Scripture Texts: Luke 18:1-8 & Luke 24:10-11
So, this is one of those weeks where everything suddenly changes. Where the Holy Spirit says, “Not this week Josh. You’re preaching this instead.” Where I sat up last until 2:00 am writing a new sermon. Where I send the kids out of the sanctuary. Which means this is going to be one of those sermons – so put on your seat belts and crash helmets – because the Gospel is about to get painfully real. The sermon I finished on Friday morning was all about showing mercy to your enemies. How important it is to show them compassion just like the Prophet Elisha did to the Aramean army that tried to capture him. And then I got home late on Friday night and I went on Facebook to catchup with the day’s events. I had been away from contact with the outside world for most of the day. And what I read late Friday night caused my heart to sink.
What I found was a litany of stories of sexual assaults by the majority of women across my Facebook feed. The stories were flooding social media in response to the Judge Kavanagh hearings. The testimony of Dr. Christine Ford was triggering many women to relive their own sexual assault all over again. Even more painful for them was hearing members of congress either question the validity of Dr. Ford’s testimony or even worse, knowing that they believe her, but don’t even care – because politics come first. And so story after story after story filled by Facebook feed. Women I’ve known my entire life revealing their stories. Many of them graphically shocking. And some of them happening in connection to the Church.
Now, I’m not even going to get into the debate about Kavanagh and Dr. Ford, regardless of my personal and/or political beliefs. What I couldn’t stop thinking about as a pastor looking towards Sunday was how many women in this congregation have experienced sexual assault and/or rape, and had their own testimonies questioned. By friends. By family. By law enforcement officials. Even by the church. How many women in this church had an experience like my seminary classmate, who wrote, “When my parents told the church leadership, they told my parents to forgive rather than press charges.” Or how many women in this church had an experience like a student in my World Religions class who was sexually assaulted by a Deacon in her church. And even when she and her mother reported it to church leadership, the girl – who was 14 years old at the time – was accused of tempting this 35 year old married man. And that they need to say nothing because it might ruin his marriage. And that’s just one of MANY stories I learn about each year in my World Religions class. And so in the face of this hearing, of so many people reliving their own assaults, and of the event feeling so raw and real for so many, for me to preach a sermon about showing mercy to your enemies would not only be insensitive and untimely – it would also be unchristian and immoral. It’s not time for mercy and forgiveness just yet. It’s time for speaking up, for listening, and for believing.
As I scrolled through all these storied I prayed, “Why God? Why is this happening? Where the hell were you when all this was happening? When are you going do something about this?” I wondered how many women prayed the same thing? How many women prayed this when they reported their assault – yet their perpetrator walked free – as 99% of all perpetrators of sexual violence do. (Yes…you heard that right. Between victims being afraid to press charges, to hospitals charging victims between $400 to $1,000 for rape kit testing, to a judicial system that often makes the perpetrator a victim, 99% of perpetrators of sexual violence will walk free.)
Then I thought about the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I thought about how she was NOT going to let this go! “Grant me justice against my opponent!” she cried out. That phrase in Greek can be translated a number of ways: “My rights are being violated! Protect me! Vindicate me! Pay me what I’m owed! Hear my case! even, Recognize my humanity!” This judge, whom the parable says neither fears God nor respects people, does everything he can to ignore her. But nevertheless, she persisted. And the unjust judge grants her the justice she deserves. And that’s when I realized that this parable isn’t so much about God answering prayer by making some miracle for us. This parable is about God making us the miracle that is the answer to our prayers. And if this judge in this parable – described as a godless, misanthropic, self-centered jerk can give a woman the justice she deserves, what does it say about Christians who can’t do the same? Who question women when they finally gain the courage to speak up against their abuser?
I wondered how many women in our congregation have never spoken about their assault because they felt shame – because of decades of unhealthy and unbiblical sexual purity culture in the church. How many women blamed themselves because of images of the “Proverbs 31 woman” that were taken completely out of context? Or how many women thought that no one – not even their own pastors and religious leaders – would believe them. And why would women feel shame, blame themselves, or think no one would believe them? Because of the rape culture in our country.
Rape culture constantly excuses and downplays sexual assault by saying things like: “boys will be boys” or “Well she asked for it.” Or – the one that I actually heard said at the barber shop last Tuesday, in reference to Bill Cosby’s recent conviction, “Well, I blame these women too. I mean, what do they expect to happen when you go to the hotel room of a black comedian at two in the morning?” (I guess he justified his misogyny with his racism.) I wondered if he would have said that in front of his wife and her friends?
But what’s worse, is the fact that not only did none of the men say anything, but I also said nothing when I heard it. I confess before you all today that I sinned against God and against all women by saying NOTHING when I heard such a disgusting statement that reinforces a culture that allows this crap to keep happening. And I said nothing because I froze when I heard it. Because I too have been raised in a rape culture where men are taught to tolerate and even accept “locker room talk” as normal. Even when it makes us uncomfortable. Even when we know that it is wrong. Even when we know it propagates a culture in which victims are blamed instead of believed. We men say nothing. Men are taught from a very young age that you don’t call out other men when they say these things or you’ll be ostracized for being “too sensitive” or “easily offended” or “such a girl.” At best you say nothing – like myself. At worst you laugh along or even make some comment back.
And we men, like to talk a big game when we do find out about these sexual assaults happening. We say things like, “I’ll kill that (insert expletive)!” “I’ll cut off his _____.” And so on and so forth. We say that out of one end of our mouth, but then participate in locker room talk out the other end. Talk that makes the perpetrators think that they have every right to do what they do. So men, we are not cleansed of this sin until we actually repent – which does NOT mean “to say you’re sorry” but means actually means, “to turn your life around.” Because if you say you’re sorry, but keep doing it – then you were never repentant. You’re just trying to make yourself feel better.
But God knows better. God knows it’s sin. And so I confess my complicity in the sin of our rape culture, ask your forgiveness, and seek repentance, so that the next time this happens, and there will be a next time, I will say something. And it might damn well get me into trouble – and I might even have to find another barber shop – but I can’t even call myself a Christian, much more a pastor, if I allow people to get away with saying things that propagates the rape culture behind the statistic that 1 in 5 women will be victims of rape. 1 in 5. Do you realize that statistic means that every person in this church either is or knows somebody who is a victim of rape? If you know at least 5 women, then you know at least one victim of rape. Statistics that say 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. 1 in 3. Meaning, if you have a wife and two daughters, you can almost guarantee that one of them will or has already experienced sexual violence. That between the ages of 16 to 19, a woman is FOUR TIMES more likely to be a victim of rape or sexual assault. And that the risk of sexual assault among female college students between the ages of 18-25 is THREE TIMES HIGHER than the general population.
You may say, “Nobody ever told me they were raped!” And that’s because rape victims only tell the people they trust the most. Only tell people that they trust NOT to use rape culture’s victim-blaming language against them, like “Well what were you wearing?” or “Why were you over there talking to him?” or “What did you do to provoke him?” or “What were you doing out that late at night?” or “What were you doing on that side of town?” or “Well did you try to fight back?” Rape is never the victim’s fault. And if you think it is, I pray that you are never raped or sexually assaulted and have to deal with the backlash that happens when you talk about it.
Men – if you later discover that there is a woman in your life who never told you about her rape, it’s because she probably did trust you to actually believe her! And the only person to blame for that is you. You have set yourself up as a person unworthy of that level of trust. And it’s probably because at some point she’s heard you doubt some other woman’s story – and she learned real quick to keep her mouth shut around you. If any woman in your life – your daughter or granddaughter – heard you make some remark about doubting Dr. Ford’s testimony against Kavanagh, you’ve have just set yourself up to not be trusted by that woman if she is ever raped or assaulted. I just hope you can live with that reality.
The church is not innocent in this. It’s a culture that’s been a part of the church from the very beginning. The church has always doubted women’s testimonies – even about the resurrection. In Luke’s account of the resurrection we read, “10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
“NO!” Peter thinks. “That can’t be. Jesus wouldn’t have told a bunch of women that he resurrected before me. I’m part of his inner-circle. I’m his boy. These women are just making things up. You know how hysterical they get. They’re always so emotional. That’s why we can’t put them in charge. They can’t control their emotions. I have to check this out myself and then go and mansplain to these women what they actually saw.”
During the Middle Ages, Christian theologians were actually debating whether or not women even had souls. That’s how the church saw women for centuries. As these soulless bodies whose only purpose was for either seducing/tempting men to sin or having babies. And those ideas about the worthlessness of women continues even today. Look at the way women ministers are treated compared to male ministers – even by other women. We pay them significantly less. We rarely give them major leadership roles – like Senior Pastor positions. And women pastors are harassed and assaulted in ways that men rarely are. One such account comes from Rev. Amy Butler – a woman who managed to break the stained-glass ceiling and become Senior Pastor of the famous Riverside Church in New York City. A church known for its progressive stance on justice issues. Yet when Rev. Butler was harassed by a male lay leader, she tried to move past it until she saw the same lay leader harassing other female staff. It was at that point that she said, “…I was suddenly aware that the lessons I had learned my whole life – lessons of “just get used to it” and “experiences like this are part of being a woman in leadership” – those should not be the posture we assume in a community that claims to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.”
These are things that women learn from this rape culture. That you just accept it. That’s just what it means. Don’t talk about it. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Because when you do, when you draw attention to yourself in a male dominated world, you’re going to suffer the consequences.
One of the stories I read this week came from our neighbor in seminary. Now a talented, ordained, PCUSA, board certified, hospital chaplain, she told the following story:
(I hope this isn’t triggering for anyone, but it’s the one that was the least graphic.)
5 years ago I was assaulted in my senior year of college. I was ridiculed and threatened. I was emailed from fake accounts, and told my acceptance to Princeton would be revoked when they found out what a "slut" I was. My well-being, my life, was threatened......
And I was sexually assaulted for getting accepted to Princeton to become a Female pastor.
I didn't tell anyone except for 1 friend, and when word got out, I was pulled from class and school security talked to me. They asked me what I was wearing and if I was unhappy with my fiancee..... As if that was worth my assault and violation...... I was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt doing laundry in my dorm when it happened. I was told I deserved it and to be submissive while 2 Timothy was quoted during my ordeal.
(Using scripture as a means of justifying sexually assault. I don’t believe in Hell, but if I did, I think there would be a special place for people who bastardize the Word of God that way.)
So what do we do? What do we do when we see such god-forsaken sin running rampant – not only in the culture, but even in the Church? Because not only is there a #metoo movement, there is also a #churchtoo movement to give voice to all the women who have been raped, assaulted, and harassed within the church – the last place this should ever happen.
The persistent widow tells us that we should never be quiet about this. That men and women should keep talking about it until it changes. Men should especially break out of our comfort zones and say something when we hear other men saying things that only perpetuate violence towards women. And we all need to listen and believe. It will be extremely uncomfortable – because rape culture has been the status quo for so long. And upsetting the status quo is painfully uncomfortable – but I’m sure it’s a lot less uncomfortable than being sexually assaulted.
And the resurrection event points out to us how important it is that we believe women. Even though we want to think that Peter was being a chauvinist jerk in not believing the women, he was just a product of his misogynistic culture. Women were not regarded as credible witness to any event. There had to be a man present to verify their testimony. So something else is going on here.
Think about it like a first century Christian. If you want your religion to have any credibility in a world that barely sees women as human, why would you tell a story whose credibility hinges on the witness of women? That’s terrible marketing! No one’s going to remember that. So why would Jesus choose women to be the first people to proclaim the Gospel? Why would the writers of ALL FOUR GOSPELS keep that detail in there when it could completely undermine the growth of the Jesus movement! They could have easily edited out the women in their version of the story. Unless, then again, the women actually were there! And Jesus DID use women as the first witnesses because Jesus is saying something about the importance and worth of women. Something that was incredibly progressive for that time, and something we need to be reminded of today.
Perhaps Jesus wanted people to start to believe women. To believe their witness and testimony. To give them value and credibility and equality that they never had before in other culture or religion in the area. To give them a freedom in the Christian faith that they didn’t experience in any other culture or religion. Jesus already knows how important women are to making his movement happen because, as I told the Session at the retreat this weekend, “Women get stuff done!” The women finance and physically support the whole ministry while Jesus tries to train his bumbling disciples – who keep getting it wrong over and over again. The women are the only ones with the chutzpah to actually stay with Jesus while the Romans nail him to a cross. Meanwhile Peter and the rest of the Disciples run like the cowards they are. And Jesus already knows that it will be women who would make great things happen in his movement, even if the church created in his name will discredit them, discriminate against them, and dismiss them for almost 2000 years. And so Jesus made women the first people to ever proclaim the gospel. Men will never be able to claim that. Because Jesus knew that to choose welcome is to choose belief over blame. And like Jesus, we have to start believing women and stop blaming them. Because the question Jesus asks all of us is, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Well? Will he? AMEN.
Women of Grace Presbyterian Church. You are the main reason why Grace Presbyterian Church is still here today. You make up 75% of the membership. You make up 90% of volunteers for church events. And you make up 80% of our leadership on Deacons, Session, Committees, and Seasonal Team. You are valued, loved, and appreciated more than you can ever know. And I just want you to know, that I believe you. This place is safe. And you are welcome here.