Sermon: “Sex Talk” by Shari Halliday-Quan

2018 February 18
by First U Bklyn

How deeply the singing of this gathering of people is connected to my soul. It might be that I am wrong to think singing is just another word for loving because I’m married to an opera singer. This is, I think, a happy delusion. Please do not shake me from it.

Before we go any further, I want to note that I’ll be talking about some things intended for a mature audience including what you might imagine from the sermon title printed in your order of service but also the events in Parkland this week, so if you have young children with you or that seems too much for you today, it might be a good time to join children’s chapel or get a head start on coffee hour downstairs. That said, I hope that you’ll stay. It is good to be together here with you.     

Thank you, again, for coming together and joining your voices and singing. Thank you, Kiena and Pat and Adam, always, for your music, this embodied gift of the soul. While we’re at it, thank you Meagan and Garnett for helping lead worship, and thank you to Lydia for sharing your story of teaching OWL here. Thank you, Tom, for being our lay worship leader. Thank you, Tom, for reading to us about a God who loves beauty and color and nails. A God who always loved hands, a God who wants to just hold them in His.

Here at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Brooklyn, we don’t often talk about a God who uses the pronouns he, his, and him. Not everyone here believes in God or finds the word God particularly meaningful, but even the theists among us tend to shy away from using exclusionary sexist language. We are not interested in boxing god into something that represents fewer than half of humankind and oppressed the others. Here in this room, the folks who believe in God, the folks who maybe believe in God, the folks who don’t believe in God but wish they did because wouldn’t it be nice to be have your hands held and know that they, know that you are beautiful—here in this room, the God we talk about wants to smash the patriarchy.

And in his way, this God who went to beauty school, this God who wants to learn, this God who loves, who worries about seeming rude, who worries people not tipping, this God who goes by Jim slips into this room to ask that very questions we just sang, “How could anyone ever tell you / You were anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you / You were less than whole?”

We do not all believe in God here. Unitarian Universalism does not ask us to. Unitarian Universalism does, however, ask us to affirm that our bodies are good, our bodies are holy. There is no doctrinal test. We will not kick you out if you believe, actually, that your true self, your mind is trapped in a prison of flesh that has nothing to do with who you really are. There is no requirement that you agree with me, and here in our congregation, we practice freedom of the pulpit, so I too may say something with which you do not agree. I say to you now in the words of ecofeminist theologian, Sallie McFague: “The body is not a discardable garment cloaking the real self.” I say to you now that we are not just our minds and our souls but also our bodies. I say to you now that our bodies are good gifts to be cherished and cared for. I say to you now that sexuality is a healthy, sacred part of our being.

My guess is that for most of the people in this room, there is no core disagreement with the preacher here. Some may be philosophically unconvinced, but for most of us, the idea of healthy, holy bodies and sexuality sounds just fine. But, oh my, do we forget. We might have this idea, but it can be hard to remember. It can be hard to remember because the messages we receive in lots of other places and sometimes even here when we’re being honest with ourselves, tell us something different. I will not ask you on your way out if you believe that bodies and sexuality are good and holy, but make no mistake, this is a core belief of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

I chose sexuality for our worship theme today partly because much of my role here is devoted to youth ministry. Our teens in Jr. High are spending almost every Sunday this year taking Our Whole Lives or OWL, for short. With a dedicated teaching team that includes Lydia whom you heard from earlier, our young teens or almost-teens are experiencing comprehensive sexuality education 26 Sundays this year.

If you want to know what people believe, it’s a pretty easy trick to look at what they teach their children and how spend their time and money. Unitarian Universalism has comprehensive sexuality education programs not just for Jr. High School-aged youth, but also K-1, 4th-6th, and 10th-12th grades. By the way, Unitarian Universalism also has programs for young adults aged 18-35, adults just generally, and soon, senior adults. We have dozens of volunteers here in these pews who are trained to teach at one or more levels. And yet, it is also worth noting that here in this congregation, comprehensive sexuality education is not entirely funded by our operating budget. Parents with the means and ability to supplement this program cut us checks so that this important spiritual work can exist for their children. If you are thinking about increasing your pledge, this would be a good reason, among many, to do so. Beyond the regular costs of snacks and supplies that are needed for any religious education program, teacher training is a significant cost in providing OWL. It is a necessary one, this training is important. It is because of the OWL curricula and teacher training that other groups in our community reach out to us to see if we might be able to come into their schools or their communities to teach. That’s right. Schools and other community groups reach out to us to see if we can come share our religious beliefs that bodies and sexuality are good and holy. What a ministry this could be if we had the resources to share this good news more widely!   

For those youth here in our community who are lucky enough—or as Lydia pointed out, horrified enough by their parents’ decision—to be in OWL, they meet in the library just through this door here 26 Sundays this year. They have this week off because of the mid-winter school break, but if they came to church today expecting a break from talking about sex at church, alas, this is not that. From September to May, 26 Sundays. It’s a lot. But there is a lot to cover.

Like much of the sexuality education that we might expect, the curriculum moves through helping our youth come to know and understand their bodies and covers way to keep yourself and partners safer during sex and prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. This inclusion of safe sex practices, this inclusion brings an acknowledgement that people do actually have sex with other people, and by the way, when I say sex with other people that acknowledges that people also enjoy sexual activity all by themselves, this is what Lydia’s friends who can’t believe that she teaches sex-ed at church are surprised by.     

For many, lessons about sexuality in religious contexts was painful, too often related to shame, judgement, and unrealistic expectations. For many, spirituality and sexuality mean a focus on purity that can only come with separation of spirit and sex. 

“It wasn’t always this way,” writes the Reverend Robin Tanner, “Many of the world’s religions have strong mystical traditions with beautiful imagery, poetry and teachings about the holy erotic. Consider Rumi, a Sufi poet in the Islamic tradition, who writes of the experience of God as lovers enraptured. Or Teresa of Avila who recounted ecstatic experiences in prayer. Or—for goodness sake—the Kama Sutra which is, let us not forget, a Hindu text! For all the few verses that have been picked out and smacked on signs and waved in front of reproductive health clinics, the overwhelming message of the world’s religions is one of embodied love. I mean Jesus—I am not swearing here—in the gospels… Jesus became human in body. Bodies are the vehicles for sacredness. Each neuron firing and forming communicates divinity from the skin tingles of attraction to the electricity of orgasm. Desire, longing and yearning, is a form of prayer or sacred communication.”

The world’s religions have many sources to draw from when it comes to affirming that bodies and sexuality are good and holy. And yet, we know that for so many precious human bodies and souls, religion has been used to place blame for human folly on women, to give husbands ownership over the bodies of their wives, and either explicitly or implicitly through silence deny the full humanity of all children of creation, namely bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer people, most especially transgender and gender non-conforming people.  

So Lydia quickly corrects them. No, no! This is a progressive religious community. “We’re sharing fact-based information and inclusive values,” she tells them. It is as if to say, hey religion got us into this mess, or at least it helped, and religion can and should get us out. Teaching OWL is an antidote to sexist and heterosexist abstinence-only sexual education and purity culture. When I call OWL an antidote, I mean this with the upmost seriousness. It is a remedy to poisons that have killed. Truthful information that values the lives of people with vulvas, truthful information that values gender and sexual diversity, truthful information that allows people to make informed decisions about their sexual health. This saves lives. And so, yes, OWL is a much-needed antidote to sexist and heterosexist abstinence-only sexual education and purity culture.

Recently, though, our OWL teachers learned that none of our jr. high school youth have ever heard, apparently, the word “abstinence.” Now, those of you who have parented or taught middle schoolers before, or those of you who have middle schoolers before, you know that that sometimes you just don’t say everything you know. Especially when it’s awkward or sensitive. But these same OWL teachers, they would also tell you that this particular group of youth is not exactly shy. Thanks in part, I am certain, to the OWL classes that they have taken when they were younger in K-1st and 4th and 5th grade, these youth are able to talk openly and easily about things that would make many adults blush. Do not pretend that some of you didn’t flinch a little when I said vulva earlier. And yet none of them would admit to knowing what the word abstinence meant.

This is a curious change, I imagine, from the world that many of us grew up in. Who among us could have anticipated that our children would not only have easy to pornography, but that the new face of peer pressure would involve being pressured into sending nude photos? Maybe it’s not surprising when what flows from the White House is no longer a focus on abstinence-education but instead that idea that boys will be boys, although I’ll argue that this callous, easy attitude of sexualization without consent is the flip side of purity culture.

We live in an over-sexualized culture. There’s easy exposure to sexual images and language through television, movies, computers, phones, magazines, music, and video games. I don’t say any of this to scare you. You already know that it’s there, and you know also that our children are equipped to make good choices. But all this easy-to-access stuff, this stuff that washes over us contains unrealistic, unhealthy, and sometimes downright dangerous messages. Now I said before that our children have easy access to pornography. Lots of us would like to think that’s not true, and in any case, there are surely a lot of opinions about pornography here in this room. Let’s just consider that the vast majority of youth have seen pornography by the age of 14, most of them by age 11.

Pornography is a funny thing.

I started by talking about the harmful ways in the past that religion has minimized human goodness in sexuality, so it’s a surprising move for me to quote the pope here, but on this point, we agree: “In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.” It privileges sensation over relationship and respect in sexuality. I don’t always agree with the pope, but in this matter, we Unitarian Universalists might see our own values. In sexuality and sex, we think it critical to affirm, not hide away, the personhood of participants.

One of the more controversial aspects of our OWL program is a slideshow of black and white images of people of differing ages, races, genders, and body types enjoying sexual activity with themselves or others. The controversy comes from outside our community usually when people think we are showing out children pornography.

