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Sunday, September 30, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Christ does not cease working in us until he has changed us into Christ’s own image. . . . In his humanity and lowliness we recognize our own form. He became like human beings, so that we would be like him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
Let me say right away that this will be a messy sermon. It might not be poetic or well honed. It could feel fragmented and not very polished. It is a messy sermon. The reason is that it has been a messy week—with the last few days particularly messy. I had a feeling it might be, so on Tuesday I sat in our program staff meeting and proclaimed to my colleagues that I was not going to preach a sermon about any of the issues being discussed in the Supreme Court hearings. “Y’all are going to have to figure out a different way to address what’s going on,” I declared.
The primary reason for that declaration was because it feels very close to me, perhaps too close. I am the daughter of a survivor of childhood sexual assault whose mind kept those horrific memories at bay until my father was in his fifties, forty years after the fact. Add to that truth that I have many other loved ones who, in high school or in college, lived through very similar experiences as the one I anticipated being described in the hearing. So on Tuesday I did not know how I would be able to speak of any of it without my knees knocking and my voice wavering. Those things might still happen.
But after Thursday I felt, like most of my preacher friends across the country, that I had no real choice anymore. For one thing, the nation’s most recognized hotline for those who have experienced sexual assault had a 147 percent increase in calls as the hearings played out on television. If nothing else, that reality demands a pastoral response. But even more than that, my seventy-one-year-old father, the one whose memories had returned in his fifties, reached out to me and invited me to work together on a sermon we both felt needs to be spoken from a pulpit like this one, with faithful folks like you. So this morning we are going to preach about the church and its response to sexual assault.
Like my father, there are other seventy-year-old men in congregations around the United States, sitting in worship Sunday after Sunday who carry inside them a child’s or teenage boy’s shameful memory of being sexually assaulted. For their whole lives they have told no one. Perhaps they kept silent because they were afraid that no one would even want to hear their story because the story might make them feel squeamish. Perhaps they kept silent because they felt no one would believe them. Maybe both reasons figured into their calculation. So they decided they had little choice but to simply retreat into a silence that has always lived inside of them as a quiet scream or as a whimper wanting to be heard. They still sometimes ask themselves, “Was it my fault? Couldn’t I have done something? Why wasn’t I stronger? Did I appear weak?” But since they did not think anyone would have wanted to know their story, they have had no one to whom they could ask those questions. As a result, the deep shame and its impact on their emotional strength continue to haunt them as they sit in the pews of our churches.
A similar story could be told of women who, now in the seventh or eighth decades of their lives, sit in pews as they always have on this Lord’s Day: Silently praying for the relief from shame. Silently wondering why God did not intervene and keep them safe. Silently wishing they had spoken out but trying to give themselves grace for keeping quiet. Asking the questions, “Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I tell? Was it what I was wearing? Why wasn’t I more careful? What else could I have done to stop it?” In their brains, now much older, they still have the traumatic memories of sounds and smells that never go away. Yet at the same time they—like their brothers—have lived sometimes amazingly accomplished lives, all the while a hidden pain threatens as if it were yesterday, when the darkness grabbed them out of nowhere so unexpectedly.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
My father tells me it is highly likely these older men and women never heard the pulpit speak to them about what happened to them. They have never heard a sermon or a pastoral prayer that even used the words sexual assault. The topic was ignored out of consideration of what was called “good taste.” “Some things we simply don’t talk about at church,” they learned. “It would not be appropriate. Members would be offended. What about the children present?” Add to all of that today’s highly partisan culture that has now surrounded this issue and is trying to swallow it up and capture it for political purposes and, well, that is why it is not preached.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Yet only God knows why, despite all of that—despite all of the silence internal and external—these women and men continue to be drawn to the Sunday gathering of worship. They continue to come into sanctuaries like this one seeking and often finding a sense of belonging even while they still carry the fear of being found out. Perhaps they come always longing for a word from the Lord—a word of healing, of presence, of hope. A gospel word that promises that no matter where they have been, no matter what has happened to them, no matter how heavy the cloak of shame and silence that has weighed them down, the truth of their baptism proclaims they have never been unknown to God. Even in those moments of seeming absence, they have never been outside of God’s care and presence. So they come here and in places like this one seek that gospel truth and sometimes, through God’s grace, they are even able to let it sink in from time to time and light up the darkness.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Occasionally when I preach a memorial service I will quote Hemingway and his wisdom that comes at the end of his novel A Farewell to Arms. I believe we hear a hidden hope for these survivors in that same wisdom today: “Life breaks everyone,” Hemingway wrote. “Some grow strong at the broken places.” For those of us who follow God in the way of Jesus, we see that “growing strong even through broken places” powerfully embodied in the broken body of our God on the cross.
