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.

This matters.


Rev. Liza B. Knapp
Sermon preached at the First Church of Deerfield, MA
October 7, 2018

Holy Turf War, Batman

An Episcopalian, a Lutheran, and a Congregationalist go into a bar.

I know this sounds like the start of a joke, but it is actually more or less a true story. Several years ago, my UCC colleague Eric Fistler told me that he and two colleagues were talking together, and they discovered that the three of them shared the same  dream, of starting a new sort of church. A church that would worship outdoors, rain or shine, welcoming the homeless as well as the housed. A church that would celebrate weekly communion as it had been celebrated in the early church: as part of a common meal, at which food was freely given and freely shared.

But before the three friends could turn their dream into a reality, there was some planning to do: obtaining the blessing (and financial support) of their respective denominations; coordinating schedules with local food pantries and churches; finding a location and obtaining city permits.   Finally Eric gave me a call, inviting me to their first worship service in downtown Northampton. It was January, and bitterly cold; one of the volunteers actually got frost bite that night. But slowly, from that first night, Cathedral in the Night began to grow.

Not long afterwards, I arrived one Sunday afternoon to help set up, only to discover that a small group of folks had already gathered just down the block. They had crockpots of stew, and a box of vegetables, that they were giving away free.

And I have to confess, my first thought was: Uh oh. We have competition.

Who did these guys think they were? So much preparation and thought had gone into our ministry; who were these upstarts who just showed up, without permission or planning, to hand out free food on ‘our’ sidewalk? Most frustrating, they seemed to be accomplishing what we were still struggling to do: they were engaged and connecting with the people on the street.

A few moments later, a young man from the group came over to our table. He looked to be in his early twenties; he had a beard, and wore a long skirt. He introduced himself as Tony, and he said:

“We’re packing up for the day but we have some food left over. Would it be okay if we bring it over here, so you could serve it at your meal?”

And he hurried off, to help fill our table.

I am not the first person to mistake an ally for a competitor; this sort of holy turf war is apparently as old as the church itself. In Mark’s gospel, we find the apostle John telling Jesus: We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we told him to stop, because he wasn’t actually part of our group.

And Jesus tells them: Don’t stop him! Whoever isn’t against us, is for us.

Most of us know this expression the other way around: If you’re not for me, you’re against me. It’s easy to confound the two expressions, as if they were equivalent. And they would be, if the world were neatly divided into friends and enemies, for and against. But we live in a world of in-betweens and unknowns. What do we do, when we are faced with a new face? Do we operate under an assumption of friendship, or an assumption of conflict?

We don’t know who this stranger was, casting out demons in the name of Jesus. How did he know who Jesus was? Had he heard him preach, or maybe even been healed by him? Why did he strike out on his own, instead of following Jesus?

We don’t know what the stranger was thinking, but we can guess how the disciples must have felt. They had been hand-picked by Jesus, called to be his disciples and walk in his footsteps. And now, suddenly, here is this stranger, casting out demons. And I’ll bet the disciples first thought was:

Uh oh. We have competition.

Who did this guy think he was? Who was this unordained upstart who just showed up, without calling or commission, to heal people in Jesus’ name? Most frustrating, he seemed to be accomplishing what the disciples themselves were still struggling to do.

Why just the other day, a man had brought his son to the disciples, asking them to cast out the demon of epilepsy that was sending the boy into convulsions. The disciples had tried, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy. In the end, Jesus prayed with the boy’s father, and the boy was healed; but it was discouraging, I’m sure, for the disciples, not to have been the ones to help him.

Deep down inside, we all long to be someone’s savior. We want to be the hero, the one who saves the day – or if not the hero, then at least the hero’s right hand man. If we can’t be Harry Potter, at least we want to be Ron or Hermione, and not just another nameless Hogwarts student. If we can’t be Batman, we at least want to Robin.

That’s actually what the disciples had just been arguing about, as they walked along the road together: which among them was Jesus’ right hand man? Jesus reminds them that they are all servants of the same God. And so for that matter is this stranger they met on the road, the one who was walking his own path, casting out demons as he went.

He’s not the competition, Jesus tells them. He’s an ally.

I wonder if it is human nature, perhaps, to be jealous of another’s success, even – or maybe especially – when we are working for the same goal. In a world of scarce resources and limited opportunities, our future depends on our ability to outperform our peers. We fight not just for market share, but also for promotions, and so we compete — not just against the opposing team, but also against our own teammates.. This is how it is, in the kingdom of this world.

But in the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, things are different. In the kingdom of this world, we try to climb the ladder; but in the kingdom of God, we help another to rise.

We, of course, live in both worlds. As disciples of Christ, we are called to be in this world, but not of it. That isn’t always easy to do, especially when your personal livelihood gets mixed up with your service to others. It’s hard to be pleased for another’s success, if it means they get the job, or the grant, or the glory.

Or the pledges.

The church, too, lives in this world of scarce resources and limited opportunities. And in an era when church membership in America is declining, it is easy to look upon the church across town as a competitor, instead of an ally. We hear of a thriving youth group or a successful outreach program in another church, and instead of rejoicing, we feel a twinge of envy. Why didn’t we think of that first?

But what if we really believed the words of Jesus, that those who are not against us, are for us. What if we really believed, that we were all servants of one God? What if we really believed, that there was enough grace to go around? God knows, there is enough need to go around. What if we were allies, instead of competitors?

And so an Episcopalian, a Lutheran, and a Congregationalist walk into a bar, and a new ministry is born.

Sometime afterwards, as we were setting up for Cathedral in the Night, some loud singing broke out down the block. Tony and a friend were entertaining the folks at their gathering with some old campfire songs. One of our own visitors came over to me and asked:

So who’s the competition?

That’s not the competition, I told him. Those are allies.

(from a sermon preached by Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ, October 11, 2015).

(photo: Cathedral in the Night)