with victims of sexual abuse and you will understand how inadequate our system too often can be. (I would say more if I could.)
A failure to act, if not illegal, deems us innocent. Without wanting to be Puritan about this I certainly do think that our avid consumption of pornography or trivialisation of sexual relationships certainly does not help reframing sex as a function of love. But more than that, it is the objectification of our partners, whether for the rest of our lives or the rest of the night, that is the root of this systematic evil. We are in someway all responsible in perpetuating sexual abuse as long as we refuse to acknowledge our poverty, continue to see others and ourselves as objects, and as long as we do not seek to be instruments of God’s love in our own relationships. Not unlike the crowd mentality that failed to stop the crucifixion of an innocent man, that same mentality prevents us from looking at ourselves and renders us blind. It renders us blind as how we perpetuate and implicitly legitimise abuse by letting it crawl into out own relationships. What might have been indifference or even cowardliness in the face of Christ’s trial, might be in our relationships, for instance, seeking control over our partner, or parading them as a trophy or even simply and continually disregarding their opinion. All these, and many more, are lesser acts of abuse, which we all to a certain extent consciously or unconsciously do – but they are acts of abuse!
In the Epistle reading for today (as per the lectionary), St Paul tells the Galatians that we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. This is of course no remission from the law of this country or international law, or even a permission to take a laissez-faire attitude. St Paul, really, is exhorting us to not rely on the law anymore because it has been superseded through the reality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. As St Paul says: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”.
No law in itself will ever prevent abuse; it will only seek to punish it. Yet if we ever are to stop it, it needs a change of heart that starts with us. And we need to bring about a change of hearts in others, not the least children and teenagers.
I’ll be perhaps too honest by saying that my experience is that our evangelical brothers and sisters tend to spend too much time deciding for others as well as for themselves which sexual behaviours are right and wrong. But we, liberal Anglo-Catholics, should perhaps also start questioning our own behaviours and how we perpetuate this systematic evil of abuse. We cannot just turn a blind eye.
And as members of this church, we do not only have a responsibility for ourselves and how we treat our partners, but we have responsibility to address the abuse that goes on in this parish. From my experience working at a local school, really, there is much more we could do at the level in our work with children and teenagers. I hope the parents in this congregation, knowing that their children might at some point in their school years here encounter if not undergo such abuse, will see this too. And that they will join me in believing that as a church, in the work that we do in the parish, we need to address abuse better, and with that goal in mind, that we should indeed talk about sex.