Back in March, a few weeks ago, the advertising people at Reebok got themselves in trouble when posted these advertisements at several Reebok gyms in Germany. The line on the ad is this, “Cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout.” I think they were going for funny, but missed. Instead of producing laughter, they induced rage. The ad went viral online, Reebok received complaints from across the globe, and quickly removed the ads with a brief apology.
One blogger at the Huffington Post wrote: “What’s more important: your abs or your long-term relationship? One of Reebok’s new ad campaigns weighed in on that question (which no one was really asking?)” (Misener). True, no one asks which to cheat on, but questions about sexuality are a hot topic.
As we have come here this morning, Pastor Bob is with about a thousand United Methodists from across the globe who have gathered in Tampa, Florida for the once-every-four-years meeting of our denomination called General Conference. While there are hundreds of pieces of legislation being considered – including some that directly affect our clergy, the structure of our boards and agencies, and more – the ones that get the lion’s share of the press and chatter on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are ones about sexuality. Specifically, the General Conference will again be addressing our denominational statement on homosexuality. As same-sex marriage becomes legal issue in some states, we need to decide what the role of the church will be – where do we offer grace, and where do we take a stand. I am not going to talk about our denominational statement on homosexuality today, but Lust, our “sin of the week” in our series Sinning Like a Christian, gives me an opportunity to begin addressing issues of human sexuality.
While we don’t talk about it much in church, there are few other issues that grab our attention the way human sexuality does. In his book Sinning Like a Christian William Willimon writes, “[ancient church father, Thomas] Aquinas notes that there is something about the sin of Lust, particularly in others, that seems to attract…Christian moral curiosity… In one week Congress spent more energy debating the outrage of Janet Jackson’s exposure at the Super Bowl than it did in debate about the…then current war with Iraq” (Willimon 136). We are still talking about that “wardrobe malfunction” from the 2004 Super Bowl as a case regarding it was to be heard by the Supreme Court last week.
With all of this focus, it is tempting to spend our time talking about our over-sexualized culture – how girls barely through puberty are sexualized, as happened to Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan. Then we as a culture are shocked by what happens to them. I could talk about how this week in a checkout line I saw a copy of People Magazine with a picture of former Disney star Zac Efron with the title “Hotter Than Ever. Zac Efron Grows Up.” I could bemoan the fact that pornography remains one of the biggest online money makers, and has clogged up so much of the internet that a new domain extension of .xxx was started earlier this year. But that is not our goal in this series.
In this series we are talking about Sinning Like a Christian. Which means we are looking at our sins, not someone else’s. Instead of talking about something out there, we want to address the sin in our own life, how it affects us. I admit it would be easier, safer, and far more comfortable to talk about other people’s sexuality. But today we address our own. I said a couple of weeks ago that this series will probably make us squirm, here we go.
Matthew 5: The Sermon on the Mount
You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.
Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile.
There is no wiggle room in that statement. He doesn’t say it is OK to do a little “window shopping,” or “innocent flirtation.” Jesus, instead, employs hyperbole to make his point. Beyond saying don’t do it, Jesus says when you catch your eye wandering, pluck it out. While I don’t read this literally, if I did I would have no eyes and no hands which he also says to chop off if they sin, I note how seriously Jesus takes this sin our culture takes so lightly.
As he often does throughout the gospels, Jesus challenges our assumptions that we are good because we obey the letter of the law. Rather than congratulating us for our faithfulness, he points out how all of us we fall short of what God has in store for us. Our willpower is incapable of saving us which we can clearly see as we begin to think about lust. We must rely on the grace of God.
We tend to think of lust as a young man’s problem, but lust is an “equal opportunity” tempter. Bishop William Willimon, a man in his 60s writes, “lust seems to require more conscious effort after sixty than at sixteen” (Willimon 23), but it is still an issue. Women are also sometimes given a pass. While it is true that men are more visually stimulated than women, we also hear of bachelorette parties getting out of hand. Author Stephen Arterburn has written several books calling our struggles with lust Every Man’s Battle, Every Woman’s Battle, Every Young Man’s Battle, Every Young Woman’s Battle, Every Single Man’s Battle… Clearly Arterburn, who has studied this area of human behavior, knows that lust is no respecter of persons.
