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sermon69

Sex: Pure and Simple

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, June 18, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander

The title of my sermon this morning is: "SEX: PURE AND SIMPLE."

Now that I've got your undivided attention, I'd like to quickly make a confession. This is not really a sermon about sex. What's more, I most certainly do not think that sex (in all its diverse, complicated, emotional and powerful manifestations) is usually pure and simple. While I will (over the course of this sermon) talk a little bit about sex and sexuality (lest I be accused of ministerial false advertising or using a provocative title to fill church on a Summer Sunday), this is really more a sermon about the widespread and long-standing negativity and fear about human sexuality that exists in our culture (and in many religions), and the (related) rejection and oppression of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons that has resulted from that irrational negativity and fear.

A few moments ago, members of our Open Church Taskforce read aloud to you the "Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing," which I hope you find useful, provocative and agreeable. Speaking for myself -- as a Unitarian Universalist religious leader, and, yes, as an openly gay man who has frequently felt the sting of this culture's fear, loathing, judgement, rejection and oppression of anyone who happens to be part of an affectional orientation minority - I believe this thoughtful and passionate document is long overdue, and may hopefully play a positive role in the slow transformation of American attitudes about sex, sexuality, and sexual and affectional orientation. It's time (long overdue in fact) for all religious people (not to mention our culture at large) to reject a whole constellation of old/enslaving ideas about sex and sexuality, and move toward more positive and humane views that responsibly affirm the wide and complex landscape of natural human sexual and affectional expression.

Most of you probably do not know that earlier this year, the President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. John Buehrens, asked every UU minister across the continent (including me, of course) to preach from their pulpits (on one particular Sunday) about sexuality and this document. I did not do so. I declined to do so not (I assure you) because I have any serious reservations or disagreements with this declaration. Though the language is a bit too "God-and-sin orientated" for my taste...once I do a bit of that translating into my own UU language, it very succinctly articulates my positive spiritual perspectives about sexuality in all of its responsible and loving manifestations. The reason, frankly, I did not preach on this subject when asked to is because as a gay man I did not feel safe to do so. Let me carefully explain why I felt that way.

As I stated just a moment ago (once again taking what even after all these years always feels a risk...publically naming my own personal sexual orientation), I happen to be a gay man. I accepted this fact almost 25 years ago when I finally came out to myself, and began to liberate myself to live my life in congruence with my affectional orientation (and please note my language here, I regard myself not as a part of a "sexual" minority, but rather an "affectional" one...more on this crucial distinction later). For 20 years I have rather quietly and conventionally lived (in a rather traditional - some might even say tediously domestic way) with my dear spouse, Mr. Collins Mikesell, who happens to be that handsome, charming, curly-haired, slightly-balding fellow who sings in our choir. Over the course of this last quarter century, the fact that I am part of an affectional minority is a simple, everyday, and in many ways quite trivial and unimportant fact that I have never sought to draw much attention to in the congregations I have served. I have never thought of myself particularly (as some seem to do) as "A GAY MINISTER," rather I think of myself (and this is a crucial distinction) as "a minister who happens to be gay". Frankly, when my ministerial career is over, I would much rather be remembered as "that minister who knows how to preach a lively and engaging sermon," or "that minister who edited so many good books," or "that minister with such an evangelical enthusiasm for Unitarian Universalism", or "that minister who helped congregations to grow vital and strong," or even as "that wild and crazy energizer bunny of a minister who runs 14 miles every day," ALMOST ANYTHING, frankly, other than (yawn and yuk!) "that gay minister." Being gay just isn't even vaguely close to being anywhere central to my self-definition, either as a person or a professional. My affectional and sexual orientation (the fact that I am emotionally - and yes, sexually - but first and foremost emotionally attracted to persons of the same gender unlike the majority who are attracted to the opposite gender) is largely irrelevant to my essential identity as a person and professional. I mean think about it...can you even imagine Bill Murry or John Burciaga introducing themselves at a public gathering (or being described by others) as "heterosexual ministers"? Of course not. You might mention their theological leanings, or their personality traits, or their particular professional interests -- but their affectional/sexual orientation? Yet as a man who happens to be gay, against my spiritual and emotional will, I am often primarily defined by others in terms of my sexuality.

This is why, frankly (although I fully anticipated it and took it basically in philosophical, existential stride) I was disappointed (or was it just plain disheartened and bored?) when so much attention was paid - both within the congregation itself and in the local media who ran both print and television stories about my coming here two years ago to become your minister-- to this side fact of my personal affectional/sexual orientation. I mean, look at this blaring headline...after spending hours with the reporter, describing my vision for this congregation and Unitarian Universalism, after showing her my five books, after talking to her about all my theological and social justice passions and perspectives, the headline we get is "Gay Minister Leads River Road Church." Sigh... But now, mercifully -- after two full and dare I say rather exciting and action packed years of routine life together as minister and congregation - it must be patently apparent to all of you that there are many other much more pertinent and pressing facts about me (above and beyond the rather uninteresting fact of my sexual orientation) that define the shape of my leadership and ministry among you (like my free-flowing theological perspectives, my exuberant pulpit style, my keen interest in ritual and ceremony, my commitment to building and growing the program of this church, my sense of humor and my virtually inexhaustible personal energy level - to name a few). But I am still aware (and therefore cautious in my public statements and behaviors) that in the minds of some people (both within this congregation and beyond), my affectional/sexual orientation still somehow looms large, central and important in their perception of me.

This is why I have not to date ever addressed the issue of human sexuality (or gay, lesbian and bisexual rights) from this pulpit, even when asked to do so earlier this Spring by President Buehrens. Why in heaven's name would I (of all preachers) willfully bring up the issues of sexuality or sexual orientation when it is my perception that people are already paying excessive and inappropriate attention to that fact vis--vis me personally? I realize this has somewhat surprised and frustrated some of the members of our Open Church Taskforce, who just naturally assumed (I guess) that I (as the gay who in literal fact wrote the book [The Welcoming Congregation] about how UU congregations could become more welcoming of sexual minorities) would rush to embrace this particular social justice issue. Now you know why I haven't. Do you all understand this?

But today, I have finally decided to approach this important topic - but only after making the reasons for my personal hesitancy to do so perfectly clear to all of you. Please understand that over the years of my ministry with you (which I hope will be many), because I am obliged to carry the unwanted baggage of being a publically gay male, you will probably not hear a lot about the issues of human sexuality from me. Because of this culture's fear of and fixation upon affectional/sexual orientation, this topic is better left to supportive heterosexual colleagues who don't have all the cultural fear and discomfort about human sexuality unwittingly attached to and projected onto their public careers and persons. Nonetheless, finally after two years as your minister, I feel I can talk about this issue with some measure of appropriate distance, safety, and comfort. So when the Open Church Task-Force asked me to preach on this "their" Sunday, I decided to dive in.

Alright, let's get down to it, shall we? I want to begin by addressing what I think is the key question regarding the topic of sexuality in America. Why, in our culture at large (and why in so many religious traditions, especially the conservative ones), is there so much interest, energy, negativity (and - here's the key point I think -- deep fear) about the natural diversity of human sexual expression...and why in particular are people so focussed upon and fearful about affectional/sexual minorities? Why (after all these years of general growing public enlightenment and understanding about human diversity) do gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons continue to be so vilified, feared and rejected by so many? Why is having a minority sexual orientation such a big deal that people will even (as happened in the tragic cases of Matthew Shepard and hundreds of other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons) attack, assault and even kill - for God's sake - other human beings simply for being who they are? It is beyond all reason and rationality. I think the answer is rather obvious, profoundly saddening, and even somewhat understandable (though not, in the end, utterly acceptable). Human sexuality (for all of us - whether we know ourselves to be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or somewhere else along the complicated continuum that is affectional/sexual orientation) is a very powerful thing -- and is potentially as dangerous, scary and volatile as it is pleasurable, wondrous and sacred). I believe the reason so many religious traditions and cultural institutions have tried to dogmatically imposed so many rigid judgements and restrictions on human sexual expression (why they have been so systematically fearful about and threatened by much of humanity's natural sexual expression, including that of sexual minorities like gay folk) is that they have been well aware of the power and sway sexuality can have over our lives, and want to make sure it never leaps out of bounds.

