Thirteenth Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

August 18, 2018

When JustChurch was born, just four short months ago, we vowed to lean into current events, no matter how uncomfortable or ugly those events might be. We promised to position ourselves at the relevant intersection between church and world and to discern our role there together. We made this a goal, not so that we could sink in the mire of dismal news, but so that we could strengthen one another to go out into the world and make a difference in the name of goodness and justice and in the name of Jesus Christ, and in this way, be a beacon of hope to this community.

We have done this with issues related to immigration, even as we witnessed families torn apart at the southern border of our country and men detained resulting from the immigration raid in Mt. Pleasant (80% of our offerings have gone to gain their freedom so that they might be reunited with their families). JustChurch has raised almost $4000 towards this goal, as we have partnered with the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project. These current events have been excruciating to witness, but JustChurch has leaned into this discomfort in the hopes of being an instrument of goodness and justice and a witness to Jesus Christ. Indeed, to know Jesus is to do justice.

This week, another dimension of discomfort and ugliness has unfolded in our news, and it seems impossible for us to ignore it here at JustChurch, where we have covenanted to be a brave worshiping community. I am, of course, referring to Tuesday’s grand jury’s report regarding the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and its 70-year history of bishops and priests covering up the sexual abuse of over 1,000 victims. This is horrific on so many different levels, and yet, here it is, and here we are, and to ignore it is to be complicit.  We don’t choose the news any more than we choose the year we are born, but we can, and must, engage this as faithful Christians and as bold JustChurch-ers, despite our discomfort. Furthermore, we can discover hope in relating this horror to the words of Jesus, as he speaks to us today in the Gospel of John.

This grand jury’s report is devastating, not only for the Roman Catholic church, but for all churches across denominations. My grandfather spoke of times when being a pastor was a respected office; but in recent years, it is often met with suspicion and mistrust, and with good reason. This report contains several hundred testimonies of individuals who were raped or otherwise sexually abused by priests as young girls and boys. And rather than bring the perpetrators to justice, the church covered it up. For victims, the only thing worse than being a victim is being hushed. I know what it’s like to be the victim of a hand that holds you down, that seeks to take life, or at least rob you of the dignity of it, and was told to hush when I spoke up; indeed, countless others know this too as the #MeToo movement has shown. This report cuts deeply into Doug’s family, as our brother-in-law’s brother, Donny Green, was the first victim in the US to sue the Catholic Church, not anonymously, but rather using his own name. If he can be so brave, so can we.

Indeed, these current events show us there are plenty of people in the world who seek to take life. These ones either literally take life or else seek to destroy the self-worth and dignity with which we were all created. Whether you have been a victim of sexual abuse or have otherwise had your honor taken from you, you know what it’s like to be victimized. You know what it feels like to not have life within you, to lose hope, to not be able to look at yourself in the mirror without shame and self-loathing. We could ignore this ugly reality, or we can bravely name it. We here at JustChurch bravely name it, because this misuse and manipulation of other human beings is never the will of God.  

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks of resurrection–of living forever. I know, personally speaking, I don’t want to live forever with the knowledge and memory of things done to me or even things I’ve done to others. I don’t want to live forever feeling like life within me has been stolen, feeling dead inside. But this isn’t resurrection, this idea of living forever, like being a zombie or a vampire. Resurrection is new life, is a new Jerusalem, as Jesus says…which is to say, it is new life in exactly that place that has caused the most pain and death. When Jesus points to Jerusalem as where resurrection begins, he is pointing to that place where he was most humiliated and executed. Resurrection, then, means a death to old ways and a birth to new ways. New hope where there was once deep suffering. A gasp of air in a still tomb. A stirring of life in a barren womb. A tender kiss on a wounded forehead. Gentle embraces for an abused child. The words, “I believe you” in response to a terrified and brave confession.To be brutally clear–anyone who claims to give you life while at the same time has a hand on your throat are liars and are not doing the will of God.  These are ones who seek to take life, and they sometimes–temporarily–prevail. But not always.

Because there are also ones who fill you with life….with song, with rhythm, with soul….There are ones in this world who, while far from being perfect, bring out the singer in all of us, whether that be in the shower or in the car or in the church choir. Aretha Franklin died this week, and while she had her share of struggles in her life, she embodied strength and resilience. When my family was on vacation two weeks ago, my sons paid due homage to the Aretha Franklin display, because she was the 1st woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.  Her awards are endless, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, which is the highest civilian award in the United States, recognizing citizens who have made an “especially meritorious contribution to the national interests of this country, world peace, or other public endeavors.” She was described as the “voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America.” “American history wells up when Aretha sings,” said President Obama, “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, blues and rock and roll–the way hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” back at a time when our President was actually articulate, not to mention concerned with issues of civil and human rights. I challenge you not to sing along to her version of  “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” or “I Say a Little Prayer” or “Natural Woman.” Indeed, there are those in this world who seek to take life, yet there are also those who fill us with life, with courage and with song.

So, then, there are ones who seek to take life.

There are also those who fill us with life.

Then there is the One who gives life.

There is the only One who is the Word of God, the Son of God, the only one who truly holds life in his hands, and it is never to abuse or destroy or manipulate, but rather to restore and heal and redeem. There is Jesus, in whom all things hold together, and through whom all things will be redeemed, not living on in some purgatorial immortality, but rather a resurrected reality, where all things of death and sorrow are washed away, where a cross emerges from the ash of our past or these current times. When Jesus says, “I give you new life” and “I make all things new” it is never tied to words like “if you do this for me.” In this report, some young victims were rewarded with and identified by a golden cross necklace; this is an aberration of the Gospel, which sets people free. There are no strings attached to grace. Ever. When the heart grasps that truth, that nothing can separate us from God’s love, that God’s love is free, then a song wells up from deep within, a song joined with saints long dead and saints yet unborn, a song like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a song like “Amazing Grace.” In the communion of saints, we sing with Aretha.

As one who wears a clergy collar, I apologize on behalf of a church that has failed you and harmed you; it is not enough, but it is a start. As a woman who daily attempts to piece life together from a victimized past, and one who has pastored dozens and dozens of victims of sexual abuse, I stand with you and beg you to not give up hope, and remind you that your life is not your own; it belongs to those of us who love you, so keep your hands off it, and bring no harm to yourself, in the words of Sherlock Holmes. As one who holds onto the gospel with tooth and nail, I offer you news of unconditional love and infinite hope on behalf of a God who will never fail, harm or victimize. It’s all we have, really–as news daily depresses and disappoints. But if some shred of truth–that Jesus really, truly loves you, for all that you are–somehow pulls your feet out of bed in the morning and gives you the strength to shake a defiant fist of no more, the resilience to demand RESPECT for all people, including yourself, than it is enough.

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