Sermon by Micah J. Pritchett
The Resurrection and Pentecost are this divine explosion in our world that propels the early church outward breaking down wall after wall after wall. Acts is the story of the early church trying to race to keep up with this rush of the Spirit that is destroying every barrier and dividing wall of hostility.
The appointing of the first deacons is the breaking down of the wall between Palestinian Jews of the Jewish homeland and Hellenistic Jews from outside of the homeland who were more Greek in language and culture. Peter and John’s affirmation of Philip’s ministry in Samaria breaks down the wall between the Jews and the Samaritans, who were of mixed Jewish and Gentile descent. The conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch breaks down more walls of exclusion. Peter’s vision and encounter with the Roman centurion Cornelius breaks down the wall between Jew and Gentile.
The early church is racing to keep up with this outward movement of the Spirit. In the midst of all of this there is this one rather disturbing story.
A Christian couple, Ananias and Sapphira, follow the example of others in the church and sell a piece of property. They bring part of the proceeds to the church leaders, but they lie and say that it is the total value of the property.
They didn’t have to sell the property. No one forced them to. They didn’t have to give the total amount to the church. They could have given part of it to the church and said we want to keep the rest for ourselves right now. That would have been okay. But that’s not what they did.
They sold the property and brought part of the money, but lied about it and said it was all the money. They wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted acclaim and admiration for their generosity and self-sacrifice, along with the security of having a little money in the bank.
Their behavior threatened the well-being of the church. Instead of being filled with the Spirit of God, Peter says their hearts were filled with Satan. The early Christian community was built upon love and trust, and their actions were lies. Their actions were a threat to the health of the church.
Peter, as a leader of the church, didn’t ignore their behavior. He confronted them and publicly named their behavior. Then in a very dramatic way they experienced the consequences of their actions. God struck them dead. Fear seized the whole church as it was clearly communicated that this type of behavior is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated. (How we make sense of God striking someone dead is a sermon for another day so try not to get hung up there).
The early church was an open community, but it still had boundaries that said certain behaviors are counter to our mission and who we are and those behaviors won’t be tolerated here. A healthy individual, a healthy organization, a healthy church has to have healthy boundaries.
Boundaries provide safety, structure, clarity of roles, and expectations. Boundaries clarify what behaviors are permitted and appropriate and what behaviors are not. In a church, healthy boundaries are about creating a safe environment for people to make themselves vulnerable and open themselves up to God and to one another. (reference not available)
Now we have to be very careful about the boundaries we create. Boundaries can become walls. We can find ourselves recreating the very walls Jesus sought to tear down. We live in a tension here. We want to tear down walls of division while maintain appropriate healthy boundaries.
Duke Divinity School professor Dr. Richard Lischner wrote a wonderful autobiography of his first pastorate entitled Open Secrets. He was a newly minted Ph.D., but with no experience when he took a position as the pastor of a small Lutheran church in a rural farming community in New Cana, Illinois.
One day a twenty-year-old young woman showed up in his office for counseling. He was pretty sure her parents had strong armed her to come in the hope that he could straighten her out. She was in full rebellion against something. She was trying to make some sense of her life but going about it in ways that would only bring her more pain and heartache. Her first act after turning eighteen was to legally change her name from Harriet to Heather. She was trying to find an identity of her own.
Now she was having a very public affair with a married man with three children. As the pastor, Lischner was supposed to make her come to her senses. But to her he was just another authority figure trying to tell her how to run her life, and she was going to have none of it.
He asked, “What about his wife and children?” She professed not to care. “What about your parents?” She claimed to care even less. It was a painful conversation.
Until finally, with no premeditation or forethought, he said, “Well, as long as you continue to see a married man, I don’t think you should take communion.”
He meant it as a way to get through to her . . . to communicate to her the seriousness of what she was doing, to emphasize the harm her actions were causing to herself and everyone who was touched by them.
He wasn’t prepared for her response. The color drained out of her face. She physically recoiled and drew up into herself. Tears began to roll down her cheeks. She said several times, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” Then she simply got up and left.
He had cut her off, banished her from full participation in her community and from the sacrament that nourished her even in the midst of her confusion and sin and pain.
In retrospect he wondered, what was it about her sin that led him to create a wall and bar her from the table? He thought about the man in his congregation who made racist comments and jokes every time he ran into him. He told the man he didn’t agree with him, but it never crossed his mind to bar him from the table.
Years later Lischner wrote:
Why not? Did his routine racism pollute the body of Christ any less than Heather’s adultery? Or does sex, especially when it is brandished by a defiant young woman, still rule in the Christian hierarchy of sins?
