A New Way for a New Day

Reframing the Dialogue on Sexuality in the Church

2005 Northwest Regional Conference
October 15, 2005

Address by Susan R. Andrews
Pastor, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD, & Moderator of the 215th G.A.

My great escape is reading fiction, and luckily I am blessed to have a wonderful woman in my congregation who reads 5 or 6 novels a week – and passes the best ones on to me. A couple of weeks ago I finished Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See – a lyrical look at ancient Chinese culture. The melody of the book is women’s lives and women’s relationships – which was the only road to redemption in the rigid patriarchy of that day. Bride prices, paramours, “bed business,” physical abuse – all of this was expected and condoned in the cultural practices of the fifteenth century. And of course central to the dance of sexuality was foot binding – which back then, and in some places today, is the most important qualification for a proper and sexually charged marriage. The tinier the foot, the more perfect the lotus shape, the more prestigious and costly is the bride. As a result, girls of twelve are subjected to this torture fueled by fierce mother love – mothers teaching their daughter the necessity of suffering and subjugation in order to carry on the family tradition, and in order to garner enough dowry money to support the parents in their old age. The actual description of one of these foot-binding rituals  – and the months of pain and pus and possible death – literally turned my stomach, forcing me to stop reading for a while when I became nauseated.

But lest I scare you away, the book also has some breathtakingly beautiful passages – particularly those describing the tradition of laotung and  nu shu. Within the privacy of that ancient women’s culture, there was a tradition of friendship which provided the foundations for a woman’s emotional survival. Young girls were matched up by a matchmaker with another girl born on the same day, under the same sign. These girls would be bound together for life; and through adolescence and marriage, childbirth and old age they would stay devoted to one another – visiting and nurturing one another, sharing joys and sorrows, and exchanging messages painted on a fan using a distinctly female dialect called nu shu.

What is unclear in the book is whether this relationship was ever sexual. Though the girls shared a bed as children, and were tender and affectionate with each other throughout life, the book is vague as to the overt genital contact of the relationship – and I think that was intentional. Because, in the big picture, the relationship was what mattered – the deep friendship, the cherishing of the heart of the other, the life-long covenant of tenderness  and loyalty with one another. Yes, it was the spiritual and emotional content of the relationship that really mattered.

Now I share this extensive image of laotung, because it sets the tone for what we are talking about today: a new way of imagining sexuality – a reframing of the dialogue around sexuality. And sometimes what we think is new really has ancient roots in the wisdom of the human story – and the biblical story. Healthy – and ethical – sexuality has always been understood as one part of a bigger picture – one dynamic of a richer relationship – one expression of a multi-faceted mystery called covenant. And when we separate sexuality out from the whole, we lose the value of this exquisite blessing from God.

John Money was an early scientific researcher in the area of human sexuality at Johns Hopkins University, and he made some astounding discoveries in the field of gender identity and sexual orientation. One of his discoveries was that all of us fall somewhere on a very wide scale between being exclusively heterosexual on the one side, and exclusively homosexual on the other. And though a small percentage of the American public falls at one extreme or the other, most of us are somewhere in between –  a 90/10 or 30/70 or even 50/50 mix of homosexual and heterosexual orientation. Of course, it is our conditioning and upbringing and faith tradition that lead toward the exclusive choice most of us make. At the same time there is another, growing branch of research that shows not a genetic, but a hormonal predisposition toward same-gender behavior, in those who identify themselves as gay or lesbian. All of this mix suggests that sexual orientation is a convoluted and complex identity, and it simply cannot be codified in rigid rules of right and wrong.

In addition, if the truth be known, sexual behavior – though we rarely talk about it – varies greatly among us. Perhaps some of us gathered here are still happily making love two or three times a week after thirty years of marriage. On the other hand, maybe some of us are content with two or three times a month – or a year – or less. I believe that in long, covenantal relationships, sexuality has become so much a part of a much larger, more elegant tapestry, that it simply doesn’t get the spotlight in our personal relationships that our church has given to it in recent years.

