Sermon Starters

Themes Relating to Domestic Violence
for preachers following the Revised Common Lectionary October 2014

By The Rev. Dr. Miranda K. Hassett, Rector, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Madison, WI and Hannah Wagner Jacoby, Training and Education Coordinator, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, Madison, WI

A word before we begin… Our Gospel lessons this month, in the Revised Common Lectionary, all come from the Gospel of Matthew. It should be said up front that one hallmark of Matthew’s Gospel, his particular account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is that it is full of surprising instances of violence in Jesus’ teachings, not found in the other Gospels. We do not have to take on board Matthew’s account of Jesus; the Jesus of Mark, Luke, and John has much less to say about beating, murdering, destroying, and casting into outermost darkness. However, as preachers, we do have to grapple with the text. I hope the resources and ideas below will be helpful.

General Revised Common Lectionary resources:
The Revised Common Lectionary Page at Vanderbilt Divinity Library. This is a handy place to check on upcoming lessons. They also provide printable PDFs of the readings, and other resources.
The Text This Week, a wonderful site with exegetical, liturgical, and sermon-writing resources for every Sunday of the church year. This amazing site is supported by donations; consider helping out!
Gospel Parallels may be helpful in looking at what’s distinctive about Matthew’s Gospel.

Sunday, October 5: Matthew 21:33-46
Today’s Gospel from Matthew is Jesus’ parable of the unfaithful tenants in the vineyard. Matthew is writing his Gospel not long after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, following the Jewish revolt. It seems likely that it’s Matthew’s understanding of the parable that he puts in Jesus’ mouth here: God is the landowner, and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem are the unfaithful tenants who killed God’s son and have now themselves been crushed and destroyed. (Many scholars suspect that the explanations of the parables given in the Gospels may be the voice of the Gospel writers, rather than Jesus himself.)

Matthew Swanson, in his commentary Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (Pilgrim Press, 2007), points to the levels and types of violence in this story, beginning with the structural violence of the absentee landlord. There were plenty of absentee landlords in first-century Palestine, as there are today; and then as now, they were not popular characters. Second, we have the rebellious violence of the tenants, working-class, dispossessed folks who were subject to unfair demands from that absentee landlord. Jesus’ original audience would probably have identified with the tenants in the story more than anyone else. Finally, there’s the military violence of crushing the tenants’ rebellion, to protect the interests of the elite landowner. None of this violence is OK! – and once we look at the parable this way, we probably sympathize most with the tenant farmers, rather than the landlord.

How did Jesus mean us to hear this story? It’s hard to know. It’s certainly one of the more difficult parables. Perhaps his original point was simply that violence tends to lead to more violence. How can we get out of those cycles and mindsets to other paths, other kinds of solutions?

One lesser-known aspect of domestic violence is the prevention side: raising men (since men are the primary perpetrators of domestic violence) whose identities aren’t invested in strength and force, and who have healthy understandings of romantic relationships that don’t revolve around control and ownership. A lot of the messages young men receive about what it means to be a man, a partner, a head of household, have to do with strength, power, and dominance. Think of the language of pop songs and the imagery of romantic movies. Perfume ads feature “playful” violence against women. Often our culture glorifies the dominant, controlling man, and normalizes an “ownership” model of romantic relationship.

As they grow up, young men who don’t conform to these kinds of gender norms may even be teased or stigmatized for stepping outside the “man box.” But it’s clear that dominance-oriented masculinity, machismo, strength and power can have their dark sides.

How can we help young men to see alternatives? To see other ways to be a man? to be a partner? Some men who become abusers do this work as part of abuser treatment and training. But in an ideal world, young men would have more positive and open images of masculinity to draw on, right from the start.

Look again at the situation of the tenants. Maybe the best outcome would be that the situation could be changed. That there were other channels and languages than violence here, to resolve the parties’ differences. What would that other look like?

Sunday, October 12: Matthew 22:1-14
Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s parable of the Wedding Banquet. Once again, as with last week’s Gospel, this is a difficult text full of layers of violence. It starts with a wedding banquet, an occasion for joy and community. But then the invited guests indulge in abuse and murder; and then the king sends out his troops to murder them, in turn. And THEN when the party finally starts, the king confronts one person who isn’t dressed correctly, and he is tied up and thrown into outermost darkness. The story is almost comical in its level of absurd violence.

This is a flat-out odd story, and difficult to preach under any circumstances. Matthew seems to use it as a parable about how many people aren’t ready or worthy to enter God’s Kingdom – and boy, are those people going to be sorry. Remember, Matthew is writing not long after the destruction of the Temple and the Romans’ violent crushing of the Jewish revolt. Violence is the air he breathes.

In Luke’s Gospel, there is a superficially similar story, the story of the Great Supper (Luke 14:15-24). That’s a much easier story to engage: the guests who refuse to come are simply too tied up with daily life and concerns to accept an invitation to a party. We can relate to that. And then the host fills his party with people who are willing to come, whether they’re respectable or ready or appropriately dressed or not, and they celebrate together. It’s really a very different story!

As a preacher dealing with this Gospel, I might put the Matthew and Luke stories side by side. They may have a common origin in a source both Gospel writers drew on, recording a simple saying or story from Jesus; but Matthew and Luke worked with that seed of a story in very different ways. I might use the contrast between those lessons as a way to look at how Matthew thinks – the way vengeful violence seems to work its way into his stories, the way his twist on Jesus’ teachings is so punitive and dark. Matthew’s stories are often stories in need of healing, in need of grace.

A very common and important aspect of domestic violence situations is victim-blaming. The abuser often blames the victim of abuse, saying that the victim incited or deserved their treatment. But often, too, society, family, and friends will blame the victim, perhaps without realizing that’s what they’re doing. Sometimes people hearing a domestic violence story deal with it emotionally by thinking, “Well, what did that person do to bring it on themselves?” What’s happening to you is because of the way you act. You’re too fat or stupid or lazy or alcoholic or irresponsible or …. You should have left him long ago… You should never have married somebody like that…

Matthew’s version of the banquet parable is full of blame. Consider the party guest who’s not dressed right: it’s a trivial issue, and the violent response is totally disproportionate. But within the story, within Matthew’s text, it seems normal, deserved. Consider Luke’s version of this story: Whoever comes, comes, and is welcomed. No questions asked.

When someone discloses to a pastor, family member, or friend that they are dealing with domestic violence, we need to come to their side with welcome, love, and support. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in their lives or whether we would have made different choices. They don’t deserve to be abused, and they do deserve our love, patience, and help to work towards changing their situation.

Sunday, October 19: Matthew 22:15-22
Today’s Gospel features Jesus in conversation with some Pharisees, who are trying to trap him with a trick question about paying taxes. Jesus’ clever response is famous: “Render unto Ceasar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” The implicit answer: we belong to God, bearing God’s image (Genesis 1) as the coin bears the image of Caesar, and so we should give ourselves to God.

Does a person who is abused recognize her- or himself as made in God’s image? People in domestic abuse situations – whether violent or not – usually have very low self-esteem (for more on this point, see the material for October 26). The message that we belong to God, are beloved by God, and reflect God’s divine nature, may be really important to hear. In churches that use predominantly male language for God, women may find it particularly hard to see the divine image reflected in themselves.

One clear theme of this story, and of Jesus’ teaching here, is what belongs to whom, and what we owe to whom. Whom do you belong to? Have you given yourself away? If so, to whom, or to what? Look back at the notes for Sunday, October 5, for some notes on how our culture normalizes an “ownership” model of relationships. “You belong to me…” “Talkin’ bout my girl…” And so on.

Abusive relationships generally contain a STRONG element of control and possessiveness. The woman who is being abused can’t even talk to a male grocery check-out clerk; can’t be away from her phone; and so on. That’s not what love is; that’s not what healthy, normal loving relationships look like. One person cannot own another person. An abuser can do tremendous violence to his partner trying to completely control and own her, but it will never work. And the abuser, too, needs to be freed from the compulsion and need and desire to own and control another person.

But belonging can be positive, too. Faith communities can play a really important role for victims and survivors of domestic violence by letting them know, You belong to us. We love you and we’re with you. We welcome you, we hear you, this is a safe space, we’re going to go the distance as you seek freedom and healing. Faith communities could ask themselves, how can we support and care for the people who belong to God, and to us? Victims – and abusers, too – are made in God’s image.

One small but important step is to make sure some basic resources are always available in your congregation and church building: contact information for the nearest domestic violence shelter, and simple handouts listing warning signs of domestic violence, and loving and helpful ways to respond when someone discloses to you that they are a victim.

Sunday, Oct 26: Matthew 22:34-46
Today’s Gospel brings us what is known as The Great Commandment: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. It should be easy enough to unpack this Gospel: love at the heart of Jesus’ message, and the balance of love implicit in this teaching – of God, neighbor, and self. We tend to leave off those last two words, but they’re awfully important! Being able to love yourself is almost a precondition for being able to love your neighbor.

People in domestic abuse situations – whether violent or not – usually have very low self-esteem. Rebuilding a sense of their own value, worthiness and capability can be one of the longest and hardest aspects of healing and recovery. It’s not a simple matter; if you just tell a victim that she should feel better about herself, you may simply make her feel worse about herself, because she can’t. Domestic abuse counsellors tell victims and survivors, “You’ve been told you’re worthless and terrible for years now; of course you don’t feel great about yourself.” And they help them, bit by bit, to see the good and strength in themselves, to make small changes and take steps towards seeing their own value, feeling their own competence. Look what you’ve done. You’ve kept yourself alive. You’ve kept your kids safe. You took the initiative to get on the waiting list for that apartment. You helped your child calm down when he got upset.

Recovery involves giving survivors opportunities to regain, slowly, their sense of autonomy, competence and value. There is a risk that some new figure will simply replace the abusive partner as the person running the survivor’s life: a new partner, a parent or sibling, even DAIS or another helping agency. DAIS tries to help the survivor become, again, the center of her own life. To love herself, so that she can love others in a healthy and joyful way.

Love others as you love yourself is very concrete advice! When we don’t know how to express our love for someone, we can ask ourselves what we would want or need, if we were in their shoes. Ask yourself honestly: if it were me, what would I want? Think past your “well, I’d never get into that situation” reaction; think past judgment, advice, and trying to fix or solve things for someone else. If I were a person disclosing that I had been living with domestic abuse, I would feel really ashamed. I would want to know that people weren’t judging me. I would want the people around me to understand that this is a long journey, and that I’m not OK now just because I’m no longer living with my abuser. I would want people to trust me, and listen to me. This kind of empathetic reflection can help us be better friends and support to others who are going through a tough time – whether it’s domestic abuse, or any other challenge.

When people feel unable to love themselves (whether due to domestic abuse, or for many other reasons), as a community of faith, can we say to them, “If you can’t love yourself right now, can you let us love you?”