Look...I know we're in church this morning, but can we talk? Sex (of almost any type if done reciprocally, responsibly and right) naturally makes us feel good. Consensual, tender and attentively caring sex is exciting and pleasurable and fun and (again if healthy and appropriate) is truly as this declaration proclaims a truly "life-giving, and life-fulfilling gift, central to our humanity and integral to our spirituality." People naturally enjoy and have sex, and, it can be a volatile reality in our lives, especially when it finds expression (as it often, naturally does, for we are - after all - still just mammals barely off the savannah in some ways) beyond the narrow social convention of monogamous, heterosexual, adult marriage (which is where some fancifully imagine it can and should be forever confined and controlled). No one, least of all me, will argue that sex is not (in addition to being wondrous, empowering, liberating even magical) also potentially dangerous, destructive, dehumanizing and abusive - it sadly can be all these things and worse. Of course some firm and insistent social controls need to be put in place to prevent abusive, unhealthy or inappropriate sex (say as in the obvious cases of sex between adults and children, sex between siblings or other close relatives, or any sex that is not consensual, mutual or nurturing for both parties). As this declaration appropriately affirms, the sacred gift of sex must never be "abused or exploited...all persons have the right and the responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure...grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings." But the real spiritual value of this declaration (in the face of so much religious fear and negativity about human sexual expression) is that it begins (and ends) not with anxiety and fear, but with a broad spiritual affirmation (which we Unitarian Universalists surely make) of the goodness, worth and beauty of sex, in all its responsible and reciprocal expressions. Unlike most religious conservatives, we see generally see the wide spectrum of human sexual expression NOT as "the Devil's sinful workshop," but rather a healthy and holy expression of life's copious blessedness. Responsible, reciprocal, caring sex is - to us - not dirty, but a divine thing, a gift out of life's miraculous whirlwind we should engage in and enjoy (not avoid, suspect and fear).

[And a quick but important philosophical aside here. Another reason (besides sexuality's obvious power) many traditional Western religions are so negative and suspicious of human sexuality (viewing it primarily not as something to be cherished and celebrated, but rather as something to be constrained and controlled) is The Cartesian Dualism. The Cartesian Dualism is a centuries-old philosophical position which I have spoken about from this pulpit before (when in my sermon on "Jogging for Jesus" I was trying to understand why we in this culture so undervalue and abuse our physical bodies). This idea -- which developed early in Greek and Christian thought and continues to (largely on an unconscious basis) dominate much of Western thought -- simply imagines that: 1) the spiritual and intellectual aspects of humanity (which are valued as pure, noble and worthy) are completely set apart in creation from 2) the physical and sexual aspects of humanity (which are denigrated as base, vulgar, carnal and dirty). Creation spirituality theologian Matthew Fox (and other theological liberals) blame the Cartesian Dualism for the Judeo-Christian tendency to lead with negativity, judgement, restraint and fear when it comes to the diversity of humanity's sexual expression...most especially with gay, lesbian and bisexual persons. If our culture is ever to embrace a more positive perspective on human sexuality, it must first reject the false and arbitrary division between physicality and spirituality postulated by the Cartesian Dualism.]

