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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Ordinary Sunday 33, Year C
Adults Surviving Child Abuse Service
South Sydney Uniting Church
November 14, 2010

Luke 11: 9-13

The figures from ASCA, the fine agency which supports adult survivors of child abuse, tell us that:

These are truly disturbing figures – ones which must challenge our whole community. So much is still hidden in terrible pain, too. Often the victim has absorbed the shame rather than the abuser. On the way in to the church, you will have been given a small blue knotted ribbon. This is the ASCA symbol of lives which are “knotted up” by childhood abuse.

I always say that the ultimate betrayal is abuse inflicted by someone who bears the name of God on his or her lips. There is something about that which carries with it a destruction and violation which is beyond words, especially if it happens to a trusting child. Not that religious leaders are other than human, but we all know absolutely that child abuse is one of the ultimate wrongs In fact it is a crime, and we bear a responsibility which comes with the authority of the church. It is not a small “mistake” or failure.

My original profession was as a pre-school teacher and, especially in some kindergartens in which I taught, I watched over children who had been betrayed by adults in various ways. I knew that I could have some impact on the despair which lay there, but I had no illusions about the degree of that. For a child to be betrayed by an adult, which that child trusted, often means that the child may never trust adults again, or not for a very long time. Or such children may see themselves as forever defiled – often blaming themselves.

And, if the abuse comes from someone in the church, we might also ask what that does to someone’s trust in God.

I want to say, with real certainty, that our God is the God who weeps with us and would rather die than stop loving us. We need hide nothing from this God.

When I chose today’s reading from the Book of Luke, it was because I believe that it is important in the context of any tough journeying, to reflect more deeply on what we understand prayer to be – or, if it is more true for you, what happens to the expressions of longing and hope which we cry into the universe.

Before I talk about that, I would want to say that, in the last verse, where we are referred to as being “evil” or “sinful”, I believe it is an example of the vivid and dramatic language of the time when this Gospel was written. I think that what Christ was really saying in our language, was “if you, being human, know how to give good things to one another”. In other words, even ordinary stumbling people like us try to do good and be kind to others and God is infinitely kinder than us.

If I am focussed on prayer today, it is because I know that prayer can sometimes be wonderfully helpful and healing, or it can be dangerous. I think that there is much damage done to people by parts of the church which offer this promise in Luke to people without entering a deeper reflection. It is all too easy to say the bit about asking and knocking and searching as though there is a God waiting there to simply respond to that in ways which we determine – or which some church leaders determine.

I have seen untold damage done to vulnerable people who are prayed over by those leaders in some religious traditions, with all sorts of promises of healing offered to them. If nothing happens, they are then often told that they must either be too sinful or they haven’t enough faith.

To understand the nature of prayer we need to go beyond simply “Let’s ask God for something”. Yes, we are invited to ask, knock and seek. But what we are promised, if we do that, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we really could tell God what to do and get what we asked for all the time, everyone would be Christian, for the very good reason that they could get what they wanted. The relationship with God would be horribly distorted. All our problems would be solved and life would be like a consumer’s dream.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being abused is in any sense, sent to try us. On the contrary, I believe that the love and concern of God surrounds each violated person, especially a child, with endless care. It is then a matter of trying, as best we can, to see where that love and healing might lie.

So, what is prayer about?
I think it is indeed an invitation to honestly cry out into the universe in our pain, grief or distress and to feel that we are held in love as we do that. I love the freedom of the Hebrew people to do that as seen in their Scriptures, the Old Testament. “Why?” they cry out. “What are you doing, God? Why do the good suffer and the bad prosper?” Christians are not nearly as good at that and I think we should be.

It is also about daring to go down into our pain, anger or grief and to believe that we are safely accompanied into that darkness by our God. We are not required to “be positive” as some people imply. We can be honest, real and raw.

I share with you the little poem I wrote this year when I was struggling with cancer:

My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?
The earth is barren of promise
and the sweet buds of hope have shrivelled within me.
My soul bleeds with sadness
and the hard unanswered questions
pierce me with thorns of pain.
O God, I have entered now
into the depths of all struggling human reality
as I descend into the emptiness.

When we ask, seek, knock or weep and cry out, we are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is this gift? Above all, as I said, I believe that it is the assurance that we have the loving company of our God, both within us and around us.

It is also about the receiving of often and unexpected gifts. We cannot determine what they should be, but are invited to open our hearts and lives to look for them and receive them. The Holy Spirit surrounds us with love and, if we look, we will see signs of that.

Sometimes the gift comes in the form of professional help, something which almost all abused people need in the first place. But then, I believe there are gifts from God added to that. What we are given may indeed be healing, or it may be endurance, courage, kindly friends or family, rest and recreation and inspiration.

Often it is about letting go of our own demands regarding what we think will help us and being open to all sorts of surprises, gifts and possibilities. I have often seen people miss what is being offered to them because they have decided what they need and nothing else will satisfy them

I remember, when I was under intense pressure in my own life, being counselled by a wise Catholic nun who taught me to be open to receive what she called the “Sacrament of the moment”. She invited me to surround myself with small signs of love – things people had given me, photos of the faces of those I love and images which reminded me of special times in my life. When life was tough or exhausting, I was to stop and look at them and receive from them.

She invited me to also see things like sun on a leaf, the colour of a flower, the sound of a bird, grass growing in the concrete – little things which it is easy to walk by and miss. Often the gifts lie around us in the creation – in the beauty of the sky, the mountains, the sea and in all that lives around us. I give thanks to God for all I have received from those who love me and from the earth itself.

I often find that music is a healing and renewing gift for me. In fact, I think we underestimate the power which lies in the arts as a resource for our lives. The arts are not a luxury addition to real life, but they may be part of God’s gifts for our survivals.

In all this, I am not saying that we pray and there is the solution to everything before us – far from it. I am saying that prayer is a profound connection with the love that surrounds our struggling lives and the hand of God the Loving Parent which holds us fast as we face many things.

Part of that surrounding in love comes as we stand in the circle of the Eucharist and hold in our hands the life of Christ, the one who knows what betrayal feels like and is with us every step of the way. As you will hear in a moment, I will soon say “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread and broke it . . . .” Jesus was betrayed by those closest to him and by the religious authorities of the day.

As we receive into our hands the love and life of the betrayed One, we stand there together in the community of faith and will commit ourselves to holding on to each other as we go.

In the silence today as we complete the homily together, rather than coming forward and sharing, I invite you to touch the blue knotted ribbon which you received on the way in and pray for those who have been abused. Then I will lead us into prayer together.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

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