Bringing Up the Rear: For Those Troublesome Women Preachers

IMG_20151023_122507

I preached this sermon at the North Carolina Women’s Preaching Festival. It is part B of a duo preaching presentation in which my sister in Christ, Rev. Kara Slade (coincidentally the coolest Episcopalian Priest you will ever meet in life), gave part A. We followed the Lectionary text for the day and purposefully chose the Pauline Epistle to make the statement that female preachers can and do find liberating and affirming messages in Paul’s writings.

Bringing Up The Rear

I Corinthians 15:1-11

  1-2 Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time— this Message that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy, that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)

3-9 The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.

10-11 But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then, my work didn’t amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it. So whether you heard it from me or from those others, it’s all the same: We spoke God’s truth and you entrusted your lives. (I Corinthians 15:1-11 MSG)

A woman preacher is a woman in trouble.

There is that troublesome God who plucks us from the simple linear life that we created for ourselves and calls us into ministry.

There are those troublesome insecurities, that voice that rings in our heads “who am I to stand in front of people and speak. I am nobody.”

There is that troublesome glass ceiling that women have been hurling stones at for generations but that pesky glass is strong and hard to crack.

There are those troublesome stereotypes. The covert and overt messages that say “if you are going to be a woman preacher you have to look a certain way. Talk a certain way. Stand a certain way. Be a certain way.”

And then. And then. And then

There are those troublesome voices who say again and again to women preachers that you do not belong in the pulpit, you do not belong in the episcopacy, you do not belong in leadership in the church. And if you think otherwise then you are are just being troublesome.

That’s why I love this text in I Corinthians 15. Because Paul here is the exemplary model for every preacher but I would argue his words here are an exemplary model for women preachers especially.

why?

For a simple truth, a simple fact that we all know to be true about Paul: Paul was troublesome.

He preached the Gospel all over the Roman Empire. Without license, without approval, without permission. And he was constantly facing resistance from his fellow preachers.

“You little upstart, who do you think you are,” they would declare. “You don’t belong to our good ol’ boy preaching club. You are not an Apostle. Were you there to see Jesus walk on water? Did you see him feed the masses? Where you there when he died on the cross and revealed himself to us in the upper room?”

“Aha!” Paul replies here in this text. “It is just as you say. Jesus presented himself alive  to Peter. To his disciples. To James and to many more.

And then. And then. And then.

he presented himself alive to me! to me! to me!

It was fitting that I bring up the rear (I Corinthians 1:3-9 MSG).”

It was fitting that I, too, join this long legacy of Prophetic witness to the Holy Gospel.

He goes on to say that it was fitting not because he was so holy. Not because he was so worthy. Not because he had never made any mistakes.  But because God is so gracious. And he says in the text “And I am not about to let his grace go to waste (I Corinthians 10-11 MSG).”

And so he responds I’m sorry if proclaiming the Message is so troublesome to you. I’m sorry if I cause you trouble. But you see, it’s not me it is the troublesome God who is in me. It is the troublesome God who has sent me. It is that troublesome God who presented himself alive to me.

And don’t you see that similar to Paul, a woman preacher is a woman in trouble.

Every time she lifts her voice to preach the Message

she is troubling the still waters of the Church.

She is troubling how things used to be.

She is troubling our understanding of I Timothy and Ephesians.

So it is incumbent upon all female preachers to, like Paul, stand boldly and declare

I know I am a lot of trouble.

But you have to understand that it is not me.

It is the God in me.

It is the God who sent me.

It is the God who presented himself alive to me.

It is exactly as scripture says, Jesus died for our sins.

It is exactly as scripture says, he was buried in the grave.

It is exactly as scripture says, he was raised from the dead.

And it is exactly as scripture says, Jesus revealed himself to Peter,

and James,

and Paul,

And me! And me! And me!

Because it is exactly as scripture says in Joel 2, ” I will pour out my Spirit on all people and your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Joel 2:28).

And so it is fitting that I bring up the rear.

Not because I am so holy. Not because I am so special. Not because I have never made any mistakes. But because God is so gracious. And I am not about to let that grace go to waste.

And so I admonish you today, you women preachers, to own your space in the long legacy of prophetic witness to the Holy Gospel.

Do not be afraid to bring up the rear.

What does that mean? Ultimately, that means do not be afraid to be troublesome.

For a woman preacher is a woman in power.

A woman preacher is woman in strength.

A woman preacher is a woman in audacity.

A woman preacher is a woman in trouble.

Breaking Rank: A woman wrestling with God

jesus-centurion

Matt 8:5-13

I am a flawed preacher.

I know when you read that you think I’m referring to me- my personhood- I am a preacher who has flaws. While this is absolutely true and we will discuss that but no, what I mean is

I am a flawed preacher

in that

my preaching is flawed.

