Looking for God in Hard Times

I don’t know that I’ve ever told you this, but in my high school yearbook, I was voted Class Optimist. It was the peak of Generation X, we were all born during Watergate and at the end of the Vietnam War, smallish high school too – so the competition was low. But still, I’ve on the whole had a sunny enough disposition and I’ve tended to have a hopeful, trusting, optimistic read on life.

Some days, though…

Preachers sometimes have a little Sunday night/Monday morning let down. The come down after an intense experience. And last Sunday’s Speak Out Sunday was good, really good – I’m proud of you all, Reservoir, for what we can do together. But it was intense too.

And so Sunday night in the Watson household, there wasn’t much more going on than playing video games and watching the Superbowl. Which was kind of a downer. Now I know you all who aren’t from around here are probably sick of the Patriots, and I care about football a lot less than I used to, but still, it was a pretty disappointing finish to a great run around here.

And then Monday morning, I woke up to the day’s news cycle, which was pretty much the usual chaos and rage and awfulness – I mean really awful – and Monday morning is Monday morning after all, and getting my kids’ school weeks and our work weeks going had some drain and complexity to it.

So as I drove in to the ministry center Monday morning, my high school “class optimist” self wasn’t shining yet. Really the opposite. I was in a funk.

So I pulled over at Danehy park for a few minutes to take a walk, stretch my legs, maybe pray a little before starting my work for the day.

And at one point, I’m walking along, and I look up, and I see this incredible striated cloud formation – like ripple of cloud, blue sky, cloud, sky, patterned again and again. And the flat morning light is cutting across the whole thing, lighting it up. And I stopped in my tracks and just stood there and for a minute, I knew deep in my bones, that God was there.

I thought, I feel like I’m standing still, even though this park and these clouds and me, we’re spinning at almost a thousand miles an hour. And there’s all kinds of trouble in my heart and out in the world, and who knows how long all this will last, but my God, you made this all, and you are here and you are real.

And as I stood there, arms out, eyes open, I felt, Oh, it’s all going to be OK. We are not alone here. There is nothing to fear.

And then I realized I was probably humanly not alone in this park, and I turned my head a little, and there was someone coming up behind me walking their dog, and I was like, “Hey”, and I went on with my day.

Now, what happened there? One possibility is that my susceptible brain, soaked in spiritual ideas and language, saw something arresting and made up a story, invented a transcendent experience. Who knows? It’s possible.

But another possibility is that I caught a window into something else going on in the universe. A deeper sense, a greater clarity, of God with us. Our age, our natural world as we know it functioning alongside something we might call God’s world. This has been called a lot of things – heaven, God’s kingdom within us or among us or near at hand.

And it’s this possibility that our hard times are not all that is going on around us that I want to explore today in this last talk in our series, Ways We Destroy the World, and how God Brings Good Out of That.

This winter, we’ve been looking at personal problems and also at systemic problems that people create – human choices and patterns and culture that miss the mark (what religious tradition calls sin). And we’ve found many of these present-day problems anchored in the ancient narratives of the Bible’s first book, where we’ve found direction as well for experiences of redemption – of good turns coming out of bad.

And I want to wrap up today not talking about one missing the mark issue in particular, but more our sense that the whole show has gone off script. Our feeling that many people have had before that we live in hard times, in a fractured world. Where so much micro and macro human culture seems irretrievably broken.

We’ll look at this experience people have again and again of sensing that in the middle of that, God is still here. And that God has magnetism – that the hope and presence and love and purpose and voice of God can shape its own good reality and direction right in the middle of the world as we know it.

One night, that happens for Jacob in a dream.

10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”

Genesis 28:10-22 (NRSV)

A few weeks back, our pastor Ivy gave a talk about Jacob the scheming hustler learning to find peace with himself and with God. Jacob’s story has also meant a lot to me, so this is a Jacob, part II talk – really a prequel. Because when Ivy picked up his story for us, Jacob was a middle aged man of success. Even though he was still haunted by his past, he was living large. But when we meet him in this story, he’s a young and scrappy loaner. He’s sleeping outdoors alone with nothing but a rock for a pillow because he’s looking for a life partner – and you all know how rough the dating scene can be – true then in its own way. And Jacob is also running away from home.

Because at home, Jacob was part of this jacked up family system where his mom favored him and his dad favored his twin brother, and his parents themselves didn’t have much of a marriage most likely… and so Jacob and his mom conspired to steal his big brother’s larger inheritance, something that Jacob had been gunning for, in a way, his whole life.

And last we see him before this dream, Jacob was nestled in the embrace of his dad, being told that he’s loved and blessed and favored… only because his dad thinks he’s his brother. Can you imagine what it would be like to finally have the affection and approval you want from your dad, but knowing you’re only getting it because he thinks you’re one of your sibling? Like if you were on the phone with your dad and he was going on about how much he loves you and is proud of you but then realizes, wait a second, I thought you were your sister… nevermind…

Well, after that whole sad drama, Jacob’s brawnier brother with a temper wants to kill him, and now he’s on the run…

Jacob’s times are pretty hard. Things are not right in his world – when he goes to bed, and then God appears to him. This is the most awesome of dreams – and it gave both Jesus and Led Zeppelin some sweet lines to work with as they both talked about ladders or stairways to heaven. And for Jacob, this ladder, covered with angels, is a portal to another world. The show Stranger Things had portals to another world, what they call the flip side, or the upsidedown world. There, it’s a portal to something like hell.

Jacob’s other world, though, is a good one, he calls this spot “a gate to heaven.” And names the place Beth-el, House of God, because he says, My God, who knew? You are here.

Scattered around the Bible, here and there, are these portal moments when God shows up and talks with people. Bible scholars call these moments theophanies – appearances of God. And in these theophanies, a few things tend to happen, things that aren’t to be different to be honest, from what I sensed on Monday in the park down the street.

