Church of the Beloved, Edmonds, WA
Epiphany 2014: Connection & Sexuality
Week 3: February 2, 2014: EMBODIED
There is a field of study that has received some recent attention. It’s called Neurotheology and, as the name suggests, it’s primary focus is on the link between belief and the brain. It asks, “Is religious experience something that can be located in the body? Where does it show up in the brains activity? Is religious experience something that can be scientifically quantified and qualified?” A number of Universities have done work on these questions, discovering what they call “the God spot” in the brain. You can see it here on the slide, a section of the right lobe just above the ear. This is the spot that lights up when people report to have religious experience in prayer or meditation, and times when they say they experience the distinct feeling of God’s presence.
Now, as you might imagine, both people of faith and people wanting to discredit faith have jumped on this information, and from it an argument has been made popular that says, “Ah see! What you call God is nothing more than some electrons firing off in your brain. If I was to open up your skull and give your grey matter a little tickle right over here… pow, you could have a transcendent experience, see the bright light, feel the Spirit’s presence in the room, and you’d give your heart to Jesus right here and now. This is proof that the material world is all there is and we can finally put to rest this nonsense about a spirituality.” I think, that’s definitely an interesting point, but, hold on, wouldn’t it make sense for the God who creates the body and calls it good, to also create our bodies to actually experience God within our bodies and it’s physical functions? Wouldn’t that just make sense?
And isn’t it suspicious that we can observe things like fear and love in our brain, but we don’t come to the conclusion that there is no subject of our fear and love, the same way we conclude, if somethings happening in our brain, then surely there mustn’t be a God. There’s a way in which our interpretation of this study reveals our dualism –
that is, our enduring desire to place the body and the spirit in opposition to each other. And this kind of dualism has has been going on for a long, long time. Dualism was the first major heresy that the Christian church faced 2,000 years ago in the second and third century. There was something in the water of Hellenistic culture everywhere
and Gnostic dualism was showing up in all the major philosophies and religions, not just in Christianity. This Gnostic Dualism said, “The material world is bad. It’s full of corruption and vice, and only a pale shadow of what’s ideal. But the Spirit is good! If only we could get rid of these rancid bodies and transcend to the spiritual…”
Even though this kind of hatred of everything material, earthly, body, and praising of everything ideal and spiritual was in vogue, orthodox Christianity determined that this was not God’s opinion of the body and the world of matter. How could they when the God that they knew in Jesus Christ put on flesh, not in the way one puts a jacket when it’s cold and then tosses it aside, but rather became fully human, in every way, marrying together in one person both divinity and humanity, never to be separated again. So when it came to the incarnation, the Gnostic Christians had serious problems explaining the God-Man Jesus who ate and drank, became tired and slept, aged and knew the limitations that the rest of us know, and then experienced torture and death. All these things were far beneath the God of the gnostics and they had to do some mental gymnastics to figure out what to do with Jesus. “Well, Jesus wasn’t truly body. He was only spirit but appeared to be body, like a hologram.” That was one way they tried and reconcile the problem of Jesus’ body.
Dualism was the first great heresy that the Church held fast against, how did they do this? Orthodoxy made a stand in the complicated middle, affirming both: “God calls material good – God calls the spirit good. And binds them inseparably together.” When you were formed in your mothers womb, not only was your body formed, but your spirit was formed. You weren’t some free floating spirit up in some ephemeral heaven before you were born. And you won’t be one in the future. You are your body. You don’t have a body. You are a body. This is why the reality of the bodily resurrection, as mysterious and unprovable as it is, remains essential to the Christian story. Paul says, “If our bodily resurrection ain’t real – it’s all for not.” (Paraphrased)
Here’s a crazy thing, when the eternal Word became flesh and was named Jesus, he became inextricably linked to body. This means that at this moment Jesus is body. I don’t know where and how, but I know that the resurrected Jesus has not thrown off flesh as if, “Well I guess I don’t need that lousy shell anymore.” But there is also something new, redeemed and whole about his resurrected body. In the Gospels we see him doing normal things like eat fish, and show off wicked scars, but the particles of his body also move through locked doors, and sometimes he’s not visible to his disciples in their grief on the road out of town.
