Sermon delivered May 3rd, 2015 at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts
As we move towards summer, and life and love abound, so we kindle the fires of Beltane, spreading warmth and light to all.
Fire is a powerful and primal symbol, often evoked to represent both spiritual energy and sexual passion, two vital elements of human experience often seen as diametrically opposed to one another.
But what if religion and sexuality are not so opposed? What if we heeded the words of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and sought to reclaim Eros as a spiritual urge?
It seems fitting that I propose this here, in a Unitarian Universalist church, during the pagan festival of Beltane. Both UUs and contemporary pagans are known for an openness to new ideas, and for challenging conventional wisdom. The Wiccan Rede prescribes: “An it harm none, do what ye will”; while the Charge of the Goddess proclaims: “Behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” Yet even heathens and heretics may find ourselves struggling to live up to our own hopeful ideals and vision. Even today, for example, some pagans insist on attributing special significance in their rituals to male and female identities, unaware how they exclude people who don’t fit into the gender binary.
This is but one example of the dualistic mentality we must challenge if we are to embrace the spiritual significance of sexuality. From the earliest days of European civilization, the division of reality into polarized categories – often with one category deemed “superior” to another – is a construction we find ingrained in our thinking and behavior to this very day. Other examples of this hierarchical dualism, specific to our religious traditions, include: God versus Satan, angels versus demons, Heaven versus Hell, saved versus damned, saint versus sinner, orthodox versus heretic, and, of course, spirit versus flesh.
This carries over into our view of sexuality, gender and relationships: male over female, procreation over pleasure, heterosexual monogamous marriage over every other form of loving relationship. Even love itself is dissected and sorted, with a purely “spiritual” agape on top, and eros relegated to the bottom. And while most are quick to blame European Christendom, in fact the roots for this dualism may be found in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, and other religious movements like Manicheanism, all of which influenced prominent theologians like Augustine. You may remember the famous prayer attributed to him: “God grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!”
How, then, do we overcome this construct of dualism, and learn to embrace more fully the diversity of our sexualities, gender identities and relationship patterns – queer and straight, monogamous and polyamorous, vanilla and kinky, male, female, genderqueer, intersex, asexual, and more – in unity with the creative spirit of Eros? To meet this challenge, let me suggest that the principles and values of our Unitarian Universalist faith may guide us in this path of transformation.
If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then let us affirm in word and deed alike that each of us is deserving of love, joy and pleasure. Sounds easy enough, but how often we forget to affirm this – including for ourselves.
If we believe in justice, equity and compassion, then let us speak out against both discrimination towards sexual and gender minorities of all kinds, and sexual abuse and exploitation; let us further temper our attitudes and actions with compassionate concern, not only for the victims of these wrongs, but for their perpetrators as well.
If we believe in accepting one another as we are, then let us affirm each person's self-determination in how best to fulfill their desires, encouraging one another in a sexual ethic governed by honesty, respect for oneself and others, mutual consent, awareness of risk, and the affirmation of pleasure. In her book Sensuous Spirituality, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott recalled that one of the greatest gifts of inspiration she received was the advice to avoid condemning any other person's attempt to relate, however imperfect we may find it to be.
If we believe in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, then let us continue to speak up for comprehensive education on sexuality, not only for our children and youth, but as part of a continuous and lifelong process of growth, as a way of furthering our understanding and appreciation of the myriad ways of loving human relationships and erotic pleasure.
If we believe in democracy and the right of conscience, and the goal of a just community with liberty for all, then let us provide safe spaces for people to discuss their questions, concerns and desires regarding sexuality, whether with an intimate partner, or in the context of community.
And if we believe that we are a part of an interdependent web of existence, then let us be mindful that our erotic selves are an integral part of our whole selves, and as such, one with a vital spiritual component. Let us not only infuse our respective sexualities with spiritual values and practice, but in return enliven our spirituality with a celebration of the sensuous and erotic, recognizing and affirming as the late John O'Donohue noted, the "secret relationship between our physical being and the rhythm of our soul," that "[t]he body is the place where the soul shows itself."
Above all else, my friends, let us not be complacent. It is easy to compare ourselves with those holding more conservative and puritanical approaches, patting ourselves on the back for being so much more welcoming and open-minded. But the challenge of our progressive faith is that we must constantly question and challenge one another. We must not only speak our truths in love, but listen when others do the same, and be mindful that doing so also means speaking truth to power – including the "powers-that-be" amongst us.
Beloved friends: As we celebrate Beltane, let us tend the sacred fire of Eros ... that its warmth may comfort us, that its light may guide us, that its energy may empower us to forge new ways of relating, and that we may – all of us – dance together in the circle of life.
AMEN, ASHÉ & BLESSED BE