|Closer: The Search For Intimacy #2
Closer: The Human Search for Intimacy #2
Our Cultural Obsession with Sexuality
Reading: Matthew 5:21-48
Introduction: I want to return to Paradise for just a moment this morning as we begin, reading again the words of Genesis one and two. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (1:26-27). Then from the second account of creation in which Adam was created and then God continued to create in search of a suitable partner for Adam: “But for Adam [no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; ?she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (2:20b-25).
Perhaps you have seen the commercial recently produced by the makers of Dove Soap that now has taken on a life of its own through “You-Tube” and Dove’s “Global Campaign for Real Beauty.” This brief film clip is called “The Evolution of Beauty” and it begins with a young woman sitting down to receive a professional makeover. In the opening scene, she is not unattractive, but she clearly has no make-up on; her hair is pulled back and she has a rather bored look on her face. Then the whirlwind of activity begins and the make-up is applied, the hairstylist transforms the hair and just when you think this woman is now ready for a fashion show the image of her face is suddenly a photograph on a computer being “photo-shopped.” The neck lengthened, the cheekbones moved, the eyes are lifted. When the computer enhancement is finished the screen changes and you see this woman’s face now on a billboard advertisement. Finally the print screen appears with these words: “No wonder our perception of beauty is so distorted. Join our Global Campaign For Real Beauty.”
When one journeys to the website for this global campaign, or sees the latest advertisement featuring young girls that (according to the print besides their faces in the commercial) don’t like some aspect of their physical appearance, you can’t help appreciating the effort that includes a funded research center at Harvard University. But even as you watch and read – as least as I watch and read, I start wondering if this is part of a solution or another magnification of the distortion. The human body and its relationship to either the language of beauty or human identity receives so much attention in our culture. But is the cure for human identity and the search for meaning in human existence to be found in “self-esteem”? What is it that we are trying to find? Self-worth? Value as a person? Meaning for our existence? Is self-esteem ever self-contained or is that concept inaccurate? It’s not just how one sees herself or himself but how one believes others see me as well. One of the key findings in Dove’s research is that the primary influence on how young girls think about themselves is what their peers think and say.
And, of course, nothing about the issue of the human body and body image and self-esteem is limited to females. Body size and peer evaluation and sedentary habits that lead to weight gain and then concerns about weight watching and appearance and identity are not gender specific issues any more than the related questions of sexuality and hormones and sexual desires are predominantly male concerns. Some popular theorists date our struggles with sex and sexuality and body image and self-esteem to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s. Since the days of “open marriage” and “free love” in the 1970’s, and the Supreme Court decision about abortion, we in the western world have become obsessed with sexuality and the search for sexual gratification. The divorce rates have soared, abortion has become commonplace, explicit sexual content in movies and television has become ‘normal,’ the availability of pornography not just in print but electronic media has made Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club seem outdated. Even the question of sexual orientation now is out in the open. Elton John grabbed a headline in the Internet version of USA Today with his claim that it is religion that is causing the hatred toward homosexuals.
When the larger cultural phenomenon regarding sexuality meets the cultural Christianity, we have to admit that we haven’t faired too well. While churches continue to teach explicitly against sexual immorality and divorce and pornography and label as sinful all sexual activities outside of marriage, the practices don’t match up with the teaching very well. Some studies suggest that divorce rates among ‘born again’ Christians are equal to, if not higher than, non-Christians. We all know too many stories about church leaders and sexual scandal, through an illicit heterosexual act, or addiction to pornography, or the one we condemn the most, some illicit homosexual act. And we never get around to talking about the “m” word – masturbation – unless we are teaching an adolescents class and someone want to know if the sin of Onan applies. We still tend to believe that certain hormonal urges are more male or more female, that young males have it worse of different than females, if women would stop wearing suggestive clothes or men would keep their eyes focused elsewhere, problems would be solved.
That introduces us to the large issue of power related to all of this. Both inside and outside of the marriage relationship, sex often is not about intimacy or oneness of heart and life but about power. I’ve known people who decided they wanted out of a marriage who withheld themselves sexually from their spouse until the spouse decided he or she deserved sexual satisfaction outside the marriage. At which point, of course, there was “scriptural grounds” for divorce. But power and the language of “I deserve this” comes in all kinds of forms. It is the rationale for most sexual activity that we need to keep secret and hidden.
The other major issue with power is the way in which the powerful often seem the most corrupt and the most susceptible to corruption. Those who make the rules or at least announce and enforce the rules sometimes have the biggest secrets. This isn’t new to our cultural circumstances. Ancient times were no different. When one reads the story of David and Bathsheba, the king is above the rules – or at least he thinks he is. The Law was explicit about the death penalty in the case of adultery, but in practice it was never the male who was accused, it was the female. Males were in power; females were property.
One other thing about ‘then and now’ that impacts us is that we now live with the cultural assumption that marriages are best arranged through physical attraction. This man is “attracted” to this woman, and vice versa. They meet and they date and they “fall in love.” And for the vast majority of our culture, having sexual intercourse will be a natural outcome in the early stages of getting to know each other. In Christian settings, we teach and pray that men and women will remain “pure” until they are married. But the statistics on that are less than encouraging. I’m quite certain we don’t want to know how many of the students at our Christian colleges and universities are already sexually active.
In the midst of all of those discussions, we find ourselves cast in these false “either/or” conversations of “sex is bad” or “sex is good”. Christians are free to do this, this, and this, but they are not free to do that. Because sex in marriage is good, then here are the boundaries; because obsession with sex even in marriage is bad, then these are the rules…..
