Please be aware that this sermon addresses sexual abuse. If reading it brings up some painful memories, please do not hesitate to contact a pastor or another trusted person to talk things through.
CASA House provides free confidential counselling for survivors of child and adult sexual assault and abuse. Their counselling and support line is +613 9635 3610. You can read more about CASA House here: http://www.casahouse.com.au/.
If you are thinking about making a report to the Royal Commission, details on sharing your story are available here: http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/share-your-story.
A sermon on Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 by Alison Sampson
After my last two sermons, which touched on stillbirth and suffering, conflict and grief, I had planned to preach something a bit gentler tonight. Perhaps something a little bit funny, a little bit playful, or, drawing on the Song of Songs, a little bit sexy. But during the week I had a flurry of conversations about sexual abuse and sexual assault. And then I read the text from Mark.
In this story, religious leaders criticise Jesus’ disciples for failing to wash their hands in the correct ritual way before eating. Jesus pushes back, hard, and goes on to say that we are not made impure by failing to keep kosher. Instead, it is our destructive desires and behaviours which render us unclean.
In our context, there are many ways to read, even interrogate, this text. While many of us don’t have issues with eating pork or prawns in and of themselves, in a world of industrialised farming and animal feedlots, dwindling fish stocks and toxic agricultural runoffs, questions around purity – of food and water, land and consumers – have become pressing once again. One only has to look at food labels to see how important the idea of ‘purity’ has become. Things are organic, fair trade, made in Australia, biodynamic, raw, wild-harvested, gleaned, local, and so on. And so food purity is certainly one lens through which we could explore the text.
But with this week’s conversations ringing in my ears, I began to think about other areas of life in which we use the language of purity and defilement; other factors that can exclude people from religious gatherings; other experiences that can make it hard for people to feel that they belong to the body of Christ. In other words, I began to wonder what would happen if Jesus was talking, not about keeping kosher, but about sexual assault.
And so I want to tell the story again, but in a new way. If it becomes too confronting, you are welcome to slip out at any time and get yourself a cuppa, instead of listening to the sermon. But to those who stay, I invite you now to sit back, relax, and trust me: I’m telling you a story.
When the bishops and the senior pastors came and spent some time with him, they soon noticed that some of his followers were homosexual. Some of the men were flamboyantly gay; some of the women were clearly partners. They realised, too, that many of the disciples had had sex before marriage. Some among the disciples had never married, but were living together and sharing a bed. Others had been divorced and re-partnered; some of them had divorced again. Some had had children with multiple husbands, or with multiple wives. Some were raising children alone. Many of the lesbians had children, and some of those children were being raised by two lesbian mothers and a gay male father, or by some other arrangement of adults.
So the bishops and the senior pastors asked him, “Why don’t your people live out Biblical family values? They have sex before marriage, and some of them aren’t even married but are living together anyway. Many of your people have had multiple partners; and some of them engage in homosexual acts, which according to Leviticus is an abomination. Moreover, some of the children don’t spend time with their fathers; and whoever heard of a child having two mothers?”
At the time that they were asking these questions, there was a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse going on in the land. Behind closed doors, women and men described how they had been sexually assaulted by religious officials. Some survivors explained that they hadn’t told anyone, because their parents had such a high view of religious officials that their stories wouldn’t be believed. Some described how the abuse had affected them: they began to think that they had brought it on themselves; that they were evil and to be blamed. Some described the suicides of friends and classmates; or the way they felt trapped by spirals of self-harm and addiction. Many survivors suffered from mental illness; many survivors were poor. Doubts about their self-worth led some into relationships with violent and abusive partners, who demanded they engage in degrading sexual practices. Many survivors felt dirty and defiled by the things that had been done to them; and years after the abuse, many still felt this way.
The Royal Commission was also hearing from institutions. Gradually it pieced together a pattern of denial, even complicity, in the abuse. It learned that offenders were rarely disciplined, but instead were moved on. It found that some parishes had been sent many offending priests, so that grandparents, parents, and children had all been abused. There were allegations of a paedophile ring; and contemporary senior religious officials were implicated. Widespread abuse had rent the social fabric of several nearby cities and towns, and the effects were still being seen.
The religious officials denied all wrongdoing. Even those who were sentenced to prison showed little or no remorse, and senior religious officials stood by the offenders and supported them during their trials. Legal attempts at restitution or recompense were fought tooth and nail. Some survivors were pushed into in-house processes, which required them to sign a deed of release in return for meagre compensation. Others ended up in protracted legal proceedings. Religious institutions spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal advice and representation, and let defence lawyers guide their policies and actions. Powerful religious officials used their access to the media to mock survivors’ groups, and to make personal attacks on the psychologists and lawyers who represented the victims.
It was into this context that the bishops and the senior pastors asked, “Why don’t your people live out Biblical family values?”
And he said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites. As it is written,
‘This people pays me lip-service,
but their hearts are far from me;
they worship me in vain,
for they teach human commandments as doctrine.’
You abandon the commandment of God, and wield human tradition like a sword.”
Then he said, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For as the prophets said, ‘You must care for the widow, the orphan, and the refugee: those who have no one to protect them.’” But you spout family values and say “Anyone who has sex before marriage, or a homosexual relationship, cannot be part of the kingdom of heaven.” You force people to lie about their relationships, or to suppress sexual expressions of faithful love, yet take no responsibility for the structures that enable sexual violence against women and children. Instead, you have protected religious officials, and worried about your own status.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile you. Nothing that anyone has done to you can defile you. No way that they have touched you can defile you. No act of sexual degradation, no act of violence, no scene of pornography that has been forced upon you, can make you unclean in my eyes. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that another person can do to you that can make you unfit for communion with me. The only thing that can get in the way of communion with me is using other people to satisfy your destructive desires, and failing to live in love. You may feel defiled by what other people have done to you, but in my eyes, you are not defiled. You are not defiled.” Ω