In both in the case of pornography and in the case of the Our Whole Lives slideshow, people are having sex. In both cases, the artists involved were paid—ideally, I mean. I wish to be clear that fair wages and working conditions are hardly the norm in the porn industry. In both cases, artists offer up something and the people that view the materials learn from these depictions. This is where the similarities end. What pornography depicts is a rather limited view of sexuality. It’s possible to watch pornography and see that sex is good and something worthwhile, but more often than not, the material that is easily accessed by both our children and ourselves, the material that we allow to train our brains and behavior is beauty and youth obsessed, misogynistic, heterosexist, and racist.   

So we return not just to the idea that OWL teaches about sex and sexuality, but that this is done in the context of values. When we talk about OWL as an antidote to harmful societal messaging, it stands not only as an alternative to purity culture and abstinence-only education, but it also stands against a culture that suggests that your body is without personhood. The core beliefs that relate to OWL are not simply that all bodies and sexuality have inherent worth and dignity but also that they—like everything we do—flourish in intentional and caring relationship with respect and mutuality.

OWL has a set of values, which gives a solid foundation for the program, and it focuses a lot on values clarification. It encourages participants to examine and determine their own values rather than automatically accepting ones that are imposed on them. It focuses directly and indirectly on how we are as people together create the reality in which we live.  

Even with this encouragement to explore, though, there are some assumptions of values that are integral to this program and, I would argue, to our faith. The first is that thing I’ve been saying again and again: bodies are good and sexuality and healthy. You’re also going to get though that this needs to be done with respect for others. This is not unlike the tension that exists in Unitarian Universalism and our seven principles between our first and seventh principle. The first states that all of us, that everyone has inherent worth and dignity, this upholds the individual. The seventh brings responsibility to that individualism by pacing us in relationship with all other beings, acknowledging our interdependence and mutual responsibility.  

This exploration of sexuality is built on consent and communication, respect and relationship. It is never-ending. Our relationship with our bodies, each other, and our sexuality is a lifelong journey that fits into the ongoing UU search for truth and meaning. We are never done thinking about this important and integral component of ourselves.


It’s important that we support OWL because it counters the misinformation and distorted ideas that floats around in conversation and on the internet. It helps to affirm the value of respect for all.

I admit also that chose sexuality for our worship theme today in part because I knew that I would be preaching around Valentine’s Day. What I did not know and what I now know but wish that I didn’t is Valentine’s Day this year would bring devastating heartbreak. I could not have known that Valentine’s Day this year would include our country’s most deadly high school shooting. Valentine’s Day this year was also Ash Wednesday. “From dust we came and to dust we shall return” so this reminder of death goes, reminding us our place in the natural order of things. This act of violence is in the natural order of things. I say to you now that the too-early deaths of these precious human bodies and souls is unnatural. I work in youth ministry, with people in Jr. High and High School. Every single youth that I work with was born after the Columbine shooting. They have grown up in a world where school shootings are not impossible, and yet they know this to be unnatural. The solutions are not easy nor are they impossible. While politicians and legislators have failed when it comes to addresses gun violence, high school students are organizing. This is important.

This is really important, and so to speak of comprehensive sexuality education in the wake of tragic violence might seem frivolous, but nothing could be further from the truth. The affirmation that our bodies are good and holy is what allows us to name here that these too-early deaths are unnatural.   

OWL helps us see through the lens of not only our own needs and desires but also those of someone we are in relationship with. It’s important to learn to see through the lens of our own desires, to trust our bodies and claim the power with us, and to know that pleasure is our right, but it’s also important to learn that this pleasure cannot come at the expense of the safety and comfort and wishes of another. OWL teaches not only that we have a right to pleasure but also a responsibility to others.


Again, in a world where we learn about sex from pornography, pleasure is seen as an entitlement for certain people, usually cis-men, which comes at the expense of others who are not seen as full people. When we teach OWL, we teach not only the skills and attitudes that might help someone be a full person, but also the skills and attitude that help us treat others as full people. OWL offers an alternative vision of being in the world that differs sharply from the toxic masculinity that characterizes both rape culture and the vast majority of mass shootings.

In the current climate of #metoo and a new sexual ethic of enthusiastic consent, I hear many adults expressing fear and confusion about the way forward. This idea that we might communicate what we want not just through our bodies, but also through our words, I find our youth are less confused about this. This is what they learn about in OWL. We can all benefit from OWL programs.

I think of the Unitarian Universalist who sat his child down and said, “We need to talk about sex.” The child, a good Unitarian Universalist, looked up, and said, “Sure, Dad. What would you like to know?”

It’s always an ongoing conversation. Now more than ever, providing clear, comprehensive, values-based information in a warm and caring environment is vital for the living and thriving of healthy lives. May it be so. Amen.

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