Sunday, November 27, 2011

“In Spite of Reality”

Isaiah 64: 1-9
Sunday, November 27, 2011
First Sunday of Advent
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

This is a story about longing.

A five-year-old girl sits by her front window on Christmas Eve. Her dad makes dinner in the kitchen. She knows her mom won’t be home for Christmas this year. She knows that she is in Iraq. But she twirls her hair, pulls her stuffed dog closer, and wishes – in spite of reality – that her mom car would come around the corner and pull into the driveway.

This is a story about longing.

Amid the hustle and bustle of a crowded retirement center, a man quietly pulls the door to his apartment closed behind him. He will celebrate his 85th birthday tomorrow. He knows that his only daughter would come if she could. But she just can’t get away from work this year. He knows he will eat dinner with his friends, drink wine, laugh and tell a few jokes. But he wishes – in spite of reality – that he could see his daughter’s face.

This is a story about longing.

Hiding behind the wall of the church’s courtyard, the 46-year-old woman who looks like she’s 65 pulls her jacket tighter around her and whispers a prayer against the cold. As she waits for the homeless shelter to open for the evening, she allows her mind to wander. She dreams of the day when she’ll have a key to a door. A toilet that’s all her own. A refrigerator with food she can open at any hour of the day. She doesn’t know how she will get there, but she hopes – in spite of reality – that she can one day know what it’s like to have a home again.

This is a story about longing.

Noticing that it’s ten after five, the 33-year-old business executive curses loudly and snaps his laptop shut. Grabbing his coat, he flies out the door. Late, once again, to pick up his son at daycare. As he races across town he allows himself the small indulgence of self-pity. He is thankful for his job, thankful that he doesn’t have to worry about how to put food on the table for his family. And yet, there is always a part of him that wishes – in spite of reality – that he could spend more time with his children.

Longing is at the core of the human experience. It flies in the face of reason. It expands beyond the boundaries of time. Newborn infants long for the breast. School-aged children long for their parents when the monsters come at night. Teenagers long for a kind word as they walk through the cruel halls of their school. Adults of all ages long to be understood, cared for, appreciated, to make a difference, to be real. And as we near the end of our lives, we long for all the hopes that have yet gone unfulfilled. We long for a passing into the next world that is peaceful and kind.

As a society, we seem to be very comfortable with wanting. “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth….” Or maybe a new Kindle Fire.

Wanting sounds more sterile to me. When you want something, you put it on a wish list. You write it down and seal it up in a letter for Santa Claus. You whine about it when you don’t have it.

But, for some reason, longing has a different feel. A hushed quality. These are desires that go unspoken because they are too deep to share. These are the memories we have of the past that fill us with that palpable feeling of nostalgia that is so powerful. These are the hopes we have for the future that are so wildly unimaginable that we do not speak them aloud – not even to ourselves.

As a culture, we’re not as comfortable with longing, are we?

When someone expresses the deepest – and most unrealistic – desires of their heart to us, we’re not quite sure what to do. Unable to fix the problem or check the item off their wish list, we flounder. We’re not sure what to do with longing.

The original hearers of the today’s passage from Isaiah knew about longing. Recently returned from exile, they gathered together to tell stories about their experiences and to dream about their future. Perhaps there is no longing quite as deep and true as the longing of exile.

I’ve been reading a non-fiction book called The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. This is the epic tale of two families – one Israeli and one Palestinian – whose lives are bound by a common home.

In 1948, the Khairi family was forced to leave their home in Al-Ramla, Palestine – never to return. A young girl, Dalia Eshkenazi, and her parents later moved into the home. As a child, Dalia was told that the former owners had run away and abandoned their home. But she always wondered why they would do something like that.

Years later, as a young adult, Dalia has the chance to find out when Bashir Khairi shows up on her doorstep, asking to visit his childhood home. In the backyard is a lemon tree, planted by his father, Ahmad. Bashir brings lemons from the tree to Ahmad, still living in exile in Ramallah.

One night, many months later, Bashir hears a noise in their home in Ramallah and tiptoes into the living room to see his elderly father standing next to their bookshelf. Ahmad has removed the lemon from the shelf, where it’s been sitting for almost a year. He is standing there, in the dark, holding the lemon to his nose and inhaling its scent.

