“Love” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 12, 2010
Call to Worship – from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the most high:
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, to make confession, to offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes the worship of ages,
The cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guest attend,
Faith, hope and love:
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Readings from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
“Wild Nights” by Emily Dickinson
From Letters by Rainer Maria Rilke
“Wild Nights” by Emily Dickinson
Wild nights —Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile — the Winds—
To a heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
From Letters by Rainer Maria Rilke
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Sermon – “Love”
We all learned about human sexuality in vastly different ways. For many of you who are my age and older it was a subject parents did not discuss with children, especially if you did not grow up Unitarian Universalist. I variously heard about the stork carrying babies in a sack over its enormous beak, or that somehow little foundlings appeared under cabbage leaves. Neither concocted story was very satisfying to a young boy. My father once mumbled something about the birds and bees, and suggested I read a book. While I enjoyed the challenge of searching for naked tribes people in the National Geographic’s or reading the known “dirty” passages in selected books in my local library, it was simply not enough. Eventually I took an ecumenical sex education class at a liberal Congregational church, as my own church was silent on the subject. Church and parental silence on the subject reminds me of a story Jill Lepore tells in a New Yorker article. When she was young Lepore was reading a passage from Sherlock Holmes, where one of the characters gets excited about finding a precious stone, and the descriptive words for his outburst are: “I ejaculated.” Upon reading this, Lepore went to find her father and in her curiosity about this new word asked, Hey Dad, what does ejaculate mean? He put the paper down and sighed.
I, too, was on the receiving end of a lot of silence and sighing. Unfortunately that resulted in a lot of on site training or learning about sexuality by experience for me. But then again, this was the time to be so engaged. Before I went there, the college I eventually attended had dormitories with house parents, where all students signed in and out, and it was forbidden for men and women to visit each other in the privacy of their own rooms. Within the span of my first two years at Bates the infirmary offered birth control pills to anyone who wanted them, visitation was 24 hours a day, and we were planning the first coed dorms, where I became the resident advisor in my senior year. My father said, it was like having the fox in charge of the hen house. This was the era of the sexual revolution, a contraceptive revolution, and a youth rebellion big-time. This was also the time when the Unitarian Universalist Association was developing the first comprehensive and explicit sex education curriculum in America, About Your Sexuality or AYS, the precursor to our present day OWL or Our Whole Lives. How would our freedom loving faith respond to a freedom loving time?
I am talking about human sexuality in church. Yes, even for the liberated liberals who want to help their young people make good ethical decisions, and have all the necessary information they need to make good sexual choices, we still mostly confine this subject to closed door meetings. It is an awkward subject, even an intimate one, and thus certainly also not one we usually discuss in polite circles or in sermons. Plus many of us who lived through silence on the subject or shame that we had feelings that were deemed wrong or sinful still find it difficult to mention the subject in a public setting. Yet so many topics are sexually charged. The Senate refuses to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the news media report the Pope saying that condom usage might be acceptable if used to prevent AIDS, but we must never waver from the belief that sex is only for procreation. Sex as dirty or shameful or unspeakable all stems from a religious foundation. But why?
Is it what religious traditions say? Hardly. Think of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures – “I am my lover’s and he desires me . . . let us wake early . . . and see if the if the new grape bud is open. There I will give you my love.” In the book, The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz, suggests that sex drives the Biblical narrative. There are all kinds of rules about sexuality in the scriptures. Is this to make it forbidden? No, she says, it is to make it right. And so timing and vows, circumcision, and the right choice of partners are all part of a promise from God about the fulfillment of the partnership between God and people. These rules imply that this is a powerful act, but furthermore it is the most sacred of human activities because sex “bears the word and power of God.” But most of us learned something quite different.
Those of us who grew up Christian are children of St. Augustine who said the rational soul is better than the body, which is the inferior part. And in this inferior part, there is a rebellion in the flesh. This is a spontaneous uprising, not to be too literal here, in what he called disobedient members. So he relates natural sexual desire to disobedience, and especially sees its origin in Adam and Eve’s rebellion, where of course Eve becomes the seductress of man. What disturbs Augustine is that this is independent of the will, and a sign of the ongoing nature of original sin. The sad thing is that you can’t even have desire in order to have children, so in effect, we are conceived in sin. So the early church fathers made all sexual intercourse impure. Now for marriage to be sacred it must be purged of sexual passion because that is what led Adam and Eve into sin. The idea that sex is only for procreation comes out of this perverted understanding of the body and sexuality.
But we believe sexual desire is a normal human response to other humans in this life we share, and sex is not something sinful or forbidden or shameful, but in fact is life-giving, part of which is procreation, but it is also life and relationship filling and fulfilling in and of itself. It is part and parcel of what it means to love and be loved. What we would affirm as a positive sexual ethic would be one based in relationship. While we certainly reject the view that sexuality is sinful, and also reject laws to govern sexual behavior as too restrictive, we do affirm that sexual behavior can be exploitative and abusive. The relationship must be mutual and consensual, and not coerced or manipulated. The Dickinson poem is instructive here. This kind of passion from her may surprise us, because we often portray her as unmarried and we have a shadowy understanding of her sexuality. Perhaps she believed this union of sheer passion – the wild nights – could only occur in the safety of another’s trust and care. This is rowing in Eden, the paradise where we can act on our desire, but not be afraid that someone will exploit this desire and hurt us or reject us. She seems to be giving in to desire at first, saying let it all be about freedom, but her freedom to express herself safely, with true passion, only comes when she is in port. One can also see why the church was afraid of sexual expression. Desire can bring us to the edge of where we are comfortable. There can be an enticement to danger in this expression. In the context of this poem, we could argue that sexual fulfillment, for both partners, is best when we express our love in fidelity to one partner, We might say that the root of a good relationship, sexual and otherwise, is trust.
The fulfillment of love then, comes when the expressions of heart, mind and body are working in conjunction. Love, the Greeks told us, is a trinity of philia and agape, and eros, the expression of bodily passion. John and Abigail Adams, two Unitarian forebears understood this trio. They united their like-minded spirits in a wonderful partnership that was intellectual, emotional and sexual. When they were courting she wrote to him in 1763 that, “There is a three fold chord, and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I believe that you are wholly free from it.” They married the following year. Love and eventually marriage is the final leg of the round the world journey of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Today we come to her experience of finding love in Bali, with an older Brazilian man, Felipe. Love for her becomes the balancing of the prior experiences she has in Italy and India – pleasure and devotion. In some ways we have explored the importance of following our desires, and not being consumed by our shame or guilt about them. As a culture we often view pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure in a voyeuristic kind of way, so it relates to Gilbert’s distinction between pleasure and entertainment. Sex is not to satisfy an individual’s desire; it is to fulfill that desire for another in relationship. It is about enjoying one another, not one’s self. As Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia once said, “The truly married alone can know what a wondrous instrument [sex] is for the purposes of the heart.” Gilbert is afraid of entering another relationship after her divorce experience, followed by a rebound romance, but she does.
The most common Biblical passage about love that is used in wedding ceremonies is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, echoed in our opening words with faith, hope and love. That passage reminds us that love is suppose to be patient and kind, not boastful, arrogant or rude, almost sounding down right perfect. If only we were that good. One thing Gilbert talks about in the reading is that there are always huge complications in our relationships, and men sometimes think they may avoid these difficulties. Good luck, she says. But broken hearts, we are reminded, show that we have tried to give
ourselves to love, and that it takes time to get over these deeply painful mistakes and failures. As Rilke once wrote, “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us.” No one said it would be easy.
Perhaps the main criticism of this portion of the book is that it fulfills the sexist stereotype of what women need. Her yearlong quest ends in a relationship with a man to whom it seems she will become wedded (which she does). Her balance is found in a deeper relationship, while the speculation is that a man’s journey would lead to some higher destiny. Perhaps so, but one wishes the culture might see some balance for us all in relationships rather than with success. One could argue that we should all give in to love. This is certainly one of the prevailing problems with the expression of sexuality. Going back to the feminist movement of the 1970’s and the coexistent sexual revolution, many of us had high hopes that some measure of equality would come to our society. And while women have made tremendous athletic, educational and economic gains, I must say that I continue to be appalled by the ongoing sale of every conceivable item in the metaphorical guise of a woman’s body. This demeaning depiction of women and the value in their attractiveness maintains the sexual exploitiveness of our culture, and thus the inability of all of us to gain deeper relationships when sex is so trivialized and commercialized. What this leads to emotionally is that for some women I have known is that they learn that their value must be based in how desirable they are. And so sexual relationships become a litmus test of whether you are a worthy person or not. While we all want to be attractive to our partners, the true test will always be the beauty of our heart’s compassion and caring not the amount of makeup or haircut. The poet Rilke had concerns about this issue when he wrote: “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement, but only of life and reality. Rilke looked to a time when we could affirm two solitudes – We try to affirm woman and man, woman and woman, man and man, and that in these relationships the two solitudes would protect each other, border one another and greet one another in integrity and in truth.
Tines have changed, with the sexual revolution ending in a disease revolution. It is why a pope would even consider condoms. And while I had too little information, our children may have too much, and in our consumer culture the desire for relationship is stronger than ever. In that generation of change our faith developed an amazing sex education curriculum. My son Joel’s most significant memory of it was how to put the condom on the banana. We joke about it now. But it helped remove the concept that sex was dirty, sinful and forbidden, all what I learned and dutifully ignored. It showed us that sexual relationships and acts were good and healthy, and even healing. It helped us address gender roles and identity so that there is respect and understanding for all persons. These times were not without controversy. The UUA was accused of violating Wisconsin obscenity laws with its explicit materials. Freedom and license to use our faith to affirm the self and anything that self chooses to do without ethical or familial consequences was one failure of those times. Because of our emphasis on freedom, we often struggle with moral codes, but more recently the promise of creating loving communities over the commitment to freedom of expression for the individual seems a positive step to me. The more we are safe in relationship, the more we can find pleasure in relationship. The more equal we are in relationship, the better we will be. Sexuality must be expressed so that we are both affirmed in our personal integrity, and in our commitment to each other. We are vulnerable creatures, and we all seek emotional and spiritual health.
Liz Gilbert says that the Balinese people do not let their babies’ feet touch the ground for the first six months of life. This is a sign that babies are sent straight from God. This week I had some amazing news about a baby. A former parishioner of mine emailed and then called. When she was a teenager she had become pregnant, and eventually gave birth. These were the days when it was common to give a baby up for adoption, and so the baby was whisked away at birth, and that was seemingly the end of the story. Years later she shared her painful story with me. What a sacrifice. What a loss. Not long ago, now 41 years since that birth, she received an email asking about her name and whereabouts 41years ago. A new law allowing adopted children to procure their original birth certificates had passed. Her son, now living in Mississippi, had found her, his birth mother. His adopted mother died when he was ten. On Friday she told me that she and her son had reunited, and she was fine until it was time to say goodbye, when he embraced her and said, I love you, mom. Love is difficult. Love is painful. The baby’s birth we are about to celebrate was also shrouded in abnormal circumstance, coming from what appears to be a forbidden sexual relationship, and a resulting pregnancy. We celebrate his humanity, flawed because he was human, and humble from that birth in the stable. He was one of us, infused with the touch of the godly. In this season of love come to earth, we would all try to foster relationships that are less difficult and painful. More loving and affirming and just. But the story ultimately reminds us that despite the pain, and the difficulty of the journey, love is indeed possible once again.
Closing Words – from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, uniting with another person – it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.