I was at a reading group this morning where someone brought up the issue of how we preach against patriarchy, both in overt forms like domestic violence but also in the more subtle forms of self-sacrifice. I remembered preaching a sermon on domestic violence, knowing this is a topic not always preached from the pulpit.
Nehemiah 8 (Epiphany, Year C)
If you have regular interaction with a young child, a niece or nephew, grandchild, neighbor, son or daughter, you probably have a lot of experience with forgiveness. I would define much of my life right now as a laboratory. In this laboratory the boundaries of rules and the boundaries of my patience are tested hourly. Living with a preschooler and toddler reminds me that most of the time forgiveness is a well-worn path upon which we go back and forth, over and over again. There is an infraction. The rule broken is addressed. Punishment is dealt. Forgiveness is granted. And life resumes as normal.
Now I don’t want to disparage this process. There’s a lot to say about this ritual of forgiveness. The fact that we have to do it so often really is a testament to the power of love, even when the offense occurs over and over again. We readily forgive, because we love the offender.
We see something similar happening in today’s Old Testament reading. We are placed in the middle of a scene that requires some context. So here’s what’s been going on. For seventy years the people of Israel had been living under the occupation of Babylon. When the Babylonians swept in they destroyed the Temple, the most important place of worship for the Israelites. Now, this wasn’t an ordinary church. The Temple was required for Israel to worship God. It was a very big deal.
Not only that, all the people who helped organize society, the priests, kings, prophets, teachers, all those folks were sent into exile. Everyday people were left behind to figure things out on their own. But with no Temple, and no access to the law of Moses, the people of God started to integrate themselves into the rest of Babylonian society. They didn’t witness to God’s love and provision. They didn’t remember the stories of the past. Instead, they started to do what everyone else around them did. They did this for seventy years. An entire generation passed by.
At the seventy-year mark the politics changed. A new super power emerged – the Persian Empire. The Persians had a different strategy when it came to ruling over foreign peoples. They allowed everyone to go back to their places of origin and to rebuild their old places of worship. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about this return, and about the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple.
In today’s Scripture we find the people of God in their newly rebuilt capital. The Temple has been restored. The elders and priests have returned. The people are gathered to hear the law of Moses read allowed. These are the books of the Bible that contain the history and rules of community life, those things that set the Israelites apart from the nations around them. There was a time of explanation of the laws in case anything went over their heads. And when the people finally get it, when they hear how they were supposed to have acted over the past seventy years, they weep.
When I first read this passage I was surprised that the Israelite’s reaction wasn’t fear. Now, the law of Moses is pretty clear that there are serious consequences to not following God’s rules. Yet, despite this, the words used to describe Israel’s reaction are not words of fear. They are words often used in the Bible to describe mourning at funerals. This same word is used to describe Joseph’s reaction to seeing his starving brothers kneeling before him in Egypt asking for food. These are words of deep emotion – regret, sadness, and loss.
What happens next may sound surprising to those of us who have a particular idea about God’s character in the Old Testament. God doesn’t bring the hammer. Despite decades of disobeying the law there is no fire and brimstone. Instead, Nehemiah tells the people to stop their weeping. This day is holy, set apart, he tells them. Instead of mourning they are to rejoice. They are to eat the richest foods they can find. They are to drink the sweetest drinks they can make. And then they are to give out portions of this food to those who don’t have any. Do not grieve, he tells them. God’s gladness over your return to him is a hiding place from your grief. It is a shelter from the distress and sadness that comes from discovering that you have hurt one who loves you and cares for you.
There’s something really wonderful about that. And if we stopped reading right here we’d have one idea about what forgiveness looks like. We can imagine that God wipes the slate clean. Forgive and forget. Let bygones be bygones. All’s well that ends well.
But if we follow the text a little ways further we’ll see that this isn’t the end of the story for Israel. In fact, there’s a lot more mending that needs to happen to make things right. And it isn’t easy. First, the Israelites have to face the past full on. They have to remember God’s never-ending, world-altering love for them. They have to come face to face with how deeply they had betrayed this love.
The Israelites also had to change the way they lived in real, practical ways. They had to change their marriage practices. They committed to the economic burden of no longer selling or buying grain on the Sabbath. They agreed not to grow crops the entire seventh year, and to forgive debts as the law of Moses required. Life as they knew it would never be the same. God had forgiven but intrinsic to this forgiveness was remembering and repenting in tangible ways.
What I hope we hear in today’s Scripture, in this snapshot of God’s forgiveness from so long ago, is that forgiveness doesn’t always look like just one thing. Some forgiveness looks like a father to a toddler, consistent return and reconciliation. But some forgiveness can be hard and it can be costly. It can be rooted in a kind of remembering that causes upheaval.
Halee Gray Scott knows exactly what this is like. In her article in Relevant magazine Scott describes how she came to this realization. It came at the end of an early relationship with a young man that she describes in this way: it was “something like the nightlock berries in the Hunger Games—sweet, a little bitter and toxic. We had chemistry and a lot in common, so when it was good, it was really good. But when it was bad, it was a disaster.” Dr Scott was the victim of an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship. Women and men in relationships like these are called names, are publicly humiliated by their partner, or are criticized, demeaned and judged into submission.
Other forms of domestic abuse take on a more violent form. I read a story this week about a smart, young Harvard grad who fell in love with a charming young man. It was on their honeymoon that he first attacked her after she got lost on the highway. He hit her so hard that her head slammed into the driver’s side window. She dismissed the event, justifying it by saying that he was stressed out. But eventually the abuse became routine. It took one particularly terrifying incident that concluded with a visit from the police before she said enough is enough.
Leslie Steiner became part of a frighteningly large group. Depending on the study you look at there are between 1.3 – 2 million women who are physically assaulted each year by an intimate partner. Some studies show that domestic violence of this kind is the leading cause of injury among women ages 15 to 44—more than car accidents, muggings and rape combined. It will take women in situations like these six to ten attempts to leave a partner for good. And every day three women will die at the hands of their abusers.
But often times good Christian women find themselves in a bind when it comes to facing a situation of domestic abuse. And the church all too often becomes and accomplice in their terror. After all, we reason, aren’t we called to forgive? Doesn’t Jesus explicitly say we are to turn the other cheek? Isn’t forgiveness required seventy times seven?
In the face of these questions I am thankful for the ways in which Nehemiah complicates our ideas about forgiveness. He reminds us that forgiveness can be a difficult and life-changing road. What we find is that forgiveness doesn’t nullify the consequences of sin. Neither is forgiveness synonymous with reconciliation. Dr Scott explains how “In the case of domestic abuse, the relationship between two people has been irreparably ruptured because trust has been violated. Though studies on domestic violence are rare, the patterns of violence are so deeply ingrained that most experts agree that very few perpetrators will actually change. We can forgive another person and even, in a sense, be at peace with them without a full restoration of the relationship.”
Yes, forgiveness can be a difficult road, a road marked by painful choices and life changes for all parties. For some it will mean confronting the past, holding memory up as a shield. It may mean that the routine of life, what seems normal and regular is upset. It will always mean walking away from an abuser, walking away from what at the same time feels both secure and frightening.
The reality is that someone here today needs to know that he or she does not deserve to bullied or hit. I want to believe it isn’t true, but the statistics say that 1 in 4 women will find themselves in an abusive relationship at some point. Domestic abuse isn’t limited to a specific age group, race, economic bracket, or gender. But there are common factors within domestic abuse, and one of those factors is isolation. Abusers thrive on isolation, believing that those who witness or experience abuse will refuse to stand up or speak out.
We as a church need to do better than that. And this brings us to the second Scripture we heard today, the moment when Jesus stands before everyone in the synagogue and pulls out the scroll of Isaiah. And there before them he proclaimed what is at the core of this kingdom he came to bring about: “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Yes, friends, to let the oppressed go free.
For those in our congregation who do find themselves in relationships of humiliation, degradation, and violence – you may feel alone, but you are not alone. And I promise there is another life waiting for you. It may not feel like that now. It may feel like there is so much holding you back. But there is a God who has set this people in motion to walk down that long, difficult road with you. This is the God who rejoices in your very being, who wants to make God’s life, our life, a shelter for your grief.
That love is incarnate in real and practical ways here at Raleigh Moravian. That love is among us is in the form of our Stephen Ministers. These are men and women who are being trained to help each of us along the difficult terrain of life changes, like moving out of an abusive relationship. Craig, Fran, and I are also ready to walk with you, to help you locate the resources of safe housing, counseling, and support that you will need to begin the new life God has waiting for you.
May we all find the wisdom, strength, and courage to do the work God has given us to do.