The cross tells us that all of you beloved ones who have kept your secret can look at the cross and remember what we see in Jesus’ own broken body is that even God knows what it is like to have no one listen. We see in Jesus’ own broken body that even God knows what it is like to carry grief and pain and the effects of violence in silence. We see in Jesus’ own broken body that even God has whispered words of “Why have you abandoned me?” We see in Jesus’ own broken body that even though it was a different pain that he bore than perhaps what you have borne, God knows firsthand what it feels like to bear pain and to feel broken and all alone. We see at the cross that God knows. God knows.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
It is that promise that God has known all along; that God has held you all along; that God has desired your healing and your wholeness all along. That is why we, as part of the larger church, must say out loud from this pulpit, among the faithful folk, “Haven’t we abandoned them long enough?”
So this morning we say to children, to youth, to young men and women, and, yes, especially to those who have borne the shame for decades, “No more.” For all those who grew up never hearing a word about it spoken inside the building with pews, a table, and a font, we say “No more.” On this day we acknowledge the violence done to you, and we drag it out into the light to reveal it as the sin it was and is; the horror it was and is; the evil act it was and is.
As a part of the body of Christ, we refuse to hide any longer behind any scriptures that have been misused and abused to justify it. We refuse to hide any longer behind the fear of upsetting each other. We refuse to hide any longer behind the fear of being labeled as too political in the pulpit. We refuse to hide any longer behind any excuse that it was the alcohol that caused it to happen or it was just the indiscretion of youth that caused it to happen; or it was just a different time in our world when it happened; or it was only one time that it happened, so can’t you just move on with your life and forgive? We refuse to acknowledge any of those excuses as valid. They are not. It should have never happened to you or to the one you love. It is not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. You do not and have never deserved it. We preachers should have said those things decades ago for that has been God’s posture from the very beginning.
On this day, we say out loud in this space of worship for all those who have been hurt in this way, who have kept silence, whose children or parents have been hurt in this way, for all who walk into this room every Sunday carrying around a broken heart, we proclaim together that what happened to you or to your loved one has never been OK with God. The God we know in Jesus Christ, the God we hear proclaimed in Psalm 139, that God has wept alongside you all these years; that God has lifted God’s own voice with yours in anger all these years; that God has longed to sweep you up into God’s healing hand all these years; that God also has been heartbroken with you all these years.
The church can now arise to this moment and say like we do to so many wrongs, “Never again. We will do our best to never again ignore and be silent about the silent shame you absorbed into your being and carried alone for so long, perhaps even into this moment. Little boy inside the old man, little girl inside the old woman, teenager, young adult, middle-aged companion: all of you—welcome home, child of God. Welcome home. You no longer have to live at the edge of hope. You can be soaked in the light of the gospel. You are never again alone with your shame. You belong to Easter, and Easter is rising within you, even here and even now.”
As I say every time we baptize a child I say to you now: the truest truth about who you are is that you are one of God’s beloved ones. Deeply loved. Deeply claimed. And nothing, no one, no act of violence, no secret, no shame will ever be able to change that. It is simply who you are. And on behalf of the larger church, I am sorry for every time we have not lived that proclamation out for you in the way God would hope.
But what keeps me moving forward is that even when we failed you, God has not. God will not. God stands close to you even now, ready to help you lift your burden when you are ready. May that promise eventually bring you some peace. And may God’s healing work continue without the church getting in its way. Let us close with the promise of the psalmist:
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.