This has been one of those weeks where I had to throw out my worship plan and sermon because too much has happened in the world around us. I had planned to preach on forgiveness, but after all the news about sexual assault this week, the topic did not feel appropriate. The implications were too dangerous. But it was a difficult choice because I think there are at least five groups of people here this morning.
The first group is those who do not like anything remotely political to be named in worship. You believe worship should always be a place of encouragement, and that the messages each week should be uplifting. If you are in this group, you are hoping I will ignore all that has happened in our country this week and preach a nice, comfortable sermon.
The second group is those who normally don’t mind when we talk about issues from the political realm, as long as we aren’t partisan, of course. You believe that I should address issues like poverty and justice because the Bible supports that; but this topic, you think, is off limits. It’s unseemly, not a topic for polite conversation. Plus, you’re not sure I can talk about this without being partisan.
The third group is those who haven’t experienced it but still believe I should address the topic of sexual assault. In your view, church must be relevant, and if there is an important spiritual issue that is at the forefront of American thought and life, it is my responsibility to name it, and to help us connect our theology and our spiritual life to the world around us. You’re hoping for a sermon that names the many issues at play and how, as Christians, we should respond.
The fourth group is those who are sexual assault victims and survivors who have had a horrendous week. You have marveled at one woman’s courage, and you have seen her dismissed as a political pawn or an opportunist. You have been sent the message that what happened to her didn’t matter. If you are in this group, you may need me to name it, to name the issue of sexual violence, and to assure you that you matter, and what happened to you matters, and that it matters to us and to God.
The fifth group is those who, just like the fourth group, have experienced sexual assault, but who are hoping for a respite this morning from the pain. For you, this week has been horribly triggering. Your own memories have resurfaced, and your nerves are raw, and you are hoping I won’t preach on sexual assault because you just need a place to rest from it all.
Obviously, I cannot satisfy all five groups today. There is no way to preach a sermon that simultaneously ignores and addresses the issues of the week. And I didn’t spend all this time talking about the different desires and needs in the congregation so that you would see how hard my jobs is or to prove why you pay me the big bucks. I said all this to say to you: I see you. Whether you want me to speak on the issue or not, whether you’re in pain or unmoved, whether my sermon today is going to satisfy you or make you angry . . . I see you, and I care about you, and I wish I could take away your discomfort or your pain. So here is my promise to you for the rest of this sermon: I will not talk about the hearings, of which we have seen quite enough; I will not talk about the partisan aspects of this conversation, of which we have seen quite enough; and I will not talk about anything in details that might be a trigger, of which there have been quite enough. The best I can do is try to speak to the spiritual and theological issues at play in our society right now.
I guess I should start by declaring that sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are sinful acts. I’m pretty sure we all know that because such acts demean and injure our brothers and sisters in Christ, and our fellow creations of God. So I will focus on how we, as people of faith, are to respond to the crisis.
I must say that at first glance, the Bible is not much help. The text we call sacred contains stories of rape, incest, domestic violence, systemic patriarchy, and other forms of violence against women. Sometimes these acts of violence are condemned, but more often, not. Women were seen as property, slightly more useful than livestock. When men were condemned for rape, it was usually because they were attempting to rape other men, which (from their way of thinking) turned the men into women. That was the tragedy.
Now you may be wondering why I’m only talking about women. Men are also victims of sexual violence, and I’m sure from a purely statistical standpoint, we have a number of men in the room who have experienced this trauma. And I am so very sorry for your pain. It should never have happened to you, and I’m so sorry it did, and I’m here to listen to your stories, too. You are not alone. Today I am specifically talking about violence against women because this week the difference between the two has been very clear. Thirty men came forward with charges against priests, and no one ridiculed them, or said they should have come forward when it happened, or accused them of wanting attention. The issue at play right now is not only about sexual assault; it’s also about how women are treated differently from men in our society. So please, men—I hope you do not believe I am at all dismissing your pain and your trauma. I am just choosing today, in light of what’s happening right now, to focus on the women.
But back to my point—the Bible has a lot of horror stories about violence against women. But there are also some golden rays of light that we all need to bask in, or at least some stories that teach us how we, as people of faith, should respond. The first is the Book of Psalms, and specifically the psalms of lament. “If many of us have been taught to put on a happy face, to let a smile be our umbrella, to keep our complaints to ourselves, then the Hebrew Bible offers a welcome corrective. . . . In a lament psalm, a petitioner addresses God directly on the occasion of some calamity. Given God’s history with God’s people, the psalmist is comfortable charging God with ‘dereliction of duty.’”
A good example is Psalm 44. It starts by reminding God of all God’s actions on the people’s behalf in the past: how God saved them from slavery and defeated their enemies, and how the people praised God in response. But then we get to verse 9:
“But now you’ve rejected and humiliated. You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering. You’ve sold your people for nothing, not even bothering to set a decent price. You’ve made us a joke to all our neighbors; we’re mocked and ridiculed by everyone around us. All day long my disgrace confronts me, and shame covers my face because of the voices of those who make fun of me and bad-mouth me, because of the enemy who is out for revenge.”
Wow, it’s hard to get more clear than that! But somehow the psalmist does:
“God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering and oppression? Look: we’re going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us!”
