Sunday, October 28, 2018

Phil Kniss: The stewardship of intimacy

“Celebrating and cultivating marriage and intimacy”
Genesis 3:1-10; Mark 8:31-38

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Last Sunday I said,
“Being in community is one of the most natural things
we can do as human beings . . .
and one of the most difficult things we can do.”
Today, on the subject of intimacy,
I could say exactly the same thing . . . times ten.
Being in relationships of intimacy
is one of the most natural things a human being can do,
and by far, one of the most difficult.

Intimacy demands more.
If mere friendships can be a bit challenging,
and living in community can be hard,
then keeping healthy relationships of intimacy
can be downright exhausting.
But potentially, exhilarating.
There is so much at stake.
Intimacy can help us soar to new heights.
And it can sink us into the depths.

Now, what I have to say this morning is relevant for everyone.
Just because the bulletin cover has the words marriage and intimacy,
I don’t want anyone to zone out on either of those words.

A person could think I’m about to give a little inspirational talk
aimed at married couples,
about reigniting the spark in your relationship.
That could be a good talk somewhere, sometime.
That’s not the talk you’re getting today.
And I hope no one zones out
because the word marriage is associated with a lot of pain,
or carries a lot of weighted baggage.

I’m well aware there are many in this room,
who once were married, and no longer are.
And the ending of that marriage—
whether by divorce, or death,
may conjure up a great deal of pain, and loss,
and some of it quite raw.
Others may be married,
but are right now suffering within that marriage,
with no easy solution in sight.
Some may long to be married,
but for a variety of reasons, aren’t.
Some are single, and on a path toward marriage.
Some are single, and happy to remain as they are.

And I’m well aware that when the church talks about marriage,
it often gets hung up on the question of who can get married.
That’s not a bad question.
I’m all in favor of having honest, civil,
and faith-informed conversations
about marriage rights and qualifications.
But that’s not the topic this morning, either.

And the word “intimacy” could make some of you zone out.
Most of time, when the church has a conversation about intimacy,
it zeroes right in on sexual intimacy,
and again, gets hung up on arguments about
who’s allowed to be intimate, when, with whom,
and what lines dare not be crossed.
Again, important matters to discuss.
These are good family conversations for the family of God.
But that’s also not my topic today.

I want to talk about the beauty and complexity
of this gift of intimacy,
for all of us as members of the body of Christ,
and why it is often so challenging for us to find it.
My aim is to paint a picture of intimacy,
that, for all of us, at the same time,
is more holistic, more realistic, and more hopeful
than the picture we usually get when we talk about these things,
in the church, or out in the world we live in.

So, to repeat myself.
intimacy is both natural, and excruciatingly difficult.
Why? Because it requires us to put ourselves at risk.
Really.  Truly.  At risk.

There is no such thing as safe intimacy.
We all know the term “safe sex”
and we generally know what it means—
sexual intimacy without two particular dangers:
disease or pregnancy.

But all forms of intimacy—
sexual, physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual—
all intimacy, by definition,
requires us to risk getting hurt.
Intimacy is a choice to let down our guard.
Intimacy requires taking off our armor,
exposing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves,
and allowing others access to parts of ourselves
that even we find it hard to see and accept.

That is the way it has always been since the Garden of Eden.
I love the first chapters of Genesis,
which we read from this morning.
I cling to them often.
Not because they tell me anything about the how of Creation.
They don’t.
They tell me who I am, and who God is.
They ground me.

And the Genesis story of the fall of Adam and Eve—
their alienation, their path toward redemption—
is so rich in meaning for us today.
It is one of those grounding narratives for us as God’s people.

What happened to Adam and Eve, happens to us.
Their entire story vibrates with authenticity.
It is our own story—
from negotiating with the serpent,
to eating the forbidden fruit,
discovering their nakedness,
sewing fig leaves for clothing,
to their reckoning with God.

That’s our story.
Once we eat the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
that is, once we choose to usurp God’s role,
and embrace the human temptation to judge others and ourselves,
then we can’t stand our own nakedness anymore.
We realize we have something to hide.
Our own vulnerability is exposed.

