There’s a beautiful scene in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries that takes place in a small hut of a leper colony in Peru, along the banks of the Amazon River. The film is about the young Che Guevara in his early twenties when he was a medical student, before he became a revolutionary throughout Latin America. The story is based on the journal he kept on this trek that he and his friend took up through South America. One of the dynamics of the film is that the more he encounters the people of the land, and their struggles, the more impassioned he becomes on their behalf. This scene in the small hut is a tender moment after he has been informed that a young woman, Silvia, is refusing to get a surgery that would save her life. He asks the doctor if he can go in and be with her. He enters, sits beside her bed, and begins talking with her. She tells him that life is too much pain. During their conversation it’s clear that he’s having trouble breathing well. She asks him what’s wrong with him. He says, “I was born with bad lungs.” Then she pauses for a little bit and says, “Is that why you’re doctor? Because you’re sick?” He smiles and says that maybe that is the case. They finish their conversation and later we see Silvia getting her needed surgery.
I love that question – “Is that why you’re a doctor, because you’re sick?”
Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen called this dynamic the wounded healer. The healer is himself/herself wounded, and out of their own brokenness and vulnerability, becomes an agent of healing for others. Sometimes our calling in life is determined by our own deepest pain, that area where we have been permanently scarred and therefore have the passion and humility to guide others toward that healing place that we ourselves desire so much.
So, personally, if someone were to ask me, “Is that why you’re a pastor, because you struggle with your faith?” I think I would have to smile and say that maybe that is the case. Maybe this applies to others of you in the vocation you have chosen, or that has chosen you.
When it comes to our sexuality, I think it’s pretty fair to say that we are all wounded. This could possibly be through a particular experience or relationship, but even without a specific occasion of trauma or emotional pain, the very reality of what it means to be a sexual being carries with it woundedness, or, at least, need, longing, pain that seeks healing.
Our word sex could possibly have some associations with the Latin word secare, which means “to cut off,” “to sever.” (This connection is made in Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing p. 193) My first reaction to this is to flinch back and think that being cut off would actually make sex rather difficult. Yikes. But in this case this is the kind of being cut off that extends out to relationships and emotional bonds. Being sexual involves an element of being disconnected from the whole, of being separated, cut off from the bigger relational network of life.
We could picture this biblically, with Adam having the rib over his heart ripped out of him in order to form a human partner. Being in relationship for Adam first of all involves the pain of loss, like part of himself is now outside of his body, walking around on its own free will. The primal wound of our humanity.
We could also picture this in an evolutionary way. To the best of our knowledge so far, everything used to be packed together in that solitary point and since the beginning the initial unity has exploded and expanded into fragments of stars and planets separated by light years of space, and, somewhere in all that, us human creatures, still carrying with us in the cells and atoms of our body that distant memory of unity and oneness.
Etymology, Scripture, and Cosmology all paint the same picture.
Sex is a wonderful gift, a Divine gift, but it is a gift that comes with a powerful effect: a wound; an ache for reunion, desire for the coming together of the separate. And, for better or for worse, it’s a gift that doesn’t come with a receipt, so we can’t decide we don’t want it and take it back to the store for a refund. Thanks, but no thanks. I think I’ll just take a nice sweater instead. Something a little more… predictable.
We are sexual beings and part of what this means is that we ache our whole lives. And we’re stuck with it. Thanks a lot God.
One person asks another, “Is that why you’re sexual, seek connection, because you’re disconnected?” Maybe. Yes, definitely.
But this is where it starts to get really interesting, because if we understand sexuality in this way, it starts sounding a whole lot like spirituality. Spirituality has the same drive toward connectedness, toward wholeness, toward union with Creator and creation. Directing our longings and energy toward its Source.
In what Jews would consider to be something like their confession of faith, Deuteronomy 6:4 records “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” There’s one of the big differences between us and God. We are many, we are separate, but God is One. In God there is no separateness. There is no being cut off. In God all things hold together. All things belong. All things have a place. Hear O Israel, Listen up people, the Lord is One.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and the followers who will come after them, and he says, “(I pray) that they may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:21-23).
The spiritual movement that Jesus invites people into is the overcoming of separateness that happens when we come into the Oneness that is God. “I in them and you in me,” getting tangled up together and bound up in the love of God.
Of all the New Testament writers, John has a unique way of talking about overcoming this separateness. Those dualisms of body and soul, earth and heaven, physical and spiritual, are consistently resisted. John’s is the Gospel of the Word becoming flesh, of incarnation, of celebrating God in the fleshy creatureliness of Jesus. John refuses to allow us to believe that we can love God without loving our neighbor. That we can somehow have a vertical relationship with God without having a horizontal relationship with brothers and sisters. They must be held together.
Sometimes I wonder if John speaks this way because of the intimate relationship he had with Jesus. We get let in on this closeness in one scene in particular during the last supper when the disciples are gathered reclining around the table with Jesus. There’s a point where it says that John leaned back onto Jesus to ask him a question. And the literal translation is that he asked the question “while leaning on Jesus’ chest” (John 13:25) The KJV says that he was “lying on Jesus’ breast.” One of the more intimate snapshots we get of a disciple relating with Jesus. Imagine yourself leaning back and gently resting your head on Jesus’ chest, relaxing into that position and having a conversation with him, feeling your head rise and fall with every breath that he takes, feeling your own body vibrate with every word that passes over his vocal chords. Tell me that wouldn’t affect your outlook on the world, your theology.
There is this persistent idea within Christian spirituality that we ultimately have to escape the body to find God. John would like us to know that it is through the body, through incarnation, through our senses of touch, and smell, and sound, and sight, and taste, that we come to know God, that our separateness begins to be overcome. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
If spirituality is about overcoming our separateness and sexuality is about overcoming our separateness then what do we with each one will continually affect the other. They both share that impulse toward oneness. And if sexuality is about overcoming our separateness, then it places sex, once again, in the realm of the sacred.
Sex has a mission. Being a sexual human being is itself a vocation, a calling. Our sexual vocation is to draw together. To form bonds. To strengthen the web of relationships. To build up family, build up a neighborhood, build up community. To walk further toward the unity of God. We do this as wounded healers.
It’s one thing for a doctor to learn the steps of a medical procedure that will help someone heal. It’s another thing when two people – each with their own issues and hurts and struggles – come together and dare to walk down the road toward emotional and physical intimacy. Because they almost immediately start hurting each other. Misunderstanding. Not communicating well. Counting on the other person to know what we need when we ourselves barely have a clue what we actually need. It’s a wonder this ever works out at all. And sometimes it doesn’t.
But sometimes both partners are able to confess their own woundedness, their longing for connection, and, somehow, from that place of vulnerability, some healing happens. And intimacy grows. And sexuality becomes a means by which we give and receive, not only physical pleasure, but also, healing.
Our sexuality and spirituality call us on a mission as wounded healers. This is the energy we have been given for reaching out to one another and toward God, furthering the bonds that lead to wholeness.
One of the writers who has significantly influenced my own thinking on sexuality is the priest and scholar Ronald Rolheiser, someone I’ve referenced several times in this series. As we try to summarize what it is we’ve been talking about and what this actually looks like in daily life, let me lean on him one more time to offer some sketches of this.
This is what he suggests: He asks, “How then might a Christian define sexuality? Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.” He then asks “What does sexuality in its full bloom look like?
– When you see a young mother, so beaming with delight at her own child that, for that moment, all selfishness within her has given way to the sheer joy of seeing her child happy, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
– When you see a grandfather so proud of his grandson, who has just received his diploma, that, for that moment, his spirit is only compassion, altruism, and joy, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
– When you see an artist, after long frustration, look with such satisfaction on a work she has just completed that everything else for the moment is blotted out, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
– When you see someone throw back his or her head in genuine laughter, caught off guard by the surprise of joy itself, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in it mature bloom.
– When you see an elderly nun who, never having slept with a man, been married, or given birth to a child, has through the years of selfless service become a person whose very compassion gives her a mischievous smile, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
– When you see a community gathered round a grave, making peace with tragedy and consoling each other so that life can go on, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
– When you see a table, surrounded by a family, laughing, arguing, and sharing life with each other, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
– When you see an elderly husband and wife who after nearly half a century of marriage have made such peace with each other’s humanity that now they can quietly share a bowl of soup, content just to know that the other is there, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.
Sexuality is not simply about finding a lover or even finding a friend. It is about overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it.” (The Holy Longing pp. 197-198)
It’s quite a list that he gives us to ponder.
So as we arrive at the end of this sexuality series – Sextember, alas, must come to a close – it is very much a coming full circle. Starting out about talking about moving beyond the dualisms of church and culture, body and soul, and ending here with holding sexuality and spirituality in the same light, as we look toward the Oneness of God in which all things hold together, through whom we can become wounded healers.
The final image in all this comes from Scripture. The surprise ending of the Bible, still with the writings of John, the book of Revelation, is that rather than people going to heaven, heaven comes down to people. The vision of the new heavens and the new earth, the redemption of the world, is a coming together of all of these fragments. God makes God’s home among us, sets up camp right in downtown New Jerusalem, and calls for a wedding feast. Union, bonds of relationship, the two becoming one. The spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, are mixed and mingled, and reconciled together.
That’s the vision that we believe is already breaking into the world, already a possibility, already drawing us into itself through the grace of God. Our sexuality is this God given energy that propels us toward the great wedding banquet where our woundedness finds its ultimate comfort.
Let the party begin.
Other sermons in this series: