Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sermon: "How We Do Church" (Delivered 2-18-07)

We’ve all heard of Ted Haggard, right? Fundamentalist Christian pastor builds fourteen thousand member mega-church in Colorado Springs; becomes darling of the religious right; is given frequent access to the Whitehouse and becomes one of George Bush’s most called upon spiritual advisors; falls from grace when he is caught buying crystal meth and sex from a male prostitute in Denver; and, most recently, undergoes three weeks of “spiritual” counseling and announces he is no longer gay.

But, there is an angle to this story that hasn’t been covered. It is an angle that is not sleazy or sordid. It is the angle that has to with church governance; you won’t get this on CNN. So, I wondered, who at the New Life Church makes the decision about whether Ted Haggard would get to continue as the minister of that congregation, and who gets to decide whether he will be allowed to return? Well, according to their web-site, it is a board of overseers. That Board of Overseers happens to consist of four friends of Ted’s, all mega-church ministers at other mega-churches around Colorado and around the country. So, I decided to call their church to find out how the overseers are selected. The receptionist there told me that she was not allowed to give out information about the Overseers, and I would have to ask them, and did I see the link on the web-page for corresponding with them? [The link she referred me to, by the way, was the link for reporting additional misconduct by Pastor Ted. By all appearances, the overseers are a closed group, likely selected by Ted himself. If you can shed any more light on this, please do so. I tried, but the operation remained cloaked in secrecy.]

What this means, of course, is that the 14,000 members of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado have exactly zero input, zero recourse, and zero say on any decision that gets made there, including the decision of who their minister is or whether he continues there or not. By all appearances, the sole power of those 14,000 members is the power of their feet and the power of their seat. If they don’t like something, they can leave.

What this means, of course, is that each of those 14,000 people, probably many of whom gave selflessly and sacrificially to help construct that church have exactly zero power over any decision of any importance that gets made there. By all appearances, they collectively have no ownership of their own church.

Which is almost exactly opposite from the way that we do church here. Our by-laws stipulate that our board of directors is elected annually by a quorum of the membership. Similarly, the hiring or dismissing of a minister is accomplished by the voting of a quorum of the membership. So seriously is the will of the congregation taken that there are accounts from the Nineteenth century of Unitarian ministers resigning only to have the congregation then vote not to accept the resignation, a decision the minister abided by. In a Unitarian Universalist congregation, decision making on the part of the congregation, individually, in groups, or collectively, is broad. You will vote on the buying or selling of property. You voted to become a welcoming congregation. You are asked to fill out questionnaires. You are invited to sit on committees with real decision-making authority. Those meetings are always open and listed weekly in the order of service. You are the actual owners of this church. And the Free Church isn’t free.

The difference between decision making at Ted Haggard’s church and this one could not be more different. There, Ted said it. You accepted it. And that settled it. Here, the problem can be one of too little authority. Michael Durall, a church consultant, criticizes a church culture in which, when someone has an idea that may cost $1,000, “More often than not, one or more committees have to prove [the] new idea and the finance committee and board has to approve any new expenditure. Such a process can take months. This system creates ‘authority-less’ people at many levels who find themselves withholding permission for new initiatives, often proposed by the most enthusiastic and talented members of the church.” [Almost Church, p. 29-30.] Durall suggests the creation of a good-ideas fund that any member can access in order to make an investment in growing the ministry of the church. [p. 46] But, and this is the key point, the decision to hire somebody like Michael Durall and the subsequent decision whether or not to implement his recommendations is yours to make in the first place.

This morning, I’ve titled my remarks, “How we do Church; or, from the Personal to the Institutional, from the Institutional to the Transformational; or, the Free Church isn’t free.” It would be a mistake for me to venture to preach on how we do church without also asking whether it is a good thing that we have done church the way we have.