While we may struggle with this issue in differing degrees, there was not a person in Jesus’ audience, nor an adult here today, who has not had those thoughts at one time or another. As we have been able to say every week in this series, we have all been there.
I remember when I was a seminary student and appointed as a student-pastor to serve two small churches in southern New Jersey – West Creek & Warren Grove United Methodist Churches. I had been serving there for about 6 months when I found myself interested in one of the young women in the congregation – scary ground for a young, single pastor. I thought it would be wise to consult a couple of my friends in seminary if they thought it would be OK for me to ask her out. So over lunch one day, I posed the question.
One of my “friends” immediately said, “Oh, so you’ve been doing some lusting from the pulpit, hey Joe?” “No,” I said, and meant it. After some more conversation the three of us decided it would be ok to ask her out, and we dated for a little while. Then we got married, had two kids, moved to Colorado, you know the rest of the story. But was I lusting? Twenty-one years later, I remember that question like it was yesterday. I’m still not sure I answered honestly.
How do you stop lust? Well, the truth is, you don’t. Lustful thoughts are involuntary, they just happen. Martin Luther, the priest credited with beginning the reformation and founding the Lutheran Church in the 16th century, is reported to have used the following analogy:
“You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
Interesting way to put it, but I think I get his point. The thoughts are inevitable, but we can choose not to dwell on them, not to let them nest in our hair.
Years ago, Larry Flint, publisher of Hustler magazine and other pornographic material, justified his livelihood by saying he was providing a service. He rationalized that he was giving people a “safe” outlet for some of their sexual desires. He reasoned it was better to keep those thoughts in the realm of fantasy, rather than something they might act out – victimizing another.
Today we know that outlet is not “safe.” When we all those birds to nest, they have a way of becoming all-consuming. We have, unfortunately, known of those who have had their lives ruined by an addiction to their lustful thoughts. They have spent nights in front of a glowing computer screen. They have squandered time, money, jobs and marriages due to their addiction. It didn’t start full-blown. It started with a look here, and a glance there, thoughts that were allowed to nest.
Some have taken it a step farther and acted on their lustful thoughts – having an affair has changed their lives. Moments of pleasure that have undone a lifetime of work, and destroyed hopes and dreams of the future. When we allow the birds to nest, they do a great deal of harm.
One of the things you have been hearing from Bob and I over the course of the last several months in sermons and classes, is how our common thought process of dividing a person up into body, mind, and spirit is not a Biblical concept.
Think about the creation story. The Bible does not say God made human bodies and then took the eternal souls of Adam and Eve and placed them inside of those bodies. Rather the Bible says in Genesis 1, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27), and in Genesis 2 “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Human beings are created wholly and completely by God in a one-step process. We are made in God’s image with body, mind, and spirit all integrated as an inseparable whole.
When we understand ourselves as whole people, we can no longer separate what we do or what we think from who we are. We see this happen from time to time. For example, we have heard of those who have been able to have same-sex relationships and then say but they are not homosexual. One can only think this way with a divided understanding of personhood. Body acting one way, brain thinking another, neither affecting the essence of who we are. I do this, or think this, but this is not who I am. Biblically speaking, it doesn’t work that way.
We too can get caught in that thinking. We rationalize that we are good people because we know that what we do is wrong. We look, we fantasize, we let the birds of lust nest in our hair for a short time – but somehow convince ourselves that is not who we are. Our bodies acting one way, our lives going another.
This is what Jesus is driving at, is it not? “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust,” Jesus says, “has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Just because you have kept your body in check, doesn’t mean that you are not sinning. We, like the Pharisees, want to separate mind, from body, and spirit. Jesus won’t let us have it that way. You and I are single, complete people of body, mind, and spirit all integrated.
You may have been surprised by the Bible reading this morning. Knowing we were going to talk about lust, you probably assumed we would look, as we already have, at Matthew 5:27-29 from the Sermon on the Mount; maybe you expected a verse from Leviticus; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; David’s lusting for Bathsheba or one of those passages from the New Testament about how we need to keep our sexuality in check. But I felt called to go another route by looking at Romans 12.