Let me shift gears a bit. Something I (as a gay man) have never really understood is why so many religious conservatives seem to focus so much energy and interest (as this declaration observes) on particular sexual acts, and why they want to define me as a "gay male" in terms of what I might physically do in bed with somebody. I mean...what really does that have to do with anything? I know Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist Christians who think that it is "an unnatural abomination" to be gay would never believe this, but the truth is that being gay is not about sex. Well, OK, it's a little about sex, gay people have and like sex just like everybody else...but primarily being gay or lesbian or bisexual (like being heterosexual) is not really about what one does or does not do in bed, with which body parts and stimulated nerve endings. One of the blessed things about these bodies (male and female) we have been given is that they have certain parts and nerve endings that feel sexual pleasure when aroused, and people (regardless of their sexual orientations) know where to go and what to do to bring on those good sexual feelings. What really makes me gay (or what makes you heterosexual or bisexual or gay yourself) is not which sex acts you engage in to trigger those good feelings...what makes a person gay or straight or bi is one's affectional orientation...who are you attracted to emotionally (which eventually means you might act on that attraction physically). Being gay is about being attracted (on a feeling level) to people of the same gender...its not about wanting or performing particular sex acts. In my case (it's always best to speak for yourself) being gay is about enjoying snuggling in bed on lazy Saturday mornings with the guy I live with...its sharing years of dinners together with dear old friends...it's riding silently and contented and safe with one another on a long car trip...its about reading a snippet of the morning paper to the other and engaging in political debate (or a good belly laugh)...that's what being gay means to me, I happen to do all these things with a guy, not a gal...period. And another thing...contrary to popular mythology (and here is where gay, lesbian and bisexual people share the burden of a stereotype dumped on African American persons as well) gay, lesbian and bisexual people spend no more time focussed on or engaged in sex or sexuality than do heterosexual people. Do any of you remember the old 1960's musical called "LUV"? The only scene from that silly play I remember is the one where the wife (in a long term marriage) is complaining about the frequency of sex in their relationship. The rather bedraggled husband responds, "Oh, come on dear, our sex life isn't so bad," to which she responds by saying, "Oh yeah," and pulls down this massive chart, which assumedly charts the frequency of their love-making going jaggedly-but-steadily down, like a chart of a failing business. Every study of long term gay and straight couples shows the same thing...over time sex declines for all, no matter what their affectional and sexual orientations, in importance and frequency. I'd like you all to think about this for a minute. How important, for any of you -- whether you are in an intimate partner relationship right now or not - is sex? What portion or percentage of your life and self-definition and satisfaction or meaning in life is defined or determined by whether or not you have a lot of sex? The point I am making is that gay, lesbian and bisexual persons are just about identical to heterosexual people when it comes to sex and their sense of self. Sex plays a minor role (albeit a wonderful one when its possible and right) in making us who we are. What really counts is who we are each attracted to, and the kind of intimacy, connection and meaning we find in life by being close to another human being...emotionally, spiritually domestically, and yes, if the surveys are to be believed sexually maybe once a week or so.

And thus we arrive at the nub of it all, as far as I am concerned. SEX IS FUNDAMENTALLY ALL ABOUT HUMAN CONNECTION. I won't deny the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church their one big point when it comes to sex. Sex is a powerful, primordial and pleasurable biological mechanism (created by God or whatever other force or forces gave shape to our universe) which naturally leads heterosexual couples (at specific, and rather circumscribed, fertile periods in young adulthood) to propagate children, thereby ensuring the continuation of traditional family units and (of no small importance) our human species. But for most of us, most of the time throughout the various decades of our lives, sex has other, less mechanistic and practical species survival purposes. I would assert that for most heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals during most of their lives sex -- rather than being a weighty vehicle of procreation -- is rather a simple, satisfying, intimate, pleasurable (and fun!) form of communication, connection and caring with another human being. Let me repeat that, for most of us, most of the time (no matter what our affectional or sexual orientation), sex is a simple, satisfying, intimate, pleasurable (and fun!) form of communication, connection and caring with another human being.

And thus we arrive precisely where I want to leave you this morning. It is a theological affirmation which I believe is central to Unitarian Universalism, one which all religions would do well to affirm. You have heard it from my lips many times before, in many sermons and contexts, and I don't believe I can ever say it enough, for it is what life as we know it is surely (at its holy essence) all about. Unitarian Universalism asserts and proclaims (through its traditions, spirit and principles) that HUMAN BEINGS WERE MADE FOR CLOSE AND CARING RELATIONSHIPS. We were cosmically wired (right from the womb of our very base and being) not to lead lives of isolation, alienation and aloneness (which is where hell lies), but to find real, satisfying and caring connection and communion with all the life and life forms that swirl so miraculously around us (which is where heaven, or something damn close to it can be found). We were meant, pure and simple -- as creatures of this holy, interconnected creation -- for connection and caring. Sex (whether engaged in by heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bisexual persons) is sacred and sanctified when we use it as a vehicle to help us responsibly and joyfully connect up (in caring physical communion and conversation) with another human being. Sex (except for those phobicly fixated upon it) is not in the end about body parts and nerve endings (though those remarkably lovely and useful physical things are always blessedly involved). Sex is a wonderful god-or-nature given mechanism (take your theological pick) which enables people to find life saving and sweetening physical, spiritual, and emotional connection to other living things to whom they belong in close and caring relationship. It's that pure, and it's that simple...and it is time...way past due time...for us to stop all the fear and loathing about this amazing, innocent and holy aspect of our humanness...and help all human beings everywhere (howsoever they deliciously come in affectional orientation) to experience the life-saving nurturing of responsible, reciprocal sex. Let me say it one more time in church, with delight, abandon and joy similar to that which it brings to all of us as diverse human beings - SEX!

Amen.