If you look at the whole of Unitarian Universalism, the picture is quite sobering. The median UU congregation has around one hundred and fifteen members. Fewer than half have one hundred people in attendance on Sunday mornings. And, of more than 1,000 congregations, only fifty or sixty are significantly larger than they were a decade ago. Ninety-five percent of our churches are stagnant. [Almost Church, p. 4] By this measure, we are among the top 5% of all UU churches. These statistics would be depressing enough without the prediction made by those who study religion in America that, in the coming decades, about one third of all churches in the United States will close their doors.

The few of you who braved it out last Tuesday to see the final movie in our documentary film series, watched a movie called, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” There has been a “Wal-Marting” of religion in America as well. Just as a greater and greater percentage of shoppers patronize chain stores, so do a greater and greater percentage of church goers attend mega-churches. It has also been predicted that within a decade, a majority of large churches will be multi-site franchises, where smaller satellite branches receive broadcasts the service in real-time and attendees watch the service on the video screen.

What this indicates is that the Free Church tradition of religion of the people, for the people, and by the people is becoming a thing of the past. In its place, religion has become a product that you purchase.

Which brings me to my main point of the morning: there needs to be in our churches a change in the focus of our churches from the personal to the institutional and from the institutional to the transformational. What does that mean?

The personal is the sense in which the church does something for you and for your family. There is education for my child. There is music that touches me. There is fellowship that I enjoy. There is friendship. Weddings. Memorial services. And so on. The personal is based on a self-interested way of thinking. That is not necessarily a bad thing. You volunteer to make coffee one Sunday because you want there to be coffee all the other Sundays. You do your share because you want it to continue to be there for you. You teach religious education when you have children in the program because you want your children to have teachers.

There is a different way to see the church though, one that is broader than the personal, and that is the institutional way. The institutional way is a response to a very simple and elemental awareness that the church probably existed before you and it might be a good thing if it outlived you. When you came to church for the first time there was a chair there for you to sit in! The people who were there before you put that chair there, hoping you would come and sit in it. The personal is concerned with making sure there is a seat for yourself for so long as I shall wish to sit in one. The institutional says, there was a chair for me, so I will make sure there is a chair for others. The institutional is less self-centered, more centered on the greater good. It is out of the sense of the institutional that you build a bigger building, that you create an endowment, that you serve as an officer, that you include the church in your will.

Unitarian Universalism has just now finally begun to get it in terms of moving beyond the personal to the institutional. It is less common these days to hear the sentiments that were very common only a few decades ago in Unitarian Universalism. One of those sentiments was that we don’t want our churches to grow because we like them just how they are. Another sentiment said, we don’t want to advertise because if we make our churches hard to find, and hard to attend, and hard to join then only true and worthy Unitarian Universalists will come to our churches. Sentiments like these were once commonly heard; now, less so. As my colleague Rob Eller-Isaacs puts it, “We used to imagine ourselves as the leaven. Now, we want also to be the bread.” We have grown slowly into this institutional model, saying, “We want not only for our churches to be places we like, but we want them to thrive and endure and we want for others to be able to find what we have found here.”

However, just as we have caught up to this institutional way of thinking, much of religion in America has moved on, from the institutional to the transformational. If the personal says, “I want the church that I like to be there for me” and the institutional says, “I want the church that I like to be there for others just as it was there for me”, the transformational says, “I want the church to be a force that causes my life to change and causes me to change the world with my life.”

The poet Annie Dillard writes, “When people come to church they should not be handed an order of service with a smile, but should be given hard hats and life preservers; because church should be a dangerous place, a zone of risk, a place of new birth and new life, where we confront ourselves with not only who we truly are, but also who we are being called to become.” [as quoted in Michael Durall, The Almost Church.]

I have a couple of examples of this kind of thinking, from the personal to the institutional and from the institutional to the transformational. With volunteering, when there is a personal focus, you are asked, “What do you like to do?” When the focus is institutional, it sounds more like, “We really somebody to…” But when the focus is transformational, the question is, “What are you called to do? What is your ministry? Can we help you to discern your calling?”

With stewardship, you can see the distinction. When the focus is on the personal, giving to the church becomes kind of a crude arithmetic. What is my fair share of the services that I use? I plan to come to 34 worship services. My child will attend 19 religious education classes. I’ll attend three forums, and an adult RE class. I will check the church web-site 47seven times. How much is that worth to me? And what is my fair share of the real cost of those things?

The next level is institutional giving. That represents giving to things like the endowment and the capital campaign. But it also means having the sense that financially supporting religious education is important even if you don’t have children in RE. An institutionalist sees a worth in that beyond what they may receive personally.

When I first became the minister of this church, one of the first things I did was ask for a pledge card to fill out. I was given one, although reluctantly, with the assurance that I really wasn’t expected to pledge. The first pledge I ever made I understood in the institutional sense – giving not to support the services I was using, but to support the existence of an institution that I cared existed. Soon, I began to think about things differently. I began to consider charitable giving from a transformational point of view. What would it mean to live generously? I am still asking that question. This past year, I gave over ten percent of my adjusted gross income to charitable not-for-profit organizations. What surprised me most about this was how easy it was to do it! Michael Durall writes that if this talk of a tithe makes you nervous, consider giving 11%. The number eleven has no Biblical significance.

From personal to institutional, from institutional to transformational. From I like to I like and want others to be a part; from I like and I want others to be a part to I want for my life to be changed and have that change change the world around me.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are part of what is known as the Free Church tradition. It is defined that way because of a lack of orthodox doctrine, thus empowering a freedom of the mind and a freedom of practice. But there are several possible meanings and connotations of freedom. Free can mean “no obligation”. I don’t think the Free Church means the church of no obligations or expectations. Free can mean “without allegiance.” I don’t the Free Church means the church of no commitments. Or Free can mean Liberated. The Free Church, I think, is the church of the life transformed and the life liberated.

Or, as our fourth principle puts it when it speaks of the search for truth and meaning: freedom and responsibility are necessarily yoked. Think of the New Life Church: without the responsibility of ownership, there is no freedom to speak of. May you all become and continue to become the transformational co-owners of this congregation. May you all become and continue to become the transformational co-owners of this community, indeed of this world.

Sermon: "Liberation Theology and UUism" (Delivered 2-4-07)

Reading by Jose Luis Segundo
“According to Jesus, the poor are not poor for the sake of the Kingdom but in spite of the Kingdom, or rather, because it has not yet come. Jesus is hungry every time the least of his brothers and sisters is hungry, and… Jesus is a prisoner every time he or she may be imprisoned. It is the sympathy or the compassion... that all true love produces, an unlimited love that transmits from the loved one to the lover all that is intolerable and inhuman in the situation he or she suffers.

“Tragically, if no laws are broken - or if their breaking is not visible - Christians do not worry about their complicity in the great evils which society, through its structures, causes to fall upon the most defenseless. The ancient prophets of Israel would say that this is not "to know God." James, in the New Testament, would state that this is not ‘true religion.’

“It is true that ‘social sin’ has surprised us by its enormous magnitude as it takes place on a continent that for four centuries - and even today - can be called almost totally Christian. The Christian does not kill (at least not directly) but is an accomplice in millions of deaths that more just social structures could have prevented.

“[The change of these unjust social structures will happen through the Church.] The Church - which has been accustomed to having small active minorities and large, inert, and silent majorities - is facing a new phenomenon: a considerable popular mobilization within its own walls [will create justice.]”
“Tropical Sunday” or “wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to-pretend-like-we-were-in-a-different-climate-Sunday” was an idea that I shamelessly stole from another Unitarian Church where each February they celebrate the culture of a different nation, preferably one that is warm this time of year. This is the second year we’ve done it here. The idea I bring to it is that by imagining changes in latitude we might experience changes in attitude, and thus open ourselves to new ideas.

This morning I want to introduce you to “Liberation Theology”, a radical Catholic theology that emerged in the second half of the Twentieth Century and which was influential throughout South and Central America. We might think of Liberation Theology as the Latino / Catholic version of the social gospel Christianity, which thrived in the United States a half-century earlier. That movement stressed that Christianity was not about individual or personal salvation, not about waiting for the Kingdom to come. Rather, the primary emphasis of the gospel was service and the reform of society. It declared that what was required of Christians was care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable.