In my congregation, there are two women who have lived together for 27 years. Everyone assumes they are lesbians – meaning sexual partners. Actually, their relationship is platonic, they have separate bedrooms, and they find all the assumptions about them rather amusing. But it also doesn’t matter to them, because they are family for each other – a modern expression of laotung – and they thank God every day for giving them to each other as a gift. Two years ago when I was traveling as moderator, I met a gay couple in Southern California who had been together for fifteen years. As they described their life as parents of two small children, what I heard was the exhausting script of every young couple trying to raise active children in today’s world. Nursery school and soccer practice and weekly church involvement was much more on their minds than hot sex in a gay bar; but somehow our cultural norms make it hard for them to be just one more couple at the monthly PTA meeting. And all of this, because we have allowed sexuality, instead of relationships and character, to define too many people in our world today.

Now, so far, all I’ve been talking about is fiction, and medical research, and popular culture. But as Christians, we are called to base our behavior and our believing on scriptural and theological foundations. So let’s see where we can go to weave the reality of the world around us into the ancient truth of the Gospel.

I would like to suggest that reframing the dialogue about sexuality within the church needs to make room for two frames side by side, each enhancing the light let in by the other. One frame reaffirms the truth of the tradition, and the other frame reclaims the tradition in new, grace-filled ways.

So, let’s look at frame one. The foundational reaffirmation of the tradition starts with the authority of scripture – the very heartbeat of our life as people of the Word. We simply cannot modernize the Bible right out of our deep, rich scriptural past. So when we talk about sex, we begin with the Bible.

But, you might ask, which part of the Bible do we begin with, when we talk about sexuality? Adam and Eve reveling in their nakedness and then hiding in shame behind their fig leaves? The steamy eros of the Song of Solomon – sizzling poetry describing two star-struck lovers who can’t take their hands off each other – even though nowhere does it explicitly say they are married? Or do we begin with rape  – the rape of Tamar and Dinah? Or the polygamy of Abraham and Jacob and  Joseph and Solomon and . . . well you get the picture. Or, is our biblical norm about sexuality expressed in the adultery of David, or the sexual disgust of the Apostle Paul, or the celibacy of Jesus? Yes, my friends, if we are going to build our sexual ethic on the bedrock values of scripture – just which sexual values and which sexual behaviors are we called to mimic?

In my preaching on sexuality over the years, I have usually based my exhortation on the words of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 6. Though he may personally have had trouble with his sexual urges – after all he did say that it is better to marry than to burn – nonetheless, when it came to understanding the moral complexities of sexuality, Paul struck an interesting balance. In a large section of Corinthians where he is dealing with the cultural differences between Christianity and the pagan world, the apostle talks about food and communion and women covering their heads and circumcision. And then he says this about sexuality:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial.” “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything…The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…Do you not know that our bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!…Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?…Therefore, glorify God in your body. (I Corinthians 6: 12-20).

I think Paul is profound in proclaiming that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – that sexuality is a sacred gift to be used to glorify and enjoy God. But, Paul makes it clear that erotic love becomes destructive if it is not shaped by moral and spiritual love.

Mocking the secular mantra of his day, Paul plays devil’s advocate. “All things are lawful,” he says, affirming that through Christ, it is gospel and not law that sets us free. But then Paul lifts up the moral dimension which is the foundation of Christian freedom. As Christians we are free in God and for God and through God. But we are not free from God. Though all things may be lawful, not all things are helpful – not all things are beneficial. Though all things may be allowed, not all things edify or build up the community, or the soul, or the Body of Christ. 

I want to digress for a just a minute in order to underline just how important historical moment is. The setting for this particular passage is temple prostitution, and that is the “fornication” that Paul is referring to here – a situation which makes little sense to us today – unless we want to consider the clergy sexual misconduct that is still practiced in our Christian “temples” today. In our 21st century world, our setting for sexual ethics is different – a world where 80% of college students have sex together regularly – many of them with the people they will eventually marry – a world where growing scientific research and cultural homophobia are clashing and have led our religious communities to become embroiled in divisive and ugly debates about homosexuality – a world where 9 out 10 of the heterosexual couples married in most of our churches have been living together before the wedding.

The controversial sexual behaviors being practiced today are different than those prevalent in Paul’s day. But using his language, we still need to ask: Does any of this contemporary behavior glorify God and build up the other? Or, is it a kind of spiritual prostitution that desecrates our union with Christ – the words Paul uses to describe the Corinthians?

Way back in the dark ages of the 60’s, when I attended a women’s college in Massachusetts, there was a very strict protocol regarding male visitors. Men were not allowed in our rooms except for two hours on Sunday afternoon – and then the door had to be open, with three feet on the floor at all times. My sophomore year, everything changed, literally overnight. “In loco parentis” was abandoned and all restrictions were lifted. Within months, men were hanging out around the clock – with no feet on the ground for most of the night.

Now, at Wellesley, we also had this quaint habit of dressing up for Halloween. And that year my housemother, wonderful Mrs. Ellinwood, showed up at Halloween dinner – dressed as a madam of a brothel! She didn’t need to say a word about how distressed she was by all the changes. Her revealing tight dress and fishnet stockings said it all. I observed back then, and I believe now, that sexual license without moral grounding leads to both romantic disappointment and degrading dehumanization.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has authored what one commentator has called, “the best ten pages written about sexuality in the twentieth century.” In “The Body’s Grace,” Williams affirms the sacred space of erotic love. But he also underscores an ethical imperative. And he does this by grounding his ideas in covenant theology – in the faithful and utterly dependable covenant God has with us, and the faithful and exclusive covenant we are called to have with God – the One God, beside whom there is none other. Because we are created in the image of God, Williams suggests, we are called to embody this same covenant ethic of loyalty in our relationships. Or to use Williams’s own words, “To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire…it is to ask the moral question: ‘How much do we want our sexual activity to heal and enlarge the life of others?’”(1) Isn’t that lovely – a sexual ethic that “heals and enlarges the life of the other?”

What such a reciprocal and mutual covenant ethic suggests is that asymmetrical – unbalanced – sexual relationships are simply not part of God’s vision. Sexual behavior that exhibits power over the other, sexual behavior that focuses on me instead of thee, sexual behavior that hides in the shadows of shame instead of unfolding in the sunshine of God’s delight – such imbalanced behavior does not “heal and enlarge the life of the other.” Using Williams’ critique, I believe we 21st-century Christians must proclaim unequivocally that prostitution, promiscuity, adultery, pedophilia, clergy sexual misconduct, patriarchal heterosexual marriage, furtive teenage sexual experimentation, “hooking up” for casual sex – all of this is wrong, not because it breaks some antiquated rule, but because it does not “heal and enlarge the other.” It is wrong because it does not honor the faithfulness and fidelity of covenant. It is wrong because it does not glorify God in the temple of sacred sexuality. It is wrong because it does not take seriously the biblical tradition that has grounded us and defined us as reformed Christians for 400 years.

So, all of this biblical loyalty and grounding forms the first frame that we need to look through as we talk about a new way for a new day in our dialogue about sexuality. But there is a second frame which is equally important for a church that is reformed and always being reformed by the Spirit of a living God. And that is the frame of reclaiming the tradition in new and grace-filled ways.

I have always believed that the Christian story unfolds within the warm embrace of two doctrines of grace.  One is the doctrine of incarnation – of God’s incredible generosity in becoming flesh in all the realities of our human living. And the other is the doctrine of redemption – God’s incredible generosity in transforming death and sin into life and wholeness. I also believe that in our current controversies we have forsaken the first doctrine of incarnation in order to emphasize the second doctrine of redemption. And part of reclaiming our tradition is re-establishing the proper balance between incarnation and redemption. God continues to become flesh today – here and now – a lively word in the very real human drama of a changing world. And so, biblical “truth” needs to intersect with contemporary realities.

Yes, we need to affirm that sexuality grounded in the grace and truth of Jesus Christ does not invite open license. But neither can it be codified within narrow prohibition – as I have discovered in my thirty years of ministry. What about the 60-year-old widower who in the agonizing valley of grief after the tragic death of his beloved wife, found himself falling in love with one of our young single female elders, and discovered that his courage to marry again was nurtured by the sacred healing of their sexual love? What about the 24- year-old young woman – an elder and a child of the church – who has just fallen in love with another woman – and discovered the joy and delight of eros for the first time her life? What about the two graduate students, male and female, living 500 miles apart, patiently waiting to marry until they finish their studies, but wanting to grow deeper in a holistic love for one another with body as well as soul? And what about Michael Schiavo? Was it wrong for him after years of being faithful to his brain-damaged wife – was it wrong for him to fall in love with another woman and father two children with her, even as he refused to divorce Terry so that he could continue to advocate for her death with dignity?

I wrestle with these situations, as I’m sure many of you do. But the complexities of real people’s real sexual lives have led me to a place where applying biblical truths is not always easy. I believe that in order to reclaim our tradition in new and grace -filled ways, we Christians need to realize that this second frame for seeing our theological task is wrapped around two patterns etched into our theological window. One is Christological and the other is contextual. And the two patterns are connected – because when applying scripture himself, Jesus was often contextual, acutely sensitive to the nuance of the particular situation he was addressing.

We know that Jesus had very little to say about sexuality per se. But he had a great deal to say about the covenantal relationships within which sexuality is expressed. And when quoting the Hebrew scriptures which formed the foundation of his own theology, Jesus often re-interprets old words within new contexts. For instance, in quoting Genesis about a man leaving his father and his mother in order to cleave to his wife, Jesus is liberating old understandings of marriage and divorce, by elevating the status of the wife equal to that of her husband. These are not words primarily about restricting marriage to a man or a woman, as they are often used. Instead they are words about the sacred and committed nature of mutual covenant. In a similar way, Jesus’ gentle reproof to the woman caught in adultery and to the Samaritan woman at the well who has been married five times – these reproofs are calls to repentance. But they are about the image of God within these women, encouraging them to see that sexual relationships based on cheap or patriarchal imbalance of power, simply abuses that image of God within them. And so a biblical hermeneutic about sexuality, based on the few teachings of Jesus that exist, is not literal or legalistic, caught within a straight jacket of doctrine. Rather it is contextual and Christological – built on Christ’s intuitive and emerging wisdom, placed within the larger framework of covenant.

When I traveled in Africa, I discovered that contemporary sexual issues are causing turmoil within our global partner churches, just as they are here at home. Contrary to some media reports, I did not go around Africa pushing a homosexual agenda. In fact, I talked about it only when it came up naturally in conversation. What I did discover is that the issue of polygamy is every bit as contentious in Africa, as glbt ordination is here within the PCUSA. I was privileged to attend the Opening Worship of the Eighth Gathering of the All-Africa Conference of Churches – a colorful assembly representing 80 Christian communions in Africa. At one point, I found myself sitting next to a village tribal chief from rural Cameroon. He is a new Christian, full of the Spirit and excited about spreading the Good News. He is also a joyful polygamist – the husband of ten women and the father of 100 children. When I asked him if he found any tension between the teachings of the Bible and his own lifestyle, he said “Not really.” In fact, in order to maintain his authority within his village, he needs to honor the traditions of the past. If he rejects those traditions, he may well lose his ability to persuade others about the joy of Christian conversion.

