Every Person (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

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I recently read a book entitled, “Three Women.” My typical reading repertoire consists on theological commentaries, academic textbooks assigned for my MPA, Vogue when I just need mindless flipping, and Elephant and Piggy books – courtesy of Maddie, who makes sure I keep up to date in the humor genre. As of late I haven’t had a lot of time for pleasure or interest reading, however I love to read. But the other day I caught the tail end of an interview with the author of “Three Women,” Lisa Taddeo on NPR. Her book was being released in the upcoming week and she was promoting it.

Her motivation for researching and writing the book captured my attention – human desire. Specifically, she centered her decade of research exploring female sexuality and desire. Her work considers the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire. This totally piqued my curiosity, especially as a woman, but also as a person.

The subject of how we engage the world as sexual beings is hardly talked about in ordinary conversation. Desire and want and how it is expressed, is often only spoken of in hushed tones, in scandalous gossip, with shaming overtones, or in the safety of a therapist’s office.

Somehow, desire is a bad thing.
And yet, it is God who created us with desire, with inquisitiveness, with impulses, and with the need to connect. 

If I think about the things that have occurred in my life, things that I have done or have been done to me… it’s clear how much pain we can inflict upon another person by misusing, exploiting, or abusing desire. For me personally, at some low point in my life, I decided that I would not be a woman who needed these things. These things were dangerous. These things broke people.
And so, I would need, I would desire, less.
And less.
Plus, who was I to want, to need, to desire?
If the three women in the book exhibit too much desire, then I’d have been the opposite. I’d be the fourth woman in the book, I guess. Often, we see, hear a bout, or experience two extremes: denying our desire or being driven by it.

Now, there is no denying that some of my past painful life experiences have shaped my interest in the subject of human sexuality, why we do what we do, and act the ways we do… but, I basically had no intention of ever talking about this book or this subject in a sermon. I mean… it’s not every day your pastor stands up here and says, “Let’s talk about human desire.”

But, then God goes and says something like, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave is their sin!” And, we ALL know what their sin is, right? Desire. Want. Sex. That’s what most folks will say. Eyes narrow in on the immorality of it all, hearts harden against those who identify as homosexual, and suddenly sex and desire has become the downfall of humanity.

In recent years, many commentaries and sermons have explicated how this story isn’t really about the sinfulness of homosexuality, which is true. But, this isn’t going to be a sermon about homosexuality and how that expression can be life-giving and good for some. The church, in general, has spent a lot of time and energy on either explaining whether homosexual relationships are sinful or not, however in that conversation we skipped over talking about sexuality as a whole. Why is this? This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. And, just as an aside, I fall firmly in the ‘homosexuality is not a sin’ camp, which is a whole other sermon.

Human desire is often boiled down to sex. Sometimes desire and want are expressed sexually, but that doesn’t make them one and the same. What I think is really tricky, delicate if you will, within the context of theology is this notion that desire – emotional, spiritual, and physical – can be good. It’s normal. It can help make us whole.

However, so often we hear stories of how desire and want are the ruin of people, as illustrated in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Men have come into the cities, banged on doors, demanded they have their way with the strangers, and exerted power over everyone. Sodom is raped by by power and desire, and left for ruin. The needs, desires, and wants are of the men are abusive. And can’t be described in any other way. The men in the story took what wasn’t theirs to take.

What the stories of the three women in the book does flawlessly is provide perspective and insight into reckless, painful, tender, and almost incomprehensible decisions that are made by the women or for the women. Through the unfiltered lens of the book, we see their desperation and loneliness. The women are simultaneously thrilled and tormented by their desire. They pretend to want things they don’t want, so nobody would know they weren’t getting what they needed.

Why? I mean, how is it that it that desire – something I believe was intended as a good gift from God – has become so twisted?

Maybe there’s not an answer exactly to ‘why,’ but I think our desires and wants can tell a story about what is missing and what has happened. How we express desire has the potential to light us on fire or burn us to the ground. For good or for ill, our desires tell something about who we are.

Now, before I go further, first let me say, if you decide to read the book, “Three Women,” because I’ve mentioned it, let me say it’s rough and graphic. Not in an inappropriate way, but in a raw, emotional, frank, and fleshy way. And, as a fair warning, the language is strong – it’s not G-rated. The book isn’t what I expected, had I known what I’d be getting into, I might not have read it. But I’m glad I did.

It’s true that the three women, whose stories are narrated, led lives and had relationships that are very different from my own. But, what isn’t different from my life, what isn’t different from the circumstances in Sodom and Gomorrah, what isn’t probably very different from your own lives is: the heat and the sting of want and desire expose the rawness of humanity – the exquisiteness and the pervertedness.

From God’s perspective, our sexuality and our desire is designed to reconnect us to the world, to each other, and with God. I think there’s a Godly way of living out desire.

If this is true, that desire is a gift from God to connect us, then our sexuality and God are inextricably intertwined. They cannot be separated. Maybe that’s why God is so broken when Sodom is raped and ruined by desire. The abusers have also pillaged and ravaged God.

God is left lying there, crying and wondering, “How did this happen?”

One of the saddest elements of the book is all three of the women aren’t comfortable in their own skin – for a myriad of reasons. Their bodies don’t feel right to them. Their needs are unanswered. They aren’t comfortable with themselves. Because of the lack of love and closeness in their lives, they have turned on themselves. They can’t even truly connect with themselves, let alone God or another person in a healthy way.

I think what’s important about this book is it cuts straight to the heart of longing.
They can’t see themselves as God sees them.
And so, they settle for someone – anyone – to ‘see’ them.

They use their sexuality to be seen and to feel; the men in Sodom use it for power and domination; the media uses it to make money and superficial worlds… All of this seems to thrive on a deep dissatisfaction with life.

We can’t talk about sexuality and desire without talking how we are made. Which inevitably leads us to who made us. God is integral to sexuality. Sex, desire, God, and humanity – they are all connected.

Our humanity embraces many things that are extensions of our sexuality and desire – not just physical acts. Things that are essential to our very souls, things like beauty, body and sensuousness, touch, intimacy, friendship. Our souls thirst for these things, which is just a theological way of saying, we have desires and wants.

I believe in this day and age, it’s important for us to consider the truth that how we express our sexuality is an extension of our connectedness with God and our longing for being known. Every encounter is loaded with potential to change the world. To change us.

The book may be entitled, “Three Women,” but it could be called, “Every Person.”
Because we all desire this: connection, heat, closeness, intimacy.
To be fully known and still loved, still embraced, still accepted.

And while it may seem small, and may even sound unbelievable, that is the promise gifted to us in Jesus. Jesus is God coming to us in love. Sheer unadulterated, unfiltered love. Stripped of everything that could get in the way. Naked and vulnerable, hanging on the cross, just to say:
God loves you.
Accepts you.
And waits with open arms for you.
God desires you.