Longing. A longing for home. A longing for return. A longing for things that can’t even be explained.

Something about being a refugee crystallizes desire. Having the space to ponder what it is you’ve lost, you gain the ability to actively hope for the future.

It is that in-between space – that quality of belonging neither here nor there – that makes longing so acute.

Most of us have not been a refugee in the way Ahmad Khairi was. But all of us have been a refugee in one way or another. All of us have found ourselves separated from something we once held dear – a relationship, a place, a way of being, a version of ourselves we once cherished, an understanding of God that once gave us strength and joy.

I think that’s why this passage from Isaiah grabs me and won’t let me go. There is a lot here that doesn’t ring true to me. This community’s understanding of God as a vindictive deity who hides from the people – that doesn’t work for me. Their belief that God has punished their ancestors and their contemporaries for their uncleanliness – that doesn’t work for me.

But in spite of my key theological disagreements with the author of this passage – and in spite of the 2500 years between us – there is still something here that I understand completely: their longing for God.

“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

The desire that consumes all other desires – that longing to truly know and feel God’s presence. In our times of deepest despair; in our times of wilderness wandering; in the loneliest hours of the night, that one longing that eclipses all other needs is the longing to know and be known by God.

That – I understand. Some things don’t change – even with 2500 years of human evolution.

I also understand, on a gut, core level this desire to be claimed by God. After all the tumult of their relationship. After feeling abandoned by God, shut out, chased away. After believing that they have been punished for their sins. Still – after all of that – they say, “YET, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand…now consider, we are all your people.”

This is what it means to live in a covenant. To be claimed forever with no ifs, ands, or buts.

The covenantal relationship between God and the Creation is unlike any other relationship on Earth. Romantic love fades. Even the relationship between children and their parents can be irrevocably damaged. But if we are willing to allow it to be so, that covenantal relationship with the Holy continues forever. Even death is unable to separate us from the love of God that we find in Christ Jesus.

That – I understand.  Some things don’t change – even with 2500 years of human evolution.

As we move into this season of Advent, we are waiting and watching for the birth of the Christ Child. It is my hope that we will allow ourselves to be in touch with longing.

We are a culture that celebrates wanting at Christmastime. We teach our young children to write out Christmas lists to send to Santa in the mail. But have you noticed that sometimes items of longing sneak onto those lists? Who hasn’t seen a list from a child that included a desire for peace in the Middle East? Or for a beloved cat to come back to life? Nestled there between the wants of iPods and fire trucks and dress up clothes we see a child’s deepest longing written on the page for all to see.

As adults, we tend to lose touch with our longing, I think.

It’s not cool to long for things.

When we whisper our deepest desires – the impossible ones, the silly ones, the ones that exist in spite of reality – when we whisper those things, we are usually shut down. Our friends shift uncomfortably in their seats and glance away. We feel badly for sounding like a whiner or a hopeless romantic. We feel ashamed that we have desires. We feel embarrassed to admit that there are parts of our lives – no matter how good they seem – that we still wish could be better.

A few years ago, I attended an all-day training session for clergy on professional boundaries. One of the things I greatly appreciated about the presenter was that she gave us permission to have desires and needs. She stated that the need to be affirmed, to be loved, to be relieved of stress, to rest….there is nothing wrong with any of those things. We clergy are human, just like everyone else. We will do ourselves no favors by pretending like we have no desires.

Where we get ourselves into trouble is when we seek to have our needs met in the wrong places or when we ignore our needs until they bubble over in destructive ways.

We have to constantly be vigilant and know what our desires are and then get them met in healthy ways. As a human, I have a need to be listened to and loved. I will do myself no good if I ignore those desires. But I need to get those needs met outside the context of my work as your pastor. I need to have a strong network of family and friends that I can turn to when I need someone to love me. If I fail to do that, I will get myself in trouble because I will depend on my congregation to do those things, which isn’t helpful for any of us.

There is nothing wrong with having a desire – with having a longing. Where we get ourselves in trouble is where we ignore these longings – shut them away – laugh them off. They don’t go away. They are a part of what it means to be human.

God blesses our longings, no matter how silly or impossible they may be.

And what was true for the Israelites 2500 years ago is still true today: God is the one place we can take those longings at any time. God will never laugh at us or dismiss us or make us feel guilty for longing. Now this doesn’t mean that God can magically fix everything, either, or make the impossible come to be. But it does mean that God can hold our longings, bless them, and hear them. It does mean that we can let them out and that we don’t have to bear them by ourselves.

Advent is a time of great longing. We long for the impossible. We long for the things that we wish could exist – in spite of reality. We wait and we watch for things that we know may never come. And that’s okay. God blesses our deepest desires and hears them – even when we speak them only in our hearts.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Matthew 25:13-46 and Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Reign of Christ Sunday
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

If you do a Google search for “tiny baby Jesus” most of the results that pop up are not about the gospel of Matthew, or the Christmas story, or written by some fancy theologian. Instead, what you find are videos and links about The 2006 movie Talladega Nights, starring Will Farrell and John C. Reilly.

Any time I need a good laugh, I just look up the “tiny baby Jesus” scene on YouTube and allow the sweet stress-relieving properties of good comedy wash over me. In this scene, NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby is gathered for a meal with his family. Ricky’s favorite way to pray is to the “tiny baby Jesus” and, at one point in the prayer, his wife interrupts him to say, “You know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off-puttin’ to pray to a baby.”

Ricky responds, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Cal Noughten, Jr., Ricky’s best friend, chimes in to say, “I like to think of Jesus like with giant eagles wings, and singin’ lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I’m in the front row and I’m hammered drunk!”

Now, I don’t pretend to know if the author of Matthew’s gospel liked to get hammered drunk, but I can imagine that Matthew would probably love Cal’s version of Jesus.

Matthew’s Jesus is strong, enthroned in glory, a ruler above all other rulers. I like to imagine Matthew is up by the pearly gates somewhere belting out Handel’s Messiah with an enormous angel choir for all eternity, “King of Kings! And Lord of Lords! And He shall reign for ever and ever!”

Matthew’s Jesus is larger than life.

And so we come to the final Sunday of the church year – Reign of Christ Sunday. The last Sunday before Advent. The last Sunday before we take a turn into a new church year.

On this Sunday, we focus with other Christians around the world on that being we call Christ. Not necessarily just the human, Jesus, who walked the earth, mind you. But that eternal spirit, Christ, who is with us for all eternity.

We’ve been following Matthew’s gospel in the lectionary this year and, for the past several weeks, the teachings of Jesus have gotten more and more challenging. Dark visions of the end times, parables that are increasingly difficult to decipher, and images of failed humans being cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t fool around.

And now, as we finish up the 25th chapter, we have a vision of Jesus Christ, enthroned in glory, surrounded by angels, and gathering all the nations of the world around him. Go ahead and imagine some Lynyrd Skynyrd in the background if you want.

When I imagine Christ in this text, he’s all gold and shiny. I imagine him as a living, breathing version of all those great icons from the Eastern Orthodox traditions. Can you see those gold foiled Christs? Like the one on the ceiling of Haggia Sophia in Turkey? That style of icon is called a Pantokrator – Greek for The Almighty One. Christ the Ruler. Christ the All-Mighty. The one who comes to judge the quick and the dead.

Now, if I had to guess, I’d say most of us don’t pray to this version of Christ very often. Maybe there are a few of us who get really excited about the idea of Christ being lifted up high, judging all the nations of the world, ruling over the entire universe. But I hear people around here talk more about Jesus as a guide, a friend, a role-model, a companion on our walk with God. It seems like a lot of us prefer to think of Jesus as a peer or, at the very highest, a gifted teacher.

But just as Ricky Bobby and his family like to pray to different versions of Jesus, there is no one version of Christ presented in the scriptures or in the Christian tradition. The image of Christ Pantokrator, Christ Almighty, is certainly one who has existed since the beginning of our religion and continues to resonate with many Christians today.

I know that, for me, one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about Christ as a monarch is this whole idea of judgment. Who wants to think about judgment? I don’t like to be judged. You probably don’t either.

And judgment is, of course, just what we have happening in Matthew’s final parable.

For those raised on a good Protestant line of “grace, not works” this is not an easy story to read. I was always taught, as a child, that as long as I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I had nothing to worry about. Even though I might mess up, God would still love me and I’d still get to go to heaven.

It’s a nice idea, but there’s no denying that those who wrote the Bible also valued our actions. The way we operate in the world. The things we do to each other. The way we choose to live our lives.

According to Matthew, when Christ comes in all his glory to judge us, he’s not going to ask if we’ve prayed the prayer of salvation. He’s going to separate us based on whether or not we cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned.

Now, I want to pause for a second to say a couple of words about this idea of salvation.

I still have a hard time with this, but when I hear people say “salvation” I tend to think of what will happen to me when I die. Will I meet St. Peter at the door to heaven? What will he say about my life? Will I go to heaven or hell?

Salvation might mean that. I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is that salvation means a whole lot more than just that.

Salvation is eternal. It happens in the past, present, and future. Salvation is communal. It happens not only to individuals but also to communities. Salvation is about all of the ways we are all being saved on a daily basis. It is not just something that will happen in the “by and by” after we die. It is here and now.

And I would argue that judgment is the same way. Judgment is not just something that will happen someday in the future – either at the end of our individual lives or in some great cosmic world judgment at the end times. Heck, I don’t even know if there will be an end to the world!

What I do know is that judgment, like salvation, is eternal. It happens in the past, present, and future. If we allow ourselves to be conscious of it, we will recognize that we are all being judged each and every day. That little voice in your head that tells you it would be a good idea to buy an extra turkey for the Thanksgiving meal at Community Kitchen? Judgment. That warm glow of satisfaction you feel after you’ve successfully navigated a trip to a mall crowded with Christmas shoppers and your toddler and preschooler didn’t kill each other, didn’t melt down, and are still whole people? Judgment.

Judgment happens each and every day. Judgment is a gift from God. Judgment is necessary for salvation. Judgment is good news.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this parable, I start to get nervous. I find myself, in my self-centered way, immediately wondering, “Wait, am I a sheep or a goat?”

I’m sure none of the rest of you do that, right? No, of course not.

Part of the uniqueness of this story, part of what it makes it compelling is that these tasks are both easy and hard at the same time. These are certainly not Herculean tasks. Giving food and drink to someone who needs it – check, I do that every day when my child wakes up and needs breakfast. Welcoming the stranger – no problem, I introduce myself to a new person at coffee hour every week. Clothing the naked – yup, I take my old clothes to Opp House or My Sister’s Closet. Taking care of the sick and imprisoned – well, I do visit people when they’re feeling ill, maybe take them a casserole. I admit, I’m not perfect at visiting people when they’re in prison, but if I knew them personally, I’d probably do it.

These are acts of basic human kindness and compassion. No one is asking me to rebuild the Temple with my two bare hands or preach the gospel on every continent before my 40th birthday.

And yet – if these tasks are so simple, why do I so often fail to do them?

Just last week, I drove past a young woman on the corner of Pete Ellis who had a sign and was looking for donations. I didn’t have any food or cash to give her, but maybe I could have given her a kind word. And there are times where I am just too worn down by the day to properly greet a stranger when I encounter them at Target. Sometimes I buy myself new clothes that are too expensive when I know I could be using that money to help those less fortunate than myself. And there have been numerous times when I knew I should take a casserole to a friend’s house, but made excuses to myself about my busy schedule until the illness had passed and the opportunity was missed.

If we are honest with ourselves, we are all – all of us – both sheep and goats. No one is perfect. No one scores 100% and manages to see Christ in the stranger every single time. And no one is perfectly evil. Even those who consistently make bad choices about how they treat others – even those who fail to remember Christ is within their neighbor – even those folks often do basic acts of human decency.

And therein lies the beauty and complexity of this story. We are all sheep and goats. We are all being judged, each and every day. When we allow ourselves to be judged, we allow ourselves to be formed, transformed, and saved.