Many of us are probably familiar with this history. We know about some of the figures: Dorothy Day, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Fosdick, Bill Coffin, Martin Luther King. But the names that I am going to talk about this morning are likely less familiar: Ernesto Cardenal, Gustavo Gutierrez, Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino, and Leonardo Boff.

The central tenet of liberation theology is that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” What does that mean? What it means, radically, is that God has a special relationship with the poor, that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. It means that while we are all God’s children technically, the poor are God’s favorite children.

Listen to a few of the quotes that have come out of this theology:

Oscar Romero wrote, “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figure of our Christmas ribs. We must seek Jesus among the malnourished children who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat. No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone.”

Gustavo Gutierrez wrote, “Love of neighbor is an essential component of Christian life. But as long as I apply that term only to people who cross my path, and come asking me for help, my world will remain pretty much the same. Individual almsgiving is a type of love that never leaves its front porch… On the other hand, my world will change greatly if I go out to meet other people on their path and consider them as my neighbor… the gospel tells us that the poor are the supreme embodiment of our neighbor.”

According to liberation theology, Jesus is not to be understood primarily as a savior, but instead as a Liberator. Jesus came to liberate the poor of the world from the bondage of oppression and poverty. To follow Jesus is to work to abolish the systems that cause poverty, systems that actually enslave all of us. Marxism would say that we are all slaves to class struggle; liberation theology would say that none of us are truly free when there is poverty.

A third major tenet of Liberation Theology is the reform of the church. In South and Central America, liberation theologians were not unaware of the role the Catholic Church played in conquest and the creation and perpetuation of unjust social structures. Liberation theology offered not only a critique of society, but a critique of the church. In particular, it called for church where a powerful minority does not dominate a silent majority. It said, “Power to the people.” It called for a reform where the people of the church were empowered and were served.

Those are three of the hallmarks of liberation theology: a preferential option for the poor; salvation through social justice; and a reform of religious structures to make them more populist.

I might mention one or two of the heroes of liberation theology. You may have never heard of Oscar Romero. But you’ve probably heard of some of the people whose lives are most similar to his. At the Westminster Abbey in London, there are statues to the most influential martyrs of the Twentieth Century. The statue of Oscar Romero is flanked on one side by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who organized resistance to Hitler in Germany and died in a concentration camp. On the other side of Romero’s statue, is a statue of Martin Luther King. Romero was a conservative Catholic appointed arch-bishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, in 1977. In fact, his appointment was considered to be an enormous setback to those in San Salvador who were working for social justice.

But, Romero’s life was transformed when he witnessed the assassination of a priest who was working to politically organize and mobilize a group of rural campesinos, rural farmworkers. Reflecting on this, Romero remarked that if this priest was killed for this work, he must follow in this path. Two years later, Romero was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. El Salvador, at the time, was a scene of fierce fighting between various factions and militias, some of them funded by the United States government. Romero especially worked to try to prevent and lessen the human rights violations – the torture, terrorism, disappearances, and civilian killings – that accompanied the battle for political control of El Salvador. In his influential sermons he called on soldiers to disobey orders they were given to violate human rights. As Romero celebrated Mass in 1980 he was gunned down. It is widely believed that his murder was committed by soldiers who received military training in the United States. Pope John Paul II opened proceedings in 1997 to beatify Oscar Romero as a Saint – for the people of El Salvador, he is already San Romero.

In many ways, though, this celebration of Romero was hypocrisy. The official church resisted liberation theology and expelled many of its practitioners, including Jean-Bertrand Arisitide, the populist president of Haiti whose priesthood was revoked by the church before his presidency was revoked by the United States government. The church’s turning against liberation theology was shameful.

