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Pleasure and Sensuality


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
July 10, 2016

The Song of Songs is probably the most unusual book to be included in the Bible. It is a wonderful collection of love poetry written some 2500 years ago by several young romantics. Sometimes called The Song of Solomon who had an abundance of wives and concubines but probably had nothing to do with the composition of the book and was referenced in hopes of giving legitimacy to the work. Its name “Song of Songs” means that it is the best of the best when it comes to love songs. This beautiful, delicious poetry reminds us that we are created as embodied images of the divine and was probably included in our scriptures because ancient wise men saw intimacy as possible not only between two human lovers but between humanity and divinity. Medieval mystics loved this book and so do I.

But why did I choose to stay with this theme today after everything that has happened in the last few days? With so much violence in our world, why would I want to focus on love poetry, pleasure and sensuality of all things? I was pondering just that question when the words from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi came to mind:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
There is nothing more important in difficult times than staying grounded in our bodies. This is where incarnation, where peace, where justice action is possible. So perhaps remembering pleasures and our sensual selves will strengthen us for the work ahead. The crisis that has come to a head in our society has been with us since the foundation of our nation. What we do next will depend upon our willingness to find strength born of knowing who we are created to be as whole human beings.

So let’s talk about sex! (How’s that for a transition?)

I want to give us a brief history of sex in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a background for the challenges we face in understanding and embracing our whole bodies and selves today. The Hebrew tradition has no concept of original sin. The Genesis story of Adam and Eve was seen as symbolic of the human journey from oneness with the divine in the garden to knowledge of good and evil, a journey from innocence to awareness. Hebrew culture was very grounded in the real world. Salvation was all about being freed from external enemies. The was no concept of heaven or hell.

Jesus and the prophets before him introduced spiritual vision to this very material understanding of the world and our place within it. They challenged us to live up to the law of love. By his death and resurrection Jesus emphasized that Spirit lives on beyond the grave.

Jesus is called the Incarnation of God. Incarnation means “Spirit in flesh.”  He is Embodied Spirituality. All of us, as children of God are Incarnations of the sacred. We are temples of the Holy Spirit.

But the gospels and Paul and the rest of the New Testament were written more to impress the intellectual world of 1st Century. That world was dominated by Greek philosophy with its emphasis on dualistic logic, on spirit versus flesh.

Then, in the 5th Century Augustine introduced the concept of “Original Sin.” And for him the sin he struggled most desperately was sex. He wrote eloquently about it in his Confessions. It made sense to him to name sex as the “original sin” of Adam and Eve though you will find that concept nowhere in either Genesis or anywhere else in scripture!

The church had relegated women to second class positions by the end of the 1st Century. Women blamed for being too sexy. Sex becomes an evil when God created it as good. The damage was done and continued to become more insidious.

Our culture has grown up, especially in America, on Puritan values. It has given us a strong work ethic, but it has made it difficult for us to talk about sex or to teach healthy values to our children.                        

There is a terrible shadow side to our unwillingness to face the toxic imbalance in our views about sexuality. The porn industry is massive, generating $10 to $13 Billion a year. It creates false views of what healthy sexuality looks like, it uses and abuses women, and makes it difficult for young men, especially to have healthy intimate relationships. And sex sells everything in our market place!
The sexual slavery of children and young women throughout the world is growing. As many as 10 million people are trafficked for sex slavery each year. And more than 45 million people are in slavery today.

When we fail to value every human being as a sacred child of God, using, abusing, and killing others becomes too easy. Blacks have been seen as more physical, embodied, better at sports and dancing and singing…and easier to think of as ‘other.’ When we value the mind over physical being we can judge and condemn and the results have been catastrophic!