In chapter 11 Paul praises God for the way he brings different people together into one church. For Paul specifically, he is talking about how the church is filled with both Jews and Gentiles. The Romans, who are Gentiles, have been accepted as part of the church even though they were not part of the original promise made to God’s chosen people. He reminds us how we are more alike than separate, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:32). Jewish or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female, younger or older, upstanding citizen or outcast – all are joined in their disobedience and the mercy they have received from God.
After recognizing the sinfulness of us all, Paul opens chapter 12 with these words, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). You and I are to give our bodies to God. Interesting concept. When I have read this in the past, I have often mentally substituted the word “lives” for “bodies.” This fits what I have been taught about giving my “life” to Jesus. But that is not what the text says. The word is clearly bodies.
The Gentile Romans would have believed in that divided self – spirit good, body and mind potentially bad. It was a common belief in the Roman world that our bodies and our essence/spirit/soul were brought together for a time, but remained separate entities.
Paul won’t let them stay there. God doesn’t just want your spirit or essence or whatever you want to call it. He wants all of you, including your body. So he asks us to present our bodies to God so they too may be used by him for his glory. Again, what we do with our bodies matters.
That passage goes on, and watch what Paul does. He opens by talking about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, “which,” he then writes, “is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). This sacrificial presentation of our physicality is somehow a spiritual act of worship. Body and spirit are not separate. They are intimately connected.
This drastically widens our understanding of worship. Typically when we think about worship, we think about that which goes on inside of us. We worship when we come together here on a Sunday morning to sing, read, and listen to the message. We might think about worship when we pray each morning and night, or when we do our devotions at home. We might think about worship when we listen to a worship song on KBIQ or a read a book about our spiritual lives. When we are up here on a Sunday morning singing, and we close our eyes and really get into it someone will say, “You were really worshipping up there today.”
When we present our bodies as a spiritual act of worship, we begin to see what we do as part of our worship experience. So when we workout we are worshipping. When we smile at the kid in King Soopers we are worshipping. When we are driving, chatting, waiting in line, paying bills, making dinner, sitting in study hall… Wherever we find ourselves we have an opportunity to worship. What we do with our bodies can be a spiritual act of worship as we offer them to God.
In this one verse Paul teaches us of the interconnectedness of body and spirit. But he is not done. Listen to the next verse: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Body, spirit, and now mind. All working together. Offer your body as spiritual worship and be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Body, mind, and spirit. We cannot compartmentalize – acting and thinking one way, and trusting that we are good with God because God has our spirit or soul. It does not work that way. God doesn’t want part of us. God wants it all.
So when we allow the lustful thoughts to “nest in our hair,” that creates not just a thought problem, but also a spiritual problem. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that just because we keep it in realm of the fantasy – all in our mind – that it is not effecting our spirit and body. We must remain chaste in our bodies, and our minds and spirits also.
In his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, Jesuit priest James Martin devotes an entire section to the priestly vow of chastity and celibacy. He recounts a conversation explaining this vow to a friend who asks a very poignant question, “What about lust?” What does a priest do with lustful thoughts? Do they have them?
Martin replies, “Well, the chaste person still has his (or her) head turned by an attractive person and still longs for sex. We’re human, after all. But when that happens, you remind yourself of a few things. First, it’s natural. Second, the life you’ve chosen does not allow for that. And third, if you’re completely overcome with a constant desire for sexual intimacy, then something may be missing from your affective life” (Martin 221) – meaning that a need for connection with God may be surfacing in an unhealthy way – longing to connect with another inappropriately.
That second one intrigues me: “the life you’ve chosen does not allow for that.” For Martin chastity is a choice, not about giving up love, but instead choosing to love in a different way. Earlier in the chapter he explains, “One of the main goals of chastity is to love as many people as possible as deeply as possible” (Martin 219). But that love is a different type of love that is devoid of physicality. It is a love that loves the whole person – body, mind, and spirit – and doesn’t just focus on body to body.
