October 11, 2015
Father, may these spoken words inspired by the Holy Spirit, lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord.
“We don’t go around hitting people!” If I didn’t hear that from my father every day growing up, I heard it multiple times a day. For Dad, the one unpardonable sin in our family was violence in our home. During my parent’s 20 year marriage, I never once saw Dad raise a hand to my mom. I remember when I was about nine or ten, I hit my sister during a silly argument. Dad made me handwrite a 1,000 word essay on why we don’t go around hitting people, then read it aloud to my sister. I never hit my sister after that.
Now Dad was no hippie parent who thought discipline was bad for children. The reason he didn’t go around hitting people was because he had grown up with a stepfather who hit him, my uncle, and my grandmother. Dad told me that in the mid-1960s when he was growing up, domestic violence was common, and divorce as a result of domestic violence was rare. Everyone he knew experienced domestic violence, but no one talked about it. Especially, no one talked about it in church.
Unfortunately, domestic violence is still far too common today. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men will experience some form of intimate partner violence in his or her lifetime. Intimate partner violence includes physical, sexual, psychological, and verbal abuse. One of the reasons that this type of violence is so common is because victims believe that their abuser really loves them. Victims keep silent because they truly believe they don’t deserve any better. Another reason that domestic violence is so common is because one of the ways abusers control their victims is by isolating their victims from their communities. Even if a victim wanted to cry out against her abuse, her abuser has convinced her that no one is listening.
It feels particularly appropriate that the lectionary reading for Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday is Psalm 22 because the psalm gives voice to the same type of abandonment that victims of domestic violence experience. Psalm 22 begins with quite possibly the most famous line in the entire Psalter, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” The Hebrew verb used to describe God’s action is azab. Azab is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible. Most of the time azab is used to describe being forsaken in sense of to leave something, to depart from someone, or to leave something behind. In the case of Psalm 22, azab is used to describe abandonment, specifically abandonment by God. The type of abandonment the Psalmist is referring to is the state of being left utterly alone by someone who is supposed to be taking care of us. Here we are supposed to be imagining a Father abandoning his son during his hour of need. This is an important distinction because the Psalmist is not lamenting a particular misfortune. To the psalmist sickness, ridicule, and weariness are symptoms of the larger problem of being abandoned by God. The Psalmist is utterly alone. He cries by day, but God does not answer. He cries by night, but finds no rest.
If you look closely Psalm 22, you will see that it has a unique structure. Most lament psalms begin with a complaint, then affirm their trust in God, then ask God for help, then end with Praise. The lectionary reading for today asks us to focus on the first half of this psalm, verses 1—15. These verses begin with a complaint, then affirm trust, then transition into another complaint, then affirm trust again, before moving into another complaint. The structure of the psalm can make it feel very disjointed. It feels almost like the Psalm has two different authors, one complaining, one proclaiming the goodness of God.
Most commentators, however, agree that Psalm 22 likely had only one author. They explain the disjointed nature of the Psalm by claiming that the Psalm was likely performed in the context of liturgy. Likely one person would have read the complaint verses while the community joined in for the affirmation of trust verses. Liturgical psalms help to give a worshipping community a language and a structure with which to bring their suffering before God and before one another. If a member of the community could not participate in the performance of the Psalm because the weight of their suffering could only be born in silence, the rest of the individual’s community could lend their voices to the psalm to remind the individual of God’s promises.
There is something really beautiful about imagining this Psalm performed in the context of a worshipping community. When we gather together for worship, we come as we are. Some of us gathering together for worship today are really winning at life. We have an amazing job, our children are thriving at school, and our parents are healthy. Others amongst us are feeling abandoned by God. We’re struggling with inoperable cancers, estrangement from our children, and violence at the hands of the person we love. What makes this Psalm so beautiful is that it provides a model by which the worshipping community can bring its prayers and petitions before God and before one another. For those winning at life today, this Psalm offers an opportunity to stand in solidarity with those feeling abandoned by God. For those feeling abandoned by God, this Psalm offers a community to remind them of God’s promises.
Growing up, I always wondered why my Dad didn’t go to church much. Sure, he came on Christmas and Easter, but I could tell he only came because Mom made him. I think one of the reasons he never came to church was because he felt abandoned by God. Where was God when his stepfather beat him or my grandmother? Or when the doctors in the emergency room looked the other way? Or when other family members told him to suck it up and be a man? This is why the PC(USA) designates one Sunday a year as Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday. It is a day set aside for the church to publicly proclaim that domestic violence is wrong, and until domestic violence ends, the church wants to stand in solidarity with all those who feel abandoned by God because of domestic violence.
Another reason that Dad rarely went to church is because I don’t think he ever thought of the church as the place where he could be who he really was. It’s difficult for survivors of violence to trust other people because their abusers violated their trust repeatedly. It’s also really hard to be in relationship with survivors of abuse because their understanding of human relationships has been tainted by violence. Plus there is constant pressure in many of our church communities to be happy all the time. Since Dad couldn’t be who he was in church, he didn’t want to come except when Mom made him.
Friends, I am here today to tell you that the church does have an essential role in the fight against domestic violence. The first thing the church must do is condemn domestic violence in all forms. We cannot sweep domestic violence under the rug. We cannot assume that someone else will call the police. Using Psalm 22 as our model, we need to be of the mindset that when one of us is suffering, we want to stand in solidarity with the person suffering. Sometimes that means talking about domestic violence from the pulpit, and sometimes that means reminding people who feel abandoned by God of God’s help in the past.
Another important thing we can do as a church is to proclaim over, and over, and over again that victims of domestic violence are not alone. The opening lines of Psalm 22 probably sound familiar to you. That is because this is the same question Jesus asks from the cross. “Eli, Eli, lema saba-ch-thani?” My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” On the cross, our savior entered into our human hell. Not only did he enter into our cancers, our school shootings, and our domestic violence, he did so feeling abandoned by God. Jesus felt abandonment from God on the cross because we feel abandonment from God because of our cancers, our school shootings, and our domestic violence. On the cross, Jesus bore all of our pain, sickness, and violence so that he could stand in solidarity with our suffering. Victims of domestic violence are not alone in our church because we worship a God who suffered with them on the cross.
Another way we as the church can support victims of domestic violence is by giving victims space to cry out to God. Many of us believe that we cannot cry out to God in anger. That our prayers have to always be polite, logical, and efficient. But this is not the type of praying Psalm 22 encourages us to participate in. I like the way theologian Jason Byassee described Psalm 22, when he wrote, “there is no need for tidied-up, buttoned-down, polite teatime prayers with the God of Israel. In fact, as though to head off such fake piety, we find in Scripture itself a formula for praying with chutzpah: God, where in the world are you?!” Sometimes when we cry out to God our questions will remain questions. And that’s okay. But when we give space for lament in our worshipping communities, we tell those who cry out that their laments are heard, and somehow we will get through this together.
I want to end by sharing the practical ways the church can support victims of domestic violence. We can pray for victims, survivors, and perpetrators during our prayers of the people. We can print domestic violence helpline numbers in our bulletins. We can lead adult education classes on violence in the Bible. We can hang posters with the numbers of local domestic violence shelters on our bathroom doors. Finally, we can talk to our youth about what healthy dating relationships look like, and where to go if they find themselves in an unhealthy relationship.
You may be wondering why I chose to preach such a heavy sermon today. I wish I could tell you that Dad’s experience with domestic violence had a happy ending. But like most stories of domestic violence, it did not end well. Growing up in a world that didn’t take domestic violence seriously, Dad turned to drinking to cope with his abuse. He started drinking in his teens, and drank heavily throughout his adult life. He developed liver cirrhosis at 50, and passed away a few months before his 52nd birthday. He left behind a widow and two teenagers.
I shared Dad’s story because I completely believe that Dad’s life would have turned out differently if someone (a friend, a teacher, his pastor) had told him that domestic violence is wrong, and that there is no shame in seeking help. Friends, we have to break the culture of silence surrounding domestic violence that leads so many victims to internalize their shame and guilt. Because the good news of this Psalm is that we do not have to suffer alone. We do not suffer alone because God, incarnate as the man Jesus, suffered on the cross so that God might know what it feels like to be abandoned. And we do not suffer alone because Jesus, through the power of his resurrection and ascension, sent the Holy Spirit to empower the church to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer now.