The United Church of Christ has worked to combat our false view of sexuality. Our Whole Lives is a wonderful sex education program developed in the last 20 years by the UCC and Unitarian Universalists of America. The church I served in Atlanta was chosen to pilot test the curriculum which was designed as a series of sexuality education curricula for six age groups: grades K-1, grades 4-6, grades 7-9, grades 10-12, young adult, and adult. It was wonderful! We worked with the grades 7 to 12! We may want to consider using it here.

Rev. Lena Breen, Mt. Vernon, WA, says "To offer sexuality education in a congregation is to acknowledge that human sexuality is simply too important too beautiful and too potentially dangerous to be ignored in a religious community."

The UCC website says, “We live in a culture that is deeply conflicted about sexuality. Our religious heritage compels and guides us in creating a safe environment where people can come to understand and respond to the challenges facing them as sexual beings.

But Sex is certainly not the only form of pleasure and sensuality we can explore! Ruth Gendler’s wonderful depiction of Pleasure found in our Quiet Meditation this morning reminds us that so much of life is given as a gift:          

Pleasure is wild and sweet. She likes purple flowers. She loves the sun and the wind and the night sky. She carries a silver bowl full of liquid moonlight. She has a cat named Midnight with stars on his paws. Many people mistrust Pleasure, and even more misunderstand her. For a long time I could hardly stand to be in the same room with her. I went to sleep early to avoid her. I thought she was a gossip and a flirt and she drank too much. In school we learned that she was dangerous and I was sure that she would distract me from my work. I didn’t realize she could nurture me.
As I have changed, Pleasure has changed. I have learned to value her friendship.

Osho, the Zen Master, speaks of “Participation in life” as essential to wholeness: Participate in the sun rising. (How many of you saw the sun rise today?) Participate in the clouds moving across the sky. Participate in the breath you breathe. As we say before our Centering Prayer time each Sunday, “Notice that you take up space.” Feel your feet against the floor, the tips of your fingers, the top of your head. Participate in choices that will manifest real peace in our world with three basic decisions: First, stand on the side of the oppressed always. Then, pray for and love those with power who abuse it and oppress. Finally, choose to become aware of how you contribute to the problem and grow more mindful and compassionate.

Be more that a thinking being (I think therefore I am), or an emotional being (I feel therefore I am). As a breathing being (I breathe therefore I am) you can experience every molecule of your being filled with oxygen in every breathe of life. You can become stronger in Spirit and in your body.

What is your favorite thing about being embodied?

I will close with Ruth Gendler’s wonderful words on Sensuality found in your insert. I hope you will allow yourself to imagine being this wild and free!:
Sensuality does not wear a watch but she always gets to the essential places on time. She is adventurous and not particularly quiet. She was reprimanded in grade school because she couldn’t sit still all day long. She needs to move. She thinks with her body. Even when she goes to the library to read Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte she starts reading out loud and swaying with the words, and before she can figure out what is happening she is asked to leave. As you might expect, she is a disaster at office jobs.

Sensuality has exquisite skin and she appreciates it in others as well. There are other people whose skin is soft and clear and healthy but something about Sensuality’s skin announces that she is alive. When the sun burst forth in May, Sensuality likes to take off her shirt and feel the sweet warmth of the sun’s rays brush across her shoulder. This is not intended as a provocative gesture but other people are, as usual, upset. Sensuality does not understand why everyone else is so disturbed by her. As a young girl she was often scolded for going barefoot.

Sensuality likes to make love at the border where time and space change places. When she is considering a potential lover, she takes him to the ocean and watches. Does he dance with the waves? Does he tell her about the time he slept on the beach when he was seventeen and woke up in the middle of the night to look at the moon? Does he laugh and cry and notice how big the sky is?

It is spring now, and Sensuality is very much in love these days. Her new friend is very sweet. Climbing into bed the first time, he confessed he was a little intimidated about making love with her. Sensuality just laughed and said, “But we’ve been making love for days.”

God is Love. Embodied love is our birthright as children of God. May you experience your whole selves and participate in the divine with every breath you breathe. Amen.