|December 12, 1999|
|First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct 06776|
|Rev. Michael Moran|
|Write to Rev. Moran|
Isaiah 61:1-4, 811 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion --
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
For I the LORD love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
This is the third week in Advent, a time often set aside to celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus. The theme is joy and the color of the candle for this Sunday is pink instead of purple, showing some relief from the somber mood of Advent. Mary is held up to the generations as an example of faith, for without her agreement, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word, - without that consent, the word may never have become flesh, the unseen spirit of God may never have assumed human form, and the eternal purposes of revelation, redemption, and reconciliation may never have been accomplished.
The Word, the Spirit made flesh would fulfill the eternal purposes of God, yet the attachments of the flesh seemed so contrary to the freedom of the Spirit, and the desires of the flesh seemed so in opposition to the disciples of the Spirit, that for centuries in Christian thought spirit and flesh were put in opposition and could not be reconciled as they had been through Mary in the birth of Jesus. And, in an ironic twist, justification for this opposition of flesh and spirit was based on the story of Jesus birth and the assertion that Mary was a virgin.
Whatever the circumstances of Jesus conception, the proclamation of the Virgin Birth was enshrined in the Christian story. And whatever it might have meant to the earliest audience, clearly over time it was used to drive a wedge between flesh and spirit, to put them at polar ends of a spectrum of sin and salvation, and to create some very bizarre and unhealthy attitudes about basic human drives and needs.
No where was this more evident than in the churches traditional view of sexuality. Now we live in a time where that traditional view has been overthrown by a revolution. The revolution has been so complete that most of us take its results for granted and hardly think of them as revolutionary at all. I had thought originally to entitle this sermon From Virginity to Viagra because the phrase gives a glimpse of the distance we have traveled in our views of the role and importance of sexuality for human joy and happiness.
Yet issues arise where the pre-revolutionary view appears in the background and exerts its influence. These issues have to do with sexuality outside of marriage, between people of the same gender, for people who have survived the death of a spouse, for older persons in new relationships, for priests and religious in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church - there is a whole range of issues that we seem to have difficulty addressing because we have not emerged from the shadow of centuries of opposing flesh and spirit. And this opposition was established in the name of the one who was Spirit made flesh and who came to reconcile all things and order them in their proper place.
There is a poem by William Blake that expresses well this opposition that was taught between flesh and spirit. Its called The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
and tomb stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.
It is important to understand that among the constellation of church teachings that were clustered around the proclamation of the Virgin Birth were some very oppressive and harmful ideas that hurt people and truly did bind with briars their joys and desires.
Traditional teaching says the Eve, the first woman, was the source of original sin, while Mary, the new woman, is the fountain of grace. Original sin is passed from generation to generation through sex, so every child is born in sin. That was why Jesus had to be born of a virgin and why there developed a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Sex not only passed along original sin, but it polluted the soul. One of the early church Fathers, St. Jerome, taught that those involved in carnal union could not even pray properly, and that married couples who recently indulged in sex should not approach the church or the sacraments. Since priests were to pray constantly, they, in turn, must embrace a life of celibacy.
Augustine taught that sex was essentially sinful and debasing, but could be tolerated because within marriage it produced a good end - children. The children were damned because they were created by sex, but they could be baptized and saved.
This doctrine even had an element of anti-Semitism in it. According to the Church Fathers, the old testament teaching that God created humankind in his image, and blessed them, and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, - that teaching was only for the carnal Jews and limited to the purpose of eventually giving birth to the Messiah. Now God has rescinded that blessing and given a more spiritual law to a more spiritual people, the Christians.
Basically, for generations the church teaching was that sex is sin, and though it is begrudgingly permitted within the confines of marriage it remains sin and should be strictly for procreation and never for pleasure.
How this view played out is well illustrated in a scene from the novel Trinity by Leon Uris. This wonderful book tells the story of the Larkin family of Donegal, Ireland. The scene Im reading comes after Finola Larkin has gone through the terribly difficult and dangerous birth of her sixth child. Two of her six died in childbirth, and this one, Dary, comes very close but survives. The doctor has advised her to have no more children, and she is wondering why this curse has fallen upon her. So she goes to speak to her priest. The priest begins in this short selection:
How is wee Dary? Father Lynch inquired of the new baby.
Youll not see the likes of that one again in a hundred, Finola boasted. Ill never stop being grateful to the holy Mother for sparing his life."
Father Lynch accepted the gratitude on behalf of the Virgin. "And yourself, Finola? What urgent matter brings you here?"
She twisted her fine linen handkerchief nervously and struggled to keep her composure. "I've a lot on my conscience, Father. What I am about to tell you should have been confessed many times over the years."
"Father," she whispered, lowering her eyes and voice weakening with shame, "I have been the wife of Tomas Larkin almost twenty years and I have sinned all during the marriage." She squirmed, then blurted out, "I have always enjoyed pleasures of the flesh."
The priest shot to his feet, clasped his hands behind him and thrust his face heavenward. "I see," he sighed. "Would you kindly amplify that remark?"
"I've almost always enjoyed the sexual act," she whispered.
"That's quite unnatural, you know."
"Exactly what is it you enjoy?"
"Everything," she whimpered.
She wailed, he paced.
"I knew something might be wrong, Father, but so long as our purpose was to try to make babies and I couldn't help myself for enjoying it, I thought it really wasn't actual pleasure I was feeling but some kind of holy experience about the possibility of becoming pregnant."
"It's a curse," he said. "I know of many other women who have had these same carnal sensations.
"Oh, Father, what causes it?"
"It is God constantly reminding us of the original sin in the form of a woman," he answered. "At least you have enough faith left to seek atonement."
"Oh, Father, help me," she cried, falling to her knees.
Who could imagine that devotion to Mary could be turned against other women? Who would think that the celebration of a miraculous birth, the word made flesh at Christmas tide, could be twisted over time to such oppressive purposes, to make people ashamed of basic human desires, to deny men and women the joy of an attraction that God seems to have programmed deep into their hearts, minds, and flesh? In the face of such teachings, who would proclaim a gospel of liberty to Finola Larkin? Who would free her from this oppression?
And if sex even within the marriage bond was regarded as essentially sinful and turned into an oppressive necessity, then what hope was there for tolerance and understanding towards anyone outside that bond, heterosexual or homosexual? Who would dare proclaim that liberty?
We all carry some of the residue of this oppressive teaching that dominated the Christian tradition for centuries. Of course, we are also shaped by our upbringing and early experiences, and we have widely different perspectives as a result.
I know that some are brought up to think of homosexuality as unnatural and shocking. In my case, I grew up in the city; where I was deprived of the so-called barnyard education where many learn the facts of life. What I received was the education of the streets, and sometimes on the streets the facts become confusing.
In my childhood homosexuality never seemed unnatural, but when someone first explained to me the reality of my own conception I was totally shocked. Not my mother! If virginal motherhood was good enough for Mary it was good enough for Mom too! I didnt know it was supposed to be a miracle. I thought it was the standard!
Well, Ive always found it easy to believe in miracles. Its reality thats hard to accept.
Whatever our background and whatever our current views, it might do us all well to trace back along the threads of our thoughts and see if they still bear the scars of the teaching that sex is sin. If they do, and I suspect they do, we might find considerable inconsistency in the ways we react to some of the contemporary issues on the table. We might find ourselves challenged to affirm for others of different orientations and different circumstances the same rights to warmth, affection, intimacy, and love that we claim for ourselves.
If we believe that God has given us our human desires for a good purpose, for a positive role in caring and sharing, in the personal bonding of two people, in attraction and pleasure, then we should state this truth as unashamedly and as vigorously as the church did when it had a negative message to preach.
We proclaim the mystery of Mary the Virgin Mother not to denigrate any other mother, not to say that the flesh and the needs of the flesh are inherently evil or in opposition to the work of the spirit, but simply to say that what Christ brought into the world was a gift from above, a gift from God, unique to its time and place but eternal in its significance. Christ was the word made flesh, humbling the divinity of God and glorifying the humanity of Gods creatures, creatures made in Gods image, creatures of flesh and blood for whom touch and tenderness, love and embrace are like life and breath and being.
So unbind the briars from our joys and desires and may sweet flowers to bloom the Garden of Love. Amen
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