Judgment isn’t some nasty four-letter word – judgment is salvation.

Christ followed in a long line of judges in the Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of stories of God’s judgment – both in supernatural ways and through human actors. Today’s passage from Ezekiel is a classic text of God’s judgment and salvation for the sheep of Israel. God will rescue the lost sheep by seeking them out. God will punish the fat sheep because they have taken advantage of the smaller sheep. Judgment in the Hebrew Bible is almost always good news. It is, at times, quite painful for those being judged, but it always leads to salvation in the end.

Judgment may not feel good while it’s happening – at least when we’re living in the goat side of ourselves. But it results in salvation. Judgment is what encourages us to do better. Judgment is a whisper of a new possibility – a possibility to see Christ in our sisters and brothers – an opportunity to live out God’s call for freedom and justice for everyone on earth.

Sometimes judgment feels awesome. Imagine how those sheep must have felt when Christ rewarded them with the recognition of a job well-done. I think we often don’t take the time to listen to God’s positive judgment in our lives. If any of us were to take the time to go back through our day before going to sleep each night, I’d be willing to bet that every single person in this room could find at least one instance where they did something worthwhile. A place where we offered kindness to someone or glimpsed the Divine peering out at us from another person’s soul. But we often forget to notice when we’re doing well. We often forget to wear our button that says, “have fun doing good” with pride. And, in doing so, we miss an opportunity for salvation. We miss an opportunity to be judged and to strengthen ourselves for the work of the next day.

As we move into this period of Advent waiting, the voice of Christ quiets. We go now from an image of Christ the Great Ruler to an image of Christ as a tiny, helpless infant. And before we welcome Christ into the world on Christmas Day, we find ourselves in a period of watching and waiting for the dawn of Christ as the new year begins.

In this time of waiting and watching, it is my hope that we can – all of us – embrace God’s judgment and salvation during this Advent season. We are all sheep and goats. Thanks be to God for opportunities for growth and new birth.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

“The Cry of Tamar”

2 Samuel 13: 1-22
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Prelude to the Scripture reading:
Before we hear today’s reading, a few things need to be said. This is a story you may not have heard before. It’s not in the lectionary. It’s not pretty. This story is about the rape of a woman named Tamar. I’ve already alerted parents in the church that we’d be hearing this story in worship today, but I also want to recognize this text is difficult for adults to hear, too.

Please take care of yourself during this reading and the sermon. This is a terrible text, but even terrible texts need to be heard because our task, as people of Christ, is to seek the good news even within the most horrifying moments of the human experience.

You may find yourself needing to check out for a few minutes this morning. That’s absolutely okay. In your bulletin, there is a finger labyrinth that you can trace. There is also space for doodling. You have permission to cover your ears, to listen to your breathing, to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. If that means you need to get up and walk out, that is 100% okay. No one will be bothered by it. And no one will assume this means you’re the survivor of abuse. All of us can be triggered by hearing difficult stories like Tamar’s.

Finally, please take time to check in with each other. Look at the people next to you and see how they’re doing. Talk with each other and with me after worship. We are going into a dark place in hope of finding some light. It’s not an easy task. Listen, now, for the word of God…

When I started hearing tidbits this week about Joe Paterno, legendary Penn State football coach, I didn’t think much of it at first. I mean, how many coaches resign or are fired in scandals?

But once I heard more, you’d better believe I started paying attention. And all I could think of, once I started hearing the allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, was King David.

I know, that may seem like a stretch, but it’s not. Hear me out. Joe Paterno and King David are both men who were larger-than-life. They had a great deal of power – too much power. Both of them failed when confronted with difficult moral issues. Both of them chose the easy route – at least on some occasions. And both of them, even when exposed, still have a faithful following.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me just give you a brief sketch of the Penn State scandal that has exploded into the news this past week. Last Saturday, former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys. And the reason that head coach Joe Paterno, along with several other top university officials, are being blamed alongside Sandusky is because they knew about it and did very little to stop it.

Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum, folks.

