I have been on Sabbatical this summer. New sermons will be posted beginning in September.
The following sermon was given by Rachel Smith at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship this past Sunday, August 28, as the congregation recognized its commitment to being a safe and protecting place for children and adults regarding sexual abuse.
Good morning. I have spent the last ten years of my life working in child welfare. And in that time I have met some incredible souls with such big stories to fit in such little bodies. And after ten years of listening and working, I confess, I still don’t know what to do.
My friends, today is a hard day. Today explores the kind of pain we seek shelter from in this very house. Today we remember sexual abuse. Over a year ago, we started on this journey towards strengthening the physical safety of our church body and preparing ourselves to be a healing presence in the face of the shame, despair, and brokenness that abuse can bring.
In thinking about what I should say today I struggled between honoring the painful experiences of which I have born witness; and finding the hope that God provides in the midst of the unthinkable and unanswerable. I hope that we can do both.
In that spirit, I invite you today to come with me. Come with me to a place that is uncomfortable, a place that no one chooses to go to but some (and unfortunately the most vulnerable among us) find themselves in. Do not worry. We are not going alone; but as a spiritual family whose hope is to empathically embrace the pain of our brothers and sisters and offer the healing and hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to share a hard story with you. I hope it helps you touch the difficult place we are seeking to understand. I am dedicating this story to a boy I will call Brad (age 7) who drew me a picture that gave me a new understanding of pain.
His picture was of a beautiful sunset. The sun was in the shape of a heart. Instead of a beach or mountains, the sun was setting on a field of cactuses. I asked Brad why he drew the cactuses. He replied “Miss Rachel, you need something to protect your heart.”
So this story is for Brad and everyone else I have ever met who wished there was a cactus to protect their hearts.
Once there was a little boy. He was curious about everyone and loved to have fun. Someone who was really fun was his uncle. He had a convertible. He had cool toys. He liked music, movies, and junk food. He was his first grown-up friend. And everything was good.
Until one day the boy and his uncle were alone and the air felt different. Nothing was fun and everything was quiet. It was the kind of quiet that tells animals to run. But the boy froze.
The boy froze at night hearing every creak in the hallway’s floor. He found himself praying for the first time; praying for himself. “God please don’t let him come in here. Please let me fall asleep.” He felt guilty that he could will such bad feelings about his family to God. Was God listening? Could God close that door and lock it? Was he wrong for asking?
I hate this story. It makes me afraid and then it makes me angry and then it makes me afraid again. I want to erase it. I want to pull the words of that story right back into my mouth and then I want to lock it and throw away the key. It doesn’t belong in church. It doesn’t belong in my heart and it doesn’t belong in my relationship with God. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THAT GOD?
What am I supposed to do with a story that takes one of your precious children, whose lives are glistening, infused with the love and promise you provide and finds them in abuse where there should be love, despair in the place of hope?
If you find yourself asking that question, you are not alone. Isaiah 5:1-20 tells a story in which God poses that very question to his people.
The Song of the Vineyard
1 I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
This story resonates with me. It tells us of one who put forth their best; who did what he could to tend to and care for life and expected life in return only to be met with injustice. Wild grapes…was this a trick? No, it was abuse. And out of abuse comes confusion, injustice, and pain.
The story continues in verse seven.
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
God looks at his precious people and finds killing where justice should have grown. He hears cries of distress where righteousness should be multiplying. Wild grapes. There is a moment in this writing where I hear God saying, “My children, what am I supposed to do with that?” Or “You tell me. You judge between me and my vineyard.”
So if God is asking us and we are asking him, where does that leave us? Stalemate? It is the age old question “Where is God when the unthinkable occurs?” Where is God when the floor boards in the hall are creaking and the door handle is turning and terror is consuming a child whose first prayer is to protect his own body from someone that he was taught to love?
Where is God when his word appears to be wrong? When children come asking for fish and are handed snakes instead? When evil is called good and darkness is made to look light. When what we thought was sweet becomes a bitter pill instead?
God replies by telling his people that he will leave them exposed in their rotting vineyard.
5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
This is not a reassuring answer. It’s terrifying. This is an awful moment in which the landscape of life is destroyed and God’s presence seems allusive. Have you left us God? It is the question every victim has asked. Have I been cut off? What happened? Christ himself reflects this separation from God after suffering the abuse of his crucifixion. “My God My God Why have you forsaken me?”
