Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sex and Seduction

Mark 6: 14-29

On Friday night, at an end of term party for the choir, I happened to mention that I was going to be preaching about sex on Sunday. One of them, who shall remain nameless, immediately responded "Oh No! I've been doing that all day!". After everyone had a good laugh, and the lady in question had a wonderful blush, she explained that what she meant was that the children at her school had been doing 'Personal and Social Development' all day - and that they had been learning about sex!

This story of the beheading of John the Baptist is one of the more gruesome stories in the Bible; gruesome not just because of the hideous notion of presenting a man's head on a platter - but, I think, even more so because of what it says about the power of seduction, and the allure of sex.

Picture the scene. The daughter of Herodias, who was in fact the niece of the King, was asked to dance for Herod and his guests at a banquet. Her dance is known as the dance of the seven veils... and has been repeated throughout history in ballets and operas. It's a seductive dance - one from which other middle eastern dances the alluring 'belly dance'. Lots of shaking hips, and wobbling mamary glands! By tradition, the dance involved the successive removal of seven veils; each one showing a little bit more of the dancer and her face. It was a tease...literally the fore-runner of the strip-tease. It was designed to titilate, and to drive the male audience into a frenzy of desire.

Well, it certainly worked on Herod. He didn't worry too much about the fact that this was her his niece. After-all, he had already married his dead brother's wife (for which John the Baptist had condemned him). Ruling families in those days quite often married their family members. The Egyptians, for example, often married their sisters and their daughters as a way, they thought, of keeping the royal blood-line pure. (Of course, madness was often the result).

So Herod, being part of that culture, paid no attention to the fact that the dancing girl was his niece. What he saw was simply an alluring young woman, slowly and deliberately removing layer after layer of clothing. You can imagine him clapping his hands, sighing and mooning over the girl. At the end of her dance, captivated by her beauty, and letting his royal guard down for a moment, he said, "Ask me for whatever you want, and I'll give it to you....up to half of my kingdom!"

That was it - the girl rushed back to her mother who seems to have been a rather manipulative sort of person. Half of Herod's kingdom didn't really amount to much. Herod was only a vassal King, who ruled with the permission of the Romans - who actually owned the land. Herodias knew that even half a kingdom of goats and desert wasn't worth much. But she did see her chance to rid herself of the prophet, John, who had been a thorn in her side for a long time. "Ask him for the head of John the Baptist", she said.

And so, because he couldn't go back on his royal word in front of his guests, Herod reluctantly ordered John to be executed.

Herod had weakened. The power of the sexual urge is very strong. Throughout history, great men have often been brought down by it. Helen of Troy - over whom two great nations went to war. Cleopatra. Delilah. Greek myth is laden with men who have gone to their deaths for beautiful women. Sex-starved sailors have often been lured to rocks because of the mere possibility of glimpsing a mermaid.

In our own time, marketing professionals know the power of seduction. We've all seen the perfume adverts, and the car commercials. I wonder. Do you think I drive a Renault because an advert once told me to 'shake a little ass'?!

At the darker end of seduction, we all know stories of people who have been drawn into obsessions with sex...people who have given into their primal urges at all sorts of levels - from pornography, all the way down through wife-swapping and orgies, as far as the great evil of paedophilia.

We might well ask what this is all about. How has this sexual urge within us come to be so fundamental to us? Why is it so strong? If our picture of God is of one who designs the world with intricate care, what (we might wonder) is God doing when he makes us to be such powerfully sexual people?

Well, at one level its a relatively simple answer. According to the Hebrew Bible, God's command to creation, and to human in particular, was "Be fruitful, and multiply". The sexual desire is ultimately rooted in the desire to pass on our genes to the next generation. And let's face it, the sexual urge is a powerful tool in that act of pro-creation. For one thing, it helps us to overcome our more natural urge to sit on the sofa, on our own, with a bar of Toblerone!

But there's more to it than that. As men and women who are made in the image of God, we are sexual beings. We relate to each other in all sorts of ways that are coloured by our sexuality. I was recently reading some guidance for people involved in one-to-one counselling situations. The guidance was essentially focused on creating safe, non-threatening situations...avoiding the possibility of inappropriate sexual behaviour. The guidance said that it is important to acknowledge the place of our sexuality in such relationships.

