Who told you that you were naked?
This past week, I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I was a Commissioner, or a delegate, from the Presbytery of East Toronto. Each presbytery is able to send one sixth of its ministers and an equal number of elders to the Assembly. So we met with other commissioners from across Canada to discuss and make decisions about matters that are of concern for the whole church. The Assembly is a wonderful experience of connecting and reconnecting with other people in the church and getting a bigger picture of the life of our denomination in Canada and its connections around the world.
I think it is fair to say, though, that we arrived with a good deal of anxiety about this meeting. For many years, and it could be said for several decades now, the Presbyterian Church has been struggling with issues related to human sexuality, and in particular the place of LGBTQI people in the church. It is important to spell that out at least once to know who we are talking about when we use that particular alphabet soup: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Intersex. Sometimes other letters are added including 2S for Two Spirited which is an Aboriginal term. It is an attempt to include the whole spectrum of people who do not identify as heterosexual or cisgender. Sorry if that is more confusing than clarifying.
Each year since the issue of the full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the church was raised by several Presbyteries four years ago, there has been an expectation that the Assembly will speak definitively on this issue – both from those who hold to the church’s traditional position that human sexual activity should only be expressed between a man and a woman who are married, and those who hold to the position that human sexual activity can be expressed between those in covenanted relationships whether with same sex or different sex partners. The implications of this for marriage itself and for ordination to leadership roles in the church have been the major concerns. This has divided the church and has also divided the committees that have been tasked with studying the issue and making recommendations. There has been a great deal of discussion as to whether the denomination can stay together and, if there is a split, how the assets will be divided. It has been a difficult few years for the church and once again this year, no definitive decision was reached at the Assembly.
We don’t like to talk about sex in the church. You maybe were a little squeamish when you read the title of today’s sermon and with what I have said so far. Many think that sexuality is something to be expressed in private and talked about in private, not from the pulpit of St. Andrew’s Church or on the floor of the General Assembly. Despite the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the movements for women’s and gay liberation that have created a more inclusive and equal society in Canada and a context in which human sexuality is more openly discussed and expressed, the church has remained a place where we are reticent to move out of the restrictive framework of the past. For so much of the history of the church, human sexuality has been seen as something sinful, in fact sometimes equated with sin, that is tolerated only in order to procreate and continue as a species. It has been repressed. And it is hard for us to know how to move beyond that repression.
The story we read in Genesis today has at times been at the heart of this dilemma. You are probably familiar with it whether from hearing it read and reflected upon in church or from its use in our broader society and culture. The story of the snake tempting the woman to eat the fruit that had been forbidden. Her invitation to the man. Their eyes being opened to recognize their nakedness. Their shame before each other and, in today’s reading, their shame before God when God comes to walk in the garden. And God’s question, “Who told you that you were naked?” How often in literature and in art and in philosophy and in ethics is this story referenced? Even for those who are not people of faith, this story is known. It touches something deep inside us and clearly connects us to our bodies, to our sexuality, to our humanity. The primary trajectory of interpretation has led the church to connect sex and our bodies with sin and the fall from grace and particularly to put blame on the woman as the temptress who led the man to disobedience. In the dualistic world of Christian Platonism in the first centuries of the church, this led quickly to the distinctions of good and evil between the spirit and the body, male and female, the church and the world, spirituality and sexuality.