I’m not the worst preacher in the world. I’m a good story teller which is a hallmark of good preaching. I can describe the Biblical stories in such detail that you can almost smell the three fish and five loaves of bread being passed around to the masses. And I can make your mouth water, I can make you hunger for the miracles that Jesus can perform.

Or I can capture for you the temptation of Christ- when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I can make you see the red of the stone. When we think about a wilderness, we think of a forest but in the wilderness where Jesus was tempted there was red rock and nothing. No grass. No life. No trees. No place to hide. There was only red rock. And there was Satan. Standing there staring into his eyes. And I could describe for you the red of his eyes, red with the flames of hell’s fire that burned where his soul ought to be. I could describe the heat of his hatred toward Jesus as he attempted to compel Jesus to turn away from God. I could make you feel that heat on the back of your neck because he hates you too. The enemy hates everyone who is loved by God.

I’m a good storyteller but that isn’t what makes a great preacher.

And I am decent at discussing Biblical and cultural concepts, which is important for good preaching. I can contribute sociological, philosophical, and political polemics. If you listen to me Sunday after Sunday you can hear what I think. What I think about homosexuality, educational equity in public schools, the Justice system. If you listen to me Sunday after Sunday you can hear where I stand on the issues of this country, of this world. But that isn’t what makes a great preacher.

You see, what makes a great preacher – if you were to head over to my minister of music, Dr. Phillip’s church and listen to him preach or if you were to attend Myers Park and listen to Dr. Howell for several Sundays or if you were to listen to some of the historical greats

Gardner C. Taylor

Howard Thurman

Martin Luther King, Jr. – and I don’t mean his speeches, I mean his sermons. If you were to listen to him preach in that over heated and over crowded congregation at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia- you would hear not a good but a great preacher. And what made him a great preacher was his ability to reveal himself. If you were to listen to him, Sunday after Sunday, you would hear about his family. You would hear about his children, how he got along with Coretta. You would see the man that smoked cigarettes way too much and loved women way too much.

You would see the man, the human, the fallible, the breakable man- you would get a glimpse of the man he was. The man that he was becoming. The man who was wrestling with God.

That is the mark of a great preacher.

I don’t do that.

I have a terrible habit of hiding behind the Biblical text. I can talk to you about the Bible all day. I can talk to you about Christian ethics all day but it is very difficult for me to talk about myself, to reveal myself. Of course, there is a reason for that. The first reason is that I began preaching when I was 15 years old. I didn’t have a great deal of life experiences to reflect on or reveal at that time. I wasn’t pulling from a deep well of wisdom and knowledge.

And The second reason is that I became a preacher when I was 15 years old. My first sermon was on obedience. Think about that for a moment. If you have a 15 year old in the household or if you can remember being 15, then you know that 15 years old is the height, the peak of teenage rebellion and here I was talking about obedience. Talking about the importance of submitting yourself to God, to your church, to your parents, to the authority of this world and when I punctuated my last period. And I closed my mouth. And I lowered the microphone. The congregation went crazy. And something happened. Something happened that changed the way that people perceived and interacted with me from that moment on- I became a preacher.

When you become a preacher, especially in the Black church, you become different. There is a great hope for your life fore all of the greatest black leaders were produced by the Black Church so you are held to a different standard. You are faced with higher expectations. You are put on a pedestal. You are important. When you become a preacher, especially in the Black church, you become an important person.

Importance and perfection go hand in hand. You are an important person, you are not allowed to make mistakes. There is no room for failure- which is why I had a 4.3 gpa in high school, a 4.0 gpa in college. Because you can’t fail. You can’t fall, dust yourself off and learn from your bad choices- to begin to add to a well of knowledge and wisdom. No. to be important is to be stuck in suspended animation and arrested development. To be important is to be incapable of revealing your bad choices. Your mistakes. Your failures. Your weaknesses. To be important is to be perceived as perfect.

But I don’t desire to be important. I desire to be a great preacher. And so I desire for you to get a glimpse of the woman- the fallible, the breakable woman- the woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

So allow me to reveal my first bucket of wisdom from my well of knowledge: attempting to be perfect does not in fact make you perfect. You can attempt to do everything right and still get it all wrong. There are moments in life when what is right is clashing up against what is right. Even and especially with Christianity your ethics will begin to collide with one another.

Your Christian ethics call for you to be a good Christian leader. You can go to church, Sunday school, Bible study, prison ministry, soup kitchens, read your bible, witness to your friends and your coworkers.

Then your Christian ethics call for you to be a good wife and mother or to work your hardest to realize those roles in your life. Because no matter how important you are, no matter how many feminist classes you took,  our Christian ethics still suggest that a woman’s value is placed squarely in her relation to a man and her relation to a child.