In these moments, people get a vivid sense God is here. Along with that, they hear or feel that God has promises, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. And then usually before the moment ends, people get a sense of direction, like there’s something to do. In Jacob’s case, he isn’t even directly told something to do, but he has this impulse of gratitude, and to be connected with and loyal to this God, with his life and his possessions too.

Genesis again is littered with these portals into God’s world being open to us, there being this gateway to heaven, not just in the future, but right now. Well, in Genesis, they stop at one point, we’ll talk about that in a minute, but up until late in the book, they are relatively common.

And again, these are experiences that many people have still, that we are not alone, that God is with us.

Why is this interesting and hopeful and relevant to me today, not just something I write off as crazy or superstitious?

Well, I’ll start by saying that I think that in 2018, we’re keenly aware we are living in hard times.

I was watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Friday night, which was gorgeous, if you didn’t see it. I mean there were odd parts – like the ring of women in the pink snow-pants that did those non-stop dance cheers for an hour straight while all the athletes walked in… that was kind of really cheery and impressive and really strange all at once. But mostly it was beautiful. Large animals with symbolism in Korean culture, cute children, magnificently choreographed drumming and dancing, fireworks, gestures of peace between long-divided South and North Korea. It was really wonderful.

But at some point, NBC brought a non-sports commentator into the act and asked him to talk about what this all means for today’s geopolitics. And the guy was like, well, this is really significant. Because this could be the beginning of a new era of peace, or it could be the last calm before the storm, as war breaks out and engulfs us all.

Well, he might not have said something quite so bleak, but I think it was close. And you can’t help but think about the fragile state of our globe while watching this incredible show of culture and athleticism just forty miles from the border of North Korea, which has been isolated from the South and most of the rest of the world for the past sixty-five years.

Last winter our Board member Connie Chung preached in our series on the stories Jesus told, and she talked about a phrase she’s learned about the world we live in, in the context of her work in international education. She says people call it a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That description of our world has somewhat haunted me this year.

I mean it’s hard to be class-optimist-me sitting watching the Olympics when our president and the dictator of this isolated totalitarian regime are dickering about who’s got the bigger nuclear weapons launch button. Talk about volatile and uncertain!

The trust in our leadership and institutions that was deteriorating when I was born in the early 70s has just fallen off a cliff as so many of our so-called leaders in government and religion and industry disappoint.

And if we’re kids or students, or if we’re raising kids, it feels like a scary world to future to step into sometimes.

There’s a very old, and in some circles, very famous theologian named Jurgen Moltmann. And Moltmann posted something on twitter last week… or given that he’s 92 years old, maybe his people put on twitter, but either way, it was this:

“Anxiety is the reason why many young people are not just afraid of death, but are already afraid of life.”

I read that line and it stopped me in my feet. How sad and how true, that in our VUCA, hard times world, there’s so much to be afraid of.

But what does all this hard times talk have to do with theophanies and portals to an experience of God is with us?

To be clear, as I always say, it’s not that God-with-us removes every anxiety and solves every problem. No. It’s that keeping one foot in our hardscrabble world and planting another where we most experience God to be good and real and present births hope for us. And hope is a powerful thing.

Back to that 92-year-old tweeter Jurgen Moltmann for a moment.

Moltmann is one of the most significant thinkers and writers about God in the late twentieth century. But his life began in hard times, and without any awareness of God with him.

Moltmann was raised in Nazi Germany, and when he was sixteen years old, just after he took his entrance exams for university, he was instead drafted into the German army to help defend his country, just as the war had turned against them.

So at 16, he left home and began life as a soldier. It was a short life, because as the Allies advanced on Germany, Moltmann surrendered to the first British soldier he met. And he was promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he spent the next few years.

In that camp, he was utterly in despair. He had lost his home, his family, and his childhood. He had seen the death and destruction and futility of war. And then as he moved about from prison camp to prison camp, the people in charge would post photographs in their huts, photographs of Germany’s concentration camps. And each day Moltmann had to look at the horrible, horrible things his culture and leaders had done at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Moltmann says he lost all hope in his culture and that he often wished he could have died along with friends who had been killed in war than live to face what their nation had done.

In the middle of his despair in such hard times, Moltmann was given a copy of the Bible’s New Testament and Psalms, most of which he had never read or heard.

And he remembers reading the gospel of Mark, and getting to the point near the end, where Jesus, as he is dying on the cross, cries out, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”

In that moment, Moltmann says, he felt, There is a divine brother, who feels the same feelings that I do. He felt: this is a God I can believe in. And that saved him from his desperation and self-destruction. In a time and place where he had no cause for hope, he found it. Actually, Moltmann talks about that experience more as a theophany, as God appearing to him through that thin Bible. He says, I didn’t find Christ, Christ found me.

Jurgen Moltmann’s experience reminds me that there are so many portals around, so many different ways God can capture our attention with awareness that God is with us. It can be a dream like Jacob’s, a moment in prayer or in the natural world like I described at the top, or the Spirit of God catching as we read the Bible. Or lots of other ways.

Each time, though, as with me, as with Jacob, as with Moltmann here, fear decreases, a sense of promise and direction increase.

We call this hope. Restlessness with the world as it is, discontent with our hard times. But hope for the future grounded in God being with us. Which for Moltmann and for me, is tied to our experience of feeling this is so, but also to our hope and belief that Jesus is risen from the dead, and so alive with us still by his Spirit.

This is the hope that moved Jurgen Moltmann out of his nearly suicidal despair in a post-World War II prison camp and led him to become one of the most famous thinkers and writers of his age about God and specifically about hope. Hope called him not just to live, but to become a messenger of hope in his scholarship.

This hope that we are not alone, that God is with us, kept Jacob moving in the wilderness when he had the promise of some future success, but had lost his brother, and lost his father who he never really had. Hope called Jacob to start to trust God, and to commit to generosity, to devote his wealth to a higher good.

This hope I cultivate with one foot in the up and down circumstances of my life, and one foot planted in the presence and promise of God, gives me courage to try to do hard things that I want to do, that I feel my job and my life call me to do.