Can we look at another way to understand this story? Can we look at another way to understand it in our contemporary struggles to come to terms with the relationship between our faith and our sexuality? Again, we need to go back a bit in the story from what we read today. Remember the words with which the snake tempted the woman, “God knows that when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The temptation was to be like God. The human beings in the story were not content to be human. They wanted to be something different. They were tempted by power. By the possibility of sitting in judgement over the other, knowing good and evil. That’s God’s work. But it was a very enticing temptation, and so they ate. Both of them. But when their eyes were opened, they discovered something quite different from what they were expecting, from what they were hoping. They discovered a different dimension of their humanness. That they were naked. That they were vulnerable. All those dreams we have about being caught naked in some public place. They are about our vulnerability. We are not gods. We are not perfect. We are not invincible. We are human. With bodies that demonstrate our weakness, our imperfections, our points of vulnerability. When we succumb to the temptation of wanting to live as judge, we have to come to terms with our own humanity, our own nakedness. We try to hide it. We try to hide it from each other and from God. We don’t want to be seen like this. But that is who we are. Human beings. With bodies. With vulnerabilities. With fears of being judged. With the temptation to judge others in order to protect ourselves.
This trajectory gives us a very different perspective on our faith and our sexuality. Our sexuality is a given. And it is diverse, as diverse as we are as human beings. And it is part of our vulnerability. Whoever we might be we must come to terms with this powerful force within us, part of who we have been created to be. It is hard to acknowledge it, and not just for Presbyterians. We make all kinds of rules to contain it. And we would rather that someone else be caught out in their vulnerability than us. When God comes walking in the garden, we would prefer that we would not be seen. It is easier to hide. To not recognize our full humanity. And when we are seen, it is often our first reaction to shift the vulnerability and humanness somewhere else. “It was the woman who tempted me.” “It was the snake who told us.” Anything but admit to our own humanity.
If we come out of hiding, life is not going to be easier or less complex. If we read a little further in the Genesis story, we find out what life is going to be like for the man and the woman and for the snake. This human life will have pain, and struggle, and enmity. At times it will be very hard. We’re not going to be able to go back to where we were before. As each one of us comes of age, we will not be able to go back, no matter how hard we try to repress or lie to ourselves about our humanity. We need to live our lives recognizing that we are naked, vulnerable, tempted to judge, with many challenges. But at some point we need also to engage with God, who walks in the garden. We need to come out of our hiding and admit to who we are. To once again be in relationship with the one who made us and who loves us in all of our humanness, in all of our vulnerability. We can live in this different world, and we can find comfort and reconciliation with the Creator and with other humans. It’s not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. For Christians, we know that there is one who has walked with us, who became vulnerable for us, who was fully human with us, who showed us what it means to live fully human lives even in the face of vulnerability and betrayal and judgement.
Maybe we can talk about sex in the church without becoming squeamish, or judgemental, or fearful. For those of us who are LGBTQI, we are recognizing that we need to come out of hiding and say that we are here and that we want to walk and talk with others and with God in our communities of faith about being who we are. Rather than being a threat or an occasion for fear or embarrassment, can this be an invitation to all to come out of hiding, to look critically at how we have so carefully tried to contain and proscribe our human sexuality in relation to our faith and work toward a more honest way to live this out in our beloved communities?
One of the things that became clear to me at the Assembly was that the most important moments in the conversation came when we moved out of the doctrinal camps and moved into the personal and relational. When someone in a table group felt free to finally say that they have a son who is gay and they are trying to come to terms with that in relation to their faith. When an older man who identified as straight said that he always feared he would lose his position in the navy because he was suspected to be gay – because he liked to sew and garden and write poetry. When someone whose daughter is lesbian said that her friend had a much harder road even than her because she had recently moved from identifying as male to female. Sometimes in whispers, people recognized their own vulnerability, their own nakedness before God and each other. New relationships began to be built because of the trust, and care, and love that was shown by another.
We still have a long way to go. It is not easy to come out of hiding and to live into a different way of being. But isn’t that our call? Aren’t we called to risk responding to God who has made us and who loves us and who seeks us wherever we might be? And aren’t we called to say, this is who I am, a child of God, loved by God and brought to the fullness of who I can be through God’s love and grace? And aren’t we called to love and to walk with those other fearful people, who are also children of God, and who need to hear the words of love and grace in their own lives? What the humans learned was that when the evening wind blows, and God walks in the garden, we do not need to be afraid, even if we are naked.
Thanks be to God.