Then your Christian ethics call for you to get into the habit of submitting and being obedient to the man who is to be your husband, the head of your household, the father of your children. When your opinions clash

and you say “we are Christians. We have to wait.”

and he says “No. We. Don’t.”

your Christian ethics say defer, submit. obey. OBEY.  Your Christian ethics tell you to stop being the controlling black shrew, the overbearing black woman who attempts to call all of the shots in everything, to stop being the reason why black women can’t keep black men around, to stop being the reason that black women can’t keep black men from leaving.

Isn’t that what they teach you?

Isn’t it true

that no matter how important you are, you are only the stereotypes that are wrapped around you?

And your kind?

Think about it, President Obama is the Leader of the free world, he is in fact, the most important man in the world but to so many he is simply just another nigger.

No matter how hard he attempts to get it right, he will still get it wrong.

So what do you do?

What do you do when no matter how hard you try to get it right, you get it all wrong? What do you do when despite your best efforts everything still goes to hell?

Take a glimpse at the woman that I am, the woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

What do you do? I think about Job. I think about the text that describes the moment in his life when everything is taken from him. When he lost his children. His health. His wife. His everything. And I always wondered why the next verse wasn’t “so he went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey and drank until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to hold his children in his arms when they were born.

and drank until he couldn’t remember how it felt when he was informed that they had died.

and drank until he couldn’t remember the look in his wife’s face when she said to curse God and die. That would have made it more realistic. Because that’s what people do.

What do you do? I think about Joseph. I think about how he was betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, lied on a by a girl he wasn’t even checkin’ for, and thrown into prison unduly. I wonder why the next verse isn’t that he went to the drug dealer and got high. Got high until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to be thrown into a pit and watch his brothers, his own flesh and blood, walk away. Why the next verse isn’t that he watched porn until he couldn’t remember his dreams or the promises of God. That would have been so much more realistic. Because that’s what people do. what do you do?

That’s the paradox of the human condition. We respond to the pain and destructiveness of this world by doing painful and destructive things to ourselves. We respond to the brokenness of the world by breaking ourselves. And It gets to the point that we cannot identify the brokenness on the outside from the brokenness on the inside. It gets to the point that we cannot separate brokenness from brokenness. It’s the compulsion to hurt ourselves when we are hurting that we need healing from. It’s the reason that we need Jesus.

We need his power.

We need his healing.

We need his deliverance.

So that’s what we do at Church. We continuously get down on our knees to beg Jesus for his power, his healing, his deliverance.

But when you are an important person, trapped in a facade of perfection, it becomes difficult to get on your knees.

In our text today we find an important person, a centurion, who had the audacity to get on his knees.

He was a roman soldier seeking help for his servant. He was not just a regular foot soldier but someone important. He had soldiers under his authority. He had servants. He was a soldier of value. He was a man who had a future. He probably had a career path to rank up even higher than he was. If you have ever seen the movie Gladiator you know that a good soldier could even be recommended to become Caesar one day. He must have had a large  sword and a large shield (the bigger they are, the more important the soldier). Imagine, then, the spectacle when this man of high honor, of high value, of high importance breaking rank- throwing down his sword and shield- to bow down to an Israelite, to a nobody, to Jesus. Imagine for a moment how the masses of people would turn and look. And whisper. And speculate, pointing and staring and saying

“Look at that important person bowing down before Jesus.”

But he didn’t care what people said about him because he knew that only Jesus could help him. He was audacious and unapologetic.

He wasn’t afraid of speculation.

He wasn’t afraid of judgement.

He wasn’t afraid to break rank.

Because he needed help. He needed Jesus.

I can identify with this soldier. I feel like this soldier. So many have said to me that you cannot submit yourself  in this way. You have too many speaking engagements, you have too great of a career ahead of you, you who can one day be Bishop, don’t do this. You are too important.

But I can identify with this soldier, audacious and unapologetic. Unafraid of speculation or judgement, unafraid to drop my sword and shield and break rank.

Because I need Jesus. Because he is the only one who can help me.

My second bucket of wisdom from my well of knowledge is this (I only have two buckets by the way. The well is still not very deep):

It doesn’t  matter how big your title is, being a Bishop can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter how big your church is, being a mega-pastor can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter if you have a book that is on the New York Time’s Best seller’s list. Being a prolific writer can’t save you.

It doesn’t matter where you get your doctoral degree, your degrees can’t save you.

The only one who can save you is Jesus.

Take a glimpse at the woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming. The woman who is wrestling with God.

And so I will always break rank. And get on my knees publicly, before anyone and everyone. I am not too important to beg for his power, for his deliverance, for his healing.

And I could really get excited about the power of Jesus. His healing power. I could put him on the cross and whoop and holler until I punctuate my last period. But I am not ready for the conclusion yet.

Because I have neglected to mention the last component that makes for a good preacher. And that is prophetic witness. And I have prophetic power in spades.