This is what hope does. It calls us to things. Sometimes hope calls us to courage – to do the hard thing we wouldn’t otherwise do. Sometimes, hope calls u to surrender – to trust God with the things we can’t do anything about, and to find joy and peace in the present.

Sometimes, though, hope can be hard to find. Or the sense of God with us that will birth hope can be hard to find. In fact historically, the more advanced and compelling our world is, the harder it can be to see God’s world, the smaller the portals seem to be. Had Germany won the war, perhaps Moltmann doesn’t get found by Christ who shared his sense of abandonment. If Jacob doesn’t have to go on the run, perhaps he just stays a hustler and a schemer.

In Genesis, the theophanies stop when they get to Egypt… and don’t start again until Moses leaves and is out of empire, off in the desert wilderness…

And now here we are in 21st century America, where the prosperity and peace and comforts our empire offers would embarrass ancient Egypt. And in times and places that aren’t just volatile and uncertain and fractured, but also promise so much, it can be harder to see and stay oriented in God’s world.

So next Sunday, we’re going to look together. We’ll start our annual season we call 40 Days of Faith. It’s our church’s spin on the ancient season of Lent leading up to Easter, when churches have encouraged people to break the regular rhythms of life and together look to God in some deeper way.

Our church first celebrated this season in 2003. Back then, our church needed a building to meet in and then when a building came on the market, needed an impossibly large sum of money to be able to purchase it. During the forty days leading to Easter, people were invited to pray that God would do something extraordinary to make the impossible possible, in the life of the church community and in the big dreams and concerns of individual people’s lives as well. People were also invited to embrace the historic tone of this season, and to interrupt the usual fabric of their life and practice spiritual formation disciplines to go deeper in faith and move closer to God.

Well, it worked – by the end of that season, millions of dollars were raised, a gorgeous church campus was ours, and dozens of other miracles were reported by members of the community. And in addition to all those things that felt like results, people really enjoyed the ride.

Ever since then, we’ve continued the practice of breaking our ordinary rhythms, entering into some spiritually formative practices, and asking God to do some big things on our behalf. The results of the big prayers have been mixed, but it’s been consistently rewarding and often pretty fun too. So next Sunday, Ivy will kick off our season inviting us to wonder whether we’re sitting on a big prayer we’d like to ask of God, or whether we’d rather sit out that part of the season this year.

Additionally, we’re calling this year’s 40 days “Children of God in a Fractured World”. And I’ve written a daily Bible guide in the Bible’s last book, called Revelation, which not a lot of people read these days, and when they do, they tend to read it pretty badly. Because it’s basically poetry, and it’s in this old symbolic genre called apocalypse that not many people understand very well. But when you let it grab your imagination and settle in with a trusty guide – which I hope to be for you – it can actually be a great place to try to peel back the curtain to another world, one of these portals to discover that God might be with us still and up to some beautiful things.

Revelation was written to first century communities of faith to help them find God with them in their own hard times under the Roman empire. And I think we can still find it helpful as part of finding God with us in our own age of American empire.

So on this year’s 40 Days of Faith, we’ll invite you into to step further into a counter-cultural and courageous journey to follow Jesus as God’s child and to find hope and courage to resist the worst of our times, letting Jesus – and not our crazy-making world – center us, and give us hope.

In that spirit, let me close out today with a few things you might consider trying.

Program Notes – Try This:

Go all in on this year’s 40 Days of Faith.

Look for the portals – watch for how God might be getting your attention.

Is there a time when God seemed vividly real to you? If so, remember it again and again – dare to believe it was real.

Give yourself to how hope calls you to live.

(The above is a close, but not exact text version of the sermon from 2/11/2018)

Sexual Violence Has No Place in Our Future

The following is a close (but not exact) transcript of Steve Watson’s sermon from 2/18/2018:

Sexual violence has been a big part of our past. I’ve been riveted this past year as woman after woman has spoken up about experience of sexual assault in the workplace. This moment where the victim’s voice of #metoo and the powerful strength of #timesup are so fresh in our consciousness is part of why we’re having this Speak Out Sunday.

I’ve also followed, as have many of you, the stories of some of the youngest survivors of sexual assault who have been speaking out in recent months. Well over a hundred women spoke at the trial of convicted sexual assaulter, Larry Nassar, about their trauma, when as teen and preteen and even younger girls they were sexually assaulted by the physician who was empowered to care for them. Judge Aquilina, in her role of overseeing a public reckoning in this case, dubbed these courageous young women the “sister survivor warriors.”

Stories and fears that women have known for years are being talked about where men hear as well. Stories that may not exactly be violent, but are certainly intrusions, violations. Women recounting the many times they have not been listened to, of being kissed or hugged or touched when they were trying to make it clear they weren’t interested. We hear the line about men going out on dates worrying if they’re going to make a good impression, and women heading going out worrying if the man will try to rape her.

Those of us who’ve paid less attention to sexual and gender based violence are learning that this is no small phenomena that we can associate only with Hollywood or college campuses or youth sports. Sexual violence impacts all of us.

Researchers estimate that in the United States, as many as one in three women have experienced sexual assault, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The same is true for one in four men. Globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. The rates of sexual violence toward women are even higher in various regions where cultural or political or law enforcement issues exacerbate this crisis.

Estimates of the numbers of adults who were sexually abused as children are hard to come by with total accuracy, but the lowest numbers I’ve seen are that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men were sexually abused as children. A CDC study says it’s more like 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men. As I’ve shared with this congregation before, I am one of those men. As a preteen, a neighbor years older than me lured me into what was called a friendship, but which he used to gratify his own warped need for sexual attention and connection.

When women are oppressed in these ways, these women and entire communities suffer. When children are abused, some in turn afflict abuse on others. Others of us suffer relational or sexual or psychological and spiritual harm that shatters parts of our souls and lives.

No sector of society, churches included, has been immune to these problems. And churches have often been complicit in particular ways in covering up abuse, failing to listen to or trust victims, and siding with perpetrators. This was well-documented in the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, which our city played a unique role in exposing. But it’s not a Catholic-specific problem.

Rachel Denhollander is one of the women who testified about Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of her when she was in the US Gymnastics program. And in her testimony, she specifically spoke about her faith in Jesus and its role in her healing, including the freedom to forgive. Church leaders picked up the story and talked about how wonderful it was that this Christian woman was forgiving her abuser. It had kind of a self-congratulatory spin, like how great are the Christians on this. Denhollander said, no, no, no, you’re not getting the whole story here.

She said – For one, I spoke about forgiveness at this man’s sentencing hearing. Forgiveness and justice are both of God, she said. Sexual assaulters need to experience the consequences and the guilt of their crimes.

And Denhollander also highlighted that many churches have been some of the very worst places for victims of sexual abuse and assault. Because they’ve counseled victims to stay quiet or simply to forgive the abusers that did them harm. Denhollander was part of a church network that was part of covering up sexual abuse allegations and that made it clear to her and her husband that they weren’t welcome, when she spoke out against her abuser.

Search #churchtoo on twitter for harrowing tales of sexual abuse and violence and cover-up within churches of all stripes. It’s horrible.

Sexual violence and abuse has been an enormously painful and common feature of our collective human past.

Even our scriptures bear witness to this. Right in the middle of the Genesis narrative we’ve been discussing this month, in the midst of these stories of the founding fathers and mothers of the nation of Israel, there is chapter that tells a story of sexual violence that leads to a large outbreak of community violence and shattered lives.

Genesis 34 is often subtitled by Bible editors as “the rape of Dinah.” There’s a little excerpt in your program, but the basic outline of the story is that one of Jacob’s daughters named Dinah is travelling alone for a short distance in a field. A patriarchal misogynist would say, Ah, she put herself in a dangerous situation. A normal human being would notice that she was taking a walk and going about her regular public life, when a man without self-control didn’t respect her person or dignity.

The pain of Genesis 34 that begins with this life-shattering rape of Dinah by Shechem continues on at least four fronts.
Shechem thinks he can make it right by marrying Dinah, and so he and his dad go to Dinah’s father, Jacob, to get permission for this marriage. All this is playing by the rulebook of a patriarchal society, but it doesn’t mean we have to find any part of that rulebook fair. I spoke last week about our need to dismantle patriarchy, certainly in its crude and ancient forms like this, but also any system or way or relating that says a man could somehow make up for sexual violence – or domestic violence, for that matter – by being kind or loyal at some other time. That does not balance out the scales, and does not make women safe. No matter what the circumstances, there’s never any time or setting in which sexual violence is acceptable or defensible.

Secondly, Dinah’s father Jacob keeps silent on the offense against his daughter. He doesn’t speak up or do anything.

A third pain comes when Dinah’s older brothers are angry, but rather than find some kind of constructive or legal or restorative path for justice, they engineer the mass murder of Shechem’s whole family.

And then finally, for us, there is the pain of this story sitting there in our Bibles without any commentary on what God might have thought of the whole thing.

What does it mean that sexual violence sits there in Genesis with the only editorial comment being that the victim’s family’s vengeance went way over-board?

How’s that supposed to speak to us?

Well, I’m going to come at this from the angle of another scripture in a moment, but I’d like to start by saying that wherever we’ve seen sexual violence, it’s always been an offense to God, and a shattering of God’s good, redemptive hopes for the human story.

As a kid, I didn’t understand much about what the guy who abused me was doing or why, but as he sought to spend more and more time with me, and expose his body and his sexual fantasies to me, it became clear that he had nothing to give me, that he was there only to take from me. He violated my trust, he shattered my innocence, and put a trauma into my life that’s made it harder to live in love and peace with both people and God. Sexual abuse is so clearly a shattering of God’s good intentions for our childhood.

We heard so articulately from Kaylie, just now, about her own experience, and what a breach of trust and a violation of relationships sexual violence was to her. Stealing years of her life that she can barely remember, as she had to focus in on this trauma week after week after week.

This is so clearly not how God meant for our young adult lives or for our first loves to go.

Even in Genesis, there is a hint that everything about Shechem’s crime and Dinah’s suffering in not how things are meant to be. Centuries ago, rabbis noticed that the name of God is never mentioned in Chapter 34, not once, which is unusual in Genesis. But the very last word of Chapter 33 and the very first of Chapter 35 are both the name of God. This rape of Dinah and subsequent blood bath are tales of God-not-with-us.

In a God-soaked tale of a God-soaked world, Shechem’s rape of Dinah, and the mix of neglect and violence that follow, is a picture of a world where God’s ways are absent.

Sexual and gender based violence, indeed violence and human diminishment of any form, is an affront to the God who made people in God’s image. And it’s an experience that leaves us with the opposite of what God wants for our encounters with God and our encounters with every other person as well.

Where God’s ways are honored, there is love, because love – the scriptures tell us – is the very nature and character of God.

The Bible famously riffs on love as being like this:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:4-7 (NRSV)

When you think about it, sexual violence does all the opposite of this.

A man who doesn’t wait for consent or listen to “no” is impatient and unkind.

An adult who uses a child for sexual gratification is insisting on his own way – envious and rude don’t begin to describe the offense.

The abuser never wants the truth to be told, but threatens and lies about their wrongdoing.

And a person who does harm to their partner or stranger or enemy in war bears and believes nothing, hopes nothing, endures nothing, but takes and scars and walks away.

All this is the opposite of love. This taking and using of another for our own gratification of power, this is never how God meant you to treat another human being. And it is never how God wants for you to be treated as well.