So, what I’ve done so far is kind of give you a quick orientation to liberation theology and to a few of its heroes and leading thinkers. What I want to do now is explore what impact and influence it might have on Unitarian Universalism. When I was in seminary, Liberation Theology was the hot field of study among my Catholic classmates. My UU classmates who expressed an inclination to explore liberation theology were thought a bit odd by my Catholic classmates. This seemed to me to have to do with the reluctance of UUs to accept the existence of God, prima facie – and I wonder if my catholic classmates were just as surprised that UUs would go to a Divinity School at all. These objections, I cannot help but think, were superficial and even a bit parochial.

If you look at the three main emphases of Liberation theology, I’d like to offer how they might speak to Unitarian Universalists. I will take these from easiest to hardest. Liberation theology’s critique of the church would look different for UUs. Within our church, we do not have the same problem that liberation theologians identified, that of a power-wielding minority oppressing a silent, suffering majority. Our situation mirrors the difference between the political process in the El Salvador or Haiti and the United States. The problem is not that a military coup or dictator has seized control; it is that at times there can be apathy in the democratic process. Democracies place the responsibility in the hands of the people. Democratic institutions are only as strong as the level of participation they inspire.

Similarly, the idea of salvation by liberation is something that we Unitarian Universalists know. It is also something of which we can stand to be reminded. Our faith has historically had a this-worldly orientation. To paraphrase Rev. Brent Smith, we are not called to wait for transportation to some distant heaven. We are called to create heaven here on earth. If you want peace, work for justice. Si quieres la paz, trabaja por la justicia.

It is that final part of liberation theology, the idea of a preferential option for the poor, that gives us the most trouble. And when I say that it gives us trouble, I am not saying that intellectually we fail to grasp it. It is a very easy concept. God cares about poor people. God is on the side of the poor. Everybody here can understand that. So, when I say that it gives us trouble, I am not talking about a challenge to our intellect. It is a trouble to our soul.

In the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Dr. Paul Farmer’s medical practice adheres to a kind of secular version of the idea of a preferential option for the poor. In one of the most dramatic passages in the book, he arranges to life-flight a woman from rural Haiti to Boston. She receives world-class care – runs up a million dollar hospital bill – but her disease is too much. She dies anyways. The book describes how a lot of people got angry about this, saying, “Wasn’t that waste? How many people could have been fed for that million? How many AIDS drugs could you have bought? How many people in Boston could you have treated?” Farmer would answer these questions by saying that asking these questions is evidence of privilege. To ask and answer questions like these is to say that some people are expendable. The ones with AIDS are expendable. The women with complicated diseases are expendable. Maybe the poor deserve food to eat but not open heart surgery. Maybe the poor deserve penicillin, but not full labs. Maybe the poor deserve literacy, but not college. But, if God has a preferential option for the poor, these questions don’t get thought of. There are a million excuses, justifications, rationalizations our brains can generate. So, we need the soul to be involved also.

Which brings us around to us. What would it mean for us, as Unitarian Universalists, to embrace the idea of a preferential option for the poor? I want us to sit with that question for just a minute.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here. After all, there are members of this church who have done far more than I have. There is K. who has visited birth clinics in rural Haiti. There is M. who has volunteered in the Dominican Republic working on a clean water project so the people there don’t have to drink their own fecal matter.

But I do want to tell a small story from my own life. This story happened last September, on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. We had a guest in the pulpit the next day which meant that I had an honest-to-God day off. Then my cell phone rang at 8:30 in the morning. It was someone who had found my cell phone number. He was a gay man with AIDS and TB who had taken ill while traveling across the country. He was broke. He was in the hospital. And his worldly possessions were in a duffel-bag in a motel across town. He needed somebody to retrieve his belongings. In that moment I could have said any number of things. “Sorry, it is my day-off.” “Sorry, not a minister today.” “You’re weird and I don’t feel safe.” And then I thought, well, what would Jesus do here? Then I thought, what would my faith teach me about this moment. I wound up driving to the hospital to verify that this man was, in fact, legitimate. Then I retrieved the bag from the motel and delivered it to him. I had a million reasons not to go, a million rationalizations, a million excuses. I think a preferential option for the poor means questioning those excuses and rationalizations.

This morning I hope you’ve learned a little. I hope, if you are a person who carries strong feelings about Catholicism, that you can take heart knowing that there is a movement within the Church that is totally radical. I hope that you might be encouraged to take some amazing, life-changing journey. And I hope you will sit with this idea of the preferential option for the poor and take the time to measure up the size of your heart and soul against that yardstick.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sermon: "The Godly Erotic" (Delivered 2-11-07)

Opening Words
The New England Primer, one of the first children’s books published in the United States began like this: “[A is for Adam.] In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” If you read on, the Primer taught that “[F is for fool.] The idle fool is whipped at school.”

Such thinking still survives today, telling us that our nature is inherently sinful, that our physical bodies are dirty, that without constant vigilance (and an occasional whipping) we will regress into lustful depravity.

The liberal religious theology of Unitarian Universalism has always stood against this way of thinking. It has started with the premise that our nature and nature itself are, by nature, good – or at the very least neutral. And from there it has instructed us that our rightful response to the good gifts of our life is gratitude rather resentment, and that our bodies and our minds are gifts to be used well, not feared and not maligned.

On this day, when we turn our thoughts to love, to relationships, to sensuality, to our innate capacity for goodness, let us also turn our thoughts to the divine, to God and Goddess, to Eros and Aphrodite, to all that animates and enchants our earth and our nature.

As we gather without scorn or shame, let us worship together.

“Though there are Christian theologians who have viewed sexuality positively, much Christian writing still implies that sexuality is dangerous unless it is controlled within well-defined boundaries. According to nearly all denominational pronouncements, only in heterosexual marriage can sexual intimacy be deemed moral and good. The church-sanctioned rejection of same sex intimacy expresses fear that sexuality is dangerous. Boundless passion for boundless intimacy and joy is equated with defection from God’s loving rule. Same-sex love is a radically out-of-bounds form of sexual expression. It is apostasy – the unforgivable sin.

“Hidden within this suspicion of sexuality lies the view that the ideal relation to God resembles a monogamous, heterosexual marriage in which the male is superior and the female inferior. In this binary construction of gender, regarded as ordained by God at creation, the soul plays the part of the wife and is stereotypically female: passive, empty, dependent, and above all, obedient. God plays the part of the husband and is stereotypically male: authoritative, active, providential, and, above all, commanding. The soul depends on God for meaning, direction, and survival. Any intimacy outside this holy bond transgresses right relationship with a jealous God. The soul who passionately loves anyone or anything else has committed adultery. Thus, to take pleasure in the world, to feel sensually involved, or to enjoy the life of the body is to have ‘loved another.’ Those who break out of the power structure of patriarchal marriage and its binary construction of gender have committed the worst form of sin: love of one’s own kind instead of submission to one’s superior.

“If desiring intimacy with one’s own kind is sin, then love for the world, for the earth from which we are made, is a disordered love. Everyone who passionately loves this earth is ‘queer.’” [From the essay “You shall be like a watered garden” in Rebecca Parker, Blessing the World, p. 43-44]
Christian spirituality is not for straight men… or lesbians. At least not according to Dr. Jeffrey Kripal. Now a professor at Rice University, I had the honor of taking a class with Kripal when he taught at Harvard. He is a uniquely brilliant, insightful, and compassionate scholar. Kripal began his class by explaining that as a straight man he found Christian spirituality frustrating.

The reason for this was that the most ardent practitioners of Christian spirituality describe their experiences in physically sexual terms. They talk of being touched by God, of being letting Jesus inside them, of being penetrated by the spirit. They speak of a mystical union with the divine, of ecstasy, of being held in loving arms. And, as a straight man, Kripal didn’t necessarily feel this way about a male God. As a Catholic, Kripal wanted to know God, just not in the Biblical sense. (Well, in the Biblical sense, but not that Biblical sense.) Kripal observed that those around him having intense, rapturous religious Catholic experiences tended to be either straight women or gay men. Kripal writes, “My struggle with Catholicism has never been simply a matter of belief. It has always been a matter of (sexual) being, a profound crisis or conflict between two orders of being: my heterosexual existence and the tradition’s homoerotic structure.” [Kripal, p. 155]

So, Kripal did the math. He traveled to India. Hinduism had female deities and he figured he would be comfortable discovering the ecstasy of mystical union with a female deity. Kripal chose to study Ramakrishna, the founder of modern Hinduism, who was a devotee of the goddess Kali. (Kali is sort of the Angelina Jolie of goddesses.) Surprisingly, he found Ramakrishna’s mysticism to be homoerotic in nature.

