truth and consequences

my sermon from july 12.

Next week we will finish our sermon series “It’s Good to be the King.” (Well, Usually.) We have considered the journey Israel made through the leadership of Samuel and Saul, and last week we began to discuss the kingship of David. David was God’s favored choice to be king because, as the scriptures say, “He had a heart for God.” Most of the time he was able to remember that God was the true king, and keeping that perspective insured prosperity for the king and the kingdom. Yet even a heart for God did not prevent David from falling into the same temptations everyone else must face. One day, looking out from his castle David sees Bathsheba, a married woman sunbathing. He insists on having her, she becomes pregnant, he tries to cover it up, that fails, and ultimately David orders her husband killed so he can marry Bathsheba. After Nathan reveals David’s profound sin to the the king, David repents. But the story does not end there.

We know that abuse tends to run in families, and when David’s children see that their father has little regard for the rights of others, they learn a lesson. After they are grown, we learn than Amnon is furiously in love with his half-sister, the beautiful Tamar. He is literally love-sick. He and his cousin Jonadab plan a scheme where he will be alone with Tamar and will have an opportunity to act out on his lust: tell the king you are sick; ask him to send Tamar with food. Amnon is David’s first-born son, making him heir to David’s throne. David is concerned for his health. So when the request comes he sends Tamar. Immediately, Amnon sends away all of his servants so he is alone with Tamar. We see that he is not sick, and he begins to force himself onto his half-sister. She pleads with him: “No, my brother, do not force me; such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile!” She appeals to his pride, saying he would be a scoundrel. She appeals to his compassion, saying she would be shamed. She even begs him to ask David for special permission to marry her, though it is against Israelite law. None of this helps. Amnon rapes Tamar.

Now let’s be clear: rape is not sex. Sex is a beautiful, wonderful gift of God between married, and consenting, adults. Rape is violence. Rape occurs in many forms: incest, sexual violence between family members, as in the Tamar story; date rape, sexual assault between a couple; spousal rate, sexual assault between a married couple are a few examples.

After the assault, Amnon is filled with disgust toward Tamar. We learn that he did not love her; this was purely an act of lust. Tamar is nothing more than an object to him before the rape, and literally becomes nothing to him after. We know that rapists exhibit a need to be in control, expectations that sex is a right and an entitlement, and a hatred of women. They often transfer their own feelings of self-hate onto their victims. This happens to Tamar. She pleads for Amnon to protect her. The Law required the man who rapes a woman to compensate her father and marry her, but instead Amnon calls his servants to forcibly remove Tamar from his presence. She tears her clothes and places ashes on her head, signs of mourning and loss. She shouts her pain for all to hear. Absalom, Tamar’s brother and half-brother to Amnon, hears of the attack. He tells her to be quiet and promises to take care of her. Tamar fades away from the story, the author clearly more interested in court politics than the hurt woman. King David hears of the rape and is angry, but he does nothing. After all, Amnon is his first born. Nowhere in the text does David ever speak of Tamar.

Two years later, Absalom lures Amnon away from the safety of the castle and has him murdered. He flees Jerusalem and goes into exile. Absalom justifies his actions as taking vengeance on behalf of Tamar, but we sense something else is going on. After three years, Absalom returns to Jerusalem, but David will not see him. For years they live in the same city but David ignores his son’s presence. Soon Absalom betrays his father, overthrows him, and places himself on the throne. David flees Jerusalem, alone again in the same wilderness where he hid years earlier from King Saul. Civil war has come to Israel. Later David forgives Absalom, but it is too late-- he is killed by one of David’s soldiers. His death happens eleven years after Tamar’s rape. David utters some of the most painful words in scripture: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ Our heart breaks with him; yet we wish he had spoken with such emotion for his daughter Tamar as well.

This is a terrible story, one filled with violence, unanswered questions, and no happy ending. No wonder this text is not included in the lectionary, the assigned texts most churches use every week. This summer many of the stories of 1 and 2 Samuel are listed, but not the Tamar story. Too much suffering. Too many difficult issues. An absence of God in the story. Some here today may well question hearing this in a worship service. But life is never so easy, is it? We could read and study only those verses of the Bible that are comforting, but when we cut and paste the scripture what does that do to its authority? Do we ever get to live our lives exactly as we want to? Are we really ever protected from evil and violence? There are several life lessons all of us can learn from this chapter.