What are we to do with this moment? As humans we typically have three reactions (of which you are probably familiar) fight, flight, or freeze. So what will it be? Fight? Round up all the abusers of the world and make them pay? Hang signs on their doors and put them in their modern day leper colonies branded as unworthy and doomed to a life of isolation.
Will it be flight? Do we all disband when no viable solution seems possible? Do we change the subject because no answer can be found? Can we just leave this particular problem sleeping in the corner while we sneak out the back?
Or do we freeze? Should we tuck away our shock and awe of the horrors of abuse and pain of our brothers and sisters to a dormant place in our mind; a place where we cannot move past the confusion and denial abuse shocks us with?
Ronald Rolheiser, Catholic priest, author, and columnist offers us a forth reaction. Ronald wants us to ponder. Ponder? As a person who was raised in a military family, this reaction (at first blush) has no appeal. I am used to manning the guns, or abandoning ship. Ronald explains by taking us back to the cross. Where Jesus has suffered unfathomable abuse and Mary stands at his cross. He says:
To “ponder” in the biblical sense, as Mary did, does not mean what it means in the Greek sense (from which our common sense takes its notion), namely, that the unexamined life is not worth living and that we are, consequently, meant to be reflective and introspective. When scripture says, “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” it doesn’t mean that she thought all kinds of deep thoughts about them. What does it mean?
Let’s begin with an image, Mary at the foot of the cross. What is Mary doing there? Overtly nothing. Notice that, at the foot of the cross, Mary doesn’t seem to be doing anything. She isn’t trying to stop the crucifixion, nor even protesting Jesus’ innocence. She isn’t saying anything and overtly doesn’t seem to be doing anything. But scripture tells us that she “stood” there. For a Hebrew, that was a position of strength. Mary was strong under the cross. And what precisely was she doing? She was pondering in the biblical sense.
To ponder in the biblical sense means to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind.
We can be helped in our understanding of that by looking at its opposite in scripture. In the gospels, the opposite of “pondering” is “amazement”, to be amazed. We see a number of instances in the gospels where Jesus does or says something that catches the crowds by surprise and the gospel writers say,” And they were amazed.”
Invariably Jesus responds by saying: “Don’t be amazed!” To be amazed is to let energy, the energy of the crowd, simply flow through you, like an electrical wire conducting a current. An electrical wire simply lets energy flow through it and give it out exactly in kind – 220 volts for 220 volts. Being amazed and giving back in kind is wonderful at events like rock concerts or sporting matches, but it is also the root of all racism, gang rapes, and most other social sicknesses. Nobody holds, carries, and transforms the energy and everyone simply gives back in kind. That’s the flaw that Jesus points out in the virtue of the scribes and pharisees, they simply give back in kind, justice for justice, love for love, hate for hate.
In the gospels only two people aren’t amazed – Jesus and Mary. Mary ponders and Jesus sweats blood. They take in the energy, good and bad, hold it, carry it, transform it, and give it back as something else.
Jesus models this for us. He took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love; he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness; he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing; he took in betrayal, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. That’s what it means to ponder and this is the opposite of amazement.
If we return to our scripture we are not left in our desolate vineyard for too long. The transformative justice of God prevails.
But the LORD Almighty will be exalted by his justice,
and the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts
Keep reading and you will hear a familiar phrase. “God lifts up his banner.” He calls others to come and clear out the land, to take it down, to transform it. If you’ll remember the Song of Solomon also talks about God’s banner. SOS 2:4 He hath brought me to the house of wine, And his banner over me is love.
My friends, I don’t know how it happened but we were invited out of that rotting vineyard and taken in love to our Father’s house of wine.
And what I get from all this is that God can transform what I do not want to look at, what I do not want to touch, if only I can hold it. If I can enter the pain of my brother and carry it with him for a time, God can transform it. This is what I want to believe. So that means, no running, no freezing, but holding the space for the unanswerable.
I leave you with the words of Denison Witmer, a favorite singer/songwriter of mine. His song is called Carry the Weight.
Carry the weight of your brother
Carry the weight of your sister
I’m not afraid to say I don’t know
Carry the weight of your father
Carry the weight of your mother
I am not ashamed to say I don’t know what to do
Carry the weight of your neighbor
Carry the weight of a stranger
I am not afraid to say I don’t know anymore
So I carry the weight
Carry the weight of each other
Carry the weight of another
I’m not afraid to say I don’t know