I can speak up when something is awry.

The Church, the institution, is awry.

The Church is supposed to be the place where people should be able to come to throw down their sword and their shields and receive Jesus’ healing. The Church should be the soldier running to Jesus crying out “my servant is sick, please help!” Instead, too often, the servants are yelled at and ridiculed

“How dare you be sick! Don’t you know that you are my servant! You are the servant of importance, indeed, the servant of the Roman empire?!”

And the servants of the church, the leaders of the church, the members of the church, so often are not prayed for, lifted up, advocated for, but are instead broken even more.

I was raised by the church. I was produced for the church. I work for the church. I am the church. And I have been deeply wounded and harmed by the church. And so I stand in prophetic witness. I stand by, I stand with, I stand for anyone who has ever been hurt by the church. who has ever been burned by the sacred spaces where they should have found healing but only found more brokenness.

Take a glimpse of the woman who I am. The woman who I am becoming. The woman wrestling with God.

That’s why my peers do not come to church. That is why churches are closing down by the thousands. It’s not because of the music (believe it or not we like the songs our grandmothers sang to us). It is not because of the lack of technology (we have enough technology in our phones to satisfy us for a lifetime). It’s because the church is not a safe space to be broken.

That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous is a Christian organization that operates outside of the church. What do people do there? All they do is get healing. They get deliverance. Why is it that it is separate from the work of the church? Why is it that it is anonymous? Because The church doesn’t allow you to ache. to hurt. To be broken. Because if you can’t fake perfection here, you are not welcome here.

The simple answer is, like so many other disillusioned Christians, to just leave. That’s what millennials do, after all. When something is hard, or painful, or difficult, we quit. We press delete. That’s our modus operandi. To leave the Church and never look back. 

But me…

I want you to see me. I am a woman who, like Jacob, is wrestling with God. And I won’t let go.

I won’t let go until you protect my family.

I won’t let go until you touch my congregation.

I won’t let go until you restore the Church universal.

I won’t let go until you bless me.

Me. I won’t let go until you bless me.

It is me. It is me. It is me

it is me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

In the need of power.

In the need of deliverance.

In the need of healing.

Take a glimpse of me.

Of the Woman that I am. The woman that I am becoming.

The woman who is wrestling with God.

Good Sex Part 2: Bound to the Bedposts

Leviticus 18:1-30

Today we will continue our discussion on Christian sexuality and intimacy. The premise of this sermon series is that there is such a thing as good, healthy, and holy sex. Sex is not innately bad nor sinful. While sex is not innately sinful, sexual sin does exist and it is quite dangerous and destructive to the mind, body, and spirit. In order to identify what good sex is, we must first identify what good sex is not. In order to have good sex, we must have a deeply developed understanding and a commitment to refrain from the behaviors that get in the way of good sex, the sexual behaviors that destroy one’s body or the bodies of others, or the sexual behaviors that God has called sin. Leviticus is the common place to begin a conversation on sexual sin.

Our pericope, Leviticus 18, at first glance seems pretty straight forward, primarily emphasizing healthy non-sexual boundaries between family members. But there is more happening here. Let’s take a closer look:

Vs. 7- Don’t have sex with your parents.

7s. 8- Don’t have sex with your step-parents.

Vs. 9- Don’t have sex with your siblings, your full siblings or your half-siblings.

Vs. 10- Don’t have sex with your siblings’ children, nieces or nephews.

Vs. 11- Don’t have sex with your stepsiblings. Have you ever seen the 1995 movie Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone? In the end, the protagonist fell in love with her stepbrother… yea, don’t do that.

Vs. 12, 13, 14 – Don’t have sex with your aunts or uncles.

Vs. 15,16- Don’t have sex with your in-laws, sister-in-law, father-in-law… As if anyone gets along with their in-laws long enough to even conceive of the idea!

Vs. 17a- Don’t have sex with a person and the person’s child. (“I’m leaving you for your daughter!” Or “I’ve been sleeping with your father!” And all the other episodes on Jerry Springer, don’t do that).

Vs. 17b- Don’t have sex with your grandchildren.

Vs. 18- Don’t have sex with two sisters concurrently or two brothers concurrently.

Vs. 19- Don’t have sex while on your period or have sex with someone who is on her period.

Vs. 20- Don’t have sex with a neighbor’s spouse. Think of it like this: Don’t have sex with your neighbor’s partner, your friend’s partner, and your partner’s friends. I call this the “don’t smash the homies” rule.

Vs. 21- Don’t sacrifice children to Molech. This one is interesting. It may seem out of place but it isn’t. Molech was a pagan God. It was common at this time for people to sacrifice a first born child to Molech in hopes of greater fertility in the future, both fertility in the body (more children) and fertility in the land (plentiful harvest). We will come back to this.