See, the writers of the psalms knew how to complain. They knew how to voice their lament. The book of Psalms contains more lament psalms than any other genre, showing how important they were in Israel’s temple and family life. They knew how to express their anger, even toward God. We think we’re too sophisticated for that. We don’t lose our tempers with the divine. We don’t blame some spiritual being for the problems in our lives. And we are the worse for our silence. Our hearts need to lament.
I want you to turn to hymn number 393 in your red hymnal. A church that includes this in their hymnal demonstrates a willingness to face the hard, painful truths of life. It is a song of lament, a song of honest pain. It refuses to accept shame and it validates anger. And I think today we need some of that validation. Please join me in singing the first two verses together.
That is the first gift we have from scripture—lament—including the knowledge that God is big enough to handle anything we have to throw. Our second lesson is from the book of Second Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba. It’s not so much a golden ray as it is warning tale. I preached on this story two years ago, but since I know you don’t hang on my every word and commit them to memory, I will remind you! King David looked out the palace windows and saw a woman bathing on the rooftop of her home, and she was beautiful and he desired her, so he even though he knew she was married, he sent his messengers to get her and bring her to his bed. For too long the story was told as one of adultery. For too long the story was told that Bathsheba was a temptress—why else would she be bathing naked on the roof for anybody to see? But this interpretation requires a complete misunderstanding of the text and culture. Bathsheba was performing her required ritual cleansing following menstruation. It was a holy act, and David’s sense of entitlement and privilege turned what was sacred into something for his personal pleasure. When he sent for her, Bathsheba had no choice. It wasn’t adultery. It was rape.
How did we get this story so wrong? Because nobody let Bathsehba tell her own story, speak her own truth. We only see it through David’s eyes, not through Bathsheba’s. The tale would have been far different if she had been the one to tell it. The lesson, of course, is that we must allow people to tell their own stories.
Our third lesson, oddly enough, comes from the disciple Thomas. Now, I have always been a fan of Thomas. I don’t like that he is always called “doubting Thomas,” as if his doubt was his defining characteristic. Remember, after Jesus’ resurrection he appeared to the disciples when Thomas was absent; so when they told Thomas that Jesus was alive, he didn’t believe them. He said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the wounds and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I’ve always argued that Thomas wasn’t asking for something ridiculous; he was only asking for what the other disciples got in his absence.
But I was wrong. The other disciples saw, but Thomas said he needed to touch. And that’s part of our problem right now. As one writer expressed it this week, this may be a reasonable thing to ask of Jesus, “but this is not a reasonable thing to ask of someone who is not God, to stick your hand into their wound. I am tired of watching people become wounds. Half the Internet is a wound.” People have been motivated to share their assault stories, and that’s a good thing if it is healing for them as individuals. But have we had enough of saying “prove it to me”? I’m not talking on a national stage, where allegations must be supported. I’m talking in regular life. When someone shows us their wound or scar, can we just, you know, believe them? without having to poke and prod and ask what they were wearing and why they didn’t report it? That’s our third lesson from scripture: to believe, without causing more injury.
Our fourth lesson is from the Book of Esther, and finally we’re back to a ray of light, a lesson we want to find. Esther had been chosen by the king to be his queen, but she harbored a secret. He did not know that she was a Jew. The king’s highest official was Haman, and Haman hated the Jews. “He devised a scheme to have every Jew in Persia killed. The king bought into the plot and agreed to annihilate the Jewish people on a specific day. Meanwhile, [Esther’s uncle] learned of the plan and shared it with Esther, challenging her with these famous words”: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
Basically, he was saying: you are in a place of power and privilege. How are you going to use it? It’s a good question for us, too. Men, I’m going to start with you. How are you going to use your privilege to speak out against sexual assault? For example, you can call out other men on their bad behavior or disrespectful comments. You can teach your children how to treat women by how you treat their mothers. You can refuse the objectification of women. What other ideas do you have?
How are we as a church going to make a difference around issues of sexual assault? I gave us one example already this morning, in my children’s sermon. It was, as I’m sure you noticed, a lesson on body autonomy and consent. The church can be part of these conversations that parents are already having with their children at home. If you’re older and don’t have young children of your own, you can help teach children consent by not demanding affection if a child doesn’t want to give it, and by not having “secrets” with them. And regardless of age, you can train yourself to respond first with belief, not with skepticism, when someone trusts you enough to tell you their story.
The United Church of Christ has a complete, comprehensive sexuality education curriculum called Our Whole Lives, with age-appropriate content in different modules for ages 5 through adult. Maybe it’s time that we start offering this curriculum—after we hire another clergy person, that is! We need to teach our children, teens, and adults that sexuality is a gift from God, to be used in ways that honor ourselves and one another.
What else can we do? What else can you do? I want you to think about it this week: what can you do to prevent sexual assault, and to heal the wounds of those who have already experienced it? And if you have any ideas that I can help with, please come talk to me.
Now let’s open our hymnals again to #393. There is one more verse we need to sing together: God of the loving heart. Let’s sing that now.
Here in this community God meets us with grace. Actually, everywhere God meets us with grace. Let’s do the same. Let’s meet others with grace, and with compassion. Amen? Amen.