We have to be cautious about what sins we get up in arms about and what sins we accept and turn a blind eye to. Who gets labeled with a scarlet letter? And why? We can create walls that prevent a person from experiencing God’s love and grace, walls that exclude those who desperately need to experience the love of God and the love of a Christian community. Walls can be dangerous. We have to be careful. As a church we want to be a place where walls come down and people can experience God’s love and grace. A place where people know they are accepted and loved just as they are.
But we also know there are those who would take advantage of our acceptance and trust and use it for their own selfish purposes to abuse and violate others. Without healthy boundaries, appropriate walls, we can become a place that fosters and allows evil to grow and take root.
The most obvious, well-known example is the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in which bishops and church leaders failed to enforce healthy boundaries and allowed the evil of sexual predators to find shelter and protection. They lacked appropriate walls to protect the innocent from exploitation and harm. But let’s not kid ourselves into pretending that sexual abuse is just a Catholic problem. There are survivor networks for every denomination.
The late Dr. Diana Garland was the dean of the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She did extensive research on clergy sexual abuse. Her work focused, not on pedophiles who abuse children, but on church leaders, whether they are a minister or staff person or deacon or Sunday School teacher, who misuse their position of trust and authority to exploit vulnerable adults to fulfill their own sexual desires. (www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct)
In her writing, Dr. Garland described how churches struggle to respond appropriately when sexual misconduct and abuse occurs. It’s not that anyone wants to protect a perpetrator. It’s just that confronting the abuse and dealing with the situation is hard and painful and messy. No one wants to believe a beloved church leader would betray trust and be an agent of harm instead of healing.
So we ignore warning signs. We overlook and ignore things that don’t feel quite right because we don’t want to risk embarrassing or angering or hurting someone. We want to be nice.
Because of a person’s position as a church leader, we give them the benefit of the doubt. We respect them. We trust them. We don’t want to believe it could happen here so when it does we struggle to respond.
Sadly when accusations are made, churches often turn on the victim. Too many times the focus turns to protecting the perpetrator and protecting the church. Certainly due process should be afforded to anyone who is accused, but often the focus is on simply making it go away. It’s a natural human response
Abuse is an unpleasant thing to think about, and dealing with it pulls us deeper into that unpleasantness, and so the desire is often simply to make it go away. No one wants to take responsibility for addressing the issue. No one wants to be the one asking the hard questions. No one wants to be the person who holds the perpetrator accountable. No one wants to be the “bad guy.”
It’s easier to blame the victim. What they wore. How they acted. Make them out to be the seducer and the church leader the victim of their temptation. Blame them for raising the issue. If they didn’t make a stink about it there would be no more problem. Why can’t they just keep quiet? Why can’t they just forgive and move on? The Christian concept of forgiveness becomes code for “shut-up and go away.”
For the church and church leaders, it’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen. To just move on. Out of sight and out of mind. But not for the victim. Often the church’s response ends up revictimizing the victim.
Judith Herman wrote in her book Trauma and Recovery,
“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”
We must be willing to share the burden of pain with the victim. To take action. As a church we are supposed to be a place of justice. Justice involves hearing and acknowledging the victim and taking their experience seriously. It involves responding with compassion and protecting the vulnerable. Proving them with support and the resources they need to move toward healing.
Justice involves due process for all involved. Investigating to find the truth, and then telling the truth. Acknowledging and not hiding what happened. We can maintain appropriate confidentially and privacy while being committed to not covering up or minimizing the harm that occurred.
Justice also involves accountability. The abuser is confronted and faces the consequences of their actions. They are removed from positions of authority that would allow them to abuse again and put others at risk. (Broken Trust: Confronting Clergy Sexual Misconduct, Baptist General Convention of Texas)
None of these things are easy to do. The process of ensuring justice is difficult and painful, but that does not excuse us from seeking to do justice when we are called upon to do it.
We call this place a sanctuary. A sacred place. A safe haven. It’s a place we gather to meet God. A place where we become vulnerable and open up our hearts and our lives. A place where we confess our sins and pour out our deepest sorrows. We laugh. We weep. We love and serve. Profound things happen in this place.
People need what happens here. We dare not erect walls that separate and divide. Walls that keep people away from God’s love and grace. We want to be a church that welcomes and invites people in. A church where people can experience grace and acceptance and love, and where lives can be changed.
But because of the power that this place holds in our lives and the vulnerability that we bring to it, we must have boundaries that ensure that this sanctuary remains a sanctuary. That it is always a safe and sacred place. That requires boundaries that protect the vulnerable. Boundaries that prevent destructive behaviors from occurring. And a commitment to ensuring justice when those boundaries are broken, even when it is hard.
There is a tension between healthy boundaries and destructive walls. I pray that God might give us the courage and wisdom we need as a church to live in that tension, and to do it well. That like the early church, we might be a sacred and a safe place. A place where all people can feel safe to open themselves up to experience the love and grace of God and be changed by it.
Micah J. Pritchett is pastor of North Broad Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia.