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…

Sermon:
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. 

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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.

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