Vs. 22- The infamous Leveticus 18.22 or don’t engage in sex with one of the same sex.

Vs. 23- Don’t have sex with an animal.

It is understandable to wonder about the utility of stating many, if not most, of these rules. It is understandable to think that this chapter is not particularly helpful in our quest to determine how to have good sex. You may be thinking, “Of course I know not to have sex with my mother, that’s gross!” But given our conversation on sexual abuse of children and the disturbing prevalence of incest and sexual violence that takes place within families, we realize that these non-sexual boundaries between family members really cannot be overstated. Moreover, when we understand what is happening in this chapter we will find that the sexual ethics presented here are quite relevant and practical tools to guide us in cultivating healthy sexual practices.

In this chapter, God is creating a culture of sexual and spiritual holiness that is different from the culture that the Israelites were heading to (Canaan culture) and different from the culture that the Israelites were leaving (Egyptian culture). The book of Leviticus is set in the wilderness. God has just freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and is now leading them to the land that God promised to give to their ancestors, Sarah and Abraham. In the midst of this journey from Egypt to Canaan, God establishes a Holy Covenant with the Israelites. He vows to overwhelm them with God’s power, provision, and steadfast love and in response to God’s commitment to them, they would become a peculiar people- different from the rest of the world in their living and different from the rest of the world in their worship. The rules listed above were sexual and worship practices that the world, especially Egypt and Canaan, considered absolutely normal but God considered sin.

In God’s covenant, God vowed to have a special relationship with the Israelites, the Israelites would be the children of God (Duet 14:1). But this special relationship to the Divine did not permit them to have sex with one another. In Egypt, the Pharaoh also believed that he had a special relationship to the divine, he was considered the son of Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun. The royal family were descendants of the Sun God, considered divine themselves, and therefore only primarily produced with one another to keep their divine lineage. The Israelites were leaving a place where it was considered completely normal, therefore, to have sex with a sister or close relative. But God is saying in this chapter that what the world considers normal, God considers sin.

God’s covenant also required a peculiarity in worship. Not only did God require the Israelites to worship only the God of Israel but God was greatly interested in how the Israelites worshiped the God of Israel. They were headed to Canaan where the Canaanites venerated various deities like Molech, Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth, etc. The Canaanites worshiped these deities by engaging in child sacrifice (Lev 18:21) and in mass sexual orgies. The orgies included everyone and everything, it was a big sexual mess. Verses 21-23 is addressing this sort of worship practice. God is telling the Israelites not only to refrain from worshipping the Canaanite deities but also refrain from worshipping the God of Israel in the same manner that the Canaanites worship the Canaanite deities. They are going to a place where it was considered normal to have these sexual orgies as a part of worship and ritual but what the world considered normal, God considered sin.

They were coming from a place and they were going to a place where certain sexual practices were considered normal but what the world considered normal, God called it sin.

This refrain rings true in the ancient world of the Israelites and it still rings true for Christians today.

What the world considers normal, God calls it sin. Today

It’s totally normal to begin having sex at 13, 14, or 15.

It’s totally normal to meet someone at a club, bar, party. Sleep with them and not remember their name the next morning.

It’s totally normal to have had so many sexual partners that you have lost count. Can’t remember names or faces.

But what the world considers normal, God calls it sin.

It’s quite normal to have multiple partners at one time. In or out of marriage. Normal to sleep with your wife. And your girlfriend. And your side piece. And that girl you met at the mall yesterday. Oh, it’s normal to sleep with your hubby, your boo, that dude you met at a Casino on your girls weekend to Vegas, and the ex who texts you every 6 months with “hey stranger.”

It’s normal to have sex for money.

It’s normal to have sex for drugs.

It’s normal to have sex to get your rent or utilities paid.

But what the world considers normal, God calls it sin.

It’s totally normal to tell a woman that you really like her, even love her. To tell her you want to be with her. To tell her how beautiful she is. To sleep with her. And then never call her again.

It’s normal to watch porn all day. And all night.

It’s normal to be confused about the reverence owed to a female pastor in a pulpit because the only time you see a woman on an elevated platform is when she is on stage at a strip club.

But what the world considers normal. God considers it sin.

And this too, my friends, is about worship. Our sexuality is wrapped up with and through our spiritual selves. You tell me what is going on in your sex life and I can tell you what is going on with your soul. Your heart, you mind, and soul are inextricably bound to what you are doing sexually. And God really cares about it. Even if you don’t. God cares.

God cares about what you are doing with your body.

God cares about what you are doing to your body.

God cares about what you are doing with other people’s bodies.

God cares about what you are doing to other people’s bodies.

It is clear from Leviticus 18 that in order to have good sex one must refrain from sexual sin. Using Leviticus 18 as a point of reference and considering the vast conversation on sex in the Bible, we find that there are three fundamental sexual behaviors that we must refrain from in order to have good sex.

  1. Sex in violence is a sin. Sex that is wrapped around aggression, oppression, the desire to conquer or control another’s body is a sin. We find this clearly illustrated in the Book of Judges, chapter 19. In this text, we find a Levite who is seeking to reconcile with his concubine who has run away to her father’s house. He goes to her father’s house to try to encourage her to come home with him. A group of men from the neighborhood then come pounding at the door demanding that they father hand over the Levite so that the group can rape him. The Levite instead pushes his concubine outside and the text says that the group, “raped and abused her all night long” (Judges 19:25). This sounds unspeakable but the truth is that gang rape happens all the time. It happens in parties and night clubs. In college dorm rooms and frat houses. It happens in prisons and detention centers. It happens to women and children in war-torn countries who cannot get away from the soldiers fast enough. It happens all the time. And it’s a sin.

One-on-one coercive sexual violence is also a sin. I am talking to men and women here. Women, too, pressure and force men into sexual acts. Have a look at Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39. There we find Joseph living with his slave master Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife takes a-liking to Joseph and tries to seduce, compel, and finally coerce him to have sex with her. Sex that wrapped around an attempt to control someone else’s body is violent and sexual violence is a sin.

Sexual behavior that violates your own body is a sin as well. Sometimes people rape themselves. Sometimes a person will consent to a sexual behavior that s/he really doesn’t want to perform. If s/he would just stop and listen s/he could hear the inner voice that is crying “please, I don’t want to do this.” Committing a sexual act against your own will is self-inflicted violence. And it is a sin.

2. Prostitution is a sin. It is sinful to trade sex for money. It is sinful to barter sex for goods and resources like clothes, shoes, a new cell phone, tickets to a Beyoncé concert, dinner and a rent-free place to stay at your baby’s momma’s house. Your sex should not be for sale. Your sex is not a Visa or a MasterCard.

Not only is it sinful to trade your sex for material gain, it is sinful to trade your sex for immaterial gain as well. To hand over sex in order to feel loved or desirable for a little while. To trade sex to feel powerful and in control for a while. To give sex in order to feel less lonely or isolated for an evening. Sex for the sole purpose of intangible goods – “I just don’t want to be alone tonight.” Or “I need to feel like The Man” is a sin.

It is sinful to use sex as a way to change situations and circumstances that you may find yourself in. This is illustrated in Genesis 38 with Tamar and Judah. This is a complicated story but suffice it to say that Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. According to custom, Judah was supposed to give Tamar to his youngest son after the first two sons died. But Judah never did it. So she hid her identity, had sex with Judah, got pregnant, all as a response to the fact that Judah did not give her to his third son. She wielded her sexuality in an attempt to control her situation. When you use your sex as way to manipulate your circumstances, control your environment or control the actions of other people, it’s called prostitution. And it’s a sin.

3. Finally, lust is a sin. Constantly chasing after your many, and ever changing, sexual impulses is a sin. We see this exemplified in the life of David, in II Samuel 11. David sent his army out to war and in a very un-kingly fashion, he stayed back to hang out in the palace while his soldiers fought for his kingdom. One day he looked out and saw Bathsheba, the wife of one of his chief soldiers, bathing in the sun. David took one look at her and he just had to have her. It didn’t matter that he was married. It didn’t matter that she was married. It didn’t matter that she was married to one of his chief soldiers who was in real-time fighting for David’s life. None of that mattered. All that mattered was that he saw Bathsheba. And he had to have what he saw. So he took what he saw. The consequences of this act of lust were devastating to everyone involved, it led to the break-up of marriage and the ending of lives. And that is what lust does. It destroys relationships. It destroys lives. It’s a sin that keeps on sinning.

We are sexual beings and we have sexual desires but it’s exhausting and destructive to be constantly subject to all of your sexual impulses. If you don’t get in control of lust you will find yourself constantly chasing your tail, running nonstop after the things that you think that you want. But the reality is that you do not know what you want.

Listen closely, I said you don’t know what you want. I’m not saying that you don’t know how you like it. I’m sure you know how you like it. You like it stripped down. And beat up. You like it licked. Stroked. Flipped. And reversed. You know how you like it but you don’t know what you want.

Because if you knew what you wanted, you wouldn’t wake up next to a man one morning and next to a woman the next.

If you knew what you wanted, you wouldn’t change your sex partners like you change your underwear.

If you knew what you wanted, you would not be bound to the bedposts of your bedrooms by your impulses, desires, addictions, and angst.

That constant temptation to chase and chase and chase after our perceived wants is the result of the human condition. It is the incurvatus- it’s a brokenness in the spirit, a sickness in the soul.

But the good news is that there is a God who knows what we want. And more importantly, there is a God who knows what we need. What we need is freedom. What we need is liberation from the sins of violence, prostitution and lust that keep us bound up to our bedposts. What we need is healing for our tattered, bruised and bleeding souls.

