So the apostle Paul wants to talk about prostitution? OK, let’s at least start there, but here’s where I want to end up: with Samuel in the temple praying, “speak, for your servant is listening.”
I’ve known plenty of people who’ve been involved in prostitution. They’re more or less like the rest of us, neither better nor worse. They are neither morally degenerate, nor covert heroes. They are human beings, each distinct with her or his own story about how and why they ended up involved in prostitution, how it served them, how it trapped them, how they survived it, or didn’t.
As an example, I remember one young woman whom I’ll call Cecilia, a transgender young woman I met while working with runaway and homeless youth in Minneapolis almost twenty years ago. Cecilia was big and loud, and sometimes awkward and shy. She worked at a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth, sometimes checking people in at the door, sometime as a barista behind the coffee bar. She’d been kicked out of her house very early in life for coming out as a woman and, like every homeless youth I’ve ever known, had to make hard decisions about how to survive. There is a market for young people’s bodies, so she used what she had.
Once she’d left the streets Cecilia was, for the most part, able to leave prostitution behind. Then one day as she was walking home from work two police officers stopped her on the street and harassed her, making cruel comments about her gender identity and publicly humiliating her. Once they left she returned to the park where she’d often met johns and turned a quick trick, not because she needed the money but because she felt so violated and powerless that she needed to assert herself in a situation she felt she knew how to control.
I wonder how Cecilia would hear Paul’s words to the First Corinthians. “Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Cor. 6:15b) I imagine there’s a way to read that verse that sounds an awful lot like the way those cops spoke to her on the sidewalk. I wonder if anyone ever looked at her beautiful trans* body and said, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19). That’s what I wanted to tell her, that her body and the bodies of her friends whom I cherished, were sacred temples and homes to a divine presence that is democratically distributed among us all and can never be kicked out. That no matter the rejection or abuse any of us has suffered, God has chosen to make a home inside of us that is permanent.
It was stories like Cecilia’s that finally drove me to seminary, that helped me get over the idea that there was no place for me in the church and to ask if the church actually mattered if it had nothing helpful to say to Cecilia and her friends. I knew from my own experience that the church could be a site of incredible community, unconditional love, and ethical challenge — if you were well-housed, in-school, middle-class. But I wondered if the church had anything to offer to those Howard Thurman described as the “disinherited,” those living with their backs to the wall.
It turns out the church has plenty to say to the disinherited, and a variety of creative and effective ways to say it. For example, down in Nashville, Tennessee the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal chaplain, started the Magdalene ministry almost twenty years ago to work with women with histories of substance abuse and prostitution. Knowing that poverty and addiction make it very difficult for many to escape prostitution, the Magdalene program combines Narcotics Anonymous and addiction counseling with residential treatment, job training and financial education. After five years of working with these women, Pastor Stevens recognized that it is difficult to find good work upon leaving residential treatment, so launched Thistle Farms, a small business that employs graduates of the Magdalene program to make personal care products sold in stores like Whole Foods and the Thistle Stop Café. For women who have experienced prostitution and have decided to leave it behind, the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms are one way the church has shown up with more than words to communicate God’s unfailing love for their precious lives.
If we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians carefully, we notice that his instruction isn’t aimed at prostitutes, but at those who pay for their services. From everything we know about the world Paul lived in, prostitution was quite common and men felt entitled to women’s bodies in ways that, sadly, hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening millennia. Paul is critiquing common practice, and challenging those who have found their identity in Christ to make a distinction between what is allowed, or lawful, and what is beneficial. It may have been commonly accepted, or permissible, to engage the services of a prostituted woman, but that didn’t make it beneficial to either party. Paul describes the exchange of bodies for money as a sin against the body, as a reduction of something holding sacred worth to something to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Some have asked how prostitution is all that different from the many other ways we buy and sell our bodies in the marketplace: our time, our skills, our labor. I think this is a wonderful line of questioning that might lead us to think more broadly about all the ways modern labor practices dehumanize real people in the production of fetishized objects. How is our treatment of the people who work in sweat shops to manufacture cheap designer clothing or underpaid migrant labor to produce cheap organic food different than our treatment of abused and neglected women and men, girls and boys, to provide cheap sexual gratification? And are any of the above really beneficial to us?
But there is another question that the set of scriptures we heard read among us this morning asks, that begs for our attention. That is, what is God calling us to do and be in and for those whom God created in love for love? The story of the boy prophet Samuel is the story of a child dedicated to God by his family and apprenticed to an older generation whom God calls to lead the people in a new direction. Three times God calls out to Samuel, and Samuel goes to the bedside of his mentor, Eli, mistaking the voice of God for the voice of the past. Eventually Eli realizes that it is the LORD who is speaking to his young protege, and he instructs Samuel to return to his bed to wait for the voice of God and to answer, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
I wonder what it felt like for Eli, who had spent his life caring for the people and tending to the temple, to recognize that God was preparing to do a new thing with new leadership. And I wonder what it felt like for Samuel to be called by God to share a difficult and painful message with Eli, to tell him that his family’s term in the temple was coming to an end. God tells Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” (1 Sam. 3:11) It’s a moment of great courage by both parties when Samuel comes to Eli to share what God has revealed and the older man says to the younger, “What was it that [God] told you? Do not hide it from me.” (1 Sam. 3:17) What a deeply respectful exchange that is. And then, after Eli hears what God has in store for his family and the larger nation, he says, “It is the LORD; let [God] do what seems good to [God].” (1 Sam. 3:18)
This is how God seems to work in the world, calling unlikely people to get up and leave what they’ve known to do the unexpected, which turns out to be precisely what is needed. When Philip the disciple tells Nathanael about Jesus, he replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But that was the pot calling the kettle black, because who really expected anything good to come out of a group of working class fishermen in occupied Israel? Who really expected anything good to come out of a group of women used in prostitution? Who really expected anything good to come out a group of twelve elderly Lutherans in a crumbling church? But here we are. Out of twelve people who had the courage to follow the voice that called them away from the lives they’d known, God was able to build the church. Jesus assures Nathanael, “you will see greater things than these … you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51)
In this season of Epiphany we are challenged to remember that God has a vision for the world that is larger than the domesticated dreams to which we’ve grown accustomed. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, declaring,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)
As we consider our future together, I pray we have the courage to dream on that scale, to consider that we were called together by the spirit of God, which is not content with simply restoring the survivors, but saving the nations. What radical departures is God calling us to make? What shores is God calling us to leave? Come and see. Speak, LORD, for your servants are listening.