Loving outside of a romantic relationship
Martin shares some ways to love outside of the context of a romantic relationship (Martin 227-229).
First, listen compassionately. Listening is a lost art today. We are much better at arguing than listening. We often think of conversations in terms of winning and losing, or about solving and figuring out problems. We undervalue the love-act of listening.
I am convinced that you and I are surrounded by people longing to be heard. They don’t need or want advice, help, or support. They are simply longing for someone to take the time to completely hear them – what they are feeling, thinking, contemplating, doubting, or maybe even experiencing confusion over. When lust is put aside, we become better listeners.
Being present is another way we can love with no romantic involvement. Like compassionate listening, presence requires our full attention. No television, no checking text messages, no eavesdropping on the other conversation in the room, no checking the clock because you have other things to do. Just be there for the other.
We can also do something practical, or I would say, get involved in the other person’s life. Take the initiative and help out.
Fourth he says outside of romantic thoughts we can love freely, meaning we can give our love without any expectation for return. You know those thoughts we have from time to time about how those whom we love ought to do this or that. Usually we don’t think about it as reciprocal, but that’s not far beneath the surface. If they cared, they would… In a “chaste love” there is no expectation of return. We can give and give and give.
Fifth, we can forgive as an act of love.
And finally, we can pray. Prayer for another’s pain and brokenness.
Lust, our focus on the physical, gets in the way of that. Our love for the other is no longer about them. It is about us and our desires. Lust, when indulged, is selfish at its core – focused on us and not the other. We need to put aside our lustful thoughts, so that we can genuinely connect with the person, the whole person, in front of us.
Naming our sin
“Sorry, if you thought church was a place where we come to work at avoiding sin. Church is where we come to name our sin” (Willimon 136).
So today we come to name our sin and confess there are times when we don’t see the person in front of us, but instead see a body. There are times we have allowed the birds to nest in our hair, even for just a little while. There are times our sensual feelings have blocked our ability to share the love of Jesus in the ways we should. We haven’t listened, we haven’t been there, we haven’t helped, forgiven, or prayed, and we have gotten angry when the love has not been returned. In short, you and I have sinned.
One of the things I hope this series is doing for you is helping you to recognize the sin in your lives. Now, I know the church has a reputation of being the place where you come to feel guilty, and that is not what I want to do here. It is not about guilt. Rather it is about seeing ourselves as one of the many who are not beyond the capacity for sin.
When I read the stuff coming out of our General Conference, or I see church picketers, or I hear condemning words from fellow Christians toward those with whom they disagree – I hear a self-righteousness that goes against all that Jesus came to tell us. Maybe their sin isn’t your sin, but you have sin in your life as well. Pride, Envy, Lust (which we have talked about so far), Gluttony (which Pastor Bob will talk about next week), Anger, Sloth, and Greed are inside of us all. It is so tempting to become like the Pharisees and see the sin in the other without recognizing our own.
I hope we are all coming away convicted that we too are sinners. But I want you to be equally convicted of the grace of God.
Willimon tells the story of a Disciple Bible Study class where one of the members talked about how much they had been dreading getting to Leviticus. “I had heard that Leviticus had some harsh things to say about people like me. As you know, Leviticus doesn’t approve of my sexual orientation. But then I read Leviticus, the whole of it. And I’ll just say this. Leviticus is not only down on some of the things I do, it’s down on just about everything!”
Another responded, “I think it’s sort of wonderful that we have a God who wants all of us, who cares about what we do in a bedroom or a boardroom, the living room and the kitchen, a God who wants us to show love, not only to one another, but even to animals in the barn. God wants it all” (Willimon 144).
Maybe we could say that better. He doesn’t wall all of it, he wants all of you. Yes, he wants you. Even those lustful thoughts that no one knows about but you, do not exclude you from his amazing love. God loves you just as you are, but too much to let you stay that way.
Martin, James. The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Misener, Jessica. The Huffington Post. “Reebok ‘Cheat On Your Girlfriend’ Campaign Gets Pulled For Obvious Reasons” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/reebok-cheat-on-your-girlfriend-ad_n_1369648.html#s814019
Willimon, William H. Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005. Kindle edition.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.