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Sermon for Sunday 15 Jan 2012

I Corinthians 6:12-20

Do what you want

How often do we struggle with the urge to simply do our own thing, without any regard to how the world may view our actions? Since this is more common than any of us would like to admit, we oftentimes act as if this is something new, that it’s something only we struggle with. However, the good news is none of us are the first to feel that longing . . . or to act on it.
Being a child of the 60’s I remember a movement in which the followers were referred to as Hippies. It was a sub-culture fueled by an anti-Vietnam war sentiment and was also supported by popular music. One of the songs that came to mind as I considered this time in our history, was a Funk classic by the Isley Brothers that takes its name from the chorus that began with, “It’s your thing, do what you want to do”. The song embodied an attitude that was prevalent at the time. An attitude that forwarded the notion of sex without strings or consequences, uninhibited drug use, the shunning of social norms and the idea that we are the best judge of what is right or wrong; of which behavior is sinful or acceptable. It’s an attitude that in many ways is still with us today, it’s just manifested in a different way. Today this attitude takes a different approach; it works with the political machine instead of against it, and is an attitude that has even infected the church. It’s a view of self that also proves, we never learn from history.
About this same time as the Isley Brothers’ classic was a hit, a group of hippies living in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco decided that personal hygiene, including bathing or even washing your hair, was a middle class hang up, a social norm that they could do without. So in their attempt to “rage against the machine”, they quit indulging in these bourgeois activities. Baths and showers, while not actually banned, were discouraged. In the words of author Tom Wolfe, these hippies “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past, and start out from zero.”
As you can imagine, the hippies’ aversion to modern hygiene had consequences that were as unpleasant, as they were unforeseen. Wolfe describes them: “At the Haight Ashbury Free clinic, there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names; ailments with contemporary titles such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.”
The itching and the manginess eventually began to vex even the hippies, leading them to seek help from the local free clinics. They had to rediscover for themselves the rudiments of personal hygiene. Wolfe refers to this as the “Great Relearning.” Thankfully, being a Hippy is no longer in vogue, but their guiding attitude in life is still very much with us. Even though we don’t hear the phrase much anymore, people still want to do their own thing . . . make their own rules . . . serve as their own moral guide. Ideals such as, “This is my body; I’ll do with it as I please.” Sound familiar? “This is my money. I’ll spend it as I please. Or, it’s my life; if I want to squander it, then it’s my right.” I would venture to say that each of us know someone with this kind of attitude. Perhaps a few of us struggled with these same notions when we got up this morning and looked in the mirror. Like it or not, it’s the spirit of our time. We might be a bit more sophisticated about it than the young people of the 60s, but it’s still basically how we live. People want to be free to do their own thing.
After captivating an audience at Yale University, the late Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter Ayn [Ine] Rand was asked by a reporter, “What’s wrong with the modern world?” Without a moment’s hesitation Rand replied, “Never before has the world been so desperately asking for answers to crucial questions, and never before has the world been so frantically committed to the idea that no answers are possible.” Then Ms. Rand added this thought, “To paraphrase the Bible, the modern attitude is, ‘Father, forgive us, for we know not what we are doing and please don’t tell us!’” In this instance Ms. Rand was right. Behavior that would have been shocking to previous generations is now accepted with nothing more than a shrug.
Obviously, this is not the biblical understanding of life. In fact, in the story of Adam and Eve in the very beginning of our Bible, this is the attitude that got humanity in trouble in the first place. To state things even more emphatically, you could paraphrase Luther’s teaching on original sin as, doing your own thing with total disregard for God’s purpose for our life. And this attitude didn’t end with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden.
St. Paul ran into this same sort of attitude more than two thousand years ago. Conversion to Christianity was a great liberation to many who had felt enslaved by the Jewish Law. They felt unshackled when they became Christians, and they rejoiced in their new freedom. But soon that freedom turned to license. St. Paul writes, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say . . .” and that is indeed what many in Corinth were saying. But St. Paul counters this notion with, you may have a right to do anything, “but not everything is beneficial . . .” And then he focused on two examples of the more prominent societal indulgences: food and sex. It’s interesting choices; especially when you consider that the same could be said of our culture today! And depending on who you talk to, neither of these subjects are easy to discuss.
