March 8, 2015 Third Sunday in Lent
Pretty Is as Pretty Does
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, 20-25, Psalm 25, Ephesians 5:14, St. Luke 11:14-28
In the last century Dr. Michel Foucault held a number of important academic posts. In the last of them he served as Professor of the History of Thought Systems at the ultra-prestigious College of France.
It was in this period, toward the end of his life in 1984, that he authored “The History of Sexuality.” In addition to his roles as philosopher, historian and literary critic he was a social activist, advocating in particular for the interests of homosexuals.
In an interview with the newspaper “Le Monde” regarding “The History of Sexuality,” he spoke of “Christianity’s most intolerably burdensome legacy, sex as sin.”
Dr. Foucault died in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the first public figure in France to do so. His partner established a charity in his memory to advance the interests of homosexuals.
I bring him up today to address the matter of whether or not it is fair to lay the blame for prudish attitudes toward sex on Christianity. I do not wish to parody an entire nation but I don’t think it unfair to point out France’s record of easy-going attitudes toward sex.
Whatever accelerates le joie de vivre – the joy of life – is not merely acceptable but good. Put another way, whatever gets you through the night . . . is all right.
So . . . are the French too quick to point a finger at Christian priggishness?
Let’s dial history all the way back to the first century. The Roman philosopher, orator and politician Cicero was born just a few years after Christ’s ascension. If it’s possible, the ancient world looked on a wide range of sexual practices with an even more relaxed attitude than does our world today.
In Corinth and elsewhere, sacred prostitutes were an amenity at temples. The income they generated was put to good use building more temples for the gods.
Cicero frowned on the Christian influence in his day as darkly as Foucault in his. Cicero appealed to both contemporary and historical practice to support his argument. He wrote:
“If there is anyone who thinks that young men should be absolutely forbidden the love of courtesans, he is indeed extremely severe. I am not able to deny the principle that he states.
“But he is at variance not only with the licence of what our own age allows but also with the customs and concessions of our ancestors.
“When indeed was this not done? When did anyone ever find fault with it? When was such permission denied? When was it that that which is now lawful was not lawful?” So wrote Cicero.
Are they – Cicero and Foucault and many others -- justified in dumping all the responsibility for ouchy reactions to a sexual smorgasbord on Christianity? My answer is a thunderous “yes.”
If not for the Bible – and certain take-offs on it such as the Quran and the Book of Mormon – this world would be awash in sexual adventurism. If you think it’s bad now – and, by the way, you’re right; it is – you should have seen antiquity. And what has gone before may be a trifle compared to what’s to come.
While I agree with Cicero and his mob on the source of what sexual reticence we have in the world, I side with another on its effect. The theologian William Barclay wrote, “There is nothing in all history like the moral miracle which Christianity wrought.”
Call it a travesty or call it a wonder; whichever, it can be traced to passages such as our Epistle lesson for today from the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians . . . who were, by the way, no strangers to the sexual equivalent of a Whitman’s Sampler in their fair city.
“But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints.”
Words to stir a Victorian’s heart. The word translated “fornication” is porneia, from which we get “pornography.” “Uncleanness,” outside the sexual context, is used of decayed flesh in the grave. Especially taken together, they are elastic enough to cover the range of sexual sin.
The apostle does not stutter: “. . . neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” Let’s put this in our lingo: Don’t even tell dirty jokes.
We begin to plumb the depths of the darkness. The images we take into our minds reshape our minds. Don’t click “forward” when you should click “delete.” Don’t pretend Internet pornography is harmless fun, a victimless escapade.
Brothers, we must edit our thoughts. We must honor our sisters . . . and all those to whom God has imparted His image. Making objects of women makes drooling morons of us. Our efforts to trivialize sin do not make our sins small; they make us small.
Put away childish things. Dwell on the pure, the lovely, the holy. These things ennoble the spirit. These things give life, God’s life. We despise them at our peril. We embrace them to our everlasting reward.