My problem this morning is that I can’t begin to talk about any of these particulars in a twenty-minute sermon when each of them deserves at least a weekend seminar. I haven’t even mentioned the power of shame and guilt in all of this and the way in which shame binds us to repetitive cycles of self-loathing and numbness and rationalizing that leads to another episode of acting out. I don’t believe it is particularly useful to read a couple of texts and remind us all of the rules or talk about God’s grace as a magic wand that can fix us. Even having accountability partners is a great idea, but it’s always a slave to my own truth-telling. People with addictive behaviors – especially us highly churched people – are incredibly adept at lying to others and to ourselves!
My conviction is this: legislating behavior works for some people some of the time. It creates technicalities and the need for interpretation. Someone keeps having to further define what is legal and what is not. Biblical history and history otherwise teaches us that legislating morality is doomed to failure. The privileged and powerful abuse the powerless and live above the rules. Secret lives are created that slowly destroy from the inside out. I think that’s what Jesus is trying to say in the Sermon on the Mount when he speaks that series of “You have heard it said…..but I say to you.” He is not trying to move the legislation to a different level; he is trying to move our humanity to a different level.
In the context of Matthew 5 (vv. 17ff), Jesus has just reminded them that he has not come to abolish law and prophets but to fulfill them. His coming is not some nullification of the will of God regarding humans in relationship with God and other human beings. Not comma or quotation mark will disappear from the will of God because of his coming because he has come to make human beings fully human again. He has come to restore and renew the Divine Image within us, changing all of the questions of power and valuation among human beings. So he gives these examples of the way in which humans dehumanize others. He says, “You know the rule about murder but I tell you that angry words are just as dehumanizing.” You have heard that having sex with a person other than your spouse is wrong but I tell you that turning another person into a sex object in your mind is just as damaging. You have heard it said that marriages can be dissolved by certificates from a judge, but I tell you that except in cases where the marriage vow already is broken such legal actions are equally dehumanizing to your spouse.
In all six of these, Jesus is calling us to see other human beings as fully human, made in the image of God. AND he is calling us to see ourselves the same way. Whether it is a new perspective we have on truth-telling or on how we think about and treat those that until we have come to know as “enemies” or how we respond to others who demean and dehumanize us, we are invited to see ourselves as the Image of God. I think that’s what that last verse means: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This isn’t some impossible standard that we are to attempt to live into; this is a relational understanding of ourselves as those beings on this planet created to be the image of God to one another.
Several weeks ago I talked about rethinking our fundamental definitions of sin and salvation. Forgiveness of sins is not an end itself, nor is salvation about securing a “mansion just over the hilltop in that fair land where we’ll never grow old.” Grace is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that we play in some cosmic monopoly game whenever we act out and dehumanize ourselves or another person. Rules are made for human protection, but they are abused for the sake of power. This is the story of serpent and Adam and Eve, replayed constantly in our own lives. This voice inside us says, “Who’s in charge here? You know what’s best – don’t listen to any other voices. You deserve this. You don’t need to feel bad; you need to feel good. This will make you feel good, if only for a moment. Don’t worry about the consequences to yourself or to others. You just need to feel good now. God’s conning you – you can be your own god.
So we have the momentary high; we even convince ourselves that the church rules are prudish, out of step with the times, have no idea what it’s like to be single in this culture, or single again having once enjoyed marital sex but now needing the pleasure of sex somewhere, somehow. “Church rules can’t speak to the horrible relationship I’m in or how much I deserve this escape into those pictures on my computer screen.…There’s nothing in the Bible against sexual activity with oneself…..As long as my boyfriend and I just have oral sex, that’s not wrong.”
No, as long we can rationalize about the rules, we will also figure out ways – at least in the moment – to leave guilt and shame behind as well. That’s why the solution offered by Jesus Messiah is not simply an extension of the rules. Jesus does not come to set up new boundaries or to erase the boundaries with grace. He comes to make us new creation through the healing of relationships and indwelling of the very Spirit of God. Salvation become the restoration of the image of God in us, changing how we see ourselves, how we see God, how we see other human beings, how we the rest of God’s creation. Beauty is no longer to be sought or found in self-esteem or cultural understandings of image and the human body. We are made in God’s image! Every human body becomes the unique bearer of God’s image. Paul even claims that by the power of the Holy Spirit within us we are given the eyesight to see others this way. Listen afresh to his words in II Corinthians 5: So from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (II Cor. 5:16-17). Or to the Galatians he writes, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is new creation” (Gal. 6:15). It’s not some physical sign that demonstrate who is in and who is out. It is the new creation work of God. It is believing that God has indwelled us and restored relationship and that beauty is defined by his creation work not ours. And yes, our gender as male and female is integral to his creation of us and his new creation work in us.
The Christian proclamation is not that we have more stringent rules than our culture or that now we ‘enlightened’ Christians can enjoy sex with the best of them or that we Christians need to stand up and protect the world from the evils and evil teachings of “those people,” whomever they are. The Christ-follower message is that in Christ and the outpouring of God’s Spirit, we no longer see from a worldly point of view. We don’t see ourselves that way we don’t see other human beings that way. Now we see Images of God. In my own life, believing that God lives in me is the only way I can see myself as whole, as worthy, as capable of not going to that website or not demeaning another human being. It is the only way to break through the categories that create “those people” – you know who I mean. Whether it is the last frontiers left for categorizing and bashing – homosexuality and abortion clinics – or one’s rationale for an addiction to masturbation (“I’m not like the person who visits prostitutes”), rules and rules-keeping won’t provide help. Yes, we need accountability groups. We need community and safety to tell the truth. But we also have to know God’s love for us is so deep and so great that he longs to live in us. There is no body shape he does not love; there is no shame he cannot remove if we can believe he really is closer to us than the blood in our veins.
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, November 12, 2006.
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