God wants us to experience love. For all our encounters with others to mirror a growing connection with God as well, in which we discover that God is also patient and kind. That God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. That even God does not insist on God’s own way; that God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This is the God who is with us today, for our healing, for our reckoning, to give us courage to speak out, and the power to know that we are loved, and that we can move forward and find redemption.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or violence, or in any way known in your body the consequence of your voice and dignity not being honored, God is here for your healing and restoration. God has nothing to take from you. God has no shame for you. This is not your fault.

We’ll talk in a minute about some resources for moving forward. But know that however long the journey away is toward trust and peace, God will hold your hand. I suffered a relatively less severe childhood sexual abuse, and had a few years in my late teens and early 20s of dealing with that more pointedly. Talking to lots of people, including a licensed counselor, lots of reading and reflection and prayer, and that was enough to help launch me into a good life and a good marriage and a pretty healthy, self-controlled, flourishing sexuality. But this past year – 20 years later – I found myself getting stressed out and blue, and it was clear this needed my intention again.

Healing processes can take time, they can have more than one step or cycle – usually that’s the case.

But now, more than ever, know that there are great resources available for you, there are good people, including in this church community, who will listen to you. And God knows what you’ve been through and loves you and is patient and kind to heal and restore you.

I’ll say just briefly if you’re here today and your conscience is pricked, because you’ve done someone harm or even wonder if that thing you thought was okay was in fact using or harming someone, don’t ignore that unease. Talk to God about it. Perhaps confess it to a pastor or someone you trust.

This is a serious thing. If you’ve harmed a child, you’ll be reported. That’s the right thing to do and it’s the law. But that reckoning is necessary. And even if you’ve done something – as so many of us, particularly so many of us men have – that isn’t illegal or is maybe in the distant past at this point, that doesn’t mean it’s OK. And a confession can be the beginning of figuring out what restitution and justice and forgiveness and freedom might look like as well.

I’d like to wrap up with four final thoughts – steps that might helps us walk toward a future free of sexual violence.

The first is this:

Speak out about sexual violence – help create a world where there are no bystanders.

I’m so grateful to be here at Reservoir, doing this together. I’ve learned recently how rare it for churches to say this for some reason, so the clarity is important. Sexual violence has no place in our future.

And that means there is no place for silent bystanders on this topic. Men, in particular, if you hear people talking or joking about sexual violence, interrupt – say that’s not OK. If someone tells you about their experience with sexual abuse or violence, believe them, tell them you’re so sorry, ask them if you can help in any way. We’ll be hosting a training here from BARCC in a couple of weeks about helpfully responding to someone else’s disclosure, if you’d like more on this. But if someone discloses their experience to you and you’re not sure what to do, relax, the burden is not on you to give them advice or fix things for them. The best thing you can do for now is to listen, and believe. And if they are a child, reach out for help immediately.


Endeavor to make your speech and sexuality reflect Jesus’ vision of love.

Certainly commit to have no violence attached to your sexuality. From my perspective, this would also include not consuming images of sexuality from the internet porn industry that has a lot of violence in it, on and off screen.

But more than this, ask how your words and your sexuality can be patient and kind and generous, not insisting on your own way. The talk about consent in our times is good. Consent for any sexual activity is certainly a legal and ethical minimum, but given what God teaches us about love, it is also way too low a bar.

We want our speech and our sexual behavior to not violate but also to reflect the love of Jesus, to seek the other’s highest good. Commitment, generosity, and respect are all part of this picture.

Men in particular, can we be people who never take anything sexually that isn’t being joyfully given to us by a loving partner?

And all of us, in our sexuality and in our speech, can we learn the sweet and kind ways of the love of God?


Pursue the recovery of your voice and your healing.

We’ve invited BARCC to partner with us on this service and we’ve given you resources in your programs because we know that today’s topic is as sensitive and complicated as things get. And we want you to know about some of the many resources that are available to you. We’ve given our community group leaders even more, and our pastors here at Reservoir have these resources as well, if you talk with any of us.

There’s no magic, instant pill to get your voice back when you’ve been silenced or not listened to, and there is no instant balm for our healing, friends. But it’s also true that there’s no need to stay silent, and there’s no doom over anyone’s future in this room. Sexual assault and violence and abuse, the disregard for our voices and joy and dignity, can shatter us, but it can’t rob us of our future. It can’t take away our mind and our body’s capacity to move forward and heal. And it can’t stop us from reaching out our hand for the love of God and the help of friends, even when just holding out our hand and saying, “I have to tell you something. I need some help.” Is all we can do.

If that’s all you’ve got today, that’s enough. God is patient and kind and generous and rejoices in the truth, and loves you enough to walk the long road of healing with you.

So we invite you today to:

Hear God’s hopeful invitation to a connected, colorful future.

For everyone here who’s had personal experience with the shattering pain of sexual violence, there is the experience of how that can disconnect us and turn our life bleak and lonely and grim. But God has more for you than that.

When I step off the stage in a moment, our prayer ministry team is available in the back right to pray for anyone here for the rest of service. They’re not trained counselors or anything, so I encourage you if you want prayer, don’t try to disclose a story to them, just say please pray for me, and they’d be glad to do so.

We’ll also have our usual music, a place where we can sing to and about a good and loving God who is with us and has our back today. You can sing along or just listen.

But before that, we’re going to move straight into communion today, into this physical reminder that Jesus isn’t just watching from afar, but that in Jesus, God has joined us in the whole human experience, including in any suffering. That God has been subject to violence and abuse and injustice, and has used that experience to know all of our pain, and to make a way forward toward new life and connection and redemption.

As our band comes to the stage and as we prepare for communion, I’ll let you know as well that today’s communion song will be a performed one for us to listen to, not a worship song. It’s a pop song, in fact, but the singer Kesha, who’s shared her own experience of sexual assault as an adult. And in the song Kaiti is going to cover for us, “Rainbow,” she shares of her story of moving toward healing, out of a bleak and silent suffering into a life of color and freedom again.

We believe that Jesus is doing that for all us as Jesus reconnects us with God and ourselves. So we’ll play “Rainbow” for you, as we take communion.

