Any self-reflexive preacher knows that bearing the Word of God with her or his human words is a weighty matter. Scripture and experience teach us, all too well, that words can be used for good or for evil. Pulpits can become platforms for passive-aggressive speech, for attempting to control others’ behavior, for dehumanizing particular persons and groups, and for attempting to meet one’s own needs through inappropriate self-disclosure. These human tendencies are addressed by professors of preaching and pastoral care alike as part of formation for ministry.
Yet sometimes these kinds of misuses of the pulpit seem minor. Sometimes preaching violates others’ personhood and tears apart communal bonds. Preaching may not only be sexualized (in terms of its content) but it may also sexualize its subject and its hearers. Worse yet, a sermon may even deify rape.
The day of your eternal election has come. Yet who can bear being chosen by God like this, excluded out of all the world, marginalized, selected, preferred, embarrassingly loved with excessive public displays of affection that make onlookers nauseous until they cry out, ‘Get a room’.”
Here God’s love for humanity is portrayed as unbearably embarrassing, nauseating, and sexualized. While some biblical texts make an analogy (which by definition always contains similarity and dissimilarity) between God’s love for humanity and loving sexual union, this sermon goes far beyond that. Here God’s action of election is sexualized. Election means, at its most basic level, that God chooses to be with us and not without us, as Karl Barth would say. God chooses a particular people as God’s own. God chooses us regardless of our action, our choice. We belong to God. And this is normally good news, beautiful news, except in this sermon. Because here the God who chooses us, the God who is in control, is being sexual. God is like one who pursues you sexually, and with God, there is no possibility of saying ‘no’.
As the sermon progresses, God is portrayed as simultaneously loving us and being repulsed by us. You can try and hide from this God, but he will find you out.
And who can account for his [God’s] taste. He loves the ungodly, wooing you though he finds you repulsive. So ready or not, here he comes.
Imagine this in the ears of one who spent years hiding under his bed from his violent, drunken father. His dad comes home late night, the door slams, the boy hides under his bed, hoping that his father won’t find him. But of course, his dad does find him, and as usual, molests him before falling asleep draped over the top of him.
Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher brings his performance to a crescendo, which, intended or not, can be interpreted as mirroring the sexual act. (This is evident in the hearing of the sermon more than in the reading of it.) We are now told that God the Father joins God the Son in sexually taking over us.
Christ refuses to live with anyone apart from marrying you first. And he refuses to marry anyone he does not first kill. . . . Worse yet, when Christ marries, he insists on having his father move in at once. Suddenly your life is complicated and crowded. “We will come to them early and dwell with them surely.” To dwell, stay, inhabit, occupy not Wall Street but your little love muscle. They fill up your whole house and refuse to depart.
The language of rape (even gang rape) is all-too-clear here, again whether intended or not. They occupy your little love muscle. They fill you up. They refuse to depart. Intimated here is not merely intercourse (penetration and ejaculation) but rather forced intercourse—for God refuses to leave the other’s love muscle.
And that is called rape. And when two or more rape another person, we call that gang rape. And when a sermon portrays the Triune God as the actor in this nightmare, that sermon has deified rape.
Faith Trust Institute is a nonprofit organization established in 1977 to address the realities of violence and abuse in families and congregations. In the past 35 years, FTI has become one of the leading organizations in the United States to educate clergy, judicatories, and seminaries on the prevention of clergy sexual misconduct. I have been privileged to receive training through FTI, teaching their materials in two seminaries committed to the formation of healthy and whole seminarians. For those interested in learning more, FTI provides many resources on their website: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/.
In one of their training manuals, Clergy Misconduct: Sexual Abuse in the Ministerial Relationship, FTI defines sexualized behavior as “the kind of behavior that communicates sexual interest and/or content. To put it another way, it is what people do when they want to ‘sexualize’ a relationship—that is, when they want to add a sexual dimension to it. Sexualized behavior includes a whole range of behavior—verbal and non-verbal (physical). Sexualized behavior in itself is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, ethical nor unethical. Its ethical status derives entirely from the balance of power in the relationship” (p. 34; emphasis in original).
 The following direct quotes come from an actual online sermon.