The issues concerning food may be easier to address and maybe we should, since according to medical experts, America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. And I for one must admit, this is an area that hits close to home. One woman says that after her husband asked her to help him shed some unwanted pounds, she stopped serving fattening TV snacks and substituted instead celery, considered by some to be the perfect diet food. While her husband was unenthusiastically munching on a stalk one night, a commercial caught his attention. As he watched longingly, a woman spread gooey chocolate frosting over a freshly baked cake. When it was over, her husband turned to her. “Did you ever notice,” he asked dejectedly, “that they never advertise celery on TV?” It’s true; I can’t ever remember seeing an advertisement for celery, even if it is the perfect snack as far as calories are concerned.
If we want to lose weight, we’re not going to get any help from the advertisement industry. That’s one reason it’s hard for some of us to keep our weight under control. I heard a hilarious story recently about a man who started a new diet; The Purina Diet named, of course, for Purina dog food. Well, he didn’t really eat dog food, but have you ever noticed how some people can ask silly questions? Well, this guy is standing in line at Wal-Mart with a large bag of Purina dog food. A woman behind him asked if he had a dog. There he is standing in line with a 40 pound bag of dog chow and well, duh . . . .” So he decided to have some fun.
He told her no, he didn’t have any dogs. He went on to explain that he was starting The Purina Diet . . . again . . . although he probably shouldn’t because . . . the last time he’d ended up in the hospital . . . However, he had lost 50 pounds on the diet . . . before he awakened in an intensive care unit with tubes coming out all over the place and IVs in both arms. He told her that it was essentially a perfect diet and that the way it works is to load your pants pockets with Purina nuggets and simply eat one or two every time you feel hungry. He went on to say that the food is nutritionally complete so he was going to try it again.
He says that by this time practically everyone in the line was enthralled with his story, particularly a guy who was behind the lady who asked the question. Horrified, she asked if he’d ended up in the hospital in that condition because he had been poisoned by eating all that dog food. With a serious expression on his face he told her no; he said it was because he’d been barking in the street and a car hit him. The guy in line behind this lady was so amused with the story you’d have thought he was about to have a heart attack, he was laughing so hard. So much for dumb questions . . .
I for one haven’t found the perfect diet, even considering the Purina Diet. Losing weight is hard. But at least it’s easy to see what happens to you if you eat excessively. We may be free, as St. Paul says, to do anything, but not everything is beneficial. With regard to food, this statement usually becomes self-evident. However, the same can’t be said for the other issue Paul highlighted. The dangers of sexual freedom may not be quite as obvious.
There was a time when the greatest fear of unrestrained sexual freedom among “nice” young people was pregnancy. Then came the fear of STD’s or sexually-transmitted disease, especially HIV and AIDS. And these risks are still with us. Still, even if you’re able to perfectly control these adverse consequences, there are still risks to practicing unrestrained sexual freedom; both spiritual risks and emotional risks.
There was a sad story recently in the magazine The Week. It was titled, “Not Your Parents’ Divorce.” It was written by Susan Gregory Thomas, a member of Generation X. Generation X is that group of young people born between 1965 and 1980. Census data shows that almost half of those referred to as Generation Xers come from split families; 40 percent of them were latchkey kids. Ms. Thomas and her husband both came from split families and she described in stark detail just how devastating divorce can be for children.
She cites a 2004 study which described Generation X as “the least parented, least nurtured generation in U.S. history.” She says that both she and her husband were determined that once they were married, they would never, never divorce, especially after they had kids of their own. Unfortunately, they did. Even though, according to Ms. Thomas, they really, really tried to hold their marriage together, but it didn’t work out.
What interests me is that she admits that she and her husband knew the statistics and knew the risks of how to prepare for marriage. For example, they thought their marriage would be stronger if they lived together before they married. In her own words, “We were together for nearly eight years before we got married, even though statistics show that divorce rates are 48 percent higher for those who cohabitant; we paid no heed.”
It’s a harsh reality, but many studies in this area prove the same conclusion. Living together before marriage has been shown scientifically to be detrimental to the marriage relationship. So why then does every generation of young people think things will somehow be different for them? Why do we continually have to relearn the lessons of the past? Why do we continue to prove the adage that the only thing we learn from history, is that we never learn from history?
Some things never change. Ms. Thomas writes, “We also paid no heed to his Catholic parents . . . when they warned us that we should wait until we were married to live together. As they put it, being pals and roommates is different from being husband and wife.” Then she adds, “How bizarrely old-fashioned and sexist!”
Well, maybe it’s old-fashioned and sexist, but that doesn’t keep it from being true. Now I’m not passing judgment on this couple, nor on Generation X, nor on Boomers for the high rate of divorce that so badly affected Generation X, nor on any other generation or group for that matter. I’m simply appealing to all of us to recognize that the wisdom of the Bible has been established over hundreds of generations. The only safe sex is sex that’s practiced within the marriage relationship. And that relationship is to be exclusive. People make mistakes of course, even the best intended of us, but the ideal remains. As Paul cites from Genesis, “The two are to become one flesh.”
Humanity has experimented for thousands of years with various other approaches to the question of sexual morality. And no approach yet, has come even close to the Christian ideal of a young woman and a young man enjoying a romantic, even passionate courtship but delaying sexual relations until after marriage; a marriage in which they dedicate themselves before God and their faith community; “until death us do part.” In most cases, if a couple will devote themselves to one another, and to God, a marriage will work. As a couple they will find fulfillment and a lifetime of happiness.
And there’s a reason it works: Christians understand that we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ. St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
This is the crux of the matter, our bodies are not our own and we dishonor God when we do anything with our body that harms it or that could bring us shame. Some of you who are basketball fans may know the name A.C. Green. At the 2011 All Star Breakfast, A.C. Green was awarded the Bobby Jones Award for character, leadership, and faith in the world of basketball in the home and the community. A. C. Green is a man who takes care of his body. A former NBA all-star and three-time World Champion Los Angeles Laker, Green played in more consecutive games than any other player in NBA and ABA history. He played in 1,192 straight games. If you know anything about the toll professional basketball takes on the body, you’ll be impressed with Mr. Green’s record. It earned him the nickname “Iron Man.”
And here’s something you may not know, Mr. Green is a deeply religious man who, before his marriage a few years back, was well-known in the NBA for his commitment for delaying sex until he was married. If you know about some of the sexual activities of many NBA players, that will impress you even more. During his playing days, according to a report on CNN, his teammates would frequently send women to tempt Green to compromise his morals. Instead, he would respond by calmly quoting scripture. He even established a foundation. The A. C. Green Youth Foundation works with underprivileged youth and encourages sexual abstinence. Green says, with regard to sexual abstinence, “If I can do it in the role that God took me on, traveling throughout the NBA, there’s not a teenager that can tell me it’s tougher on them.”
I’m not sure anyone can argue with A. C. Green about that. “When you have a vision, a purpose, and understand your calling,” says Green, “you can do extraordinary things for God, even in the midst of a peculiar situation. Living in the NBA for twenty years was very peculiar. But at the same time, it didn’t separate me from the goal I had, the burning passion that God put in my heart: to instill some kind of hope into our future generation, our kids.”
We are to honor God with our body, says St. Paul. Certainly Mr. Green has done that. He has disciplined his body both to make himself an outstanding athlete and to make himself into an outstanding husband for his wife. When it came to making a choice between doing his own thing and doing God’s thing, A. C. Green chose God. Every study I’ve seen, even by secular authors and researchers say, he made the right choice.
Every generation goes through the process of relearning what humanity has already discovered. There are not only physical laws, but moral laws and spiritual laws that govern this universe. The hippies had to relearn them about hygiene. Were they stupid? Perhaps no more rash than we are, by the ways we dishonor the body and dishonor God today.
There’s an old story about several large signs posted on a piece of property that said “No Trespassing.” But that didn’t stop young boys from climbing the fence in order to reach the apples that grew on a large tree in the forbidden territory. One day, a small boy slipped while he was climbing the apple tree, and fell onto a pile of sharp branches, cutting himself badly, and breaking his ankle. Alone and afraid, the young boy lay crying for hours.
Finally, the owner of the property happened by. He came over and lifted the boy from the ground. The child was afraid of the farmer. After all, he had posted all these “No Trespassing” signs. But the old gentleman merely smiled at the boy and said, “I didn’t put the signs up to be mean. I put them there to try to keep things like this from happening. It was kindness which caused me to want to protect little boys just like you.”
So it is with God. God’s “No Trespassing” signs are not placed around certain areas of our lives to be mean, but for our own benefit. God wants only the best for us.
And today’s Epistle lesson is no different. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” It’s more than just some outdated command. It really is good advice.

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