Before the fateful day Adam and Eve ate the fruit,
they had no reason to hide from God.
They enjoyed God’s intimate companionship,
walking with God in the garden in the cool of the day,
to quote v. 8.
Naked and unafraid.
No reason to fear exposure.
All they knew was warmth and love emanating from God.
But, once the fruit of judgment was tasted,
they learned to fear.
Intimacy with God now felt like a risk. A threat.

Adam and Eve’s fear of intimacy with God after the fall,
is an analogy for our experience of intimacy, still to this day.

To go deep with anyone—
with God, with a spouse, with ourselves, with others—
requires a certain degree of nakedness,
of willingness to expose the most vulnerable parts of ourselves.

And over time we human beings have learned, the hard way,
that exposure and vulnerability with others,
doesn’t always end well.
Because of the evil that resides in us all,
there is a temptation to take advantage of another’s weakness,
and use it to our selfish advantage.
We have all been on the receiving end
of someone taking advantage of us, when our guard was down.
And we have all, at one time or another,
used that same power over another,
to our advantage.
So we have learned, correctly,
that it is safer to wear armor.
Fig leaves make life easier.

But, if you still believe, as I do, that even with all the risk,
a life of intimacy is better than a life of isolation and alienation,
most of us—not all, but most—would rather pursue intimacy,
than to shut ourselves off for safe-keeping.

But it’s not really either-or.
Virtually all of us live in a dynamic tension—
wanting and needing both—intimacy and safety.
Sometimes we readily take the risk, take the leap.
Sometimes we hold ourselves back for self-preservation.
Both responses are valid,
and can be exactly what is needed in a given situation.

So this is where mutuality and covenant enter the picture.
Mutuality, equality, and public promise-keeping
make intimacy more safe, than it would be otherwise.
There is a reason why, for much of human history,
institutions like marriage, or something similar to it,
have been practiced by societies modern and primitive.
True mutuality, and the support of the larger community,
and public promises,
give otherwise reluctant people the courage to
go where danger lurks—
into a private space where it would be easy to be hurt.

At its best, the church has had sound reasons
to object to sexual relationships outside of marriage.
I don’t buy—or at least, I don’t totally buy—the argument
that the church is only pushing some antiquated purity ethic,
or we are only motivated
by a revulsion to the body and sexuality,
or we only want to enforce rules, a list of dos and don’ts.
Unfortunately, I think that argument often does ring true
for some churches,
and at many times in our own history.
We have gotten hung up on the minutiae.
We have sometimes just made rules, end of subject.
We have gotten obsessed with the sexual immorality of a few,
and conveniently ignored other, more pervasive immorality
that bedevils us all.

That why I say, at its best,
when the church is being honest and reasonable and charitable,
it still has sound reasons to question sexual intimacy
outside the context of covenant.

That level of intimacy,
without the mutuality, communal support, and promise-keeping
of covenant,
elevates the risk considerably.
Intimacy without safety too often leads to the sort of hurt
that stays with us,
makes us more protective, more self-focused,
less attentive and compassionate to the other,
more likely to engage in self-oriented behavior
in other areas of life.
It reinforces the idea to “look out for #1.”
It reinforces the narrative of our dominant culture,
that trivializes love and sex,
making it all about meeting my needs, igniting my passions.
It undermines what every healthy community needs—
a basic trust that everyone in that community
is pursuing the common good,
and not only their self-interest.

So there are sound rational, communal, and theological reasons
why the church encourages
intimacy and covenant to go together.

But frankly, the church misses the mark . . . by a mile,
when we lose ourselves in the argument over the who question,
who is allowed to be intimate, and when, and how,
and never get around to the real threat
to the institution of marriage—
this rampant individualism that pervades our sexual ethic,
and affects all our lives.

One reason this is hard to talk about,
is that even with the added safety of covenant—
be it marriage or other binding agreement—
intimacy is never entirely safe.
The deepest wounds many of us suffer,
will be at the hands of persons closest to us.

