catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 5 :: 2012.03.02 — 2012.03.15


Nothing to see here

When I asked students what they have heard about sex in church, I was surprised.  I made it clear that we were not discussing cultural or even church-cultural perceptions, but what they themselves actually heard in preaching or Sunday school or Bible study or youth group.  With their own ears.

Believe me, they have been listening, ears wide open.  But, overwhelmingly, what they said was, “Nothing.”  In the room of 35 college students, a small handful had heard things like, “Sex before marriage is wrong,” or, “Intimate relationships with non-Christians are wrong.”   One person described an embarrassing youth retreat involving “tin foil body parts.”  But the majority said they had never heard anything — even in youth group retreats or gatherings that were supposed to be about sex, they heard only vague admonitions about relationships and decision-making. 

When I asked them what they would want to hear, if they could hear one sermon about sex, they surprised me again.  I guess I thought they would get political and talk about church polity and changing times.  But their questions were insightful and genuinely curious.  They asked,

  • Did Jesus have sex?  Did he want to?
  • God, what were you thinking with sex?  What’s the point?
  • In what ways can sex push us away from/pull us towards God?
  • Is there holiness about sex?  Is it a sacred act?
  • Define sex.  Where is “the line?”  Mindset? Actions? Masturbation?
  • Define virgin.  Is it a mindset?  Condition?  Perception?  And what does that mean for Mary?
  • Now that marriage is not always permanent, why is this still the standard for when it’s ok to have sex?

This is one of the things I love best about ministry with college students.  They bring it.  Though they struggle, like the rest of us, to figure out how faith in God ought to show up in everyday life, they are not content to leave some parts of everyday life unexamined.  They are willing to ask a question like, “Did Jesus have sex?” without second-guessing themselves or trying to go ahead and answer it (“correctly”) in the midst of asking it.  They are eager to run out and meet God rather than waiting for God to come looking for them.

So why is the church waving people on like a friendly but uninvolved police officer, “There’s nothing to see here — move along”? 

I appreciated Hope Lane’s “Real relationships” here in catapult, particularly her observation that the divorcing couple’s openness about what went wrong in their relationship helped her to feel confident in making her own marriage commitment.  As Lane says, she is curious about the coupled and committed relationships of those in her community because she has (and so do we) “the human need to know what’s real. I’m hoping what’s real isn’t televised human drama, but I need living examples to replace false information.”

We do need glimpses of “what’s real” and if we don’t see them in church, we will look for what we need in other places.  So why the silence?  Because we will look for — and find — cultural visions of how to live out our sexuality.  In the abysmal silence of the church, we will adopt whatever else seems most fitting.  

When talking with college students about sex, we have wondered together why, when we do actually hear something about sex in church, it is only pre-marital sex that is discussed.  The assumption seems to be that marital sex is off limits conversationally, even though our Christian marriage liturgies make it plain that the union takes place within a larger community and cannot thrive without that larger community.  And why no talk of post-marital sex?  When the anemic conversation we allow ourselves is confined to virginity and what happens before marriage, there is nowhere to go, theologically, for the widowed or divorced.

I have to admit that, though I have preached on the Song of Solomon on multiple occasions, I have not directly tackled most of these questions in my preaching, either.  But I have kept them as a reminder and a challenge.  I am not sure anyone of any age is waiting for one more sermon on pre-marital-save-yourself-sex.  But I think most people are waiting for a Word, for something that makes sense in their lives or in shaping the lives they long to create.  Most of us want somewhere to go, theologically. 

Jesus didn’t come to offer us dead ends or platitudes, though we hear many offered in his name.  “Abundant life” must have a place for God’s good gift of sexuality (John 10:10).  In what ways can sex — and the conversations we do or don’t have about it — push us away from or pull us closer to God?  Come on, let’s talk about it.

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