Epiphany 6, Year A
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15–20; Psalm 119:1–8; (1 Corinthians 3:1–9); Matthew 5:21–30
The feeling of grass on your bare feet. Water warm enough to swim in. Water not warm enough to swim in. The smell of bread baking. Gluten free bread, say, that everyone could eat. The first taste of fresh bread. All the many feelings that make our lives rich, based on our five senses. The sight of a welcoming smile. The sight of a seductive smile. The stimulation of all our senses by an intimate partner.
For an infant, the comfort of a mother’s breast full of milk. For a child, the warm breeze on a summer evening when the playing is outdoors, and parents seem to have miraculously forgotten bedtime for a night. For parents and grandparents, the squeal of delight as a child heads down a snowy slope. For some, the sight, smell, sound and feel of a perfect curl of wood emerging from a sharp plane. For others, the feel and sound of a beloved pet.
The list goes on and on: food tastes, drink tastes, certain smells, certain textures, certain sights. Our senses are adapted for our environment the same as those of every other creature. Scorpions sense their prey approaching in the dark through their feet spread out on the sand. Catfish smell what’s around them in murky water with sense organs on their whiskers and all over their skin. Dogs smell hundreds of times better that we do, and somehow sense earthquakes before they happen. Whales can communicate thousands of kilometres, apparently, with low frequency rumbles.
Everybody, every creature, takes in information, what they need to survive. What we are celebrating on Sensuous Sunday is the information above and beyond mere survival. Landscapes, textiles, art, performance, sweet treats, a consoling hug. Our senses bring us so much pleasure it’s overwhelming at times. They help to nourish our sense of wonder.
What if someone said, I’m giving you the choice of life or death. Choose life? How hard could that be? Sounds like an easy decision. According to Deuteronomy, ‘life’ means “loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments… loving God, obeying, and holding fast to God.” (Deut. 30:16, 19) Our question to this piece of scripture today is, What kind of life? If it’s just a dreary procession of days, life without wonder, maybe that’s not so appealing. If it’s all buttoned down and repressed we might need time to think about our decision. The writer is talking about the difference between the holy and the unholy. We’ll get back to the unholy in a moment. What it comes down to with the holy life is this, is it ascetic, or is it sensual?
What happens when life is not sensual? At all. We have the answer. It comes from prisons. Some prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for weeks, months, sometimes even decades, at least in the American system. And the answer is not good. People who live in small, plain spaces without sunlight, company or touch are profoundly changed. Their vision alters, for example, so that they can no longer focus on distant objects. If they become depressed and remain that way for long, their hippocampus shrinks according to a recent study, meaning their memory and ability to navigate the world both diminish.
Our senses are not just nice features of our lives. They are our lives. Do we care what happens to prisoners in solitary? Should we? Is that the best we can do? Or all we’re willing to afford?
The other experiment we’re running currently in the Western world is with ourselves, especially younger people. Some of us, some of them spend much of their day experiencing life through a screen, either looking things up online, posting photos of what they’re doing on a social website, or texting others. What is this doing to them, and to society? There were concerns when the telephone was introduced that it would wreck society because it allowed people to communicate at a distance, without being present to each other.
Did it do that? Most of would agree that telephones are an improvement. Except when the tele-marketer interrupts your meal or your favourite show. Are concerns about cell phones and texting just as inflammatory and exaggerated as the concerns a hundred years ago about telephones? Teachers say the new technologies are having an effect on children’s brains. They have short attention spans. They need to hop from topic to topic. A kind of mass attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
What about worshiping in person? If you could dial up church on Sunday morning, would you do it? Watch a minister, listen to a choir in your pyjamas, and click a button to make your offering? From what people tell me, it is important that church be a meeting place, that the social contact with others is good for them, a valuable part of their week. Does that mean we get considered more and more quaint as years go by, or will physically gathering in one place to sing, listen, think, pray, eat, drink, hug ever make a comeback, be considered health-giving, counter-cultural or cool?
While we’re talking about senses and sensuality, we need to reflect on the shadow side of the senses, the unholy, people gratifying their hunger or lust at the expense of others, people mistaking the deep bonds of love for a license to abuse someone else physically, psychologically or emotionally. Somewhere a predator is grooming a young person over the internet to compromise themselves with exploitive photos or videos. Someone is engaging in partner violence. Someone is scanning through their collection of child porn. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” the Teacher said, a long, long time ago.
Jesus was getting at the things of the heart, in this case, anger, judgement, hostility, lust. Or at least, the gospel writer was. It’s not clear that Jesus himself was big into proclaiming even more commandments. In some cases, it’s poor thinking that leads to trouble. In other cases, it is our sensuality run amok. The gospel is talking about the role of restraint. It’s making the same point as the Deuteronomy reading—the unholy is not just unfortunate. It leads to death, sometimes actual, sometimes death of the soul. If a sip of champagne is good, then surely a bottle or two are better. If one chocolate is good…. If smoking some of this or injecting some of that can heighten the senses, why not go for it? And again tomorrow, and the next day, searching, hopelessly, for that for that exquisite feeling, at the cost of everything else?
There is a shadow side to our senses, as there is to all of our humanity. Once upon a time the church acted as a kind of arbiter of what was acceptable, and how much. Not any more. And we don’t want to go back to the church as giver and enforcer of rules. That approach has cost the church greatly. So what do we do? The drug trade alone has the capability of skewing whole economies, making life cheap as drug lords battle for market share. Add to that the shadow side of our sexuality, the growing problem of the trafficking of people, mostly women and girls for the sex trade.
This church is a refuge for people who have decided to try to give up drugs or alcohol. It is a place where people are discovering they can tell the truth about themselves, and still be accepted. Our senses are so strong that I suspect there will always be a market for excess of many kinds. Perhaps we can do something about childhoods full of pain, the kind of psychic pain that can lead to craving for pain relief in the first place. Perhaps we can work toward a world with better balance. We can certainly offer radical hospitality and offer a place of refuge and peace to get ourselves back into balance. We can celebrate the sensuous side of the holy and the holy side of the sensuous.