(This sermon does discuss sexual assault and harassment).

Every Sunday my prayer is that when we come together for this sacred time in this sanctuary everybody feel free to come as you are and to be with God as you need. May prayer is that this sacred time is fulfilling or restoring or healing or uplifting or soothing or inspiring or invigorating – whatever it is you’re needing from the Spirit.

A sanctuary is a shelter, a refuge, that’s set apart for sacred activity, for us to touch in with what is eternal and unchanging, a God beyond the comings and goings of our human lives. A sanctuary is in some ways protected from the outside world. That can be like this image that comes up a lot in the Bible of God being like a mother hen making her wings into a shelter for her brood.

But it isn’t much of a sanctuary if it keeps us out, or if it keeps out the parts of us that we need to bring in to be with God as we are.
So every Sunday in making this a sanctuary it’s a balance between what we are invited to leave at the door of this sanctuary and what we are invited to bring to the altar.
What do we leave at the door of this sanctuary? What do we need protection from? Or what do we need to just give a rest, to get a rest from, to get distance from?
And what do we bring in with us to take to the to the altar? What’s the raw stuff of our lives that we need to give to God to be transformed? The raw stuff of being people in this world and in particular people of faith trying to be faithful in our time to this God of compassion and comfort, this God who we know through Jesus, this God who takes this beautiful busted world as it is and takes us as we are and heals us, restores us, transforms, strengthens, and then sends us out to invite others into that gift of the Gospel.

So that said, I pray this is helpful to invite into this time:
The past week or so there’s been an extraordinary social media phenomenon, where folks from all walks have had the courage to share on social media “MeToo”: that they too have experienced sexual harassment and assault. Folks have been sharing their stories as they feel comfortable in order to bring this out into the light. And it has opened the flood banks – story after story, of pain and of great strength.

This trend started because yet another famous powerful man has had their years of lecherous, vicious behavior publicly exposed, finally. And this time it’s actually resulting in some accountability.

One effect of the #MeToo phenomenon is to show that this is a rampant problem. It’s not just a Hollywood problem or a cable news problem or politician problem or a rich guy problem, it’s everywhere. So we shouldn’t let this become some drama over there about famous people that then can distract us from the work we have to do here, as people of conscience seeking God’s beloved community through all our relations.

So the problem of sexual assault and harassment is terribly widespread: men – not always but 9 out of 10 times – men of each and every station of life thinking it’s okay to use whatever power we’ve got to take advantage of someone with less power – who often are women, but not always – and to take advantage in whatever way they can get away with, for a moment or a lifetime.

I want to honor that this has affected the lives of many – too many – folks here in this community, as in every community.

And, after prayer, I found I need to bring this up in this sanctuary time also because the church has done and is doing its share of damage here. The institutions of churches as well as pastors and priests largely have not been Christ-like when it comes to abusing power. And when it comes to sexual assault and harassment in particular, the church has a long and living history of perpetrating, condoning, excusing, and ignoring such violations of our fellow human beings.

That is something to repent of, to cast off, to turn away from, and to drive us to humbly seek forgiveness and guidance from our God in Christ, so the church may become a force for healing rather than harm.

One reason I’m with the United Church of Christ is because this is a denomination that at least tries to repent of the ways, all the different ways, that the church has violated the Way of Christ. There is “yet more light and truth to break out of God’s Holy Word”, and in the UCC we know that living God pushes us to evolve morally. Last summer, in fact, the national UCC body voted to call on all settings of the UCC to publicly address “the healing needs of adult survivors of child abuse.”

So let us be very clear about where our allegiance should be:
#JesusToo. JesusToo.

Actually a lot of people in the Bible, too … mostly women – there are lots of stories of sexual abuse in the Bible. I want to lift up “Tamar” in particular, whose anguished cry went up to God. #TamarToo. And the question is who hears the cry of Tamar?

From the early testament in Genesis YHWH God hears the cries of those violated and is heartbroken over the violence that runs rampant over the earth.

Then in our Christian testament Jesus as the Christ shows us definitively that God joins us in all suffering and leads us to survival, to soul survival, through the Passion and the Resurrection.

The Passion. Now, I’ll spare you the details, as the Gospel writers did, but the Roman practice of crucifixion involved sexual humiliation and violence. It’s well documented. This was all about power. They took enemies of the state, scapegoats and proved their dominance in every way. This included “making men into a woman.” So, as hard as it is to say, the Roman soldiers probably did some terrible things off stage to our dear Jesus.
The Passion. Through Christ, God joins us in all suffering, takes it in love upon the holy altar, and ushers us with Christ into resurrection as beloved children of the living God.

The Passion and Resurrection of Christ stands as a resounding “No!” spoken against the ways people abuse others with their power.
The Passion and Resurrection of Christ stands as a resounding “Yes!” for all the ways the soul survives and thrives.
And then there is the community of the Resurrection, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, which seeks to live out this “Yes!” to live out the Love of God and the Way of Christ on behalf of a transformed humanity. The beloved community.

So for us trying to become the beloved community, a community of the Resurrection, it is really important – among other things – to be raising up our young people with good values when it comes to power and sexuality. This is why it’s good that we are offering the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum to our middle schoolers. Our Whole Lives (OWL), guides young people to developing Christ-like values, which I’m sorry to say are counter-cultural.

Here are some of these OWL values that help develop a culture free of sexual violence:
– Every person is entitled to dignity and self-worth
– We respect other people because they are equal to us, as beloved children of the living God,
– We need to avoid double standards. Women and men of all ages, people of different races, backgrounds, income levels, physical and mental abilities, and sexual orientations must have equal value and rights.
 Sexual relationships should never be coercive or exploitative.
– Sexuality in our society is damaged by violence, exploitation, alienation, dishonesty, abuse of power, and the treatment of persons as objects.
– We are called to enrich our lives by expressing sexuality in ways that enhance human wholeness and fulfillment and express love, commitment, delight and pleasure.
 All persons have the right and obligation to make responsible sexual choices, in ways that are appropriate to them, and to their age and stage of development.

This is part of what we’ll be teaching our young people, but these are values for all of us. So often we teach children values and ideals that the adult world tramples right over.

I’ll just close by giving thanks to God, our refuge and our strengths, our God who’s spirit of compassion and comfort abides in this holy sanctuary and takes what we give at the altar, this God who we know through Jesus, this God who takes this beautiful busted world as it is and takes us as we are and heals us, and restores us, transforms us, strengthens us, and then sends us out.

Thanks be to God.

Proverbs 31:9-10
Speak for those who cannot speak, for the rights of the destitute. Speak out, judge rightly, defend the rights of the afflicted and those in need

Matthew 25: 40 &45
“I tell you, as often as you did it to one of these, my siblings, however humble, you did it to me…. I tell you, as often as you failed to do it to one of these, my siblings, you failed to do it to me.”

2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Praise be to the God and Father [and Mother] of Jesus Christ, to whom alone we pledge allegiance, the Father [and Mother] of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us all in our troubles, so we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

Psalm 17:7-8
Show the wonder of your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand. Guard me as the apple of the eye. Hide me in the shadow of your wings.

(Delivered October 23, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)