CBF Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley preached the following sermon on World Communion Sunday, October 7, 2018, while serving as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Athens, Ga. This sermon is part of a special series of the Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force, a joint project of CBF and Baptist Women in Ministry focused on the prevention of abuse in our churches.
II Samuel 11:1-6, 12:1-15, Matthew 11:28-30
What happens to Bathsheba in this difficult and agonizing text of Scripture is not just sexual abuse; it is sexual assault in the extreme; rape by any definition.
What happens to Bathsheba no doubt resonates with the experiences of women, men and children ever since. A person in power believes he can have whatever he wants. Don’t you see it? David is on his balcony, high above the city of Jerusalem . . . above everyone else, insulated, isolated, respected by all, in a position of unprecedented power and trust. He sees Bathsheba at a distance. The text only tells us that Bathsheba is beautiful. . . we cannot be sure whether David feels anything for her or not, but if he does it can be no more than lust because love . . . true love . . . could never do what David does.
David exercises his power for destruction. He sends for her. He forces himself on her. She cannot resist. How could she stop him? He holds all the power. He was the king. She was a subject. What happens to Bathsheba is an act of abusive power and domination.
We cannot hear this text without noticing the silence of Bathsheba. The text records no words from her when the emissaries come for her. There are no words when she enters David’s presence. No words from her when he forces himself on her, or when he takes full advantage of her in an undeniable sin against her. She is silent. The only word she ever speaks is to let him know that she is pregnant. But otherwise, she says nothing to anyone else.
Does her silence really surprise us? Who would believe that the man holding a reference from God, the oft described “man after God’s own heart” whose life was otherwise full of evidence of the blessing of God had done such a thing to the wife of one of his most loyal and risk-taking soldiers? Would anyone have believed her?
How many people in the world today could make the statement: “Bathsheba’s horror is my horror?” How many women and men and children have been exactly where Bathsheba is? The victim of a horrific abuse of power, a devastating violation of trust? How many people have been abused by people for whom they had developed trust and respect? For whom many others had trust and respect? Leaving them not only to suffer with the horror of the abuse but then the isolating silence? Saying nothing to no one, held prisoner in suffocating silence?
Let’s make no mistake today. Sexual abuse is not an issue. It is not a topic of conversation. It is the devastating and life-altering experience of people we know and love.
Last June at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly, Suzii Paynter dedicated what will end up being her final executive coordinator’s report to the subject of sexual abuse, with particular attention to #metoo and #churchtoo. Early in her address, she made this request of everyone in that large assembly room. She said: “If you have experienced sexual abuse yourself, or if you know people close to you who have had that experience, please stand.” As people stood all over the room there was an audible gasp.
No. Sexual abuse is not an issue. It is the devastating experience of people we know and love. We have sisters and brothers in Christ in this very room today, and in our larger community . . . people we count as friends and loved ones, who have found themselves once or on repeated occasions where Bathsheba was in this terrifying text . . . namely the victim of abuse at the hands of a person of prominence, power and trust. We have all read and heard devastating accounts of this happening in churches, schools, scout troops, and other environments. In my life as a pastor, I have come to know people who have had that terrifying, life-changing experience and have found themselves, like Bathsheba, horribly violated and left alone to suffer in silence.
And I can tell you without hesitation on this World Communion Sunday that there is no matter today that has more threatened the integrity of the gospel witness of the church of Jesus Christ in the world than this reality of sexual abuse within the church. Too many of the abusers of adults and children have been clergy and lay leaders in congregations. It is not just that fellow believers in Jesus have been assaulted, it is that they have been assaulted by people who should have been also described as people after God’s own heart, who were charged to tend their faith and encourage growth in faith, hope and love. As terrible as sexual assault is in any form, it is particularly devastating when the perpetrators claim to represent God. Then the spiritual damage is even more.
So as we listen more closely to this text from II Samuel this morning, we need to ask ourselves the question of this day: “How can the church offer healing to those who have been victims of sexual abuse?” How can the church extend grace from Christ to those who, after abuse, well fit Jesus’ description in Matthew when he said: “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” How can we invite those carrying the burden of abuse to experience the rest and healing of Christ? These are questions that all Christians must ask today, regardless of our own history or experience, because there can be no healing for victims or for the church until we are willing to ask, to listen, to seek and to find.
