Heaven Can Wait

This is a sermon I preached after the tragedies of child sexual abuse were discovered at Penn State.  I welcome any comments and if anyone would like to contact me privately, please use the “Contact” link at the top of the blog. Please note:  some names have been changed in the sermon below for what will become obvious reasons.

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The novel and film The Color Purple is the story of a woman named Celie.
Celie grew up in a home without a mother;
in a home where she was abused physically and sexually,
eventually giving birth to two children fathered by her own dad,
who then gave them up for adoption.
Celie is then married off to Mr.,
who continues the abuse.

Aside from the love of her younger sister,
abuse is all that Celie knows in the first half of her life,
so it is not surprising that when her son-in-law Harpo complains about the uppity nature of his wife Sophia,
Celie tells him to beat her.
Harpo tries to do just that,
though he in fact gets the bigger beating from his wife.

Afterward Sophia confronts Celie:
“You told Harpo to beat me…
All my life I had to fight,
I had to fight my daddy.
I had to fight my uncles.
I had to fight my brothers.
A girlchild ain’t safe in a family of men,
But I ain’t never thought I had to to fight in my own house…
I loves Harpo, God knows I do,
but I’ll kill him dead for I let him beat me…
Now you want a dead son in law, Miss Celie?
You keep on advising him like you doing.”

Celie replies, “This side’ll be over soon; heaven lasts always.”

“Girl, you oughtta bash Mister’s head open,” Sophia says,
“and think about heaven later.”

This morning our primary scripture from Revelation (from chapter 21) talks about heaven.
All the hymns I chose for worship do the same.
I thought I would even preach about heaven today,
but given the events of the last week,
I think heaven can wait.

One of the criticisms of some forms of Christianity is that they concentrate too much on what may come after death and too little on what actually happens during life.
This is exactly the attitude that Miss Celie reflects when she says,
“This side’ll be over soon; heaven lasts always.”

The problem with such a view is captured perfectly in an old saying I heard years ago:
“He (or she) is too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.”
And so, while it may be nice to contemplate what the new heaven and new earth may look like,
and while it is wonderful to think about the fact that one day there will be no more tears or sorrow or pain and that death itself will die,
the truth is that there is too much work for us to do in the here and now to spend much time contemplating what will be in another time and place.

I invite you to look again at the words we just sang in Hymn 726.
“O holy city, seen of John,
Where Christ the Lamb, doth reign,
Within whose foursquare walls shall come
No night, nor need, nor pain,
And where the tears are wiped from eyes
That shall not weep again.

“Hark, how from men whose lives are held
More cheap than merchandise,
From women struggling sore for bread,
From little children’s cries,
There swells the sobbing human plaint
That bids thy walls arise.”

This past week, above every other noise raised concerning the scandal that has unfolded at Penn State Univeristy,
I have heard the echoes of children’s cries.
Children and youth crying over their innocence violently stolen,
children and youth, at least eight and no doubt many more,
weeping because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of a man they trusted,
weeping because of the indifference shown by others,
who may have done what was legally required of them,
but who also fell far short of any decent moral response.
A 28-year old man who witnessed the abuse of a child in progress,
and who ran away without doing anything to stop it or even saying a word.
And others who were content to pass matters up the chain of command,
but in the end did nothing but say to the accused – just don’t bring kids here to Penn State anymore.
In effect saying: you can keep on doing what you are doing,
just don’t do it here.
And no one, not one person at the university, ever tried to follow up and discover who the ten-year old boy was who was raped,
let alone try to help him.
It was and is shocking.

But as Erin Wilson said on her blog Biscotti Brain,
We may have been shocked by the wrong thing.
She wrote:

“If you live in North America,
you’ve likely heard the story unfolding at Penn State.
A former assistant coach has been charged with sexually abusing boys,
and the legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, has been fired for not doing enough when allegations came to light nearly a decade ago.
Students who support Paterno (and his 61-year career at Penn State) have rioted.
And all over social media, you read the word ‘shocked’.
People are shocked about the story,
and shocked that the students seem(ed) to care more about sport than abused kids.”