Resources | Speak Out Sunday

How Can I Find Good News Outside of Patriarchy?

Recently, a person I know – she happens to be a woman of color – had a really big day coming up in her professional life. And before that day, I saw that she posted the meme on Facebook, that said – “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

I laughed, of course. I thought that was great. And then after I laughed, I thought you know, being a mediocre white man has sure had its benefits.

I think as a father, for instance. I remember when my three kids were young and I took them places, people would look at me in admiration.

We’d be in the grocery store, in one of those massive carts with the plastic fake fire truck or police car attached to it, and my two little guys would be squeezed into those plastic seats on the car. My daughter, maybe five or six years old would be walking by my side. And I’m just trying to steer this beast and not ram into the canned foods, and maybe if I’m lucky not lose my girl and even remember to buy the food we need, and people are just staring.

They’re politely stepping to the side so they don’t get run down, and they’re making way for me in the checkout line. And if we talk, they hear that today wasn’t some kind of desperate abnormality, but they hear that I take my kids places, we do things, me and the three of them.

And whether we’re talking about shopping, or going to the park, or going camping for a day or two, people would say, wow, you do that with all three kids. And they’d do everything but clap their hands, salute me, and give me a prize for being such a great dad.

And I’d go home and tell Grace, my wife about this, and say, “Isn’t it so awesome that when you take our three kids out in public, people just praise you, they make a way for you, tell you what a great parent you are.”

And I’m telling her this story, and she’s not going there with me. I could see it in her face — the cold stare, maybe an eyeroll sometimes — that somehow this was not her experience. And she’d say, when I’m with the three kids at the store, people just judge me if I’m in their way or one of the kids isn’t behaving perfectly. They judge me silently, or sometimes not silently at all. Like, lady, come on, get your kids in your order.

And I would think, wow, that’s a different experience — the expectations for me are so much lower. Being a mediocre man has its advantages.

Now imagine you’re not just a mediocre white man, but you’ve got some wealth or skills. Then the world is yours.

I’ve been kidding, but we all know that some of these inequities around both race and gender don’t just play out in what our culture expects in the grocery store from moms vs. dads.

44 of our 45 presidents have been White men; all of them have been men. Over 80% of the US congress today is male. Moving from government to business, though, the number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who are women is at an all-time high today, of 32. That’s 32 out of 500 CEOs who are women, just over 6% – and that’s a record high.

In that same group of senior business executives, about 4% are people of color, if you do the intersection there, there’s only handful of these that are women of color.

Men get paid more than women for doing the same work, in marriages where both men and women work full-time, women still spend much more time on childcare and household chores. When it comes to wealth accumulation, we don’t even want to talk how far ahead on net worth white men are over everybody else. It goes back generations, from the privilege of favorable government policies (or unfavorable, if you’re not a white man), unequal work and educational opportunities, and patterns of inherited wealth.

It seems though, that over the past century, we’re experiencing a shift — a really  important shift from people — again, especially people that look like me – going from acting like this is the normal and natural order of things, and saying, Wait, this is in fact a problem.

More and more of us are talking about white supremacy — the personal and systemic preference for whiteness in our culture that leads white people to having too large a share of things like power and wealth and esteem, and too small a share of things like prison time.

And alongside this, more of us are also talking about patriarchy – the preference for maleness that keeps power and control and wealth disproportionately in men’s hands. More and more of us are acknowledging that all of these are not just the way of the world; they are old and powerful ways in which we in fact destroy our world.

In our times, we’re moving in fits and starts. Progress isn’t linear and upward, but there seems to be this move to dismantle patriarchy — to take it apart and find a different way — to change white supremacy. Certainly many of us want this to be true, sense it needs to be true. We want a world where your wealth and power and dignity and opportunities aren’t at least in part pre-determined by your sex or race.

And so I ask today: Can faith help us in this, or is faith part of the problem?And for those of us that want to follow Jesus in particular, is the life and teaching and tradition around Jesus a help or a hindrance in the shaping of a more just and humane and fair society? And in particular, a less patriarchal one.

This past month, we’ve been talking human brokenness and sin and God’s redemption. And we’ve touched on some big societal issues, like environmental degradation, but for the most part, things have been more personal so far. We’ve talked about pride, or self-negation, at being out of touch with our true selves, or stuck in patterns of anxious control.

But this week and next, we’re going public with this series — looking at a couple of the big societal issues that spring out of individual and systemic brokenness. We’re asking how can God help, if at all, and what does redemption look like?

And today, I want to talk about why it’s really good news for all of us, women and men, that we’re dismantling patriarchy. But first, I want to be candid that religion, and Christian religion in particular, has undeniably supported and advocated for both racism and patriarchy.

The history of churches is in many ways a history of male religious leadership, and of violent male religious leadership. And in this country in particular, churches have been deeply segregated places. White church leaders in this nation’s history — again, almost exclusively male white church leaders — have been some of the primary opposition to both emancipation (in the 1800s) and the civil rights movement (in the 1900s) and efforts for greater racial equity in our own times.

The Bible too has been used to support both racism and patriarchy, and the book we’re focused on this month, the first book of Genesis has in particular been read as supportive of patriarchy and racism. I’ve been talking about both of these phenomena so far because of their intersectionality in the ways people groups get privileged and diminished. But I’m going to less on race and more on patriarchy to give it a focus: more on this  preference for maleness, and the idea that power should sit with men, and be passed down to other men.

On the surface, the Bible is super-patriarchal. Some 90 percent of the people named in the Bible are men. Male pronouns are used for God. There are these genealogies here and there, which for the most part tell us a story of God’s blessing passing from man to man to man, in each generation. Jesus’ inner circle of students is a group of 12 men. And on it goes.

It’s no shock that so many Bible readers have encouraged religious systems and spirituality that have privileged men. So many forms of Christianity have only let men teach, have only let men lead, have favored sons over daughters, and have diminished and marginalized women in overt and obvious ways, and in more subtle ways as well.