Encountering this text in II Samuel first gives us vivid illustrations of what we should not do in response to sexual abuse. Notice how David first responds to the news of Bathsheba’s pregnancy. He does everything he can to cover up what had happened on that spring day. In that moment when he first heard the news, David had an opportunity to accept responsibility, to confess his sin to God and Bathsheba and act accordingly. But his actions are far from that, and his cover up only makes the initial abuse worse. It prolongs the silence, it increases the pain, it puts Bathsheba in a place where she becomes dependent on her abuser for life itself. It rips apart David’s family. It costs an innocent and brave man his life. The consequences of the cover up are absolutely devastating.
II Samuel makes it clear that evasion and cover up are not faithful or healing responses to sexual abuse.
But the way the text has been heard also offers up another example of an unfaithful response to sexual abuse. Do you know what started happening among preachers and teachers about as soon as the ink dried on this honest narrative? People started trying to defend David. And you know how they did it. They tried to make Bathsheba responsible. There is a devastating history of blaming Bathsheba. Preachers, commentators, scholars, and the like made arguments that indicted her character, or tried to use the later marriage as evidence that this was something other than sexual assault, and horrifically scholars and preachers invented “blame the victim” as a response to sexual violence long before politicians in any party could come up with a similar strategy when candidates in either party were accused of such indiscretions.
Blaming the victim is not a faithful response to sexual violence. All it does is magnify the suffering by further diminishing already robbed dignity. It evades responsibility just as powerfully as cover up. So if the church is to offer healing to those who have been victimized by sexual assault, we must clearly renounce both of these responses and remove them from our life and advocate for their removal from public life.
But then the question arises: if cover up and shifting blame is not faithful, what is? The text points us toward several faithful paths
To answer that question at all we must see God’s response. God notices what David does to Bathseba! God sees it. God does not deny it, or avoid it, or disbelieve it. It deeply displeases God. It is God’s noticing of David’s sin that changes everything. If God does not notice, then David gets away with not only the abuse of Bathsheba but the murder of Uriah. God’s recognition of David’s actions changes everything.
Before we say any more, this point alone is packed with a word of Gospel for all who have been victims of abuse and live each day in isolation, believing no one knows, no one cares, and there is no resolve to do anything about it. The God who noticed David’s assault on Bathsheba notices the pain and suffering of all those who live with the heavy and horrible burden of such abuse. God is not unaware, and God is most certainly not pleased. God is displeased. If God is displeased by David, imagine how displeased God is in the face of widespread abuse of people made in his image, all too often by his own servants. God pays attention. It is God’s notice that breaks the silence.
So if the church wants to offer healing to those who have experienced abuse, inside or outside the church, the church has to participate in God’s notice. We have to recognize what has happened, and we must notice with a deep, visceral displeasure. We cannot recognize what has happened if we do not create a kind of community where people who have experienced abuse can come forward and tell their stories in confidential counseling as well as small gatherings and large rooms. We cannot extend God’s notice if we do not open ourselves to hearing and knowing and believing. So today, surely we must ask ourselves: how can we be a congregation that notices the experiences of those who have been victimized? How can we make space to hear their experiences in open, vulnerable, honest, trusting ways? How can we participate in God’s notice that breaks the silence and delivers people from the bondage of suffering alone?
But the text carries another powerful truth. God’s notice is not self-contained in the life of God. Instead, in noticing what has happened, God compels Nathan to participate in holding David accountable and shining light on what has happened. The prophet Nathan participates in holding David accountable for what he has done. Nathan does not turn away, or evade. Instead, he shines light on David’s actions in a daring confrontation with David.
Healing for those who have been abused requires accountability for those who commit the abuse. Accountability is what stops abuse dead in its tracks. Accountability is necessary for the prevention of abuse and for any possibility of healing for those who have experienced abuse. What would it mean for us to join Nathan in faithfully participating in God’s accountability for those who commit sexual abuse? So many of the stories we have read and heard make it clear that far too often the church, the state and other authorities have struggled to join Nathan in seeking accountability in the face of abuse. The church must seek this accountability not only in our own life but also in our larger society.
I also wonder if we can offer healing by giving ourselves to the cause of preventing sexual abuse. Prevention requires understanding of how abuse happens in the past, so that individually and communally we can structure our communal life so that abuse is not tolerated but also extraordinarily unlikely. This is another reason that the church must hear the stories of those who have been abused; hearing those stories points us toward healing and prevention.