I talked about this tension with Christian Ngange, the Spirit-filled pastor of the Bastos Presbyterian Church, the flagship congregation of our partner church in Yaounde. Christian is a strong, moral leader, and he has built a thriving and growing congregation that combines fervent evangelism with passionate outreach and justice advocacy. Last Christmas he had the joy in one worship service of celebrating 55 infant baptisms,  26 adult baptisms, and 60 confirmations.

I asked Pastor Ngange about the polygamy quandary in Cameroon, and how he, as a pastor, handles it. The answer he gave was both Christological and contextual, with an emphasis on covenant theology. The crunch comes for him when polygamists seek baptism. What is a pastor to do? Some pastors refuse to baptize unless the husband chooses one wife – and rejects all the rest. But then what happens to those other women and children who are financially dependent upon the husband? Other pastors baptize all the wives and children – but not the husband. But Pastor Ngnange, what does he do? He baptizes all of them – husband, and multiple wives and children – but with the explicit commitment on the part of the husband to take no more wives  – a visible symbol of his new Christian identity. Now that is a contextual answer if there ever was one – but an answer that honors both the grace and the truth of covenant in Christ’s name.

My friends, if we are to view biblical sexual ethics from a contextual and Christological perspective – if we are to embrace a new way for a new day – then I think we are left with two more tasks. The first is this. We simply need to redefine what we mean by purity – what it means to be the “holy” people of God. As I traveled around the church two years ago, I listened for the voices of Presbyterians talking about issues of peace, unity and purity. After all, at that point the Theological Task Force was still hard at work – trying to discern what these three words mean in our contemporary context.

I have to tell you that what I heard from the hinterlands was very disheartening. For all too many of us, peace means silence – simply refusing to talk about the issues that divide us, hoping that they will somehow miraculously go away. Well, my friends, as new opposing overtures move toward the 217th General Assembly, it is clear that these issues are not going away. And what about unity? Well, for too many of us unity seems to mean uniformity – everything will be fine if everyone will just agree. And purity? Well, purity on both ends of the spectrum all too often means, my way or the highway. On the right: a church that does not adhere to the holiness code of Leviticus is apostate and must be refined by the punitive discipline of the church. And on the left: a church that does not completely incarnate the radical justice of the prophets – completely – now – is a hypocritical and abusive institution. My friends, such ideological combat pushes us inevitably toward schism and judgment. And I believe both of these extremes gloss over the reality of sin, which is, of course, in all of us. And, these extremes fail to incarnate the gracious spirit of Jesus who seemed to prefer eating and hanging out with sinners. Yes, Jesus seemed to prefer a new way of dealing with human imperfection and disagreement. He replaced the purity of law with the purity of love.

And it is purity of love that is most emphatic in scripture. Think about it. God grants Sarah a son, despite her irreverent laughter. Shiprah and Puah audaciously lie to Pharaoh in order to save Moses’ life. Jacob is blessed despite his fratricidal deception. David is the chosen progenitor of Jesus, adultery and all. Isaiah insists that God’s post-exilic house will be a house of prayer for all people – including the foreigners and sexual outcasts explicitly forbidden by Leviticus. Jesus touches lepers and women despite the prohibitions of the holiness code. Cornelius is told to ignore the purity of kosher food laws in order to offer the purity of Christ’s hospitality. And Paul? He risks the wrath of the institutional leadership at the Council of Jerusalem by insisting that Gentiles are part of God’s chosen people – no circumcision necessary.

I believe that the recent report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity has cut through the simplistic and legalistic definitions that too many of us hold onto when we think about peace, unity, and purity – those precious words embedded in our ordination vows. There is nothing either/or about the Task Force report. Instead these 20 people have lifted up the reality of a Living Christ – a both/and incarnation of God’s love. In place of silence, they are asking us to embrace the difficult peace – the peace of intense dialogue and discernment – asking us to lift our conflicts into the light of scripture as we covenant to seek a new life together with those with whom we disagree. And unity? Rather than glaring at one another over the deep chasm of disunity, they call us to realize that unity in Christ means the opposite of uniformity. Rather, unity means a dynamic cohesiveness – a flexible equilibrium – sealed by the Spirit who purposely creates our diversity and differences in the first place. And in place of the self-righteous purity of law – whether it be the purity of holiness or the purity of justice – the Task Force implores us to embrace a purity of love that proclaims unequivocally, “We need each other.” Yes, the Task force promises that the spirit of Christ can empower us to hold onto one another, even as we hold onto our deepest convictions.