The good news, brothers and sisters, is that there is a bandage for the tatters. There is an ointment for the bruises. There is a salve for our bleeding. There is a balm. There is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin-sick souls. There is a balm in Gilead and his name is Jesus.

Jesus who looked at the woman accused of adultery (John 8:4-11).

A woman whose name we do not know.

A woman whose story we do not know.

We don’t know if she was a prisoner to violence. We don’t know if she was just trying to feed her children. We don’t know if she was high on the opiate of lust. All we know is that she stood before her Lord and savior, caught in the act.

Like her, we stand today in the presence of our Lord, caught in the act. None of us free from the temptations of violence, prostitution, and lust.

Jesus looks at her in her eyes. And then he looks into the eyes of her accusers and said, “You who is without sin, you cast the first stone” (John 8:7). You who have never been tempted by the thrill of violence. You who have never been tugged by the promised reward of prostitution. You who have never been seduced by the tantalizing voice of lust. You cast the first stone.

And the Bible says that one by one,

From oldest to the youngest. They laid down their stones.

“Have none of your accusers condemned you?” Jesus asked.

“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (John 8:10-11)

We stand today in the overflow of the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus the Christ.

Who has not condemned us but delivered us.

Who has not condemned us but liberated us.

Who has not condemned us but freed us.

Good sex occurs when we put down the sin of sexual violence, prostitution, and lust.

Brothers and sisters Go. And sin no more.

Good Sex Part 1: Let Him Lay His Hands on You

Text: Matthew 19:13 and 14

In order to talk about healthy sexuality we must first address the elephant in the room- the truth that we as a community have been keeping a secret for far too long- and that is for many in this sanctuary, your first sexual encounter was violent, was coerced, was before you were old enough to consent, was before you knew what was happening. Before we can talk about good sex, we must first talk about sexual abuse of children.

Sexual abuse is any sexual act between an adult and a minor (sometimes between a minor and a minor), forcing, coercing, or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act:

It could be touching, or fondling.

Forcing a child to strip.

or raping a child.

According to the national statistics on rape, 70% of all reported sexual assault occur to children under the age of 17 and in almost half of all reported rape cases, the victim was also a child under the age of 17.[1] These are only the cases that were reported. It is widely known that many instances of sexual abuse go unreported. It is widely known, although rarely discussed, that the incidence of sexual abuse is extraordinarily high particularly in the black community. And this form of sexual violence that people endure has lasting implications on one’s ability to cultivate healthy spiritual or healthy sexual practices. This is an issue in which we must bring to light and bring to Jesus, the light of the world.

In our text this morning, we find Jesus in the thick of his ministry, travelling around preaching and teaching throughout Judea. By now, he has developed a name for himself as a great preacher, miracle worker, and healer. People are coming from all over the place to receive healing from him. We find here in our short pericope that a group of parents or guardians have brought little children so that Jesus could lay his hands on them and pray for them.  We read that the disciples rebuke the parents and try to keep them from Jesus. Jesus responds by rebuking the disciples and stating, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mat. 19:14).

Let the children come to me. And do not hinder them.

Sexual abuse hinders the relationship between a child and Jesus. You will hear me say over and over again throughout the next several weeks this fundamental truth: our sexual selves are inextricably bound with our spiritual selves. Therefore, sexual violence is not only traumatic to the mind and the body, but also to the spirit. This sort of trauma can get in the way of truly knowing God. Of knowing God’s goodness. Of knowing God’s grace.  And most especially, of knowing God’s love. The people brought the children to Jesus so that Jesus could lay his hands on them- even the imagery of Jesus laying his hands on you can be a stumbling block, can be disturbing, or even violent imagery, if you have been touched inappropriately. Sexual abuse damages a child’s body which is a crime. Sexual abuse keeps a person from their Lord, which is a sin.

Let the Children come to me. And do not hinder them, Jesus said.

We, as a community, need to begin to face this as a reality in our community and address this sin. This is really happening in our families and in our neighborhoods and it needs to stop. We must take seriously the statistics and be vigilant about changing our community so that our children’s first sexual encounter is no longer one of violence, confusion, and deep pain.

The first thing we must do is protect them. Know the statistics and take them seriously. The statistics are that 90% of children who are molested, know their abuser.[2] While it is sometimes an unknown, scary, predator that lurks around the child’s school, it is more often the case that the abuser is a family member, a neighbor, or a close friend of the family. We have to take that seriously. That means that children need to be supervised and protected, even from family. That may mean that a child needs to be supervised by two adults at all times. That may mean that you can’t send your child to grandma’s house for the weekend or the summer if there are a lot of adults living in her house. We need to protect children from live-in predators as well. We have to take seriously that the reality of the situation is that single mothers with live-in partners have the highest risk of having a son or daughter sexually abused.[3]  We have to take this fact seriously. And putting aside for a moment the question of what are you doing shacking up in the first place?- just putting that aside, if you chose to do that, know that your child is at risk. Put some measures of safety between your lover and your child. Between your lover’s family and your child. Between your lover’s friends and your child.  Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them. In other words, protect them.