Here’s the point – God doesn’t despise being a body. And it’s heresy for us to despise being a body too. It’s one of the first and great heresies of the Church, and it’s a heresy that remains within us. But I get it. We are a strange animal in the animal kingdom. Because on the one hand we have hair on our knuckles, we poop and pee, we lactate and have things like placentas and umbilical chords, like the rest of the primates. Yet on the other hand we do things like write poems, build skyscrapers, paint sunflowers and fly to the moon. Orangoutangs can learn sign-language and I’m really excited for them, but they’re not building a rocket ship any time soon. There is something truly unique happening in this strange human creature, and, subconsciously, it’s a confusing tension for us to hold.
So I understand the urge to fall off on one side or the other of this heresy of dualism. Another way to demonstrate it is to either say, “The body is the real thing – the Spirit is just fairy tale.” Or to say, “The spirit is the real thing – everything else is going to pot.” But do you see how in both cases, it’s a fear of our limitations that drives us to let go of the tension of both/and?
To be embodied, to have a body means to have limits. In a really elementary way, I exist in this space right here, between this skin, not in some other space. I take up this limited amount of space. I start and stop here.
To be embodied means that I am not an idea or an ideal. “I am a real boy.” My body imposes hard limits on my ideals about myself, namely, that I have needs. Needs for which I cannot source and supply by myself. I need others. I don’t have everything I need within myself. We are creatures with a Creator, we don’t make ourselves, and we continue to need each other to live. We need each other, we need the earth, we need God. This is the constant reminder that meals bring to our attention and we are given opportunity to remember our embodied nature and be grateful for God and each other at every meal – because if we don’t eat and drink, we waste away. Or more immediately, try not breathing. We have needs. Like food. Like air. Like sleep. Like affection.
To be embodied is to live in a world of senses, of pleasure and pain, of repulsion and attraction. When God creates us as embodied people – God makes us sexual beings, needful of each other, and desiring connection to one another. When Dan Allendar talks about the Creation Narrative in Genesis and God brings before the first human all the animals to be named, each are paired together, and not one is a suitable partner, Dan draws out the playfulness of the text. God is in fact awakening desire for connection by doing this. When God creates – each individual thing is called, but when looking over everything as it fits together, with and for each other, then it’s finally called “very good”. And the first thing to be called “not good” is that humanity is lonely. To be created, to be a creature, to be embodied is to need each other. And this needfulness is not to be despised, it connects us.
There is an Easter greeting in the Greek Orthodox Church that says, “Christ is risen indeed! I can see him in your face.” What an amazing statement about embodiment. Do you have practices that root you down in your body? Do you have practices that expand your lungs with spirit? Do you have practices that help you recognize the integration of the two? Sometimes during an especially tough day when I’m really wound up in my head sometimes I’ll remember to take a deep breath, and something as simple as that helps pull me back down more fully into myself. Do you have practices of embodiment?
Here’s one way that the conversation of embodiment and the pull of dualism shows itself in our context, even at this very moment. As “good” Christians – should we hate the Seahawks, boycott the Superbowl, and go to church on sunday instead… as many Christians have decided to do?
Or as “good” Christians – should we love the Seahawks, fly the 12th man flag in the sanctuary, cancel church or preach a sermon about how, “You are the 12 disciple”…
as many Christians have decided to do? Nothing is ever as easy as this kind of binary polarization.
Here’s how your staff at Beloved went about making this decision: On the one hand, let’s be honest. This is just a game. And yet, we spend billions of dollars to watch it, money that could be spent toward truly worthy causes, for instance, helping those who are abused and exploited by the sex trade, which is statistically at it’s worst on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s a very real question to ask, “What does this competition, which creates bitter rivalries, have to do with the Christ who dies to save his enemies? The early Christians were looked down upon because they valued life so much that they refused to go to the colosseum with the crowds. Do we value life that much? And whose lives?
Now on the other hand – it is equally true that Seattle is our home and these are our people. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, a human being, the son of Joseph and Mary, a Jew born into Roman occupation, approximately 2,000 years ago, shows us that place matters, time matters, matter matters to God. These particular details are the content to love. The movement of the Spirit calls us not to “Fly away to glory”, but to “Stay in the city and become empowered by God’s Spirit to be a sign that God is actually here, not out there.” In our self-righteous despising of the Sea Hawks do we alienate ourselves from our neighbor, and reject our Christian calling?
Do you see the bind that we are in? Even a question as simple as “What are we going to do with the Sea Hawk’s game?” is a question of embodiment. (And I know that some of you are looking at your clock bracelets wondering if I’m going to preach right through the game. We’re almost done, but let me say one last thing…)
I know there’s much more to be said about dualism and embodiment that won’t be able to be said here, we could talk about how dualism has historically led us to the horrible subjugation of women, we could talk about how dualism has shamed human sexuality or been the rational for abuse. And they are heresies and atrocities, every one.
I wont be able to say everything today, but let me try to say one thing as clearly as I can: “Orthodox Christianity has rightly refused to oppose body from spirit, nor spirit from body. To be embodied, sexual beings, as God has made us and now calls us, involves the integration of our bodies and spirits, not the division. For us, as Christians, as followers of the incarnate Word, we have no other way of being.
Church of the Beloved, Edmonds, WA
Epiphany 2014: Connection & Sexuality
Week 1: January 19, 2014: DIFFERENCE
It’s the season of Epiphany and I love this part of the Church year because it’s all about the “aha!” of God in Jesus, and all the discoveries that gradually unravel from the incarnation. But we want to do something during this season, that on the outset, absolutely terrifies me. We want to spend the rest of february talking about sexuality. It’s a topic we’ve never really broached at Beloved, but as your Guide Group and staff have prayed and discerned about how we might mature as a community, this was one of the main topics that came up. How do we talk about sexuality?
It’s terrifying to me because here’s a topic that is so sensitive, so explosive, so divisive… I can’t think of a better way to start an ulcer. And yet it is central to who we are – God has made us sexual beings. So, how are we going to talk about it without the conversation being co-opted by either the Consumption Culture that wants to exploit our sexuality or the North American Church Culture that wants to either politicize or neuter our sexuality? There’s got to be a different way to go about this!
After a lot of conversation, study and prayer, we will focus on four things that are vital to our understanding of what it means to be human beings created in the image of God:
embodiment – What does it mean for us to be a body, not ‘have a body’?
gender – What does it mean for us to be Other… ‘male, female’?
sexuality – What does it mean for us to be sensual, desirous, and connected people?
and relationship – What does it mean for us to be all these things – together?
It’s our hope that these four services will begin to give our community some framework in order to have even harder conversations. That’s why we’re also going to host some specific conversations at Jason and Paula’s house and at Grace’s house on particular topics like: raising sexually healthy kids, homosexuality and the bible, sexuality and singleness… topics that require more time and care. Doesn’t that sound great?
Okay, but before we go there, there’s an expectation we need to talk about. We should expect difference. And probably somemajor differences between how we believe, think, feel, express and work out these core issues of sexuality. And I’m really glad about for the difference – for two reasons:
We need the diversity of thought to help each of us grow, challenge, push back against, discern, sharpen our understandings, and expand our ability to talk about important things. So it’s good, simply for the reason that it keeps us from being a cultish, religious ghetto with a homogenous and uncritical dogma.
But it’s also good for the conflict it produces in and of itself. I think we need difference in our community. I think we need the tension and the storming that comes with difference. Sometimes we’re scared that the community can’t handle it. That if we were to voice our difference, “Hey, I don’t think that way. I don’t exactly believe the way you do. I don’t do things that way.” then that would be the end of relationship, the end of community. We imagine we’re too fragile to hold the difference in one body. And the only outcome for difference is division.
The truth is that difference can demonstrate trust in the relationship, not distrust. Difference can show strength in a relationship, not weakness. The relationships that skirt around every possible fight and remain conflict avoident are the most feeble. And the truth is that there is no such thing as genuine relationship and
connection without difference. Dr. John Gottman, the relationship researcher based out of the University of Washington studied thousands of couples using a scientific method and discovered that 67% of differences in all marriage are irreconcilable differences. This is not 67% in “bad marriages” – but ALL marriages. What distinguishes healthy marriages from unhealthy marriages is not the lack of differences that cannot be reconciled, but what you do with those differences.
Now, since this is not simply a study in difference, but proclamation of the Good News in Jesus – let’s look to our scriptures. The New Testament wants to address two questions.
1. The first one is obvious: “What in world is going on with Jesus?” This person comes along at this moment in time, proclaiming the kingdom of God, loving the unlovely, healing sicknesses, exposing pride, and all the powerful people get together and kill him, but then he comes back from the dead, and his Spirit seems to be empowering a bunch of diverse people who start doing all the things that he did. Looking back over all these crazy events, the Church is trying to answer the question, “Whoa! What just happened? And how does this fit with what we already know of God in the way God’s been revealed to the Jewish people?” There’s some serious reconciling needed there, because first we got the One God: “Hear O Israel, the LORD your God is One!” Monotheism to the Max. But now we got this Jesus fellow who sure seems like he is one with the One God, and that kinda makes Two. Uh oh. And then we got to figure out this Spirit person thing too. The Church has some explaining to do.