Counsellors - whether they be church ministers, or psychologists - need of course to be aware of the possibilities for exploitation of vulnerable people who seek their help. Body language, the way that chairs are placed, having someone else around in another room - all these are bits of advice that are offered to give protection to everyone involved. But while all of that is vital, the guidance said that we need to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the fact that our sexuality is a resource for ministry. That is because, (and I quote) our sexuality is "a relational power, supplying energy for creativity, responsiveness, passion and commitment. It is also a means of being present to those who are hurting as well as being passionately devoted to setting relationships right...our sexuality is the ordinary medium through which God's love moves to touch, to create, to heal." (Richard M. Gula, 1996, Ethics in Pastoral Ministry, New York: Paulist).

Our sexuality, then, is one of the God given ways in which we relate to each other. It has sometimes been suggested that one of the reasons that some parts of the Church has resisted the ordination of women is because many women find that they can relate more easily to a male priest. If they are heterosexual, women can find it easier to connect with someone of the opposite gender...and that's because issues of sexuality come into play.

Our sexuality then is a gift from God, that enables us to connect with other people. When two people are in love, we are not at all surprised when one of them is able to sense at a deep level how the other is feeling. But that ability to sense, and have compassion for others, isn't just something which manifests itself through romance. It is something that is in us all - waiting to be fanned into desire for one particular person, but always there, subliminally, in the way in which we feel, and love, and care for all people.

But, like all of God's gifts, our sexuality needs to be carefully and properly managed. There are clear boundaries which the people of the Bible have set for us. Our sexuality, while always with us, and always part of us, should only be allowed it's most unfettered expression within the bounds of faithful, committed relationships. Anytime that we allow ourselves to be seduced by the lure of sex in the marketplace, on the street, in the magazine or on the internet - then we let our sexuality get out of balance. Instead of being a force for love, care, compassion and commitment to others, it can be twisted into a morbid, self-satisfying desire for personal gratification. The Bible teaches us that we find our fullest expression of our humanity through loving God, and loving our neighbour. But when we start to seek our own gratification first - we get out of balance. We can become obsessive, wrapped up in our desire for the next sexual experience. We can quickly forget the higher purpose and calling for which we were made...the love, of others, including God, before ourselves - and the calling to be changed from glory into glory...ever more like the self-giving God in whose image we are made.

Of course it isn't only sex that can seduce us. The world is full of many seductive temptations. We can be seduced into believing that wealth will make us happy, or that a new set of clothes, or that new car, will fullfil our deepest desire. We can be seduced into believing that another cigarette is all we need, or that another pint of beer will bring us happiness. But how are we to be able to judge? How can we stay in balance when so many seductions are around us...when so many metaphorical dances of the seven veils are being danced around us?

Jesus gave us a piece of advice that may perhaps guide us. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). You see, the way we choose to spend our money, or our time, says a great deal about which seductions we have given in to. I want to suggest to you that this is, again, a question of balance.

Let's try a little exercise together. Let me invite you to think about what you spend your money on, week by week. Leave aside all the essential stuff - the rent, the mortgage, the petrol, the council tax, the weekly food-bill. The question I want you to ask yourself is "what do I spend my disposable income on - the money that is left over after the bills are paid?" Then, ask yourself "what is the largest single expenditure that I make from my disposable income?".

Just think about that for a moment.

What do you spend your cash on?

Is it life-affirming? Does it reflect your (and my) calling to be people who love God and love our neighbour?

How does the amount you spend on that one item...or one to the amount of money you give to relieve poverty or sickness? Or for the work of God in this church?

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

You can, of course, do precisely the same exercise with your time. We all have at least some spare time.How much of it is used up doing things that are life-affirming and love-sharing? And how much in things that we have been seduced into doing by marketing managers and television producers?

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Please don't misunderstand me. I don't want you to leave here today feeling miserable and guilt-ridden! I simply want to invite us all, in the light of the story of Herodias' daughter, to become alert to the question "what am I seduced by?" Maybe it's sex. Maybe it's alcohol. Maybe it's TV or computer games. Maybe it's food. Maybe it's consumerism. Maybe it's the desire to gossip. There are very few of us who are not, at one time or another, seduced by something.

Our task as people who are striving to be more like our creator is to recognises what seduces us...and then to learn from the story of Herod. Our task is to lay aside our personal seduction, before it consumes us or leads us into real difficulty - as it did for Herod. Our task is to re-distribute our time, and our money, into spending and tasks that are life-affirming, and life-enhancing.

For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Communal Breathing

Mark 6:1-13: Communal Breathing

As you know, I was away last weekend. It's good to be back with you again - although I have to tell you, I had a wonderful time away. I was privileged to conduct the wedding of a young man who, 20-something years ago, was a paige-boy to Clare and me at our own wedding.

It was quite an occasion. The wedding took place in a sleepy little village on the edge of Falmouth harbour. The couple's friends and family were all there - and most of the friends were 'surfer-dudes' of various descriptions. Some of them clearly didn't own a suit for such an occasion - so various forms of dress were on display, including tee-shirts and flip-flops. I particularly enjoyed the pair of flip-flops that one fellow had - because, on the sole, he had a cunning little device that could be used to open beer bottles!

The Bride was famous locally for being somewhat immune to the tirany of the clock. So no-one was particularly surprised that the wedding started nearly 25 minutes late. However, the poor girl was so plainly nervous, that before her grand entrance, in an entrancing dress, she nearly hyperventilated in the churchyard. She just about got her breathing under control before she walked up the aisle - but one could see her making an extra-special effort to breathe as she came. In. Out. In. Out.

It was a wonderful wedding - and an even more wonderful reception. There was a real sense of community in that village, and among those people. There was the kind of community, the kind of mutual care and concern, that one can find in the very best Christian communities.

But as I reflected on the wedding, and especially on the entrance of the Bride, I began to see another parrallel with Christian communities. Watching the bride breathing in, out, in, out, reminded me that belonging to a Christian community has a similar pattern.

Week by week we come together. We come 'in' to our church buildings, and gather around the Lord's Table. But then, at the end of the service, we ask God to 'send us out in the power of his Spirit, to live and work to his praise and glory.' The very last words that the priest says to the congregation are 'Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord', to which the congregation replies 'In the name of Christ, Amen'.

There is, then, a sort of communal breathing which takes place as we gather. A sort of in, out, in, out. We come together, encourage one another, receive spiritual nourishment, and then we go out into the world 'to love and serve the Lord'.

There is a church I've heard about, somewhere in Wales, where there are words written over the church door. They are written on the inside, where they can be read by everyone who leaves the building. They read 'the mission field starts here'. They are startling words for some - especially for those who imagine that coming to church is what being a Christian is all about. But those who are the most startled have forgotten that Jesus first called his disciples to 'come' - but that he then told them to 'go'. "Come and follow me", and then "Go and make disciples". In, out, in, out.

In today's Gospel we see Jesus sending out his disciples for the first time. There's a few things that we might want to notice about this simple story. First, we might want to notice that these disciples are not the experienced, post-resurrection 'super-apostles' who he later sends out to the four corners of the world. This event takes place in the early chapters of Mark's gospel. It takes place before so many events, so much teaching, so much experience has still to be gathered by the Disciples. But that doesn't stop Jesus sending them out.

I think we should take comfort from that fact. Jesus sends out his followers, under his authority, even though they are raw recruits, failing human beings, who often mess things up and get things wrong. He sends them out even though they have not been to bible college, even though they have not been made bishops, even though they are not the preachers in their local congregations. In other words, he sends them out as ordinary, every day, believers...nothing more, nothing less. All that is needed to be sent by Jesus is the simple faith of a child - the simple belief that Jesus's message of healing, love, and a total opposition to evil is the right message for the world to hear.

The second thing we might want to note is the instructions that Jesus gives his followers, as he sends them out. Here are those instructions again, from verse 8: "Take nothing for the journey except a staff - no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town."

There's a lot going on in these instructions - far more than we have time to go into in depth. One obvious conclusion we can draw is that Jesus wanted his followers to rely on God for their provisions throughout their journey. But there is something else too.

Scholars tell us that at the time of Jesus there were a number of wandering philosophers - a group known as the Cynics. The nearest equivilent to the Cynics that we might have encountered would be 'hippies' or 'anarchists'. The Cynics were wandering preachers, influenced by Greek thought, who lived on the edge of society. They tried to encourage people to give up entirely on materialism and government as a way of living. They habitually carried a bag and a staff (which they would sometimes beat people with!) and a bag, but they wore no sandals.

Jesus, on the other hand, specifically says that his disciples may carry a staff, but no bag...and that they should wear sandals. Jesus is perhaps making sure that his disciples, as they wander from town to town, won't merely be dismissed as some of 'those odd Cynics'. He wants people to recognise his disciples as something different, something new, something special.

The question for us is how are we to be recognised as God's people when we leave this place today? That's fairly easy for me. I wear this clerical collar-thing...which some of you insist on calling my 'dog-collar'! I wear it so that the people of this area will see that they have a priest living among them...unlike most of the other professions. I wonder whether you've ever noticed that priests are often the only professionals who still live among the people they serve. Teachers, bank managers, solicitors, the police, even many local shop-keepers - many of them do not live in the places that they work. Their interaction with their community is purely professional...not personal. The church strives to be different. We strive to keep our priests in their recognisable, real signs of the Kingdom of God among those communities.

But what about those of us who don't wear 'dog-collars'? What about me, when I don't wear my collar? Some people choose to wear a lapel badge...perhaps a cross, or a fish symbol. Some people wear tee-shirts, like the one that my daughter sometimes wears, with thought-provoking slogans like "Who would Jesus bomb?". Some people have a fish-symbol, or cross, on the back of their car...though I'm always a bit dubious about that. I find that other car drivers are often so impatient that they will curse all Christians everywhere if I am simply driving at the speed limit! I dread to think what they would say about Christians if I make a mistake, or accidentally cut someone up!

But fish-signs and crosses are all external signs. There are other ways, even more important ways, that we can be recognisable as the people of God in our own community, or workplace. Those ways come down to the way we interact with other people...and the ways that we behave. The challenge for each of us to live, and act, and talk in ways that mark us out as different from other people. We are people who, as we say on our new website, 'have discovered that a spiritual life is a better life'. People around us may begin to think about spiritual things too, when they observe us living in spiritual ways.

Sometimes that might mean that we actively refuse to collude with the world's ways of doing things. It might mean that when we are out for a drink with our non-spiritual friends, we move more quickly than them from the alcoholic drinks to the soft that we maintain our control of our words and actions. It might mean that when our less-spiritual friends start to bitch about their workmates or neighbours, that we refuse to collude in 'character assassination'. Perhaps we might interject a little thought into such conversations? We might say something like "I wonder what so-and-so is going through to make them act like that".

Perhaps when people around us are moaning about the crime on our streets, we might say something like "Yes, but isn't it amazing how we only hear about the bad stuff...actually, for most people, life goes well and God is good". Perhaps when people moan about immigrants coming to steal our jobs, we might say "I wonder how I would feel if I was living in poverty or war...perhaps I would want to seek a better life elsewhere". You see, our task as disciples of Jesus is to be 'salt and light'. Our task is to bring healing to the world, and to to fight evil, cynicism, hatred and negativity where-ever we find it.

Jesus gave his first disciples the authority over evil spirits. I don't know what you believe about evil spirits themselves...I tend to think of them as a metaphor for human evil. But clearly, Jesus gives us the authority, and the power, to undermine evil wherever we encounter it. He calls us preach good news. He calls us to bring healing by our words and by our actions. He calls us to speak of a God who is Lord of a Postive Kingdom.

So, my prayer for each of us today is that as we breathe in the power of God through the rest of this service, we might prepare ourselves to breath God out to our communities, our neighbours, our friends, our work-mates and our families. In, out, in, out.

May you know the power of the Positive Kingdom in every part of your life. May you know the joy of undermining evil whenever you encounter it. May you know the privilege of being sent by Jesus to be salt and light to the world around you. Amen.