My friends, our biblical story tells us that the reign of God has been inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the fullness of that abundant vision has not yet been accomplished. And so we live in that not-yet-ness – waiting for the time when all will be one, yearning for the time when every tear will be wiped from every human eye. And so the second task of reclaiming our tradition in new ways – after we redefine purity – our second task is to embrace an interim ethic. Keeping before us God’s vision of shalom, we are invited to groan, as we wait patiently to be fully born as the reconciled people of God. Now, I know that for some of us gathered here and across the church, such groaning and waiting is almost too painful to bear – as injustice and prejudice continue to dis-empower and exclude precious people from the offices of the church. But let us remember the promise. The baptismal touch of God’s grace never dries up. And one day, soon, the baptismal blessings of our glbt brothers and sisters will become a fountain  – an abundant stream of valued, ordained leadership within our church.

Several years ago at a Covenant Network board meeting, the board members were despairing over another defeat of an amendment to remove G6.0106b from the Book of Order. I’ll never forget the words of Oscar McCloud, one of the wise patriarchs of justice within our church, and a seasoned veteran of the Civil Rights movement. “What are you moaning about,” Oscar said. “Justice is never easy, and justice is never quickly won. We’ve only been at this battle for 25 years within the courts of the church. For those of us who have been engaged in the Civil Rights movement for racial equality, it has taken us hundreds of years – and the battle even now is far from won.” What Oscar seemed to be saying to us that day was that the journey is long. And like Moses, not all of us will see the fruits of our efforts. But, my friends, the journey is not just about winning. The journey is also about the struggle – the struggle that honors God, the struggle that strengthens our souls, the struggle that connects us to one another in the arduous work of the gospel.

I want to end with one more story. Despite our willingness to address contemporary issues, the congregation I serve is pretty traditional and conventional. Two years ago I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of two of our home-grown young adults. Bob is the son of the patriarch – the early elder who founded the church and chaired the two major capital campaigns to build first the education wing, then ten years later, our glorious sanctuary. Howard, the patriarch, is long gone; but Bob proudly wears that heritage, upholding the traditions and protecting the needs of the founding generation. Somewhere along the way, Bob fell in love with Sue – when she was a 16-year-old high school student in our youth group, and he was a 38-year-old bachelor. Much to his credit, Bob kept his feelings to himself, and did not approach her for a date until she was 21. Five years later, Bob and Sue came to me, simply glowing, ready to enter into the Christian covenant of marriage. And we agreed that they would be married on a Sunday morning, within the context of worship – inviting the whole congregation to celebrate their joy with them.

But then, three weeks before the wedding, Bob and Sue came to see me again, hemming and hawing, and finally admitting that Sue was pregnant. What did I think they should do? Should they go ahead with the public wedding? Would it be upsetting and embarrassing to the matriarchs and the patriarchs? Well, for me, that was a no-brainer. We went ahead with the celebration, and with their Christian covenant-making. And six months later, when Jackson was born, not one old lady clucked, and not one word of judgment was spoken. You see, sex was not the issue. Covenant was the issue – Christological, contextual covenant – the covenant of marriage within the covenant of community between two covenantal partners who long ago had been blessed by the baptismal covenant  – the lavish unconditional covenant love of Jesus Christ.

My friends, when it comes to biblical sexuality, there is a new way for a new day. And it is based upon the ancient truth of God’s generous gospel.

May it be so – for you and for me. Amen.

1 Eugene Rogers, editor, Theology and Sexuality, Blackwell Publishers, 2002, p. 313

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