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Things We Never Preach About: Sexual Abuse

Things We Never Preach About: Sexual Abuse


by Steven K. Gjerde

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from LF Spring 2013

 Most  congregations realize that occasionally they have to set their jaws, tighten their haunches,  and listen to a  sermon  on  divorce.  It  shows  up  in  the  three-year  lectionary  at  least  once,  and  while  leery  pastors  might  try  to  sneak  around  it,  both  they  and  their  flocks  will  know,  leaving  a  silence  far  more  awkward  than  God’s  gracious  will  for  marriage  and  those  who  fail  at  it.  Better  to  address  the  subject  than  to  suggest  that  we  are  embarrassed  by  the  good  things  that  our  Lord  has  said.
 Sexual  abuse  is  another  matter.  There’s  no  long  or  active  tradition  of  preaching  on  it,  at  least  not  in  the  Lutheran  church.  The  term  is  not  specifically  used  in  Scripture  and  most  people  don’t  expect  to  hear  it  used  in  worship.  Yet  that  just  begs  the  question:  why  aren’t  we  preaching  on  a  problem  nearly  as  epidemic  as  cancer  and  that  will  likely  shape  people’s  behavior,  psyches,  and  faith  until  the  resurrection?

 Statistical  arguments  can  be  murky,  and  comparing  figures  on  this  score  is  difficult  due  to  varying  modes  of  research  and  reporting,  but  a  few  numbers  can  give  a  sense  of  the  problem.  Citing  a  variety  of  reports  from  independent  organizations  as  well  as  the  u.s.  Department  of  Justice,  the  Rape,  Abuse,  and  Incest  National  Network  maintains  that,  by  1998,  17.7  million  women,  2.78  million  men,  and  125,000  children  in  America  were  the  victims  of  either  rape  or  attempted  rape,  and  that  20%  of  all  Americans  will  experience  it  at  some  time  in  their  life.  That  does  not  include  additional  forms  of  sexual  abuse.  In  comparison,  the  American  Cancer  Society  reports  that  approximately  1.6  million  new  cases  of  cancer  occur  each  year,  with  12  million  people  alive  in  2008  who  had  experienced  cancer.  Other  reports  suggest  that  about  25%  of  Americans  will  experience  cancer. [1] I’ve  heard  pastors  talk  about  “faith  in  the  face  of  cancer”  numerous  times,  both  in  my  own  preaching  and  that  of  others.  Rarely,  if  ever,  have  I  heard  (or  made)  a  reference  to  sexual  abuse.

 That  last  statement  invites  some  self-disclosure.  It  is  odd  that  I  am  writing  this  article,  as  I  have  not  yet  preached  on  sexual  abuse  myself,  nor  have  I  experienced  it.  Both  facts  will  weaken  my  authority  on  the  subject  for  some.  Yet  it  also  puts  me  in  the  same  boat  as  most  of  the  people  who  will  read  this  article.  Perhaps  you  can  think  of  me  as  a  fellow  journeyer  in  this  task,  helping  to  chart  a  direction  not  as  guide  or  leader  but  as  another  pathfinder  who  offers  his  thoughts  as  a  step  along  the  way.  Wherever  I  may  err  in  the  presentation  of  this  difficult  subject,  I  beg your understanding.

 Some  preachers  may  question  this  venture  from  the  outset.  Isn’t  our  main  task  the  preaching  of  Christ’s  death  and  resurrection?  Won’t  preaching  on  sexual  abuse  scandalize  some  listeners,  and  isn’t  it  better  to  deal  with  such  a  topic  in  the  context  of  pastoral  care  and  counseling?  Different  situations  may  call  for  different  answers,  but  I  can  think  of  at  least  two  reasons  that  urge  more  frequent  preaching  on  sexual  abuse.