Gains are already being made in the cause of prevention. More and more congregations are doing what we have already done . . . putting in place policies and procedures designed to prevent sexual abuse of children by people in places of leadership. These policies and practices are designed to prevent adults and children, or adults and youth, from being in situations where there could be either the appearance or possibility for abuse. These “safe sanctuary” or “child protection” policies are based on best practices of congregations who have paid attention to the reality of sexual abuse and have reached a determination to make sure that these horrible things do not happen again.
Over the last week or two I have been reflecting even more on what it might mean to approach youth ministry and Christian formation with an eye toward the prevention of sexual abuse. The confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh has recently focused on the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward with the allegation that as a high school student, she was assaulted by Mr. Kavanaugh when he was also a high school student and was extremely intoxicated.
Without any doubt, their testimony about these things has caught my attention because of the stakes involved. But increasingly, another question has been rising in my thinking and praying. None of us in this room, if we are absolutely honest, know for sure what did or did not happen on a summer night in 1982 in the DC suburbs. Many of us have suspicions, and I doubt that all of our suspicions align. And none of us really know either of the people in the center of this drama. We just know how we have been introduced to them by the media and by politicians (two of the least trusted references in our society) in the midst of a drama in which there are powerful interests far beyond either of them and what happened in their adolescence.
But this I know. Take the names Ford and Kavanaugh out of the picture. Take a Supreme Court confirmation process out of the picture. I am slightly younger than the two folks in the eye of this storm. I also attended a private school for my last three years of high school, and that was the only setting in my life where I was the poorest person in a community. I was out of my league socially and economically. I drove a 1972 mud-colored Datsun station wagon. No one else had a car like that in the parking lot of that school.
But in that setting, in the mid-1980s, would it have been imaginable that one or two teenagers, under the influence of intoxication or other substance abuse, could have been in a situation where they might have done something they would otherwise have never done? Absolutely. Or is it possible that college students, with too much access to the same kinds of things and too little access either to the best kind of faith formation and to much access to dangerous things, could end up in such a setting? Undeniably! As a pastor who spent years in youth and college ministry, I know that this setting described in the media in the last few weeks is not at all unusual, that there are many, many settings in many, many decades, where such a thing could happen.
Whether or not you and I believe that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford for me is a less urgent question than whether or not we recognize that young people are highly at risk for being perpetrators and victims of assaults that could forever redefine their lives. And if we recognize the risk, then are we acting as parents, and as church, in ways that form faith and encourage ways of living such that those kinds of scenes which are far too common become much more unusual, particularly for those of us who call ourselves Christian?
Can we raise young people with a much clearer awareness of what is right and what is intolerable, and how best to keep themselves from every being in such a position? Can we form people who, because of their faith, see as God sees instead of as David saw from that balcony?
If we are serious about the prevention of sexual abuse, it is not enough for us to ask ourselves if we are creating structures in our congregational life that prevent abuse from staining our life and marring our witness? We must also ask ourselves, are we forming a faith in each other that helps us see both our own lives and the lives of others as gifts from God, worthy of respect, reverence, and care? Can we really see ourselves, and our bodies….and others and their bodies, as part of the body of Christ? Made in the image of God? Worthy of dignity and respect? Not for the taking or the manipulating?
You see, on that one day in the spring of the year long before 1982, David’s life and Bathsheba’s life were forever changed because he was standing high above the city and he saw Bathsheba . . . he saw her wrong. He saw her as an object for the taking, a source for the satisfaction of his own pleasure. If we are going to offer healing by the prevention of sexual abuse, we have to help one another see better than that. More faithfully than that. More honestly and lovingly than that. More fearfully and wonderfully and reverently than that.
And if the church is to offer healing to those who are victims of sexual abuse, the church must pray for our own healing . . . for all the times, and all the ways, through sins of commission and sins of omission, we have failed to participate in God’s notice, refused to join God in holding perpetrators accountable, or joined the chorus of those who for whatever reason thought it expedient to blame Bathsheba or other victims. We must deepen our resolve to listen attentively, to extend God’s notice, to hold assailants accountable, to create a community and form people who see not in the ways that lead to abuse but instead in the ways that lead to love.
Last of all. If you are here in this room today and you have experienced sexual abuse, are held in the grip of suffocating and isolating silence, hear the Gospel. God notices you. God loves you. In Jesus Christ God says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen.