Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones that believe — it would be better for him to have a millstone hanged around his neck, and to be cast into the sea. (Matthew 9:42)
This has been a week of painful memory for our people.
This week, 20 million people tuned in live and collectively bore witness as a woman stood before the world and shared her private memories of being sexually assaulted as a teenager.
There was pain enough, in her story, but it was just a small part of the collective pain of that day.
Because for many those who watched and listened, Dr. Ford’s testimony called to mind their own experiences of sexual abuse. For survivors throughout the country, for survivors throughout the world, this has been a week of pain remembered.
I want to start, then, by acknowledging the strain of this week. Statistics alone tell me, that there are such memories present in this room. And that every person here has at least one friend or loved one who has their own story, of rape, or trauma.
So let our first task today be, to set our firm intention: that this place might truly be a sanctuary, a place of healing and safety. We have wounds that cannot be seen. Let us treat one another gently.
The country, I know, is divided over these hearings. Whether this room is divided, I cannot say with certainty. On the surface, that division seems to be about the reliability of Dr. Ford’s testimony. Does she accurately remember, after all these years, the identity of her attacker?
Perhaps reasonable people may disagree about this. Or perhaps not.
But there is also another question, a more painful question, that divides us, a question that lies heavy on the hearts of survivors around the world. Not, “Is this story true?” but, “Does it matter?”
Does it matter, if a woman is sexually assaulted? Does it matter still, even if it happened a long time ago? Does it matter, even if she never tells the story? And, does it matter, even if she does? Will anyone care, will there be any consequences, DOES IT MATTER?
This isn’t really the sermon I had planned to preach this week. I had planned to riff on the first part of the weekly gospel reading [Mark 10:38-50] — the part where the disciples come across a stranger has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they tell him to stop because he’s not “one of us.” And Jesus tells them, essentially, What are you thinking? Our team doesn’t have a monopoly on grace.
It’s an easy sell, that sermon. I could have been happily and comfortably preaching about inclusivity and common mission and celebrating the good works of others. It would have been a feel-good sermon.
But the events of the week have turned my attention instead to the second part of this week’s reading. The part where Jesus says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Better to enter heaven maimed, then to go intact to hell.”
These are the kind of extreme words that tend to put people off religion. The obsession with sin, the draconian punishments – surely these are relics of a more primitive and violent time. Moreover, the very idea of a lost limb or a blind eye as a punishment for sin can feed into the terrible stigma, that can turn a physical disability or difference into a social disease. Disability is never a deserved punishment (as Jesus also taught).
The fact that Jesus suggests we inflict this punishment on ourselves is an indication that we should not think of this literally, as an actual bodily dismemberment, but figuratively, or spiritually.
But don’t let its symbolic nature fool you. These words are harsh.
Jesus is saying, better to be outwardly maimed, then to be inwardly corrupt. Better to let the whole world see how damaged we are, then to hide our sin behind a seemingly perfect façade.
Jesus is telling us to rip off the bandaid, and let everyone see just how ugly it looks underneath.
Well. Now, that’s a hard thing to do. Because the flesh below is exposed, and still tender. Because we don’t want other people to see it. We don’t want to see the looks on their faces, when they do. Sometimes this is because we want to protect them; sometimes it is because we want to protect ourselves. But sometimes, removing the cover it is the only way to heal the wound.
This week, at the Senate hearing, a bandage was ripped off, and all around the world, we flinched.
Again, let me be clear. Sexual assault is never a self-inflicted wound, but a wound inflicted by one person, on another. This does not mean it is any easier to expose it. The flesh below is still raw. And even when the wound is not our fault, we are often afraid to let other people to see its ugliness. We are afraid to see the looks on their faces, when they do. And we are afraid that they will turn away from us, in order not to see.
So let me be clear. It is the crime, that caused the wound, that is ugly.
There is a word, for the public exposure of an ugly crime. That word, is SCANDAL. We sometimes use that as a synonym for gossip, but they are not quite the same. Gossip provokes laughter. Scandal provokes horror. When we are scandalized, we are shocked to the core. Our trust is shaken.
Scandal is an ancient word, and by chance, it appears in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus speaks of “little ones who believe” — children, perhaps, or perhaps just trusting souls. Jesus says, “whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to be drowned in the river.” At least, that’s how the saying appears, in many English translations: “to stumble.” Sometimes it is translated, “to sin.” But both of these translations get it wrong. They get the subject of the verb wrong. It’s not that the little ones do something, but that something is done to them. The verb in Greek is SKANDALISE. Jesus says: whoever scandalizes one of these trusting souls, it would be better for him to be drowned.
Jesus is not speaking here of gossip, of social improprieties or breaches of etiquette. Jesus is talking about SCANDAL – about revelation of sin so shocking that it destroys trust. And he lays the blame for that shattered trust at the feet of the perpetrator – saying, in no uncertain terms: this matters.
We live in scandalous times. There is not a week that goes by that does not bring new allegations of abuse. Abuse of power. Abuse of privilege. Abuse of trust. Abuse of human beings.
We have grown weary of scandal. We have been so thoroughly scandalized, so accustomed to misconduct, that we are beyond being shocked. We are in danger of becoming numb. Of becoming cynical, or resigned, or indifferent.
But this matters.
If you have ever experienced sexual assault or abuse, you don’t need Jesus to tell you that. You don’t need me to tell you that.
But I have been charged to proclaim the gospel. To preach good news to the poor, and release to the captives. And so, you may not need me to tell you this, but I need to say it. We all need to say it.
Rev. Liza B. Knapp
Sermon preached at the First Church of Deerfield, MA
October 7, 2018