So, this may be a first for me… Before I begin today’s sermon, I am going to tell you the meat of the thesis upfront, because I care about each and every one of you and I don’t know every single person’s personal history. Today’s message will talk about sexual abuse, specifically within religious institutions done by the hands of religious persons, but I’ll also talk a bit more broadly.
So, this is your trigger warning. I promise that I will be sensitive and cautious, however I fully respect ANYONE who wants to not hear this sermon today. And I mean that. Go take a walk outside, get a drink of water, read your email… The reason I tell you this is because I know this isn’t what you expect when you come to worship. You may have become accustomed to me railing against racism and oppression and other societal injustices, but few things haunt us or lurk in the shadows the way sexual abuse does.
It’s like this – I wouldn’t invite you over to my house to watch, “The Muppets,” and then turn on “Friday the 13th.” That is insensitive, dangerous, and harmful. However, I don’t believe that the delicacy of this topic should prevent us from talking about it.
There are many reasons I feel this way, but the dominant reason is if we cannot talk about stuff like this in the church – no matter how horrid, no matter how damning, no matter how dirty it means hearts may be – then what are we doing? And I don’t mean that flippantly.
I don’t believe it matters that the current subject of scandal and wrongdoing is the Catholic church and that we are Lutherans. At the foot of the cross and by the Holy Spirit we are all bound together as one… called to be the Body of Christ in the world. And the Body of Christ has been defiled. If the church, in any form or manner, is understood to be the heart of Christ on earth today, then we must squarely confess that the heart is dirty. And so are the hands.
And humanity has dirtied them; defiled them.
When I read the accounts of the grand jury report, accusing three hundred Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania of abusing a thousand children, I felt nauseous. And I’m sure many of you did too. And not only did I feel nauseous, I felt a bit hopeless and a bit like I just didn’t want to work for the church anymore (don’t worry – I haven’t turned in my stole or anything). The church, and all religious institutions, are supposed to be safe, accepting, holy places. The people who have committed atrocities while holding any type of role within the church are somehow my colleagues, even if I don’t personally know them. And, they are our siblings in Christ.
I’m sick at heart about all of it.
My heart aches for any person who has had their innocence ripped away from them, had their faith tainted and their soul split in two because of the failure of the church. And my heart grieves and feels much, much shame in admitting that the church is us.
When Jesus says that it is from within that evil intentions arise, it could not be truer than about religious institutions. Jesus knew that religion can be the worst kind of corrupt, the ugliest, and the most harmful of any ‘body’ when its heart becomes dirty, hard, and callous. ONLY religion can TRY to take that which is holy and good and life-giving and use it to hang people on the cross, and leave them there to die.
In some ways the violence that the church has participated in should come as no surprise, since we readily recognize that holy, religious people were the ones who called for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, facing the role that holy, religious people play TODAY in the ‘crucifixion’ of children and adults – because that is what is essentially done to these innocents, as they are left abandoned – is surprising. Or rather, appalling.
That God miraculously makes something good out Jesus’s crucifixion, doesn’t change the indictment; if anything, it emphasizes it. God is a God of life, and so opposes the world’s ways – our ways – of abuse, lust, power, and destruction – that God defies the laws of nature, the laws of humanity, and even the typical ways that God acts to say in the resurrection, “This is NOT how it should be.”In doing a bit of research on the subject of sexual abuse within the church (which I’ll tell you, is not the way any one person should spend their day, but that doesn’t negate its necessity), I read this sentence written by Damon Linker, which I’m going to read verbatim.
“The core of the church’s problem isn’t personal immorality, or institutional corruption, or hypocrisy. The core of the problem is ugliness.”
That hard, sad sentence echoes the Gospel text perfectly.
The heart has become ugly. Defiled.
And I believe God is heartsick and profoundly grieved. Jesus’s pointed confrontation of the Pharisees foreshadows this broken-heartedness with the church when he says, “You people honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me; in vain you worship me, teaching human rules as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” It is not a leap at all to imagine Jesus speaking these words to the church today.
- Why do you allow children to be molested and victimized, all the while placing institutionalism above human life?
- Why do continue to lie to yourself and to others that it was all just a misstep?
- Why do you discredit and further victimize children and adults by being silent accomplices when bodies and souls have been violated?
- Have you forgotten that at the heart of God, at the heart of the church, lies self-giving sacrifice and love for humanity?
The response to these questions and the self-reflection on what must be done to prevent harm to any more people and how to atone for the sins of the church must come from the entire Church. Now, before I go on, I know that the current scandal is within the Catholic church, however we would be mistaken to slip into the complacency of ‘not us.’ Beyond the fact that we are all joined together as the body of Christ, is the fact that we have to talk about this and take actions to make it clear to anyone who may find themselves subject to abuse of any kind, that the church will do the right thing, the true Christian thing, and weep at the cross with them and then help bring about resurrection. Everyone should be safe entering a place of worship. Whether that is the Catholic church, a Lutheran church, a synagogue, or mosque. Of course, the same goes for schools, public transportation, bike paths, our own beds. These should be good places. But beyond the fact that the world needs a good church; the world needs the beauty, sanctuary, and hope that God intends to flow through God’s church.
So, where do we go from here? I’m not exactly sure; I wish I knew the cure-all for this sickness. However, when I when look at the life, words, and mission of Jesus, the way has never been to care for the institution and those in power first. There is much talk within the Catholic church about how to ‘save the church’ and about ‘healing ourselves’ and how that looks. I’m not a fan of the ‘heal ourselves’ or ‘saving the church’ camp; I’m not. This is not a time when the church should be licking her wounds; let the church fall if it must. The only way the church heals, the way of salvation, is by taking care of those in need first – others first, victims first, children first. This is the way of Jesus.
It means honoring survivors by listening to and believing their stories, calling out and holding those in power accountable, identifying our blind spots, and vowing to do everything we can to make faith communities safe place to worship and grow.
This is the only way for healing to occur. For victims, for the church, and, as nauseating as it is, for the abusers. The good news – the life-giving news – that no worldly institution can negate is:
Jesus died so that everyone might know new life. No matter the torrid circumstances which may have surrounded the delivery of that message at times…
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can change the truth that you are deserving of love, honor, safety, and being believed.
And so, in good conscious and with care, I must close with this:
We have measures in place to ensure this is a safe place. We promise to walk with anyone who has suffered any kind of abuse or neglect. We promise to believe you.
We are the heart of God. May we ever beat as such.
In the name of God – the Creator, God the child, and God the very breath of life –