Working on the Meaning of the Sacred in Relationships

Working on the Meaning of the Sacred in Relationships

Sermon by the Rev. Francis X Walter, Rector St. Andrew's Parish, Birmingham, Alabama, on the occasion of the Southeast Integrity Conference October 29, 1999. Feast of SS. Simon and Jude (transferred).

Readings: Deut. 32:1-4; Ps.119:89-96; Eph. 2:13-22; John 15:17-27

It is a privilege to be part of a group working on the meaning of the sacred in relationships. There is work to be done there. It is a privilege to think with you about these magnificent scriptures. Who would think those minor characters, Simon and Jude, should rate such a good read. It is a privilege to have been invited to by Integrity to preach. A while back I intended to write a memoir of how I got from my state of ignorance and facile acceptance of the way "things s'posed to be" to where I am today on matters holy and sexual. It's been a trip helped along by other wayfaring companions, many of whom are here tonight. I imagined I would preach it tonight, but mercifully for you, I procrastinated, so you will hear something much shorter.

The passage from Deuteronomy begins with what in the Jewish tradition is called the Second Song of Moses, the first being sung at the Red Sea, the beginning of the Exodus. This Second Song is sung at the end of the Exodus, the people poised to cross over Jordan. A song, not a law or a diatribe.

Songs are good for relationships. This sings of a God who is primary to us and for us, and better than that , is the One who doesn't give up. A contemporary commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, sees throughout the song a trinity of relations. Plaut says, "The Song has three polarities: God, Israel, and the nations. Each depends on the actions and thoughts of others; none, not even God Himself- is seen as fully independent." Good place to start: Relationship reduces independence. In Ephesians, Paul relates two groups: that is, the people of the Covenant-Israel-and the Gentiles, the pagans. Here is revealed a sacred demolition: walls topple, blood is shed, laws are abandoned. But unlike the myth of our culture--that violence is the fixing of something, an orgiastic blast whose purpose is to make you feel SO GOOD--instead, the Demolisher molds the liberated material-us-into a new community where people are not strangers and aliens to each other, but full and equal citizens that, taken as a whole, are made into a new structure that is -wonder of wonders-not a fort, not a shopping mall, but a Temple worthy of occupancy by God. Did you ever think that? That Jesus Christ, through the agency of the loving acts you do toward those you love, is processing you to be a stone in a house fit for God? The Gospel tonight calls on us to love one another. Then follows tough warnings: To be chosen by Jesus for the loving and beloved community is also to be hated-by somebody or other, somewhere or other. But the cost is worth the gain: to stand under the descending love of God that showers us, that spreads to our brothers and sisters around us and rises in praise to heaven propelled by the Spirit that cries in us, Abba! Father!

The Holy and Blessed Trinity is a crucible of white-hot relationships. The First Person of the Trinity pours infinite love into the bosom of the Second Person, who empties that divine nature into the abyss of the Third Person, and so on. Each Person would be annihilated by having given away everything of the of the Divine Being of that Person were it not for the living sacrifice of the other partners, who return infinite Divine Being. So divine love-given, received, offered back-goes on in an inexhaustible furnace of love.

Now have a little fun with me, a little playing around. After the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was defined finally at the Council of Constantinople in AD 351, various local councils, meeting up until the 7th century, I believe, felt it necessary to affirm that the Spirit was masculine, even though the word in Hebrew is feminine, and is feminine-like in Greek. Think about it.

Why did the Church want to imagine God as three masculine persons loving each other? It was certainly not early Louie Crew. Now this is mostly me thinking: There are several reasons, but one dark reason still plagues us today--the history we drag behind us. And that is that the Church is scared to death of sex.

To have allowed the Spirit to be feminine would have allowed a sexual metaphor to stand for God's inner relations. Because in those early centuries the feminine stood for sex and sex as evil, at that. I would like to propose that the historic inability of the Church to be comfortable with sex is destructive of all souls, not just those of gay and lesbian persons.

More particularly, it has been unhelpful for relationships between two persons, gay or straight, sexual or not. The academic word for couple is "dyad." So we could call the Church's bias "Dyadism," and us demeaned dyads could join the procession of sad victims of "isms." Just kidding! We don't need any more victims. You see, the Church has been almost exclusively interested in the spirituality of the individual--"one alone with God" or the spirituality of the corporate body-"the group together with God." But only a tiny flicker of interest about relationships between two persons, which is, after all, the primary locus of human relationship. As many of you know, Aelred overturned a great tradition of monasticism to allow his monks to develop mutual friendships with one another. There is a clever way of proving this avoidance of face to face relationships. Count the married saints. This was done by the author of a book, Conjugal Spirituality. The writer is Mary Anne McPherson Oliver. (Not incidental to my awareness of this book is that Mary Anne was a high school girl friend of mine.) Dr. Oliver looked not for saints praised for being married, for there were none, but just saints that might have been married-almost zip. And of the tiny group that were married, almost all were praised for having achieved holiness in spite of being in a couple relationship-which was seen as a hindrance to spiritual growth. Here's a quote from her book that is just a lot of fun to share with you:

"Thus, throughout most of Christian history only the amount of sexual activity necessary for carrying on the human race was sanctioned by the church. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria allowed unenjoyed and procreative sex only during 12 hours out of the 24 (at night), but by the Middle Ages, preposterous as it now seems, the Church forbade it 40 days before the important festival of Christmas, 40 days before the and eight days after the more important festival of Easter, eight days after Pentecost, the eves of feastdays, on Sundays in honor of the resurrection, on Wednesdays to call to mind the crucifixion, during pregnancy and 30 days after birth (40 if the child is female), during menstruation, and five days before communion! This all adds up to 252 excluded days, not counting feastdays. If there were 30 of those (a guess, which may in fact, be on the conservative side), there would have been 83 remaining days in the year when (provided, of course, that the woman did not happen to be pregnant or menstruating or in the post-natal period, and provided that they intended procreation) couple could with the permission of the Church have indulged in (but not enjoyed) sexual intercourse. Thus were married people continually nudged toward celibacy. >From early times the sexual live was considered at best irrelevant to spirituality and , at worst an impediment to it. Basil in the 4th century wrote that the monastic was the ideal Christian life, and that marriage was "opposed to preoccupation with the concerns of God," although he admitted that it was "allowed and blessed." Jerome (340-420), on the other hand, virulently attacked it, finding it all but incompatible with prayer; and by the end of the 4th century, the superiority of celibacy was taken for granted."

By the way, Dr. Oliver's book, Conjugal Spirituality, is both hetero- and homo-friendly. It has a great bibliography--I put some copies in the back of the church. Perhaps as a mark of how much anyone cares about the sacred in couple relationships, the book is out of print.

I am a parish priest. Sadly, I don't take much time to think. Sex, which is a supreme couple thing, is one of those things most of my kind would just as soon go away. Because it would take a lot of thinking to pay attention to conjugal spirituality. It's been my observation that parish clergy give overwhelming but quiet assent to the basic allrightness of same sex relationships but exhibit an equally overwhelming weariness when contemplating having to double up on our already shaky guidance of souls on sex. "My gosh! I don't know what to tell my straight members about sex. Now I've gotta tell the gay ones too! Too much!" This comes from our ancient and regrettable aversion to sex, I think.

Perhaps Integrity members, for whom these issues are sometimes critical, having to do with jobs, friendships, money, even safety and life itself, will lead Mother Church into a new day in which relationships between two people can be valued, supported, understood, used and celebrated. So that these kind of couple relationships can take their place among the other human encounters that are recognized as occasions of grace.


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