Sisters, do not be sucked into the mommie-porn trap. “Fifty Shades of Gray” sold 70 million copies in the U. S. alone. It glorifies bondage and sado-masochism. It drags the mind into the gutter and tramples it there.
God’s word never fails to fascinate. “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
To lust is . . . to covet? So it is. To desire the body of another without regard to that other’s dignity as an image-bearer, to seek to use another for a purpose condemned by God, is to covet.
What was the sin of Adam and Eve if not the lust of the eyes for an object God had put off-limits? They lusted after knowledge reserved to God that would endow them with power reserved to God. They detached the object from its relation to the Creator and sought it for its own sake.
So, too, the yearning for sex outside the bounds God has prescribed is covetousness.
And to covet is . . . to practice idolatry? So it is. For to seek an object without appreciation for it as God’s gift to man is to make it one’s god.
And so what is the antidote? “The giving of thanks.” Giving thanks counters covetousness and idolatry? So it does, for desire for what God has denied us betrays dissatisfaction with all He has bestowed upon us and blessed for our use.
Yet there’s more. Offering thanks frequently and sincerely can even create the contentment that accompanies the conviction that what God has provided is sufficient.
If God has blessed you, as He has blessed me, with a pretty darn good wife, give thanks for her. She is one of God’s mercies. And because God’s mercies are new every morning, give thanks for her every morning.
You will render gratitude to God for a grace you do not deserve. You will recall each day a mercy to which you have no right. And you will find yourself fulfilled and needless of stimulation from other sexual precincts.
Perhaps you’ve heard that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
And if you have not yet discovered a reason to comply with the divine imperatives, consider this: You will have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Well, it’s not something that’s really mentioned in polite circles these days but . . . well, let me put it this way: You’ll go to hell.
This is not condemnation of anyone who has ever sinned or will ever sin again. It is God’s judgment on those who follow their lust into covetousness and idolatry and refuse to repent of it.
Light and darkness meander through this passage, as they do throughout the Scriptures. But notice the uncompromising language. Not that those who languish in their sin are in darkness but that they are darkness.
Those who have forsaken darkness are not in the light; they are “light in the Lord.”
Each and every will awaken to God’s truth in this life or to His judgment in the next. If the former, he will become the light. If the latter, he will discover that he is darkness for all the ages.
The fruit of the light is fertility plowed back into the kingdom soil. Will you click “forward” or “delete”? Will you sow light or darkness? Will you reap holiness or decay?
But light does more than spawn righteousness. It exposes evil as well. Christ’s light disinfects. Evil cannot continue where the light of Christ shines. The disobedient must choose to walk in the light and be cleansed or to remain in the darkness and to graduate to the perpetual darkness.
This lesson derives from a section in the apostle’s letter discussing unity and purity in the church, the integration of who we are, what we believe and how we behave. What do we tell our Lord each week in the Eucharist?
“We present our selves, our souls and bodies . . .”
Do not suppose you can subdivide yourself, offering your soul to God while reserving your body for yourself. This is an old dodge and God caught on quite some time ago. He created your body, mind and soul and He has redeemed your body, mind and soul and He lays claim to the whole package. He knows every inch of you.
An old Scottish soldier was regaling a group of boys with tales of his many battles. In one ferocious struggle, he vouchsafed, he took a bullet in his left leg and then another in his right arm and then one in his left wrist.
The boys were listening in awe, mouths open.
Finally, said the old warrior, came the cruelest cut of all, a bullet that pierced his chest.
One of the older boys reckoned he had gone too far. “Come on, now,” he said, “if it had gone through your chest it would have killed your heart and you’d be dead.”
“Nae, laddie,” said the warrior; “me heart was in me throat.”
God is not so easily fooled. He majored in human anatomy.
We are a radical unity. We must not employ our bodies in a practice contrary to God’s purposes; nor are we even to think upon such things. When I was a lad, shortly after the Great Flood, the old folks had a saying, “Pretty is as pretty does.”
If you seek God’s favor, do His will.
If indeed you have been washed in the light you will lead a new life, imitating the One who has illumined you. “Be imitators of God as dear children,” the apostle instructs. The church father Clement of Alexandria chimed in: “Practice being God.”
Here is the point where our resistance begins, where we give up aping the culture and instead teach the culture. By walking as our Lord walked, by talking as our Lord talked, we bear witness to His perfect holiness by our imperfect holiness.
Yet this is not the point where our resistance ends. We can scatter salt and light in a decaying world on a broader scale . . . and the rot is advancing. The evangelical church is moving ever nearer acceptance of homosexuality as acceptable to God.
A Nashville-area pastor of a large church that includes country music star Carrie Underwood has declared from the pulpit that practicing homosexuals can be members in the same sense as all other members.
“Our position that these siblings of ours, other than heterosexual . . . cannot have the full privileges of membership, but only partial membership, has changed,” said Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church.
“Full privileges are extended now to you with the same expectations of faithfulness, sobriety, holiness, wholeness, fidelity, godliness, skill, and willingness that is expected of all,” he continued. “Full membership means being able to serve in leadership and give all of your gifts and to receive all the sacraments; not only communion and baptism, but child dedication and marriage.”
Rob Bell, a prominent pastor who headed Mars Hill Bible Church and has written best-selling books, told “Oprah Winfrey on Sunday” that the American church is "moments away" from embracing gay marriage. He said "it's inevitable."
Bell appeared with his wife, Kristen, to discuss marriage and their new book, "The ZimZum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage."
Kristen read an excerpt from the book: "Marriage, gay and straight, is a gift to the world because the world needs more, not less, love, fidelity, commitment, devotion and sacrifice."
Oprah proclaimed her admiration of their choice to include gay marriage in the book, and asked them why.
"One of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity is loneliness," said Pastor Rob. "Loneliness is not good for the world. Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It's central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with."
"When is the church going to get that?" Oprah asked.
"We're close," he said. "Lots of people are already there. We think it's inevitable and we're moments away from the church accepting it." By resisting same-sex marriage, he said, the church would "continue to be even more irrelevant."
This is the new heresy we must counter, along with the old heresies. We are outnumbered but we are not unarmed. At synod little more than a week ago, Bp. Sutton, who serves as president of Cranmer Theological House, gave a brief history on the erosion of doctrine in the American church as the product of corrupted seminaries.
In the 19th century, American scholars went to Europe in pursuit of post-graduate education. They soaked in the liberalized theology of what is known as the school of higher criticism. They returned and taught the error they had absorbed.
From the seminaries, it flowed out into the pulpits and from the pulpits into the pews. The seminaries are always the front lines in the battle.
At synod we also listened and watched as those who teach at Cranmer House first recited a vow of fidelity to the authority of the Scriptures that is required of them annually and then affixed their signatures to that promise. Here is what they swore:
“. . . I pledge to teach that the Holy Scriptures are the infallible Word of God written, and I am determined to instruct nothing that is not in accordance with the Apostles,’ Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, the Articles of Religion and the historic Book of Common Prayer. I further promise faithfully to exercise myself in the Holy Scriptures, to call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of the same, and to teach as necessary unto salvation nothing but that which may be proved by the same. I do hereby make my pledge to God . . . by solemn oath, which is sealed by personal signature in the seminary’s Book of Fidelity.”
Cranmer House operated at a loss last year, even with faithful men – and women, in the case of those who teach in the deaconess program – virtually donating their time, talent and education to the work of teaching.
We must support our Reformed Episcopal seminaries in their vigorous advocacy for the authority of the Scriptures. We must continue to shore up our front lines.
By no means am I scolding you. Our church has given generously to the work of Cranmer House. I simply implore you to continue to give sacrificially, at your current level or, if you are able, at a higher one.
“There is nothing in all history like the moral miracle which Christianity wrought.”
We must keep the fire burning. Amen.