Now I think this is bad news for women and for men. Years ago, when my 15-year-old daughter was just a toddler, she said a prayer or something and I said, Julianna, I’m going to call you Pastor Julianna. And my daughter – maybe 2-years old – looked at me and said, Daddy, only men can be pastors. And I thought what? Where did my barely 2-year-old kid get this idea? This is not what we’ve been teaching her, but other things in her environment have already given her this message that at least in church (and who knows where else), men will be in charge.

And we felt like this would be bad news for our daughter and eventually if we had them, that this would be bad news for our sons as well. This idea that their giftedness, their suitability for leadership and service, their right to a voice, was primarily determined by their sex and gender. That’s part of the story for why we ended up joining this church — there were many reasons, but it was in part because both men and women were empowered as leaders here. And that was really important to be a good news environment to raise our kids in.

The backdrop of the Bible, and of this book of Genesis we’re reading this month, is patriarchal. But if you look at the arc of the whole thing, there’s just a huge sub-current that says, enough — this is not the way it’s supposed to be. In fact, I’d argue that the story of the scriptures is a progression toward the end of patriarchy, just as it pushes toward the end of racism as well.

Genesis begins with a creation poem that elevates the status of humans like no other near-eastern literature, and puts men and women on a radically even playing field as well. In the poem’s climax, we get these lines:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27 (NRSV)

People, we’re told, reflect God to one another and the rest of the earth — both male and female people. In the next chapter, we get a little more detail on the differentiation of people into men and women, and the woman is called a “suitable helper” for the man. Which sounds pretty patriarchal in English — as if women should put on aprons and help the men out with whatever we tells them to do. But that is a shockingly bad translation of this text, because the word “helper” here is applied throughout the rest of the Scriptures to God and to male warriors. It’s the help, not of a junior assistant, but of a strong, matching warrior.

So when the woman is called the helper, the “ezer” in Hebrew, it’s more like a
solo wrestler becomes a tag-team duo — the woman and the man are suitable
warriors to stand together in whatever work God gives them. Men are told that when they marry women, they’re to get out of their parents’ house, and cling to their wives — forge a new loyalty to them, in a new household. These little details in this archetypical story in Genesis 2 are a big revolutionary rewrite of traditional patriarchy.

Instead of women, entering their husbands’ parents households to live as second class servants, as they have in so many cultures around the world, for millennia, Genesis invites men and women to forge a new household, loyal to one another, as strong equal partners.

And then, in the Genesis story, these men and women start having babies, and
one more aspect of the patriarchal system is upended. See, patriarchy doesn’t
just favor men over women, passing down power and position and wealth from man to man and keeping woman in last place. Patriarchy also favors oldest sons. It elevates the rank and wealth of the first-born male, and lowers the status and wealth of all the others.

A friend of ours grew up in a house like this — seven kids, and the parents gave all kind of favoritism to the older kids. They had this saying, “Rank has its privileges” that the parents would use with the children, and the older kids, were taught to use that line with the younger ones.

Maybe not shockingly, but decades later, the older kids from that family are living pretty stable, positive lives — the youngest kids, not so much. This preferential treatment for the oldest male was a way to pass on power and blessing and wealth, but it divided siblings. It led to jealousy and, quite often,
violence, and diminished the majority of kids in the family.

Parents these days know better – or we should – than to ever favor one of our kids. Now Genesis isn’t radical enough yet to put daughters on equal footing as sons, or to say all kids should be treated equally by their parents. Parents in Genesis are awful — they are always playing favorites.

But, again and again in the narrative, favoritism is tipped on its head. In Genesis, favoritism is consistently shown to the younger. Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all his brothers, again and again, the oldest male son is not chosen, is not first. It’s a kind of quirky slap in the face of the conventions of patriarchy. What is going on here?

I think this: I think God looks at some of the core tendencies of the human heart and says, you’re better than that. I think God looks at some of human civilization’s most persistent systemic evils, and says, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Patriarchy, for instance, is a powerful and practically universal feature of the human past, but if God has God’s way, it will not be the governing feature of our collective future. Because God is not into favoring one tribe or sex or race or class or birth order over another.

God is actually a leveler. The voice of God, again and again, embedded
in Genesis, and echoing throughout the scriptures, is that God will redeem
humanity and restore to each us of our proper worth and dignity — not too high and also not too low.

We get it put poetically in the prophet Isaiah, in lines that are picked up again in the Jesus story:

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
God’s coming, here’s how you get ready:
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 40:3-5 (NRSV)

What God has for us is so good that God wants everyone to have it. But it takes some reshaping of our social terrain. The folks who’ve been standing up in the front row, blocking the view again and again, have to sit down, or move to the back for a while. People that have been hidden in the corners or pushed down to the ground are going to be lifted up and out and brought to the center.

So think about it — this means that any human system that elevates one class of us above another is an act of resistance to God’s vision that people would enjoy God and flourish together.

Whether it be our patriarchal past that empowers men over women or our white supremacy that privileges the descendants of colonial Europe over all other races and cultures of the earth, or whether it be too strong national pride, or the fiscal or cultural diminishment of the less educated, God will upend the destructive, ranking systems of our world that are born in disordered thinking in our human minds. Disordered thinking that says only this kind of person or that kind of person best reflects God.

Jesus affirms this move of God more than once, when he ends a teaching or a
story, with this shocking line:

16  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:16 (NRSV)

This isn’t an invitation to us to just go be last again if we’re so insecure or rejected that we’re last as a matter of habit. No, it’s Jesus reiterating part of his good news, that the people that again and again we have made last will be elevated by God. Should be elevated by us.

Because this is how it will be in our future. No more putting women in their place, by a diminished view of their leadership or by any form of male violence or dominance. Women shall be first.

No more mocking or stigmatizing or outcasting the one who’s different. No, the physically impaired, the learning disabled, the short, the fat, the insecure, the sexually different, the stranger the immigrant – all will be first. Because God wants all flesh — all people — to know our identity as image-bearers, beloved children of God together.

Jesus’ most famous representative to the first century Roman empire agrees –
this is the direction of history! This writer, Paul, says:

26  for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
27  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28  There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
29  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:26-29 (NRSV)

All of us together. It keeps moving. And there’s this subtle no-more-patriarchy bit buried here too. Because it says everyone who belongs to Christ — all people who follow Jesus to God — are the offspring, literally the text says the “seed of Abraham”, and the ones who will inherit everything that God has to give, along with Abraham, this founding father.

This whole seed thing is a really old and absolutely patriarchal image. The idea is that men are the source of human life, that’s held in the seed of men. And that seed is simply implanted into the mother — the empty vessel — who doesn’t supply anything of worth to the child.

This is a jacked up, ancient, non-scientific worldview for how life happens, and we know that’s not how things work. But the heritage of that view has carried with us, in many places and cultures. That patriarchal view told people that children belong to men, because they are the seed of men. It said that boys are better than girls, because boys carry on the family name, whereas girls, they’re like an evolutionary dead end. It said lands and property — inheritance — should be passed on to sons, never daughters. It said to that the virginity of women was critical but men, eh, not so important. This notion of the seed said that men are closer to God, men are spiritual, whereas women are this profoundly different kind of human being —  less creative, less powerful, more empty.

And Paul says, this is actually a piece of what Jesus is upending in the world. Jesus is restoring the dignity of all humans as children of God, worthy of all of God’s inheritance. Culture, race, class, and sex aside — the full image and full worth are for all of us.

So we can be encouraged by this: God is for the full restoration, the full recovery of the image of God, in every person. And God is for each human system treating each person as God’s full image bearer as well. This is good news in all kinds of ways: good news for those of who have been learning disabled, good news for those of us who have experienced racism, good news for all of us who have been put in our place. But I want to talk briefly about how I think this is profoundly good news for both women and for men as well.

This is of course good news for women. There’s a social psychologist and theologian named Christena Cleveland that teaches at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Cleveland has a couple of friends at Reservoir, and she spoke from this stage at a conference that was held here last year, and she’s brilliant and provocative, so a number of us follow her work.

And she was sharing a little over a year ago on a podcast that when she teaches, she has students who when the disagree with her politically or theologically, or just for whatever reason don’t respect her, they try to cut her down through their aggressive questions.

Dr. Cleveland teaches in the South, she’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s young for a tenured professor perhaps. These students who are hostile — she says 99 times out of 100, the are  young white men.

And she shared that when she gets this line of aggressive, hostile questioning from one of her students, she prays briefly, silently, before she answers, “May the image of God in me, greet the image of God in you.”

That prayer is obviously Christina being a beautiful and holy person — her way of asking God’s help to not return evil for evil, to be a daughter of God and a follower of Jesus in treating others with worth and dignity, even when they’ve treated her as an enemy. But it’s also a prayer that she wouldn’t accept — or have rub off on her — the terms of their diminishment, that in her teaching, in her leadership, in her voice, she would never be any less
than the image of God in her.

God’s blessing of our dismantling of patriarchy means that no woman has to silently accept the belittling of the violence or the diminishment of any man or any system. Times up on that. God’s first shall be last and last shall be first kingdom means it’s time for our systems to figure this out too, for our businesses and governments and public and private institutions to see a lot morewomen senior leadership for a change.

It means that in churches, in marriages, in dating, in classrooms, in
laboratories, boardrooms, males don’t come first. All humans – regardless of sex or gender – belong on equal terms, to serve and lead with their full range of gifts, or sometimes to not serve or lead when we do not have that full range of gifts.

Before I wrap up, I want to point out that this is really good news for men too. The writer Carolyn Custis James has a great book out recently I’m reading about the impact on men that our world’s view of manhood has had. She traces patriarchy and universal patterns of male violence and  male competition and emotionally shut down fathers and narrow views of what is means to be male. She traces on how that impacts boys, and she shows how all this limited view of manhood — what she calls the malestrom — has just wrecked men, and has been part of why so many men have wrecked women too.

When I was coming of age, I realized that I was better at music then sports. I liked football, but if I was really truthful I would tell you I liked literature more. I’m better at cooking at taking care of kids than I am at fixing anything. And none of this matched the view of manhood my culture gave me. And that’s been awkward for me and my family now and then.

But what’s been “awkward” for me has just been shattering for other friends of mine. I think of a friend of mine who in his culture was considered really
effeminate as a kid. And on top of that, he was a mama’s boy — he was really tight with his mom. And his dad shamed him, privately and publicly, and beat him and emotionally abandoned him and kicked him out of the house eventually. And the misery and addictions and trauma that were born of this nearly killed him more than once.

For us to know that being male isn’t about fulfilling a gender stereotype and it’s not about a race to the top competition or dominance or power or violence—  that’s really freeing good news for every man alive as well.

We too can live and love and flourish and be our best selves, whether than means being a leader or a follower, being highly ranked and esteemed or not, being just like our dad or mom or grandpa or grandma, or not at all. And we can love and cherish the women in our lives, rather than leading or controlling them. Which again, is all good news for all men and all women.

Next week we’re going to pick up a very particular extension in many ways of
today’s talk when we talk about how sexual violence has no place in our future.

But for today, let me end with some thoughts on being people who know we bear the full image of God, being people who greet the full image of God, and being people who also greet the full image of God in every person we meet — no more, no less, and being people who insist that the systems we’re in do that as well.

Program Notes

(“How Can I Find Good News Outside of Patriarchy?”)

1) Pray that the image of God in you would meet the image of God in others.
2) Don’t diminish “male” and “female” to narrow stereotypes.
3) Disrupt systems and habits of male privilege with the strength and
blessing of God.
4) When you’ve been first a lot, practice going last — empower someone else
this day, this week, this year.

The above is not an exact transcript of the audio recording.