In this country, at least one in six boys and one in four girls will be sexually abused before they’re 18. Ninety percent of those children know their assailants. About a third of the abusers will be family members and about 60% will be someone else the child knows – a family friend, teacher, coach, minister, or other trusted adult.

Men like Jerry Sandusky are allowed to continue abusing children because adults around them fail to do the right thing. One of the most sickening and unbelievable things about the Sandusky story is that at least two other employees of the university saw him raping children with their very eyes, and failed to protect those children. One graduate assistant coach told Paterno, but no one tried to stop the rape. No one tried to find out who the child was and follow up with his family. That was in 2002. Nine years ago.

Sandusky himself admitted to showering with an 11-year-old boy, but promised to never do it again. Police knew about it, but no charges were pressed. That was in 1998. Thirteen years ago.

Well-meaning people tried to handle Sandusky themselves. They took away his keys to the locker room and told him that he was no longer allowed to bring boys from his Second Mile charity to the Penn State facilities. Essentially, they told him, “Look, Jer. This isn’t cool. Just don’t do it here, okay?”

They covered it up. And, in doing so, they sinned right alongside Sandusky.

Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

There are consequences to covering up abuse. Obviously, these other men have to live with the shame and reality of what they’ve done and I can’t imagine how awful that must feel. But I’m also pleased to say that our laws hold them accountable, too. At least two of the university officials have already been charged with failure to report a crime and could land in prison for seven years.

As a side note, I want to inform you that in our state, every single person is considered to be a mandated reporter for child abuse. That means that if you know a child is being abused, you must report it to the authorities or you’re breaking the law.

Today’s reading from 2 Samuel shows us that there’s nothing new under the sun.

There will always be people with power that will abuse simply because they can. And it is up to the rest of us to say, loudly and clearly, “NO! This is not okay.”

The story of the rape of Tamar is awful. Just reading it makes me feel disgusting. And a big part of what is so heartbreaking about this story is that it could have gone differently. There are several turning points in this story where, if someone had just make a better decision, this tragedy could have been avoided or mitigated in some way.

Tamar is one of King David’s daughters. Her brother is Absalom. Her half-brother is Amnon.

Amnon “fell in love” with her and made himself sick with his desire. Now we know from the beginning that Amnon is not an upstanding guy. The reason he thinks he can’t “do anything to her” is because he would get caught. Since she’s a virgin, people would know if she had been raped. It’s not that he thinks it would be wrong to sleep with his sister, it’s that he knows he could get caught.

Amnon could have just lived with this. But he didn’t; he makes mistake #1 – he tells his friend. And not just any friend. His friend Jonadab is “crafty.” Perhaps Amnon goes to him because he knows he’ll get bad advice and he wants to be justified. How often do we go to a friend because we know they’ll tell us what we want to hear? I know I’ve done it.

And Jonadab does, indeed, give terrible advice. He tells Amnon to entrap Tamar by pretending to be sick, asking for her to come over to take care of him, and then raping her.

Amnon could have just said, “What? That’s crazy!” but, of course, he doesn’t. He goes to his father, King David. And here is place #2 where things could have gone very differently. David could have said no.

Now, did he know what Amnon was up to? It’s hard to say. Nothing explicitly tells us he does, but I have my hunch that he should have known on some level that this was not normal. The language used by Amnon is odd – he wants his sister to come and prepare cakes in his sight so he can eat them from her hand. This is not normal sibling behavior.

If David did know something was up, why did he allow this?

In order for David to have known, on a conscious level, what Amnon was doing, he would have had to confront some of his own demons. Let’s remember that David had his own issues with sexual ethics. This is a man who saw a woman bathing and slept with her, just because he could, then had her husband killed to cover the whole thing up. A man of great power, King David saw what he wanted and took it – because he could and no one else would stop him.

Is there any wonder that he managed to raise a son who did the same thing?

So Tamar goes to Amnon’s house. The third group of people who could have turned this story around are the servants. Amnon tells them to leave the room and they agree. Surely at least one of these people had a sense, in their gut, that something was off here. But they leave anyway. We know they didn’t go far – we know that they heard the whole struggle take place – because when Amnon calls them in after the rape happens they come back in right away.

They were close enough to hear what was happening, but didn’t do anything about it.

