This past Wednesday at The Red Tree art gallery and coffee shop here in Oakley the new display for the next month was in the process of being put up around the building. My reason for going to the Red Tree is just about always to do sermon work, so the theme or text of the week has a pretty strong bearing on what kind of gear my brain is in as I look at the art that gets displayed there. In walking around the room this time, I stopped for a while at a piece that felt like it was already starting to preach its own sermon on sexuality and intimacy. The work has three different parts to it, each based off of a block of wood attached to the wall.
*The artist is Jessica Wolf and these pictures are used with her permission. See more of what she does at www.PaperAcorn.net
The first piece has a hook drilled horizontally into the wood block and on the hook is hanging a long black thread. And on the thread, descending down the wall are silhouettes of people in acrobatic positions, each one clinging to the thread with a hand or a foot and balanced on the person above and below them with another hand or foot. The different positions of the people leaning left or right causes the rope to curve and twist with the countering weight of each person. The overall sense I got was one of balance, strength, energy, beauty, and interdependence. If one person were to let go of one other, these silhouettes would all come crashing, or drifting, down to the concrete floor of the Red Tree.
In the middle piece, the wood block is a platform with three small glass jars on it. Each glass jar has one silhouette inside, leaning against the wall of the jar, or sitting on its bottom – each of them looking away from the others. Each jar has some kind of cap on it – a screw-on lid, a cork, a cap. Since the display was new there wasn’t a placard with a title on it to give a clue as to what the artist had in mind, but the juxtaposition seemed obvious enough even to someone unschooled in the finer points of visual art like myself. This is a statement about community verses separation, relationship verses isolation.
But then the third piece adds another interesting, unexpected, dynamic. Here again the wood block has a hook, this time attached to two wires serving as ropes for a swing that hold a single silhouette on it. The wire is arced such that it gives the sense of the person being on the upswing, full of energy and momentum given her by the wonder of gravity. The figure is kicking one leg up the air, leaning back into her ascent, apparently quite enjoying herself. Alone, but a partner with the swing and the wind and the elemental forces of the planet to make movement and simple joy. In my eye, even though she was on her own, she had a lot more in common with the members of the first piece than the second.
We’re focusing on healthy sexuality this month and we’re working with some basic assumptions that are well-grounded in scripture and human experience. One is that we are all sexual beings. We are created with longings and desire to be in relationship. Also, our sexuality is the energy within us that propels us toward one another, into the world, to serve, to love, to share life with one another. And this is a very good thing, a God-given thing – Genesis One. Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest who has written a remarkable book called The Holy Longing that addresses spirituality and sexuality, goes so far as to say that “sexuality is God’s energy within us” (p. 200). Genesis One repeatedly says of creation that “it is good,” and the first statement of God ever observing that something is not good is in the next chapter, Genesis Two, when God says, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” We are made for relationship.
Next week we’ll talk more specifically about sexual, physical, genital intimacy, but this week we’re working with this broad definition of sexuality. To further name it I’ll quote Rolheiser again. He writes: “Sexuality is an all-encompassing energy inside of us. In one sense, it is identifiable with the principle of life itself. It is the drive for love, communion, community, friendship, family, affection, wholeness, consummation, creativity, self-perpetuation, immortality, joy, delight, humor, and self-transcendence. It is not good to be alone. When God said this about Adam at the dawn of creation, God meant it about every man, woman, child, animal, insect, plant, atom, and molecule in the universe. Sex is the energy inside of us that works incessantly against our being alone.” (Holy Longing, pp. 194-195) This is most likely a different understanding of sexuality than what we are used to. It’s much more than body parts, much more than physical touch or intercourse. Sexuality is this all-encompassing drive toward relationship.
There is a form of sexuality present in each of those silhouettes at the Red Tree, and I’d wager to say that we’ve all experienced each of those three pieces in a personal way in regards to our own sexuality. So this poses a question: How do we, single and married, young and old, live as healthy sexual beings in such a way that generates life and energy and intimacy and self-giving love, moving out of our isolation, pain, and loneliness?
The biblical story of the morning is that of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, from the book of Ruth. I’d like to look at this story with this question in mind and I’m going to stick with those Red Tree silhouettes to help frame the story.
The opening chapter of Ruth presents us with something like a solitary silhouette trapped in a jar. The story begins with loss and keeps adding to the losses. In the first line we read that there is a famine in the land in Bethlehem of Judah, and so a man, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion move to the neighboring country of Moab to survive. This is an immigrant family. They’ve lost their security and livelihood because of famine, and they’ve lost their homeland, crossing the border into what was considered enemy territory, the nation of Moab. Soon there is another loss. Elimelech, the head of the household, the provider, dies. Then each son finds a woman in Moab to marry. We aren’t told who marries who, but the names of these Moabite women are Ruth and Orpah. But then both sons, Mahlon and Chilion also die. Hebrew narrative is short on details, leaving out all sorts of things we’d like to know, but it can be rather effective in highlighting what it wants you to notice about a situation. The losses of the opening verses culminate in verse five by saying of Naomi, “so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.” The whole family immigrated, and she’s the only one who has survived, still living in this foreign land, presumably having enough to eat and physically survive, but relationally cut off from the world. The lid of the jar has just been screwed on tight, with her inside.
The condition of isolation, of loneliness, shows up in a lot of different forms. The 60’s singer Janis Joplin was once asked what it’s like being a rock star. She answered by saying: “It’s pretty hard sometimes. You go on stage, make love to fifteen thousand people, then you go home and sleep alone.” (Holy Longing p. 206) I like the quote because it puts the issue of sexuality front and center. The energy and passion that someone like Janis Joplin or other musicians put into their music, their gift of beauty and expression to the world, is a powerful part of human sexuality. The drive to create, to connect, to give oneself in surrender to one’s craft. Naomi’s bond to her husband, her nurture of her children, her desire to create a household of security and love for her family is also a powerful part of human sexuality. Whether through unanticipated loss of life, or the struggle with being emotionally cut off from others, there are times when we all sleep alone.
Chapter One ends with Naomi lamenting her life. After returning home to Bethlehem once the famine has ended, she tells the people of the town to no longer call her Naomi, which means pleasant, but to call her Mara, which means bitter. She says “For the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).
But before this, in between the losses and the return home, something happens that will eventually be the power that breaks her outside of the walls of the jar. She tries to send her daughters-in-law back to their families in Moab. Orpah goes, but Ruth refuses. The text says that Ruth “clung to her,” the same word that appears in Genesis 2 when it states that a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife. Ruth latched on in a way unexpected and not asked for by Naomi. And Ruth, the foreigner, from the enemy people, makes a statement that is an expression of the kind of covenant faithfulness and steadfast love that Israel valued so highly, the same kind of love between God and Israel. She is carrying out the Hebrew word chesed, steadfast love, loyal covenant faithfulness. Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and you God my God. Where you die, I will die – and there will I be buried” (1:16-17a).
This statement is included in some wedding liturgies that we have. It is stated here between women of different nationalities, different generations, with no overtly sexual intention, yet is recognized as a statement of highest devotion that we most long for in our most intimate relationships. Naomi expected to be alone, to be forgotten, and still considers her life bitter, but out of nowhere, this special relationship has chosen to latch itself on to her and to go with her to the grave. And from it, there will be a blooming of life.
As the scripture presentation so nicely illustrated, the story of Ruth ends with this blooming of life being on display, a community and a genealogy all underneath the chuppah, all clinging on to one other, and the thread that holds them all together, in acrobatic interdependence. The bonds of family and friendship are strengthened between Ruth and Naomi over time as they live together, the older Naomi counseling the younger Ruth how to provide for both of them through the gleaning of the barley harvest. This lands Ruth in the fields of Boaz, who shows kindness toward Ruth, seeing that she is protected from anyone who would harm her and that she has full access to the wealth of his fields. Although they are most likely about as far apart in age as Ruth and Naomi, Ruth and Boaz eventually come together in the covenantal bond of marriage – this after a night on the threshing floor where the details are pretty sketchy, but it’s clear that Ruth makes a rather forward advance on Boaz, much to his delight.
The bonds of chesed between Ruth and Naomi, lead to the bonds of chesed between Ruth and Boaz, which, like all such bonds and giving of oneself, lead to an outpouring of life, this time in a literal bodily way. Ruth, the foreigner, the Moabitess, bears a son through Boaz who becomes a joy to Naomi and an ancestor of David, and, eventually, Jesus, and all along the line, there is a greater and greater outpouring of life, physical and spiritual.
The story is not one of explicit sexuality, depending on how you interpret that midnight encounter on the threshing floor between Ruth and Boaz, but it is from start to finish, filled with the needs, the longings, the driving impulse toward relationship founded on loving faithfulness, which is the basis of all sexuality. And this is a generative force.
On the banner for today is the interweaving of all of those lines that form family, community. And throughout the banner are those three Trinitarian lines connecting everything from top to bottom. I’m a long ways off from understanding the theology of the Trinity, but part of what I do get about what is trying to be expressed through Trinitarian formulations is a recognition that the very being of God – the very being of Being itself – is inherently relational. God lives, within the life of God, in eternal community, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, generating love that pours out and overflows into creation. There is something about the very fabric of the universe that depends on this. Not even God can live in isolation, but dwells in community, in relationship. And as ones created in God’s image, reflecting the nature of Being itself, we too are inherently relational, which is to say sexual. We need one another, we find fulfillment and joy in relationship, and out of intimate, life-giving relationships, we come to lead generative lives. Life, love, flows out of us and enriches the world. Jesus said “rivers of living water,” will flow out of us (John 7:38). In marriages, in partnerships, in friendships, in family.
I want to end with a brief consideration of that last piece from the Red Tree, the solitary figure arcing through space on the swing. Because I wonder about her, and wonder if this isn’t really the place where we all might end up eventually. After a day of work, of giving oneself to one’s clients or one’s duties, one’s vocation, returning home, we all end up sleeping alone. After a time of love-making, of giving oneself to one’s partner, we turn over in bed and sleep alone. After giving our energy to the world and arriving at the end of life, we all end up entering our final sleep alone. And I wonder what makes the difference in how we live in our solitude and if that really might be the key to healthy, thriving relationship.
How is it for one life, like Janis Joplin, that one can become swallowed up in the darkness of one’s isolation and end up flaming out with a drug overdose in one’s late 20’s. How is it for another life, that of a Naomi, or a nun or priest, that one can discover joy in one’s solitude and turn one’s sexual longings into expressions of compassion and service to the world?
I’m drawn toward this solitary person on the swing because it seems that just as our sexuality is the incessant force that works against our being alone, there is a similar energy that propels us into solitude, where we face down great despair, and where we can find communion with God. Both – despair and communion with God – seem to be present in Jesus’ experience alone and abandoned on the cross, crying out to God, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Part of my hope for all of us is that we find that solitary place of giving ourselves over to God and that out of that place we find, much to our surprise, something, some grace has clung to us and won’t let us go. And then all of our relationships that we have flow from that place, these gifts of grace that sustain and uphold us and enable us to enjoy and create life. A return to that childlike state, like a pre-schooler on a swing, of being able to find joy in the simplest aspects of existence.
Other sermons in this series: