Me Too: A Sermon on Sexual Assault

Me Too: The Power of God
Matthew 25: 31-46
Rev. Bonnie Scott

The sermon audio is available here under the title “Power of God”

The sermon this morning is largely about sexual assault. This is a very hard topic because it has affected so many of our lives. The sermon is not at all graphic, but please take care of yourself and allow us to take care of you. Do what you need to do. If you need to step out for a moment, please feel free. If you want to follow up later with some conversation, please reach out. This sermon was a hard one to write, especially coming off the season of thanksgiving, but I know that when we don’t talk about real things, it can add to shame and alienation; it can be very liberating to hear things from the pulpit. Thank you for always being a church that is so supportive to hear about real things, even if they are difficult.
***
Christian author, Elaine Heath, now dean of a seminary, writes about an awakening she had when her daughter entered the fifth grade.

“My daughter brought home a note from school asking parents’ permissions to show a film warning about the dangers of sexual predators. Parents were invited to come to school and preview the film before giving permission for the children to see it.

“I went to school on the appointed night and watched the film along with the other parents. The main vignette was about a little girl whose next door neighbor, an older man, groomed her for sexual abuse. Because her parents were not paying attention and the child was vulnerable, she was victimized by the man next door. The film was vague enough to be appropriate for fifth graders but deeply disturbing to the other parents and myself.

“As I walked home with a neighbor, she asked what I thought about the film and whether I would allow my daughter to see it. All of a sudden, the words rushed out, surprising me with their dark truth. It was as if I was listening to someone else say “I am that child. That is what happened to me.”

“The woman looked at me horrified, and didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say. I could not believe I had told this neighbor, whom I scarcely
knew, the darkest secret of my life. I was glad for the darkness of the night, so that she could not see my embarrassment. It would take me years to come to terms with that shame and be delivered from the feeling of uncleanness that had been put in me by perpetrators.

“Until then, I had never given a name to what I had experienced as a child. One of the offenders was a pastor. His abuse damaged my views of Christianity and God in ways that would take decades to heal. The words abuse, molested and rape were not words I used to describe my experience as years went by. In fact, I did not articulate my own story of abuse to myself or other people. I remembered it at times but quickly moved those memories to the back of my mind, and busied myself to the work at hand.

“Like many survivors, I was active in my church, and a devoted mother to my children. I tried to be a “good person.” I did not know how deeply my anxiety and shame controlled my daily life because my eyes had not yet been opened to the way the abuse affected me. That night as I walked home from my childrens’ school, I woke up. It was the beginning of my healing journey. It was the first time I honestly named what had happened to me when I was a child.”

For some of you, your first sexual encounter, or a recent one—was not welcomed. You did not choose it. You did not say “yes.” You were rendered powerless. And for that, I am so terribly sorry. This is not the way it was supposed to be. Let me be clear: You have NOT sinned. You were sinned against. I believe you. I believe that this is a part of your story, but it is not the end of your story.

Ronald Rolheiser reminds us that sexuality is a powerful fire. “Its very power, and it is the most powerful force on the planet, makes it a force not just for formidable love, life, and blessing, but also for the worst hate, death, and destruction imaginable.”ii
Sexual assault and harassment are among the most destructive forces imaginable. And many of us have been startled over the past few months to discover just how prevalent they are. Thanks to the courage of a number of women and their allies, who have spoken out, these evils are being named and exposed.

This public reckoning has been a private reality for many people for a long time. The numbers are staggering. One in six women in this country has been raped. One of every ten rape victims is male.iii Nearly every woman I know has been sexually harassed. Child abuse and child pornography are an epidemic.

Lord, in your mercy—hear our prayer.

This is more than a case of some bad apples in a bunch—it is the outcome of several factors which I will touch on briefly. 1. The first is patriarchy – by definition, a society that is governed around male authority, but in effect, a system of male domination over women—a domination which quite naturally continues into the bedroom. 2. The second is rape culture. A societal acceptance of sexual violence, where the exploitation of bodies, particularly women’s bodies—is accepted as normal in so many every-day ways that we can hardly even see it. 3. And third, a society—but especially a church— that is deeply confused about sexuality—what it is, what it’s for, what makes it holy, what makes it unholy. And instead of wrestling with these deep and beautiful questions of faith, the church has at times chosen to reinforce ancient gender roles and scapegoat homosexuals as the cheap fix to our confusion about sex.

These factors relate to power and sin – and their interaction with the fire of sexuality which is always burning in the passionate people God has made.

On the last Sunday of the Christian year—that’s today—we celebrate something called: “Christ the King Sunday,” or “Reign of Christ Sunday”— which reminds us that in the end, God wins. God is more powerful than evil—and we need a message like that—because evils like sexual violence—must be defeated.

But there is also a danger in celebrating something called “Christ the King Sunday.” It would be a mistake to compare and conflate God’s power with the sort of power we see at work in business and Hollywood and the kingdoms of this world— the power that takes advantage of the vulnerable.

If Christ is indeed a king, his power is of a very different sort.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a very familiar parable about a king on judgement day. Lined up before him are the sheep and the goats—and he separates them.
“Blessed are the sheep—come and inherit eternal joy. For I was in prison, and you visited me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.”

The sheep are delighted by the king’s invitation, but also confused—”Jesus, when was it, that we visited you in prison, when was it that we clothed you, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you? We don’t remember any of this!”

