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.  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,  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.  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.  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.” 
I offer one final example, this time from the gospels: Proper 17 in Year C of the both the LSB and the RCL.  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 www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims and www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemiologysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-031941.pdf 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.