1. Our children watch and learn from us. I see this in my own kids, how a comment I make a little too quickly without enough thought gets repeated. Those who brutalize others are often victims or witnesses of abuse. David’s lusting after Bathsheba, his efforts to cover it up, even the murder of her husband are noticed. David got away with it david surely at one point taught his sons to respect women, and yet Amnon sees that David doesn’t even follow his own lessons when it comes to women, so why should Amnon? David is angry but does nothing about it, allowing the hurt and shame to poison everyone. We cannot look the other way when evil happens around us.
2. The suffering of others can be manipulated for other evil means. When David does not punish Amnon, it gives Absalom an opportunity to use this terrible episode to rid himself of his competition for the throne. Absalom’s murder of Amnon has nothing to do with justice for his sister and everything to do with his own pursuit of power. Now that Amnon is dead, again David does not act. The one who had been so decisive on the battlefield against the Philistines cannot act in his own family.
3. Violence unchecked produces more violence. Tamar is raped, Amnon murdered, Absalom killed in war. Anger alone will not solve anything, but neither does violence—it perpetuates it. Seeking revenge even for loved ones will not lead to healing and restoration—only more suffering. We easily forget that life is a fragile gift of God, and as such only God has authority over it.
4. Forgiveness does not come easily, and delaying it leads to more disaster. Absalom returns to Jerusalem after two years, but David refuses to see him for three years. Think about that. One son is murdered, the other—now the presumptive heir to the throne—returns, but the king will have nothing to do with him. Instead of acting, David allows Absalom’s lust for power to grow and grow, until he overthrows his father, and David nearly loses everything he worked so hard to build. One commentator on the story remembered the father in the Prodigal Son parable. We long to see David at the palace gates, hoping to embrace and forgive his son upon his return. David does not even bother to take the royal chariot for a spin to see his son.

The worst part of the story has nothing to do with David or his sons. It is easy to forget the victim of the story—Tamar—because the storyteller forgets her. He is more interested in castle politics than Tamar, who has no claim to the throne. She simply vanishes into the margins, forgotten and alone. We must refuse to do that to her again. We can learn much from Tamar. In the midst of this terrible episode, we learn that one of David’s children is really human. She is a victim here, but makes her protests very clear. A recent National Crime Panel survey showed that women who scream, run, fight back, etc. rebuff two would-be assailants for every one that succeeds. Tamar is unable to control Amnon, but she fights back every way she can. After the rape she tears her clothes, a public testimony that something terrible has happened to her. Rape is the most unreported violent crime due to the stigmas associated with it. Tamar cries and shouts, hiding her suffering from no one. Is our reluctance to tell her story another way of hiding her away, as Absalom does? When we refuse to talk about rape, are we perpetuating the shame of the victims?
As Bruce Birch has said, “[Do not] victimize Tamar again by failing to note her courage and resourcefulness in the face of danger or by refusing to acknowledge the full reality of the suffering and humiliation inflicted upon her, not only by Amnon, who raped her, but also by David and Absalom, who see her tragedy primarily as a complication in kingdom politcs.”

The Tamar story teaches us so much about the reality of rape. We imagine that rapes only happen in dark alleys by strangers, but the reality is that the great majority of sexual assaults are inflicted by people the victims knew well—Amnon was Tamar’s half-brother. Absalom tells her to remain silent about the attack—most victims tell no one, out of a belief that this is a personal issue. The church’s silence on this issue continues Absalom’s counsel to Tamar. As Bruce Birch has said, “If such stories are read as part of our biblical tradition, similar stories can be faced in our own lives, in the lives of our families and friends, and in the life of our communities.”

Some statistics I learned in researching the sermon:
• One in 10 victims is male
• Almost half of victims are under age 18
• 3 in 20 victims are under 12
• 80% of victims are under age 30
• 93% juvenile victims knew their attacker
• Only one in three report the crime
• 60% victims experience post traumatic stress disorder; 16% still suffer fifteen years after the attack

Victims speak of having an unclean soul, having difficulty praying or attending church. We tend to think of rape as an act of physical violence only, but the spiritual crisis is just as acute. In fact, thinking from a biblical perspective, there is no division between the physical, emotional, or spiritual in a person. The Hebrew word nefesh speaks to the completeness of the person—the unification of mind, soul, and body. When we are seriously harmed, all of who we are suffers.

We are not told what Tamar endures after the rape, only that she “remained a desolate woman.” Many rape victims feel betrayed by God, a sense of spiritual abandonment. As Wendy Farley has said, “Nothing can separate God from the world, but suffering can be a veil that hides this loving presence.” We can turn to the scriptures, which speak to God’s loving presence when we suffer:

“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10)

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2)

Those are all comforting words, not just for victims of sexual violence but for anyone who suffers. But we need to realize that sometimes there are no words to explain our pain and grief, and there are no words that offer immediate comfort. We want to help, but we are powerless. Sometimes all we can do is endure the silence together.

But we must not remain silent, whether we are victims, families and friends of victims, or a community resolved to work together to confront the issue of violence—rape or otherwise. Silence and inaction were major factors in the Tamar episode. David repented for his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, but it made no impression on his sons—neither Amnon nor Absalom repent for their actions. He could have stopped any future violence by addressing the rape openly. Instead, violence produces more violence, and his firstborn son is dead. After Absalom’s exile David could have reached out to his son; he did not: more violence, including Absalom’s death. Is it all David’s fault? No. Could he have prevented much of the suffering? Absolutely.

Tamar is the one person in the story who cries out for the injustice done to her—she is the victim, but her cries are either ignored or used to fulfill other ambitions. For us to remain silent, to discourage public discussion of such issues, leads to their perpetuation. The more we speak honestly and openly the greater chance the cycle of violence and shame will be broken. It is very likely that many here today have faced or will face sexual violence in their lives. Perhaps because we are discussing this openly they will feel more comfortable speaking out should such horror happen to them.

These are important issues, and they speak to the most fundamental values and purpose for the church as the family of God on earth. In our congregation, Pastor Samantha has led us in instituting a broad Safe Sanctuaries policy, procedures that ensure the safety and protection of young people in our church. Everyone who works with children must complete the process. After all, the term “sanctuary” originally did not refer to a worship space, but a safe place for folk to go where protection was guaranteed. A policy and a new mindset is a good start. We can and must go further.

Earlier this year in Chicago several churches who share a ministerial alliance preached the Tamar text on the same Sunday. It was a coordinated attempt to break the silence of sexual violence—the first time in the history of the city that this happened. They reminded parishioners that sexual violence can be encouraged by family members (Amnon’s cousin), indifference (Absalom), indirect lessons from parents (David), and by the silence of the broader community. Their sermons were a healing word to the community, which was hurting over the rape of a young girl. From this effort we learn a valuable lesson about the power of addressing difficult issues openly and honestly. Preachers should preach about sexual violence. Teachers should teach about sexual violence. Parents should instruct their kids about sexual violence. And the code of silence must be broken. We hope that someone spoke such healing words to Tamar, but we will never know. The next time such violence occurs at home or in the community, it will be our responsibility to act. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


awesome sermon!
Anonymous said…
Frank, thank you for this important sermon. Excellent!
Anonymous said…
You are a deep brother Dr. Drenner. Great work!
Anonymous said…
I am glad you tackled this subject, and even more glad you did it with such wisdom. I am wondering about the preparation you may have done ahead of time, particularly for the younger ears in your congregation. Do you have children in worship, and, if so, did you tell the parents ahead of time what you would preach about?
pastor frank said…
abril, i sent a blast email to the church about the sermon. at 10:45 we normally offer children's church for kids 3-2n grade, and yesterday only we had an activity for 3-4-5 graders. people appreciated the options. my wife and kids went to the 8:30 service, along with several other families. christy was concerned about their questions; turns out they asked about murder, not rape.
Anonymous said…
It makes sense to me that kids would ask questions about murder. They have more exposure to that (from media, even if we try to shield them) than they do sexual assault. We only have children's church for kids up to age 5, and when I recently mentioned internet pornography is a sermon, I thought I might catch a little flack, but I didn't. Thanks, Frank.
Anonymous said…
Amazing sermon, Pastor handled it with amazing strength, determination and passion. I commend you for teaching, and bringing to light, such an important lesson! More Pastors should tackle this topic for their community!!
Anonymous said…
You handled au uncomfortable topic in an intelligent, sensitive way.
chris parker said…
fantastic to read, important to take on board and even better a word of blessing from God through your words.