You didn’t know that religion was like this, did you? Indeed, all spirituality has elements that touch upon the sexual and the erotic, just as all religion has to account for the sexual power it elicits. It has been widely suggested that the Christian church’s oppression of women, persecution of gays, and Sisyphean preoccupation with controlling sexual behavior is directly linked to the desire, anxiety, frustration, jealousy, shame, and panic experienced by straight men wanting union with God. Mark Jordan writes, “Christian churches seem cunningly designed to condemn same-sex desire and to elicit it, to persecute it and instruct it…. Perhaps it is more clearly seen as the paradox of the Catholic Jesus, the paradox created by an officially homophobic religion in which an all-male clergy sacrifices male flesh before images of God as an almost naked man.” [Kripal, p. 147]

A friend of mine drew my attention to an interfaith gathering held in Jerusalem a year or two ago. At this gathering, interfaith cooperation was manifested between orthodox Christians, orthodox Jews, and Muslim religious leaders as they joined together to oppose same-sex marriage. Viewing a picture of the participants my friend offered the snarky comment: “Men in dresses and silly hats join together to oppose gay marriage.”

You know, I was thinking this week that I don’t think I’ve ever preached about love. There’s no excuse for that. I’ve never preached about sex either, which is perhaps easier to excuse. I have preached about God. God will come up in my sermon this morning, this sermon about love and sexuality, and love of God, and sexuality and religion, and something I call “The Godly Erotic.”

But, let’s start with the basics. The ancient Greeks had many words for love. The ancient Greeks spoke of love in terms of philia, agape, and eros.

By Philia they meant the expression of friendly love. Today we speak of anglophiles, lovers of English; Francophiles, lovers of French; and, bibliophiles, lovers of books. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Philology is the love of words. Philocrites, the pseudonym of a Unitarian blogger, means “a lover of criticism.” (How very Unitarian of him!) When you say that you love to watch football, that you love to travel, that you love the symphony: that’s “philia.”

Agape is moral love. It is love that is self-sacrificing, other-centered, principled, and humanitarian. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Four Loves called agape the highest expression of love. The biography of Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian civil right activist who died in Selma is titled, “No greater love.” No greater agape. When love is mentioned in John 3:16, (“For God so loved the world…”) it is agape, too. In fact, it is pretty much all agape in the New Testament. When Jesus says love one another as I have loved you, it is agape, not eros.

Which brings us to eros, erotic love, which has traditionally been given short-shrift. In contrast to agape, which is self-less and self-sacrificing, eros is expressive and creative.

The theology that I am about to share with you is not terribly original or contemporary. For decades and decades, feminist theologians have offered critiques of patriarchy in religion, challenging the church’s teachings about power and gender, sin and salvation, body and sexuality. This project has been varied and multi-faceted.

Some saw the church as terminally patriarchal and sought to create a system of symbolic meaning that was gendered female. The goddess replaced God; the moon emerged alongside the sun; the earth was no longer material and sinful, but enchanted, magical, and divine.

Other feminist theologians did not renounce the church, but sought to reclaim the place of women in the church. Great attention was paid to Marian theology, to female mystics and saints, and to women of the Bible. Sometimes this meant exploring parts of church history deemed unorthodox, such as the Gnostic’s conception of Sophia and the Divine feminine. Think of The Da Vinci Code.