Because hurt, in the context of an intimate relationship,
comes not only from the act of injury itself;
it is multiplied, in the breaking of trust.
If my intimate partner injures me,
my wound is deeper because it not only hurts me individually,
it breaks open a place of safety and security I was relying on.
Trust is like a tower of building blocks.
The kind of blocks I like to play with along with the kids
on Thursday nights at Kids Club . . .
(and sometimes alone in the privacy of my home).
A tower of trust can fall down in an instant.
It will take much more time, more gentleness,
more attentiveness, and more care . . . to rebuild it.

The truth of the matter is,
intimacy is hard, and risky, and doesn’t always end well,
even with the added safety of covenant.

But a full and meaningful life will be beyond our grasp,
if we don’t somehow make room for intimacy,
in the many and varied forms it comes in,
if we aren’t willing to let down our guard,
to let our vulnerability be seen and known,
to open ourselves to the possibility of being hurt.

Even in the best of marriages—
and I feel blessed to have what I think is a very good marriage—
even in our marriage,
hurt happens.
Sometimes I get hurt.
Other times, probably more often, I do the hurting.
There are times, to my shame, when I see a weak spot,
and aim for it, to score a point in my favor.

But because we have both decided
that we are both all in on this relationship,
that we are both allowed to be real,
both allowed to voice our needs,
both allowed to reveal our weaknesses to the other,
and that we are both committed
to take the vulnerability of the other,
and not use it to our advantage,
but work with it together for the healing of the whole,
because of that commitment,
we’ve been able, so far,
to rebuild when the tower of blocks,
or at least a section of it, get knocked down for a time.

No intimate relationship is perfect.
There will be wounds, and occasional betrayals of trust.
But I would not want a life
that doesn’t include taking that risk.
Because the reward is the kind of life we were created for.

Jesus exemplified that kind of life with his disciples.
In Mark 8 this morning, did you hear this dynamic at work?
Jesus aimed deep with his disciples.
He was not interested in the superficial.
He taught and demonstrated a life worth dying for.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it,
but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel 
will save it.”

In any deep and intimate relationship—sexual or otherwise—
if your aim is to preserve your interests, at all costs,
that’s what it will cost—all.
Your life.
But if you are able and willing to risk loss for a greater good,
you have a chance to get the life you were made for.
That’s the stewardship part.
Intimacy is a gift being extended to us.
We weigh the costs, the benefits, the risk,
and decide whether to invest in it, or not.

Now . . . I don’t want anyone going from here with the notion
that self-sacrifice in intimate relationships is unconditional,
that we all called to just keep giving and giving
until there is nothing left to give.
That’s what leads to abusive relationships—
sexually, physically, or emotionally abusive relationships—
and there is no place for that. Ever.
I am not an advocate for saving a marriage at all costs,
when the basic building blocks of that tower
have already fallen to the floor,
and there are not two partners remaining,
willing to do the work of rebuilding.
The risks you take on in a relationship of intimacy
must be mutual and balanced.

Yes, there are seasons when the self-giving won’t be equal.
Physical or mental illness or tragedy or other circumstances
will sometimes put things out of balance.
And when there is long-term disability,
promises made might mean
a willingness to forgo some intimacy
in order to provide basic care and human compassion,
for the long-term.

But in the larger scheme of things,
intimate relationships must be mutual and balanced,
for it to be called intimacy,
and for it to be life-giving.

And one final comment,
we in the church should be each other’s greatest cheerleaders,
in this gutsy, high-risk journey called intimacy.

What a travesty that the church has developed a reputation
as a place where people are judged.
So often we are caught back in the Garden of Eden,
chomping on that forbidden fruit.

If the church is functioning as a close, and intimate family of God,
everyone should be safe to be themselves.
No one should have to worry about exposing a vulnerability,
for fear it will be used against them.
In the church, we can set the example.
We can put on display the rich possibilities of intimacy,
the kind of mutual, close spiritual friendship,
that allows for honesty, acceptance,
and a loving encouragement to become even more.

If that’s the life we experience here in the family of God,
we will be more likely to find it at home,
and in our other close relationships.

May it be so.

—Phil Kniss, October 28, 2018

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