14 February 2012

First Sermon on ... Sex and Beer ... ?

I've complained a lot in seminary that we don't talk enough about sex. We talk around it a lot. We talk about its implications (or rather, sexuality's implications) for church polity a lot. But we don't actually talk about sex, about desire, about pleasure. At least not very much, at least not in the Episcopal Church. This is a shame, I think, because I think we have a word of good news to speak on the subject. At the same time, there are pitfalls. The things that "charm us most" are the hardest gifts for us to use responsibly, to have a healthy relationship with. So when I had the chance to preach on James 1:12-18 for my VTS senior sermon, I had to take it.

I usually try not to introduce sermons like I'm doing here, but I wanted to give the background because this was a very special (for me) sermon given to a community that knows me and knows I'm generally not a puritanical or finger-pointy person. But I wasn't sure if the words on the electronic page would communicate that the same way my in-person words to my friends and colleagues hopefully did. So to be clear: My point in this sermon, is that, on the one hand, the things that give us pleasure are good gifts from God that we can and should enjoy. On the other hand, as we mature by God's grace, we can and should expect to be changed, to experience life's gifts in healthier and more positive ways.

So, without further ado ...

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Allow me to share a song with you. I heard this strange little nursery rhyme at a National Gathering of Episcopal Young Adults in Estes Park, CO, during my junior year of college. It goes like this:1

There are no Episcopalians down in Hell

There are no Episcopalians down in Hell

They’re in Heaven up above

Drinking beer and making love

There are no Episcopalians down in Hell

It’s tough to know where to begin with that. I myself can’t help but imagine someone like John Wesley’s utter disbelief at hearing this particular “spiritual song.” Presumably the Methodists up above have given themselves over to worthier pursuits under his continued guidance, and so perhaps he would take some comfort in that.

Now I’m no prude, and certainly no teatotaller, but even this Milwaukeean was a little taken aback on first hearing that song. More shocking still was the way this mentality was espoused that week by some of the best and brightest Episcopal young adults in the country. Indeed, when I arrived back at the dorm on New Year’s Eve after a lovely but sparsely attended Taize prayer service, my reverie was broken by the revelry of a much larger and rowdier crowd; let’s just say that this group had started in on the song’s idea of the heavenly banquet a little early. I felt like I was back in Madison at the nation’s top party school.

I kid because I know no other way of beginning to reflect on these stern verses from James: “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation …One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”2

On the one hand, there’s no doubt that my friends in Colorado were reacting against a certain kind of puritanical Christianity that they encountered among many fellow college students back home, a Christianity all too happy to cite verses like these. I think they were partly right to react against it. We Christians have to stop demonizing desire if we’re to have a healthy relationship with it.

On the other hand, surely we cannot think that the author of the Letter of James is wholly on the wrong track. Surely there are temptations we are to endure rather than submit to. If C.S. Lewis is right that God is “a hedonist at heart” and that we are called to live into that heavenly vocation,3 then surely we and the Holy Spirit still have some work to do figuring out how exactly we should experience life’s pleasures, how we can rightly order our desires for beer, sex, the perfect cup of coffee, our favorite TV show, the companionship of family and friends and partners and spouses and sweethearts, or that job that will challenge and nurture and delight us. Surely we are being tested. And as Lewis points out in The Screwtape Letters, we’ll fare worse if we believe it isn’t so.

I think it’s the idea of never-ending testing that scares us off from these kinds of New Testament writings and leads us to respond with these kinda fun but kinda childish jokes about whiskey-palians or sex and beer in heaven. It’s not primarily some inability to speak the word “sex” or “alcohol” or “lust” or “pleasure of the flesh” that speeds us on to the next pericope. No, what really doesn’t preach in an Episcopal pulpit, I believe, is this language of the ceaseless test, the cosmic battle of good and evil taking place in microcosm in our every moral deliberation. I think we’re afraid life might really be like the street-corner preacher says it is. We’re afraid sometimes that not even that table, not even that cross, can give us a rest from the shackles we call striving.

But I think we’re wrong if we choose to either run away from these passages about desire and temptation and struggle or to treat them as if they were the whole story. After all, James knew that the Christian life is more than striving in the face of temptation. James knew that the devil and the angel are there on our shoulders, but he also knew that by God’s grace and by training in righteousness we learn to tell the difference: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights …In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”4 By God’s grace, we come to know the good gifts God has given us, to use them as God wills, and to give them to one another. By God’s grace, we become part of a new creation.

So maybe James knew what C.S. Lewis knew, that “Out at sea, out in [God’s] sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure.”5 As the demon Screwtape laments, “everything has to be twisted before it’s any use” to the cause of evil.

So I submit to you that our task as faithful Christians is not to pretend that we don’t get ourselves good and twisted up from time to time. Nor, I think, should we make light of that twisting in act or in song. Nor should we let what sometimes feels like a cosmic struggle to stay untwisted convince us that the struggle and the twisting is all there is.

No, our task is to have faith that the Father of lights is there illuminating our path, that the Holy Spirit is leading us to a more perfect love and a keener sense of discernment, that Jesus is walking with and redeeming us even at our most twisted and confused. Now that’s a vision that James, John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and—I hope—those friends I made in Colorado can all get behind. So cheers to them and to all the faithful, who in Christ are becoming the “first fruits of [God’s] creatures.”

1To the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it.”

2James 1:12, 14.

3C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in The Complete C.S. Lewis: Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002): 249.

4James 1:17–18.

5Lewis, 249.

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