Second, we have to believe them. It is a tragic phenomenon that incidence of sexual abuse often goes unreported, not because the child did not inform an adult, but because the adult refused  to believe the child or refused to respond to the crisis. I have heard so many horror stories where the child came forward and the parent just would not believe. I know a woman who was molested by her grandmother and she told her mother but her mother simply would not believe her. Her mother continued to drop her off at her grandmother’s house for days and weeks at a time.  She would not believe. She would not respond. This had lasting implications on the woman’s mental psyche, her spirituality, and her sexuality.  I know another who was molested by her stepfather for many years.  When she tried to tell her mother, her mother would simply leave the room. Her mother still lives with her stepfather to this day. This had lasting implications on the woman’s mental psyche, her spirituality, and her sexuality. It is our responsibility to believe and to respond to our children. Respond by talking to children about sex regularly and early on. If the first time you are talking about sex is after a crisis has occurred, you have already responded way too late. It is incumbent upon us to create a culture in our homes and families where open and honest conversation is the norm, where children are not afraid to speak the truth for fear of discipline or rejection, where secrets are not encouraged. This sort of secret festers in communities, it festers in families, and it festers in the hearts and souls of the victims. It causes the collapse of self-esteem, a confusion about wanted and unwanted touch, destructive coping mechanisms like substance abuse, it causes depression, and even causes suicide. Let the children come to me. And do not hinder them. In other words, respond to and believe them.

We can spend all of our time discussing preventative measures to eliminate the presence of sexual abuse in our community but for many people here- men, women, and children- a conversation on prevention is too little and too late.

All of us have been impacted by sexual abuse.

Here, present with us now, are men and women who have been sexually violated as a child.

Here, present with us now, are men and women who have violated a child or minor sexually.

Here, present with us now, are children who have been inappropriately touched.

Here, present with us now, are family members and friends who have witnessed as sexual trauma has stripped our loved ones of their life and their light.

Brothers and sisters, in order to have good sex, healthy sex as God intended- you must first receive God’s healing for the ways in which your body has been violated, you must first receive healing for the way in which you have used your body to violate another’s body. We stand today as a community- of parents, victims, violators, and friends- we stand desperately needing Jesus to lay his hands on us. We stand desperately needing his healing. Therefore, I invite you to allow Jesus to put his hands on you today. I invite you to allow him to place his hands on this area of your life fore only he can fix your broken places and bring light to your dark spaces. Good sex can only arise when you allow Jesus to be the one to touch you. To heal you. To make you whole. Let him lay his hands on you.

So what we will do now is enter a time of healing. There are candles on the altar and I invite you, as you feel led, to light a candle to represent a child that you are bringing to Jesus.

Perhaps that candle represents you, when you were touched before you knew what sex was, before you knew what was happening.

Perhaps that candle represents a son or daughter, niece or nephew, brother or sister.

Perhaps that candle represents a friend who was violated as a child and you have watched as the trauma has taken root in the person’s life, you have watched as his or her life has gone spiraling out of control as a result.

Jesus said, let the children come to me. And do not hinder them. For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Please, bring the children to Jesus.

____________________________________________________________

There were nearly 50 candles on the altar, all were lit. The time of healing ended with a period of testimony. The following are a few testimonies that were rendered:

“Pastor, I thank you for being brave enough to discuss this topic. This is really happening in our communities. I had a brother who, when he was younger, he went to our neighbor’s house to play one day. And that day he changed. He became a different person. He began getting in trouble, going in and out of jail. He eventually committed suicide. My mother believes that something happened to him. She believes that someone touched him. But she didn’t know, we didn’t know how to talk about it. So I encourage everyone to be brave, to talk about this, to speak out. It just may save a life.”

“I have nephews and nieces that have been molested. There are so many that there are not enough candles to light one for each. I knew something was wrong, that something was happening but everything was kept a secret. I pray that God would heal them and heal my family.”

“When I was a little girl, I was molested by a friend of the family. He would touch me and I didn’t know what was going on but I knew it was wrong. I became sexually active at a young age, I think because of that. I was a very young mother. I have never told anyone before today that this happened to me as a child. It was 50 years ago and I didn’t realize until today how much it still impacts my life. But I believe that I have been healed today.”

Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Amen.

[1] RAINN Rape Abuse Incest National Network. https://www.rainn.org/statistics

[2] RAINN Rape Abuse Incest National Network. https://www.rainn.org/statistics