 The  first  reason  relates  to  pastoral  care.  We  know  from  experience  that  silence  in  the  pulpit  breeds  silence  in  the  pews.  If  preachers  don’t  name  the  name  of  Jesus  or  draw  attention  to  the  commandments  and  sacraments,  such  things  quickly  fade  from  the  mind  of  a  congregation.  Conversely,  a  word  from  the  pulpit  often  sparks  a  word  in  the  pews:  when  pastors  address  a  problem  in  their  preaching,  parishioners  frequently  contact  them  about  it  later.  Thus  sermons  become  an  avenue  for  opening  the  unique  care  of  the  church  to  those  who  need  it.  So  what  will  a  silence  on  sexual  abuse  in  the  pulpits  bring  us?  An  experience  from  my  own  service  in  the  ministry  may  be  telling.  

 I  served  my  quarter  of  Clinical  Pastoral  Education  in  a  hospital’s  medical-surgical  unit,  where  I  visited  perhaps  ten  to  twenty  people  a  day  for  three  months.  A  week  rarely  passed,  and  I  don’t  think  two  weeks  ever  passed,  without  someone  wanting  to  talk  about  some  kind  of  abuse,  and  often  it  was  of  a  sexual  nature.  Clergy  abuse,  family  abuse,  and  date  rape  are  the  three  that  stick  in  my  mind.  More  often  than  not,  it  was  a  very  elderly  person  who  wished  to  unload  the  pain  on  someone  “safe”  before  dying.  This  means  that  the  sexual  abuse  occurred  as  early  as  the  1910s  and  1920s.

 Then  came  ordination  and  life  in  the  parish.  In  contrast  to  my  experience  in  CPE,  years  passed  before  anyone  spoke  with  me  about  being  sexually  abused.  There  could  be  many  factors  for  this—the  formal  setting  of  a  hospital encourages  a  sense  of  anonymity  and  confidentiality  that  the  local  parish  can’t—yet  one  reason  may  be  that  I  never  addressed  the  problem  publicly  (aside  from  prayers).  In  a  hospital,  all  kinds  of  people  talk  to  you  about  your  health,  wellbeing,  stress,  pain,  and  feelings,  and  that  conversation  invites  you  to  address  personal  problems  and  continue  on  your  way.  So  how  will  preachers  lead  their  flocks  to  unload  this  most  intimate  injury  on  the  Lamb  of  God  if  they  don’t  engage  a  similar  kind  of  conversation  with  their people?

 Yet  there  is  another,  even  more  fundamental  reason  for  preaching  on  sexual  abuse.  When  the  church  preaches  against  something,  it  is  contending  for something  else,  something  profoundly  beautiful  that  God  wants  proclaimed.  We  preach  for  forgiveness,  and  therefore  we  preach  against  sin;  we  preach  for  a  culture  of  life,  and  therefore  we  preach  against  a  culture  of  death.  So  if  there  is  a  sin  that  we  leave  unaddressed  in  our   preaching,  we  are  likely  neglecting  an  important  dimension  of  God’s  grace.  Ignore   gluttony  at  the  expense  of  neglecting  God’s  gift  of  food  and  his  restorative  Supper.  Likewise,  we  ignore  sexual  abuse  at  the  expense  of—what?

 Here  I  tread  carefully.  I  know  that  many  advocates  against  sexual  abuse  insist  that  the  act  is  not  so  much  an  abuse  of  sex  as  of  power.  It  unjustly  subjects  victims  to  another  and  thus  denigrates  them.  At  the  same  time,  there’s  a  reason  we  call  it  sexual  abuse  and  not  power  abuse:  it  is  a  sin  committed  through  the  sexuality  of  the  victimizer  upon  the  sexual  body  of  the  victim.  I  would  therefore  say  that  sexual  abuse  tears  at  (no  less  than)  two  powerful  goods  for  which  the  church  contends:  1)  the  dignity  of  each  person,  conferred  at  creation,  restored  in  the  cross,  and  honored  by  the  church’s  love;  and  2)  God’s  gift  of  marriage,  wherein  sexual  activity  may  be  rightly  and  joyfully  experienced.

 As  preachers  of  the  full  counsel  of  God,  we  must  contend  for  those  two  goods;  for  that  same  reason,  we  must  contend  against  sexual  abuse.  We  do  so  with  the  unique  perspective  of  the  church.  Many  voices  within  the  legal,  medical,  and  therapeutic  communities  already  advocate  against  sexual  abuse,  and  theirs  is  an  honorable  vocation  within  God’s  left-hand  kingdom.  Yet  the  church,  living  from  the  gospel,  bears  something  unique  into  this  work:  the  one  Lord,  Who  can  work  an  eternal  healing.  He  alone  secures  the  dignity  of  each  person,  and  from  Him  alone  comes  the  gift  of  marriage.

 We  pick  up  homiletical  wisdom  from  diverse  sources.  From  my  vicarage  supervisor:  “A  sermon’s  most  important  rhetorical  dimension  is  clarity”;  from  my  first  professor  in  the  Lutheran  Confessions:  “Law  and  gospel  are  only  effective  if  precisely  applied.”  Both  comments  make  sense  to  me.  Yet  here  we  might  encounter  a  problem  when  seeking  to  preach  on  sexual  abuse.

“Sexual  abuse”  is  a  broad  term.  In  popular  imagination,  it  can  include  everything  from  rape  to  incest  to  molestation  to  harassment  to  a  brutish  pass.  Can  the  preacher  hope  to  address  God’s  word,  clearly  and  precisely,  to  all  of  these  transgressions  when  preaching  against  a  topic  labeled  “sexual  abuse”?

 Here  I  would  encourage  us  to  set  aside  the  term  “sexual  abuse”  in  our  thinking.  That  may  raise  some  hackles,  as  it  can  sound  like  a  prelude  to  denying  an  unpleasant  reality,  but  my  intent  is  just  the  opposite.  In  order  to  address  sexual  abuse  fully  and  with  the  unique  voice  of  the  church,  I  think  it  important  to  shift  our  thought  from  developing  “a  sermon”  or  even  “occasional  sermons”  about  a  generalized  topic  called  “sexual  abuse”  to  developing  a  preaching  ethic  (or  perhaps,  “a  preaching  mind”)  that  approaches  all  scriptural  texts  remembering  that  our  listeners  are  sexual  beings  and  that  there  are  sundry  sexual  acts  against which  we  must  contend  as  we  contend  for  the  God-given  dignity  of  each  person  and  the  gift  of  marriage.  Herewith  a  few  examples.

 The  first  lesson  for  the  second  Sunday  after  the  Epiphany  for  Year  C  is  Isaiah  62:1–5, [2]   which  begins  with  these  verses:
 "For  Zion’s  sake  I  will  not  keep  silent, and  for  Jerusalem’s  sake  I  will  not  be  quiet,   until  her  righteousness  goes  forth  as  brightness, and  her  salvation  as  a  burning  torch.The  nations  shall  see  your  righteousness, and  all  the  kings  your  glory, and  you  shall  be  called  by  a  new  name that  the  mouth  of  the  LORD  will  give."

 In  this  announcement  of  Zion’s  salvation,  the  church  discerns  the  righteousness  of  Christ  crucified,  making  the  sinner  to  shine  in  his  favor.  With  this  righteousness  also  comes  a  “new  name,”  a  new  identity,  known  in  relation  to  God.

 Within  a  sermon  proclaiming  that  larger  message  of  Christ’s  righteousness,  the  point  could  be  made  that  this  identity  teaches  us  to  know  ourselves  in  relation  to  God,  and  therefore,  it  defends  the  believer  against  all  false  and  denigrating  conceptions  of  the  self.  By  way  of  example,  the  preacher  could  relate  the  experience  of  children  sexually  molested  by  parents,  who  often  report  struggles  in  self-loathing.  Against  that  injury,  God  sets  forth  the  “new  name”  of  Christ  that  leads  the  child,  or  adult  survivor,  away  from  both  the  abuser  and  the  injured  self  to  a  new  dignity  rooted  in  God’s  favor  and  love  alone.

 That  example  may  be  judged  more  or  less  artful,  and  more  or  less  effective  in  opposing  sexual  abuse,  but  it  shows  the  preaching  ethic  to  which  I  am  urging  us:  as  we  preach  the  gospel,  we  must  remember  that  we  are  speaking  to  sexual  beings  who  live  in  a  world  that  abuses  power  regularly.  I  have  found  in  other  instances  that  one  such  homiletical  example  will  work  the  way  the  law  works:  a  little  goes  a  long  way.  The  example  names  the  sin,  identifies  its  harmful  effects,  and  asserts  that  God  both  opposes  it  and  has  a  way  for  the  believer  to  heal.  Listeners  note  a  thing  like  that  and  internalize  it.

 A  more  direct  text  for  addressing  sexual  abuse  is  found  in  Proper  16  of  Year  B  in  the  three-year  LSB  version  of  the  Revised  Common  Lectionary  common  among  congregations  in  the  LCMS,  Ephesians  5:22–33. [3]  Regrettably,  the  RCL,  more  common  in   ELCA churches,  has  excised  this  text,  and  thus  a  good  occasion  for  preaching  against  marital  rape  has  been  lost.
 "Wives,  submit  to  your  own  husbands,  as  to  the  Lord.  For  the  husband  is  the  head  of  the  wife  even  as  Christ  is  the  head  of  the  church,  his  body,  and  is  himself  its  Savior.  Now  as  the  church  submits  to  Christ,  so  also  wives  should  submit  in  everything  to  their  husbands.Husbands,  love  your  wives,  as  Christ  loved  the  church  and  gave  himself  up  for  her...  In  the  same  way  husbands  should  love  their  wives  as  their  own  bodies.  He  who  loves  his  wife  loves  himself.  For  no  one  ever  hated  his  own  flesh,  but  nourishes  and  cherishes  it,  just  as  Christ  does  the  church."

 Should  you  live  in  happy  enough  times  to  preach  this  text,  I’d  recommend  starting  at  the  true  heart  of  it:  the  relationship  between  Christ  and  his  church.  Between  these  two  there  is  no  brutality,  no  dishonor,  and  no  selfish  manipulation  of  the  other,  but  only  that  unique  love  in  which  both  Christ  and  his  church  find  themselves  by  losing  themselves.  Christ  so  finds  himself  in  his  church  that  he  surrenders  himself  and  counts  her  his  own  body;  the  church  so  finds  herself  in  Christ  that  she  receives  him  with  the  joyful  “amen”  of  faith  and  acknowledges  him  as  her  head.  Where  that  relationship  is  truly  kept,  no  abuse  is  possible!

 Preachers  may  then  proceed  to  apply  the  text  to  the  sexual  conduct  between  husband  and  wife  in  particular,  and  men  and  women  in  general.  Congregations  always  say  they  want  preaching  that  “applies  to  their  daily  lives,”  so,  well,  here  you  go:  the  language  of  cherishing  not  only  illumines  how  a  husband  should  feel  towards  his  wife  and  care  for  her,  but  also  how  he  should  treat  her  in  their  times  of  intimacy. [4]   Forcing  a  wife  into  sex  is  not  just  criminal:  it’s  sinful,  exalting  the  husband’s  self  above  his  wife’s,  and  thus  falling  short  of  the  glory  of  God,  which  is  the  self-sacrificing  cross.  That  intimate  cherishing  is  the  standard  for  marriage,  and  that  standard  shines  backward  on  “dating,”  from  which  most  marriages  today  are  forged.  There,  rape  is  doubly  sinful,  not  only  for  subjugating  the  woman  and  outraging  her  person,  but  also  for  introducing  sexuality  where  it  does  not  belong,  being  only  rightly  and  joyfully  experienced  within  the  marital  bond,  reflecting  Christ’s  unreserved  commitment  and  the  church’s  equally  happy  “amen.” [5]

 I  offer  one  final  example,  this  time  from  the  gospels:  Proper  17  in  Year  C of  the  both the  LSB  and  the  RCL. [6]  The  next  occasion  for  this  proper  is  September  1,  2013,  which  is  Labor  Day  weekend,  and  that  may  strike  some  as  untimely.  Yet  it  is  one  weekend  when  adult  children  often  come  home  to  visit  or  when  high  school  graduates  worship  one  last  time  before  heading  to  college.  Whatever  the  case,  the  texts  for  this  Sunday  are  well-paired  for  preaching  on  matters  of  sexual  abuse:  the  epistle  reading  includes  Hebrews  13:4  (“Let  marriage  be  held  in  honor  among  all,  and  let  the  marriage  bed  be  undefiled,  for  God  will  judge  the  sexually  immoral  and  adulterous”),  and  the  gospel  text  is  one  of  Christ’s  parables  involving  a  wedding  feast  (Luke  14:1–14).

 "Now  he  told  a  parable  to  those  who  were  invited,  when  he  noticed  how  they  chose  the  places  of  honor,  saying  to  them,  “When  you  are  invited  by  someone  to  a  wedding  feast,  do  not  sit  down  in  a  place  of  honor,  lest  someone  more  distinguished  than  you  be  invited  by  him,  and  he  who  invited  you  both  will  come  and  say  to  you,  ‘Give  your  place  to  this  person,’  and  then  you  will  begin  with  shame  to  take  the  lowest  place.  But  when  you  are  invited,  go  and  sit  in  the  lowest  place,  so  that  when  your  host  comes  he  may  say  to  you,  ‘Friend,  move  up  higher.’  Then  you  will  be  honored  in  the  presence  of  all  who  sit  at  table  with  you.  For  everyone  who  exalts  himself  will  be  humbled,  and  he  who  humbles  himself  will  be  exalted.”

 Wrapped  up  in  this  parable  is  the  mystery  of  Christ’s  own  death  and  resurrection:  he  is  the  one  who  humbled  himself,  taking  the  lowest  place,  and  who  was  in  turn  exalted  to  God’s  right  hand.  In  Jesus  Christ,  the  real  wedding  banquet  has  begun!  As  preachers  proclaim  this  good  news,  it  is  entirely  appropriate  for  them  to  do  what  Christ  himself  does:  exhort  their  listeners  to  imitate  Christ’s  behavior  and  humble  themselves  in  their  relationships  with  others.

 In  light  of  the  cross,  such  humility  is  not  simply  a  virtue  to  cultivate  but  a  way  of  exercising  the  kingdom  already  conferred  upon  us  by  Jesus.  His  extreme  humility,  the  same  humility  that  led  him  to  the  womb,  the  cross,  and  the  grave,  and  that  even  now  leads  him  to  inhabit  our  bread  and  wine,  exalts  sinners  to  God’s  right  hand.  Believers  may  wield  that  power  in  the  world,  honoring  and  exalting  their  neighbors,  by  humbling  themselves  in  every  sphere  of  life,  including  the  sexual.

 Here  the  pastor  might  point  out  how  self-exaltation,  and  a  corresponding  denigration  of  the  neighbor,  forms  the  core  of  so  many  sexual  abuses.  Rape  satisfies  the  rapist’s  impulse  at  the  expense  of  his  victim;  even  a  brutish  pass  subjects  one  person’s  peace  and  wellbeing  to  another’s  desire  for  more—indeed,  the  entire  “hook-up”  culture,  in  which  both  men  and  women  are  so  vulnerable  to  the  dynamics  of abuse,  is  driven  by  a  desire  for  self-satisfaction.  But,  the  preacher  may  then  declare,  those  who  dine  at  the  Lord’s  wedding  feast  live  differently!  They  humble  their  sexual  selves  by  insisting  on  the  sex  that  is  matched  with  servanthood—that  is  (quoting  the  epistle),  they  hold  to  marriage,  and  they  hold  the  marriage  bed  in  honor.

 There,  in  the  marriage  bed,  is  where  the  Christian  man  exalts  his  Eve  by  taking  her  only  as  her  husband,  publicly  committed  to  serving  her  all  the  days  of  his  life;  and  there,  in  the  marriage  bed,  is  where  the  Christian  woman  exalts  her  Adam  by  taking  him  only  as  his  wife,  publicly  fitted  to  be  his  helper.  Ardor  matched  with  honor,  and  desire  matched  with  devotion:  such  is  the  humble  way  of  Christian  sex,  in  which  husband  and  wife  each  exalt  the  other.  Anything  less,  in  the  sphere  of  sex,  is  an  abuse  of  our  sexuality,  our  neighbor,  and  God’s  gift  of  marriage.  It  exalts  the  self  and  thus  steps  outside  the  kingdom  of  God.

 I’m  sure  that  any  sermon  delving  into  the  matter  of  sexual  abuse  could  easily  leave  congregations  a  bit  stunned.  I  do  remember,  in  my  youth,  our  rural  pastor  once  announcing  that  he  was  going  to  preach  “on  a  particular  subject,”  and  parents  not  wishing  their  children  to  hear  it  should  send  their  children  to  the  church  basement  with  his  wife  for  a  craft  or  something  like  that.  I  was  old  enough  to  stay,  but  remember  nothing  more  of  the  sermon.  Humorous,  perhaps,  but  I  give  the  man  an  A+  for  treating  the  adults  as  adults,  and  his  example  may  be  worth  following.

 However  local  circumstances  may  dictate  its  practice,  preaching  about  sexual  abuse  is  like  preaching  about  divorce:  nobody  wants  to  do  it,  and  even  fewer  want  to  hear  it!  But  we  should  try.  Our  Lord  created  us  sexed,  with  impulses  that  mystify  us  even  as  we  experience  them.  As  with  all  of  creation,  that  sexual  dimension  of  our  life  has  been  corrupted  by  sin,  but  it  is  sanctified  again  as  God  applies  His  word  to  us  in  the  healing  ministry  of  the  gospel.  To  preach  against  sexual  abuse  in  its  many  forms  is  to  contend  for  that  sanctification  and  to  live  toward  the  beauty  of  marriage  and  the  dignity  of  men  and  women  that  God  intends.  I’m  not  sure  when  I  will  actually  preach  such  sermons,  but  after writing this article,  I pray God will grant us all the courage and clarity that we  will need in order to do so.

Steven K. Gjerde is Senior Pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin.

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1. See and for statistics (accessed January 15,2013).
2. This proper matches in both the Revised Common Lectionary, common in ELCA parishes, and the Lutheran Service Book version of the RCL used in the LCMS.
3. This text will not occur again until the late summer of 2015, making its inclusion here tardy. Yet since many Lutheran congregations have not heard this text read aloud for some time, and even fewer have heard it preached, it could be one of those texts that a pastor simply introduces into the pulpit one Sunday because it is meet, right, and salutary so to do.
4. I have found the word “intimacy” helpful for preaching on sex. Adults know it, little kids don’t, and parents can explain what they want to afterward.
5. One might also contend, from this passage, that a spouse’s obstinate refusal to have sex (“obstinate,” meaning absent reasonable causes such as medical conditions, a prior history of abuse, unaddressed emotional trauma, an offensive counterpart, and so forth) also constitutes a mode of “sexual abuse,” though of a less physical nature, as it is an explicit refusal to receive the other with joy. Such a refusal, like all sexual abuse, would surely have deeper, underlying causes, but is nevertheless a breach of the marital union envisioned in Scripture, and worthy of the church’s care.

St. Gudina Tumsa

St. Gudina Tumsa

Review of "Martin Luther's Legacy" by Mark Ellingsen

Review of "Martin Luther's Legacy" by Mark Ellingsen