Jesus replies—”whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”

It’s easy to gloss over this parable as a reminder that we’re supposed to be serving the hungry and the poor. But foremost, this is a parable about who God is, and who God has chosen to identify with. Jesus—the “king” – is throwing in his lot with “the least of these.” With the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. That’s who God is.

Elaine Heath, whose story I shared a few moments ago shares that her major turning point in healing came when she was reading this very parable from Matthew 25. She writes:

“It was a familiar passage that I had practically memorized over the years, the parable of the sheep and the goats. I came to the King’s shocking words to a surprised humanity on the day of judgement, “whatever you did to the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me.” And conversely, “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.

“I read the passage over and over, recalling images I saw on the daily news and in the city where I lived, people who were hungry sick, strangers, lonely, and in need…
Something shifted in me, as if I had been wearing someone else’s glasses, and I took them off and now could see clearly. All of a sudden, I saw Jesus IN the suffering people, hidden within their obscurity, loving them, and experiencing all their pain, even when they did not know he was there…

“Then without warning, right in the middle of seeing Jesus profoundly present in “the least of these,” the memories of my abuse surfaced. The images flooded my mind, but this time to my astonishment, I saw Jesus with me and in me suffering everything. I saw his love for me, his unwillingness to suffer alone, and his judgement against the abuse. I felt his promise for new life in me in the future, his determination to heal my wounds, his “no” to the shame and sin that scarred my life. It was my own experience of having Jesus say, [as he did in the scripture] “little girl, get up!” “iv

Several weeks ago, there was a very powerful—albeit complex and difficult— movement on social media. Women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted were invited to post the words “me too.” Two simple words to show the world just how pervasive this problem is in our society. Two simple words to say to others—”you are not alone.: When I scrolled through my facebook feed, I read those two words in almost every post. Millions of women. Some shared stories of abuse, others let these two simple words be enough. Others—men and women— posted words of encouragement and solidarity.

If we are going to talk about the power of Christ, it seems to me, that Jesus is the kind of power that says “me too.” That this is what he is trying to say when he is separating the sheep from the goats. That his power isn’t found on a heavenly throne, his power is found in showing up in vulnerable human flesh, walking into this world that can be so devastatingly evil, and suffering right there with the most vulnerable among us. Jesus is the kind of a God who says—with love and respect—“me too.”

Later on in her book, Elaine Heath makes the bold suggestion—one I had never thought about before—that Jesus too was a survivor of sexual assault. We are used to seeing images of him on the cross wearing a loin cloth, but the scripture says he was stripped naked, humiliated on the cross, while they threw dice for his clothing.v

Whatever you’ve been through—me too, says Jesus.
Whatever you fear you’ve lost—me too.
Whatever unspeakable things you’re not ready to speak yet—me too.
Whatever shame or betrayal weighs on you—me too

Jesus doesn’t say “me too” to try and one-up our pain, but rather to honor it—to honor our humanity—that remains intact in-spite of whatever inhumane things have been done to us.

One of the most devastating things to read right now MUST to be read by Christians – it is a part of the “me too” campaign, only it’s called “church too.” Men and women are sharing their stories of being abused in church, by youth leaders and pastors. They are telling stories of church leaders who protected perpetrators, and blamed or shamed the victims. The stories they tell are very real and devastating.
So what can the church do?

We can confess that the church has a history of being a place where the most vulnerable are preyed upon, that church leaders and pastors are sinners too, and must be held accountable.

We can honor our Safe Sanctuary policies, and volunteer to work with kids and youth so that we always have enough adults to keep our kids safe.

We can teach a theology of sexuality that is based on mutual consent, on commitment, on the love of God which is never coercive.

We can think twice about the media we consume and pay attention to the way women are portrayed—are they overly sexualized or objectified? If so, maybe we don’t need to play this video game or watch this series.

We can believe victims and survivors of sexual assault. Full stop.

We can teach our boys not to take advantage of girls, instead of merely teaching girls how to be safe around boys.

We can hold abusers accountable through proper legal channels, AND believe that there is forgiveness and new life offered to everyone.

We can be in tune with our own vulnerabilities and woundedness, so that we don’t take advantage of others.

If we know we are in the wrong, we can ask for help.

We can allow church to become a safe space for people to come as they are, to discover the healing love of a God who suffers with the least of us, and who shows us the path to healing.

There was a pathway to healing for Elaine Heath, and in the new year, I will be offering a book study on her marvelous book about reading the Bible with
survivors of sexual assault—which is open to everyone—please contact me if you are interested in being a part of that group.

***
One of the 8th century mystics, a woman named Rabia, was sexually abused from a young age. “What a place for trials” she wrote, “but never once did my Lover (God) look upon me as if I were impure.” Rabia grew up to become a great saint, a beautiful poet, an inspiration for women. She wrote:

My body is covered with wounds this world made,
But I still longed to kiss God.
“Show me where it hurts,” God said, and every cell in my body burst into tears before His tender eyes.vi

If after hearing this message,
every cell in your body wants to burst into tears,
That’s okay.
I just want you to know that
In the tender gaze of Christ, you are loved.
You are pure.
You are never alone.
Amen.

References:
i Heath, Elaine. We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Assault. Brazos Press: 2011.
ii Rolheiser, Ronald. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. Doubleday: 1999.
iii https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence iv Heath, Elaine. We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Assault. Brazos Press: 2011.
v Ibid.
vi Rabia. Love Poems from God ed. Daniel Ladinsky. Penguin Books: 2002

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