Erin then asks:
“Is it shocking that sexual abuse was not reported to police by an organization concerned about their reputation and ability to raise huge amounts of money? Not really.

“Is it shocking that a group of young people raised to worship sports heroes have acted out their frustration that one of their own was seen to be punished for the actions of others. No. Not shocking.

“I’d like to suggest that we’re shocked by the wrong thing.
“Statistically speaking, some members of the Penn State coaching staff were sexually abused as children.
Some members of the Penn State board of trustees were sexually abused as children.
Statistically speaking, some of those rioting students have been sexually abused.
Statistically speaking, 1/4 of the women reading these stories have been sexually abused and at least 1 out of 6 of the men reading these stories have been sexually abused.”

25% of women and at least 16% of men have been abused sexually.
And some studies put the figures even higher:
33% of all women and 25% of all men.
Think about that for a moment.
And lest you think this is just an impersonal statistic,
allow me to make it more personal.

When I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school,
I was molested by a member of my extended family.
And though it happened only once,
I cannot begin to fully tell you how this single event affected my life.
The shame I felt over this incident stayed with me for decades.
And though I did nothing to deserve the assault,
I was also filled with guilt for many, many years.
It affected every aspect of my life,
and yet I never spoke about it to anyone for over 17 years.
I didn’t even tell my own mother until 5 years ago,
and this is the first time, some 36 years later, that I have spoken of it in public.

I have also seen the effects of sexual abuse on children during the time my former wife and I served as foster parents.
I think of two sisters she and I fostered at one time – girls who were prostituted by their own mother before they were even teenagers;
their lives forever marked by what happened to them.
I think of another young girl we fostered who was abused by her own father before she was three years old.
When we first took her into our home she would wake up every night in terror – screaming and crying and shaking.
No pleasant dreams for her,
but rather nightmares of such devastation and horror that her little body and mind could not handle them.

And I have also witnessed how good people and organizations can turn a blind eye to an abuser.
In one of my former churches there was a man I will call Tom.
Tom was the kind of guy who often got upset when he wasn’t acknowledged or recognized for the things he did in church.
Time and again he would leave the church,
and people I knew, trusted and loved would encourage me to go visit Tom and bring him back to the fold.
And so I would.

But during my last year of ministry two children started attending our after school program,
and both of them exhibited classic signs of abuse.
Subsequently, we discovered that these children were often left in Tom’s care by their mother, and it was then that someone finally mentioned to me,
after five years of ministry in the church,
after five years of having this man take care of setting up fellowship time between Sunday School and Worship,
including juice and cookies for the kids,
five years during which he was in contact with children of the church,
including my own children . . .
only then did someone tell me that Tom had molested a mentally-challenged youth 30 years previously.

Upon learning what Tom had done years before, my wife approached the mom and warned her about leaving her children in his care.
Her reply was that her boys would tell her if anything happened to them.
Of course, most children who are abused do not tell anyone,
let alone their parents.
My wife told her as much,
but we were left to hope against hope that she would heed the warning.

To further complicate matters, Tom was a volunteer in the school system.
He would often do candy-making demonstrations in classrooms.
So we approached some administrators about our concerns only to have them dismissed.
But still, it was surprising for us to learn a short time later that Tom was scheduled to do a demonstration in one of our children’s classes.
It was only after we told the teacher that our child would not be in attendance that day, that the event was cancelled,
but in the process, we were branded as trouble-makers,
and one church member spent a half hour telling me that I needed to let the past stay in the past,
that Tom had suffered enough for what he had done years before,
even though he had never been punished or held liable for his actions.
In fact, he had just received a volunteer of the year award from the school,
and several members of the church were still urging me to once again bring Tom back into the fold of the church.

Knowing what I knew, I refused,
and then just three months before we moved to a new community and church,
Tom was arrested.
The mother, who had continued to leave her boys in his care,
had walked into Tom’s home and discovered him and her two preteen boys lying naked on the living room floor.

Tom served 5 years in prison for his crime,
but I wonder, what did and has it cost those two young boys?
And I also wonder, if the church had been the church,
if there hadn’t been a culture of secrecy and denial,
if the school had done its due diligence,
and if any of the people who were trusted by those boys had done anything at all to justify that trust,
would those boys have ever had to suffer in the first place?
The fact is this:
Many people knew what was going on with Tom,
and yet they did nothing at all to protect or help those in danger.

A good friend of mine, Dorinda Fox, wrote a poem this last week which gets to the heart of the matter.
She entitled it “Why Penn State is Not a Surprise.”

After 30 years of intimacy
not always
but often enough
late at night
in the dark
during the after talk
they tell me.

“My uncle”
“My cousin”
“My coach”
“My frat big brother”
“My sister’s boyfriend”
Always someone they knew.
Forget stranger danger.

Then their voices change in the dark
and they are boys again.
“I was 10.”
“I was 8.”
“I was 14.”
“I was 12.”
“And he told me never to tell.”

That is not when they cry.
Only at this …
“They already knew and nobody helped me.”

In the Alma Mater of Penn State we find these words:
“May no act of ours bring shame.”
And to this I would add,
“May no inaction on our part bring shame either.”
And when it comes to our children and youth,
this is our imperative as followers of Jesus.
After all, Jesus himself once said,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Erin Wilson, who I quoted from earlier,
closed her recent blog entry by saying:
“We are those boys abused in a shower.
We are Sandusky, the accused.
And we are all Paterno.
We have all, at some point, remained silent when we should have spoken;
turned away, left the hard questions unasked.
And we have all played a role in building an environment of shame,
where it is often too difficult for those around us to be honest with their pain and struggles.”

“Don’t mistake what I’m saying here…” Erin adds.
“I am not condoning or excusing abuse. Ever.
I have my own long shadow that I deal with.
But I am suggesting that we can do something constructive with this shock.
We can use it to propel us to love our communities in deeper, healthier ways.
We can use it to foster safe spaces, and safe relationships where there is space to share our stories of shame without fear of judgement.”

And, I would add, we can also do much more to protect our children.
To this end, our church council will be reviewing and refining and adopting a Safe Sanctuary policy for our church.
And while this is mandated by our Annual Conference,
it is also mandated by our discipleship to Jesus.
Rough drafts of this policy are available for you at the back of the church.
I invite you to take one home with you and come to our council meetings as we discuss and adopt it.
It is the least we can do to protect the most vulnerable among us.

As Miss Celie said in The Color Purple,
heaven does last always,
but we cannot ever be so heavenly-minded as to be of no earthly good.
I look forward to heaven,
to the time when I will be reunited with my loved ones and friends who have gone on before me,
but I pray that I will keep both my eyes and all of my heart and mind focused on this world – on its problems and struggles and tragedies,
and on what I can do to alleviate them and prevent them in the here and now.
I pray you will join me in this endeavor.

Going back to that hymn we sung earlier,
we read again these words in verse 4:
“Give us, O God, the strength to build
the city that hath stood too long a dream,
whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,
And where the sun that shineth is
God’s grace for human good.”

Until we build that city in the here and now,
heaven can wait.

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8 thoughts on “Heaven Can Wait

  1. Make absolutely sure you have boxes of Kleenex on every pew. I am serious. Also, are you prepared to counsel those who, either immediately after the service or in the coming weeks, come to you with their own stories? Are others in the church trained in counseling victims of sexual abuse? After this sermon, you’ll need them.

    The sole hesitation I have is naming the church and the abuser. I think you’d get the same impact, and perhaps protect yourself from legal challenges, if you changed names.

    You are brave and wonderful, and I look forward to hearing the stories of healing that come from this beautiful, disturbing sermon.

  2. Nicely done, Friar. I think in that same passage you mentioned Jesus said (and I paraphrase): “better a stone to be tied around your neck and you dropped into the sea than to harm one of these little ones.” Wish I could be in the sanctuary to hear it.

  3. Will – Judy Becker here (friend of Crowl’s) – just wanted to tell you how amazing this sermon is. Dave forwarded it to me, and it is so touching and SO true. Would you mind if I shared this on my facebook page? I think it says so much.

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