But I want to focus on the work of the feminist theologian, Rebecca Parker, whose work challenged the suppression of erotic love and the elevation of agapic love. In her 1992 essay “Making Love as a Means of Grace”, Parker begins by explaining that the church, from Saint Augustine on, made a distinction between spirit and matter. This was very dualistic thinking, to separate heaven from earth. God became good and the earth became sinful. The spirit became holy and the body became evil. This way of thinking was very unfortunate, on one level. It allowed us to treat the earth materialistically and also encouraged negative attitudes towards sex. (In another way this dualistic thinking wasn’t all bad. I once heard Suzanne Meyer opine that by removing the divine from nature, scientific understanding became possible. By removing the divine from the body, modern medicine became possible.) But the project of some feminist theologians has been to reclaim the divine nature of both body and earth.

What happens when we say that the world is not evil but good, that the body is not sinful but holy? Rebecca Parker quotes Audre Lorde, “Once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves capable of…. When we begin to live… in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense… we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 135]

Lourde continues, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, [and] self-denial.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 139]

Parker writes, “Sexual knowledge… knowledge bequeathed to us through our bodies, is gracious and saving knowledge. It releases us from a false sense of separation and alienation from the world. It baptizes us into the whole [of] creation and tells us we are good... And in some moments, making love gives us a sense of complete peace through the experience of immediate joy.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 140]

Ok, so how do we do this? Well, there is the obvious way. I will leave it up to you to figure out what is the right way for you to express sexuality and sensuality with your beloved and/or with yourself. But I do want to tell you how some of the theologians I have mentioned today describe “The Godly Erotic.” Remember, we are not talking about a self-denying, agapic love, but of an embodied erotic love. The Godly Erotic is whatever helps us to “become world in ourselves” to quote Susan Griffin. Sex is a way, but not the only way, to do this.

The scholars I have mentioned point to a number of activities beyond making love as avenues for the cultivation and expression of erotic power. They tend to name activities that are creative and imaginative – painting, writing, composing – as avenues to and channels for erotic energy. They also point to social justice work as an expression of the same. Since erotic love is not content with numbness, and is not content with suffering, it leads those who experience it in the fullest to work passionately to lessen suffering. Make love, not war, indeed. Martin Luther King said that love without power is anemic and sentimental, and that power without love is reckless and abusive.

Rebecca Parker witnessed and beautifully described the scene in San Francisco when, for a few short weeks in February 2004, the city recognized same-sex marriage.
“Overnight, beginning with Valentine’s Day weekend, San Francisco’s city hall become a sanctuary. With astonished grace, the hidden power of love revealed itself. From everywhere, pilgrims streamed to the newly born shrine. Couples who had been together for thirty or forty years legally sealed their commitment. New lovers made promises for a lifetime… Wedding processions of every conceivable kind promenaded up the steps of the city hall – top hats and lace, leather and organic cotton, sequined gown and T-shirts. They were accompanied by jazz, rock, African drums, classical string quartets, Chinese flutes, and church choirs. The hullabaloo went on for weeks. Day after day, festivities multiplied, filling the streets with balloons, flowers, and dancing. Eros unveiled its presence in a myriad of bodies, cultures, colors, and ages. It was an epiphany of happiness, an outbreak of affirmation for the goodness of human sexuality, an unexpected, wildly welcome yes to the deep power of committed love.” [Parker, Watered Garden, p. 41.]

Of course, that passage reads differently this week, as recent developments have shown that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newstrom was having problems with his own sexual ethics and his own relationships. His failings, I fear, will only arm those who advocate for a legalistic sexual morality which uses shame and assumes our inherent depravity. The truth, however, is that legalistic, sin-based, acts-centered approaches to sexual ethics are unhelpful. I commend to you the work of someone like Marie Fortune, whose book Love Does No Harm provides a framework for sexual ethics that isn’t rigid or grounded in a negative view of humanity.

In concluding, let me mention these delightful words by Rebecca Parker: “Making love is not the be all and end all of life. It rarely approaches perfection and isn’t the most important thing we do. But it is far from the root of all sin. On the contrary, it can be life’s most delightful means of grace. As such, it should be held in honor among all people, and no church should legislate against its potential for undergirding all that is right, good, and joyful in our lives.” [Parker, Making Love, p. 140]