Now we could try to excuse their behavior. Amnon was a powerful man. To stand up to him would have required great courage. I just keep thinking back to that graduate assistant coach who could have stopped Coach Sandusky in the act of raping that child and called the police that very minute. He didn’t do it. Instead, he went home and called his dad for advice. And then went to the head coach the next day. A turning point. A missed opportunity for salvation.

After Tamar is raped, she leaves her brother’s house wailing and crying. She makes it obvious to everyone around her that this atrocity has taken place. Her brother Absalom even guesses, right away, what has happened. And instead of going to the authorities, instead of comforting her, instead of confronting Amnon – he tells Tamar to keep quiet. He silences her.

And the final nail in Tamar’s coffin – her father. Her father finds out what has happened but did nothing to punish his son because “he loved him.” The head coach and the athletic director knew what was happening to these children but did nothing because they loved their friend.

So many missed chances for Tamar’s salvation. For Amnon’s salvation.

If Amnon had gone to a different friend…. If the King had been willing to confront his own demons and told his son that something wasn’t right…. If those servants had been brave enough to run for help or come back in to rescue Tamar…. If Absalom had sought justice for his sister…. If King David had loved his daughter as much as he loved his son.

Turning points. Missed opportunities for salvation.

The only point of true strength and grit in this story is Tamar herself, God bless her.

When she realizes what her brother is doing, she fights with all her might. She says no to him seven times, “(1) No, my brother, (2) do not force me; for such a thing is (3) not done in Israel; (4) do not do anything so vile! As for me, (5) where could I carry my shame? And as for you, (6) you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. (7) Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.”

Tamar is no meek little lamb going to the slaughter. She goes down swinging.

And after she has been violated she doesn’t quit fighting. She begs her brother to at least make the situation better by claiming her as his wife. He refuses. And as she leaves his house, she doesn’t hang her head in shame and sneak away quietly. She rips the sleeves off of her robe, showing anyone with eyes that she is no longer a virgin. She places ashes on her head, showing that a part of her has died. And she goes away screaming and crying and wailing aloud.

That image of Tamar, the lone woman in this story, standing at the center of all these men crying out in agony and self-defense is what sticks with me the most about this story.

Tamar – surrounded by men who could have protected her – doing her absolute best to protect herself. And still, it is not enough. She is a strong woman, but it doesn’t matter. She is ruined.

In cases of sexual abuse, the victim is the victim precisely because their strength is not enough. Victims are carefully chosen because they lack power. It’s not an accident that Sandusky’s victims were low-income children –most likely boys of color.

Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it is up to all of us to provide the strength required to make it stop. There will always be men who will take advantage of others simply because they can. It is up to us, the gathered community of Christ, to stand with the Tamars of the world and say “NO – not anymore, not on our watch, not as long as we are here. You will not do this any more.”

We have the authority to say that – over and over again and as many times as it needs to be said – because God wants us to say no.

Scratch that – God REQUIRES us to say no. God NEEDS us to say no. God absolutely, 100% needs us to use our strength as a community to be observant and aware and to stop abusers before they cause harm.

There is strength in telling these stories. There is power in hearing the cry of Tamar. There is healing to be found when we let survivors tell their stories. There is salvation to be found in confrontation.

None of this is easy, but it is good.

When I look for the good news in the story of Tamar, I find that the good news is that this story even exists at all. Someone wrote this story down. Someone outed the King and his son. And others passed it down and left it in Holy Scripture for the whole world to see.

I’d like to take the Lectionary committee to task for leaving it out of the lectionary (just as they left out the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34), but at least it’s here in our Bible.

God doesn’t turn a deaf ear to these stories. God is with all survivors, offering healing and hope. And God is with the Church as we struggle to hear the Tamars among us and prevent acts of sexual violence.

God doesn’t like a cover up – even when we humans do our best to keep these stories in the dark, God is bringing all things into the light. 

I am indebted to those who attended the annual Preaching Conference at Trevecca Nazarene University (Nashville, TN) under the leadership of Dr. Anna Carter Florence. Our group exploration of this passage provided much of the inspiration for this sermon.