2. The second question that the New Testament wants to address is caused by the confusion of the first question: “What is going on with all these Gentiles?” The NT is largely written to mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles who are all gathered around the story of Jesus – so, they’ve got that in common, but everything else about these two groups is utterly different… ethnicity, religious background, cultures, diets, economics, social status… you name the difference, they were experiencing it in the early church. Our situations probably pale in comparison. But, at the heart of this question is a concern about God’s character, “Has God given up on the promise to the Jewish people? If not, then why the inclusion of all these Gentiles in, what was at the time the Jewish Church? And now what do we do with them? What is essential to relationship to God and each other? Do they need to convert to Judaism, become circumcised? Keep the mitzvah? What is essential to Christian faith? Is it Jesus and Torah…. Or is Jesus enough?
Are you starting to get a picture of the situation our scriptures were written in? Our Christian scriptures were written with difference in mind. You see, I want to frame our conversations about sexuality within this context because I think it normalizes the presence of difference in the Church. It says, “Don’t be alarmed. It’s always been this way.” And then it gives us tools to be community with difference, because we can ask – “Well, how in the world did they pull it off?” To that end I want to offer you two vignettes from the Early Church and then next week Sister Liz is going to equip us a few more tools and stories.
We heard earlier from the Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia (4) – and, as you probably gathered, this is not a conflict free letter! The fourth chapter starts with Paul yelling, (even though it’s a letter, I imagine in it’s in all caps:) “You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you?”
What’s Paul so upset about here? There were some major differences happening in the church and Paul is upset because other Christians had come into this community and told them that faith in the crucified Jesus was not enough. They needed something more in order to be legitimate, they needed something more to be accepted by God, they needed something more to hold them together as a community. They had to have Jesus AND…
If you want to know what will tick Paul off more than anything, (and you could add to that list Martin Luther, Pope Francis and a few others…) If you want to see what he’ll go to the mat for, it’s for the Grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s the thing that will hold this crazy, chaotic, diverse community of sinner-saints together – nothing else. If we lose that, if we add to that, if we substitute for that, then the differences will divide us. If we remain in that, then the differences will ultimately expand our love for each other. It’s this centrality of grace that makes Paul say one of the most radical things I can think of. He tells the very diverse community in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we lose that, if we add to that, if we substitute that, then the differences will divide us.
If we remain in that, then the differences will ultimately expand our love for each other.
That’s the first vignette. The second one comes from the Gospel. Jesus looks out over this huge hodgepodge crowd of people that are following him and he wants to teach his disciples how to be with them, how to lead them. Now, think about the disciples and some of the things they’ve said in the past. Jesus sends a few disciples ahead to a Samaritan village to rent a room for them to stay in and the village doesn’t welcome them so his disciples ask Jesus, “Hey, Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them? What!? Where did they learn that from? This is not how we want to deal with differences. Jesus rebukes them and they go to some other town. But remember, this is who Jesus is talking to here when he says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,
but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Jesus is talking about how to deal with major differences and he is calling for a spirit of self-examination. He’s asking his disciples to maintain a healthy amount of suspicion about the certainty of how we see things, and a healthy amount of charity towards the people we disagree with. Make the assumption that if we disagree, “Then I may not be seeing things clearly and I’m going to need your help, the person I’m in conflict with, to help me understand better.”
That is really hard to do. It takes a very grounded identity that says, “In Christ, our differences do not define the essence of who we are, Jesus does.” This does not eliminate difference, or downplay the significance of difference… but it makes a audacious claim to say, “because of Jesus, difference is no longer a game changer. Because our Lord is the one who dies to save, not simply the ones who agree with him, but his enemies. It’s enemy-love that is at the heart of the cross. And the resurrection shows us that repair is stronger than all that came before.” When Martin Luther King envisioned the Beloved Community, it was the God who does anything to reconcile with sinners who took him to the mountain top to look over. So, if Jesus is Lord, we don’t need to be scared to open a conversation about sexuality, even if the North American Church is letting it rip her in two. We don’t need to fear any difference that may arise, because Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is Lord, there’s enough grace to go around. So let’s talk.