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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sermon: Equality is Sexy

Equality is Sexy
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 22nd, 2008

We are making our way through the Bible in 2008. We are now finishing the Writings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, two texts will be featured, the Song of Solomon and the Book of Ruth.

The story of Ruth is a favorite in the Hebrew Scriptures. The story begins with a woman named Naomi and her husband who lived in Judah during the time of the Judges. There is a famine and they and their two sons leave Judah and settle in Moab. Naomi’s husband dies there and the two sons marry Moabite women, named Ruth and Orpah. The two sons also die leaving Ruth and Orpah who are now grown women.

So Naomi decides to return to Judah. Much time as passed and conditions have improved. But Ruth and Orpah are Moabite women. Naomi advises them to stay in Moab as there is no future for them with her. Orpah decides to stay in Moab, but Ruth does not. She loves her mother-in-law and tells her in words that are often used in weddings:

‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Ruth 1:15-18

So we have a story that features as its protagonist, Ruth, a foreign woman with no resources. No money, no protection. But she does have one thing, her mother-in-law whom she loves.

They return to Judah. Naomi has a relative named Boaz. He is doing pretty well. Ruth decides to glean in his field behind the reapers. Boaz notices her and offers her protection from the other reapers and allows her to glean. He is impressed with her and with the care she has taken for Naomi her mother-in-law.

Naomi devises a plan for Ruth to marry Boaz so that Ruth will have some security. She will go when he is sleeping and “uncover his feet” which is probably a euphemism for something a bit more erotic. Anyway, she does it and Boaz is impressed. He decides to marry her and they have children. One of the grandchildren is David, eventually King of Israel.

That is the short version. This story is set in conditions in which our heroine, Ruth, has absolutely no resources. The injustices of patriarchy leave her without protection, security, or economic opportunity. As a foreigner, she is even more marginalized. None of that is questioned within the story. It is assumed as the way things are and should be.

Yet the story hints that YHWH’s favor is upon Ruth. It is that favor for the marginalized that provides the critique of this system as not the way YHWH wishes the world to work. Through the courage, loyalty, and intelligence of Ruth, she becomes a subject not an object. She becomes a human being not defined as someone else’s property or a foreigner.

It is a story of comfort and hope in that YHWH looks with favor upon those most marginalized. The word to those who are marginalized is this:

“No one thinks you matter, but I do.”

I was thinking about Ruth’s story in light of the Shepherd’s Inn. The Shepherd’s Inn is our safe house in Elizabethton for women who are victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence is not Ruth’s story. However, lack of resources, protection, security, and economic opportunity is Ruth’s story and the story of virtually every woman who enters the Shelter.

Ruth and Naomi were fortunate. They had each other. The women who enter this shelter often do not have even that. Domestic violence continues because it isolates women from those things that can be a source of empowerment.

The unfortunate reality is that most of these women go back to these violent relationships. Observers from the outside may wonder why. They may put the blame on the women. But the reality is that there are often few options. Pressures from families and religion, and lack of economic resources are too much for many of these women. Coupled with that, psychological issues regarding self-esteem can make imagining a different future nearly impossible.

It is neither accurate nor just to put the blame and the responsibility on these women. We need to work toward making a community in which domestic violence is unacceptable.

We have our work cut out for us.

The task involves breaking the silence and becoming educated about the reality and the depth of domestic violence.

The task involves imagining and creating a new ethic of right relationship between all people. This entails equality and opportunity regardless of gender. It includes education at all levels beginning with the very young in our schools about solving conflicts peacefully.

It includes asking these questions:

“Is the home a private sphere where the larger community turns a blind eye to violence within the home?”

“Is sexual violence and rape permissible when it occurs between a married couple?”

Too often a marriage license is viewed as a license to control another person’s body.

It includes asking questions about the inequality of traditional gender roles. This week has been historic as same-gender couples have been granted the right to marry in California. Some say this will somehow hurt marriage. But evidence suggests that same-sex couples have a great deal to teach heterosexual couples.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Gay Unions Shed Light on Gender in Marriage” cites a number of studies on same-gender unions and how they compare with opposite gender unions.

After Vermont legalized same-sex civil unions in 2000, researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 couples, including same-sex couples and their heterosexual married siblings. The focus was on how the relationships were affected by common causes of marital strife like housework, sex and money.

Notably, same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.

While the gay and lesbian couples had about the same rate of conflict as the heterosexual ones, they appeared to have more relationship satisfaction, suggesting that the inequality of opposite-sex relationships can take a toll.

“Heterosexual married women live with a lot of anger about having to do the tasks not only in the house but in the relationship,” said Esther D. Rothblum, a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University. “That’s very different than what same-sex couples and heterosexual men live with.”

Equality in relationships leads to more peace.

This is not to say that gay or lesbian couples never have violence. But it does show that we can learn from each other and re-examine gender roles that legitimize oppression within the home.

In the Ruth story, the true love story is between Ruth and Naomi. Boaz is somewhat of an extra. He is needed for security. He offers that for Ruth and Naomi. But it is the loyal, faithful, “I will be with you until you die, friendship” between Ruth and Naomi that is the heart of the story.

I want to turn to the Song of Solomon. This is erotic poetry. It is really quite beautiful. There is no violence in this book. There is no domination. No forcing. The relationship is mutual, equal, and sexy.

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention towards me was love.
5Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.

And…

How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
3Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.

How different this ancient book is from how sexuality is perceived and portrayed in our society? Women are objectified to sell everything from cars to cameras. Eroticism is equated with domination and control. The church’s attitudes toward sexuality are atrocious. It thinks it has done its job when it controls people and tells them they are dirty for being sexual beings. It has removed the sacred from the body.

We do have our work cut out for us. Sexual justice is related to all other forms of justice and right relationship. Violence whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual against women or sexual minorities is all connected.

We can begin to make a new ethic. This ethic involves making equality sexy. It is about loving our bodies and respecting the bodies of others including the body of our Mother Earth.

I am going to close with Toni Morrison from her book, Beloved. Baby Suggs speaks to her congregation:

"Here," said Baby Suggs, "in this here place, we flesh. Flesh that weeps, laughs, flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people, they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! ... This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.

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