Love Loud

Ancient Testimony ~ 1 Corinthians 12:12-28

September 20, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I just heard about a Chicago matron who inherited a set of Marshall Fields bed linens that her mother had received as a wedding present in 1919 and never used because no occasion ever seemed special enough. Twenty-seven years later, Fields allowed her to return the bedding for store credit. Twenty-seven years seems like a long time to sleep in a boring bed. But I daresay some do and more will. Why the increase in boredom in bed? Because the bar has been raised so high. The sexual saturation of the streets (do check out the new Armani commercial and tell me who you see there) joins the various commandments to be gorgeous to create a tad bit of pressure on that part still referred to as “down there.” St. Paul is not alone forgetting about the body parts near the groin (you will note the picture of the Pauline body on the front cover of your bulletin).

So there is a lot of pressure on the bed in our world. Duh. Since we put pressure on everything, why should there not also be pressure there? In bed, we want to touch each other, and in our society we can’t just do that. We have to do it with vigor and panache, better than each other, and best of all is if we get to pay for some of the joy of the experience. Dare I mention Viagra? Or cellulite removal? Or a half-dozen other products that can make your time between the sheets memorable and notable?

Today I want to have a little conversation with you about a big subject, namely sex. I don’t intend to create the new Holy Grail of bedtime for adults. Or to come up with a new and improved sexual ethic. Rather, I’d like to do a simple teaching sermon: how to read the bible theologically when it comes to subjects it doesn’t cover. Principally, the bible does not cover sexuality as we know it in the 21st century. Sexuality now is sexuality with pretty good birth control. It happens between all kinds of people of all kinds of gender orientations and has a large advertising budget. People in our little part of the world have two or so children. They come to two Daddy houses and two Mommy houses and one Mommy houses, etc. Most of the cultural norms regulating human sexuality come out of a pre-birth-control and pre-gay-friendly situation. Not that our little world prevails or is not under threat. It is. But much of the vigor with which the new Right attacks the more open parts of our society comes in this culture gap. People who are just not comfortable with women having agency or agentive sexuality are spooked by the fact that we do. People who are just not comfortable with homosexual behavior are spooked that people are touching each other sexually in ways they don’t like. Some of this discomfort is extremely ugly.

So we live in a contested field, sexually, with young women wearing clothes on the street that would kill my grandmother, with transgendered people wearing sexually suggestive underwear on large billboards that you just can’t miss on the street or in the subway. We live in a sexually saturated and changing sexual world.

So what do I want to teach here? I want to teach you theology. I want to teach you how to read an ancient lesson in such a way that it can help you see a modern situation. Our text today is about the body as metaphor. Clearly the body is just about always a metaphor. For St. Paul it was a metaphor about diversity and sticking together. Don’t act, said Paul, like you don’t need each other; you do. It was not about body as we know it today, that place where we are commanded to be beautiful, smooth, skinny, and well-adorned. Paul’s gift is the notion of unity of body and soul.

The best theological method I know starts in “defamiliarizing” ourselves with the text. Stand back from it and figure out what the writer was trying to tell you in the first place. Paul is clearly trying to unify a divided community. The second feature of good on-the-ground personal populist theology (never let the seminaries act like they own theology) is to correlate. What about your experience connects to the experience of disharmony which Paul is addressing, metaphorically, with the body? You can indeed use a text that is meant politically and socially—which this one is—to address your own personal or spiritual experiences, and vice versa. Texts are equal opportunity employers. Just because this text is about the body in a non-sexual sense does not mean that it doesn’t have meaning there. Better put, one of the definitions of an ancient text is that it is globalizing: it means something in many different ways to many different people at many different times.

Many people don’t like this text precisely because it omits the penis and the vagina. I happen to think that is silly and represents a kind of cultural over-reach, or even imperialism. One of the great problems, intellectually, is the way we unseat one dogma only to replace it with another. We used to be quiet about sex, religiously, and now we are loud about sex, religiously (here at Judson we even enjoy a nude provocation every now and then, especially on new member Sundays), and now we act like those who were quiet, or modest, were dumb. Dogmas unseated don’t need dogmas to replace them. Instead, those of us who read Christian texts with interest find that each one has its own angle but that all are interpreted by a central theme of love. That we are to love each other. When we take this central theme, which Jesus tells us is the first and only commandment, back to the Pauline text, we begin to have some fun. We begin to see that the body is a metaphor for unifying ourselves as well as unifying each other. That sexuality is about our brains and hands as well as our sexual organs. I was astonished to read the recent piece about Jenny Allen’s new one woman show, I Got Sick and Then I Got Better, in The New York Times. In it, Allen makes the interesting claim that all of her anatomy is a woman’s part. I liked that idea; a woman’s ear is as much a woman’s part as a woman’s clitoris. Then she goes on to say, teasingly, that she is going to have to get “crude” to discuss one of her sexual organs. It was astonishing to me to read, in The New York Times, in the 21st century, somebody still using the euphemism and the negatives. Deep in the language is a dirty and clean approach to sexuality. Dare I bring up “Aunt Flo” as a way to talk about a woman’s period, or “Uncle Woody” to talk about a teenager’s erection? Paul, of course, participated in this reticence about “down there,” so ably revealed in The Vagina Monologues.

When we defamiliarize ourselves with a text, we try to remember what sex is like for people in the 21st century. Infant mortality is just a start. When we defamiliarize ourselves with a text and don’t just tell it to think the way we sort of think about sex or bodies in the 21st century, there is a little clearing. Into that clearing, we dare to bring our own questions.

I don’t know about you but I have lots of questions about sex. Lots. Monogamy is one. Gay marriage is another. In the context of gay marriage, do gay people really want to regulate their sexuality with the same cultural norms as straight people? Do we really need marriage still? Is marriage woman-friendly or gay-friendly? I am a big fan of Margaret Mead’s notion that we have evolved, culturally, to needing a two-stage marriage: one that allows people to partner and couple without having children, the other involving children. In the first, monogamy is unnecessary. In the second, it aids.

Another question is about what is happening to girls. Apparently girls can now sleep around without being permanently called tramps. In a world where women couldn’t get credit cards without their husband’s permission until 1960, I find this very interesting. The double standard that applies to the Eliot Spitzers and South Carolinians is appalling. Whenever I think of Zelda Spitzer standing by her man, and of what (in my projection) would have happened to her if Eliot had been Edna, well, I just start spitzering.

When I correlate my experience with scriptures that dare speak of the body, I realize I have many, many questions. So let me say in simple words what I think is a holy way of thinking of our bodies. Our bodies and our souls are one. The people in our communities, even those who judge and condemn, are a part of us, judging and condemning. There is a oneness to human beings that means that I can be turned on by a poster in the subway of guy in his underwear and also feel guilty about it at the same time. When I search for the best word for my spiritual/physical body, the word that shows up is “fumbly.” As fumbly as the first guy who felt me up. When I think about the gift and grace of love, I get very excited that things are so fumbly. I hear Paul Jacobs playing those Bach Trio Sonatas, using all four of his limbs—two hands and two feet—and saying, “Don’t watch me. Close your eyes and listen to the music.” That strikes me as a great sexual objective. So much better, Jacobs is, than Nancy Ancowitz, who is running a course at the 92nd Street Y about “Self Promotion for Introverts.” She tells us that “nobody can afford to go around unnoticed.” Sometimes in bed, between the sheets, I like to be unnoticed so that I can be noticed in a more relaxed way. I really don’t want performance pressure in bed. It is unloving and separates my deeper self from my more culturally attuned self. The importance of being able to be unimportant is the way I might say that.

For me sexuality at its best is the joining of our mutual fragilities. We get just close enough to another human being to realize that great connection between now and eternity, love and death. Great sex involves the moment when we know we are not unbreakable.

If you find your penis is over here and your soul is over there, you are in violation of St. Paul’s hints about the body.

You don’t think that is much, do you? Well, I do. We are fumbling our way toward a unity of body and soul. Amen.

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