On the Penn State Child Abuse Cover Up


A sermon  preached on November 13th, 2011 based upon Matthew 25:14 – 30. 

This is a peculiar, somewhat disturbing story that Jesus told.   A rich man gives three of his servants various amounts of talents – bags of gold — with each talent equal to twenty years of wages –  to be responsible for while he goes away on a long trip.  A detail that might get overlooked, but which is, I think, rather significant, is that although we are told the three servants are “entrusted with his property,” they aren’t given any instructions regarding what on a practical level this means. 

The two that are given the larger amounts of money to be responsible for (the five talent and two talent servants) go out into the world to make investments, which involve some degree of risk, and their investments pay off.   Over time they double their money.  Upon his return, the rich man rewards these servants for what they have done with his money.

But the one talent man, “knowing that the master was a harsh man,” had dug a hole and buried his bag of gold.  He wasn’t going to take any chances.  He feared the prospect of the master coming home and not being able to turn his talent back over to his master. 

Because of his fear, he plays it safe. 

The deeply distressing story of Penn State sex abuse cover up seems to have fear at its heart.  A young graduate assistant witnesses a greatly esteemed and powerful man doing something unthinkingly horrific to a young boy in a shower stall.  

Many of us this week have wondered what we would have done if we had been in his shoes.   We’d like to think we would have done the right thing, and self-righteously many have condemned the graduate student for not doing more than he did.  But none of us knows for sure what we would have done unless we were to find ourselves in a similar situation.  Perhaps the best response is to thank God that up to this point it has not been our burden to see a horrific sight like this, not leading us and to pray that  if we were to find ourselves in similar place, we’d be able to lay hold of the necessary courage. 

Who knows what went through the graduate assistant’s mind, but I think we’d be safe to say that a good part of what he felt was fear.  In the church of Penn State football, the graduate assistant was only a young seminarian, hoping to spend his life rising through the ranks of the priesthood; while the perpetrator of abuse was a beloved and very powerful cardinal.

Perhaps the young man was afraid that if he went to the police and told them what he had seen the cardinal do, no one would believe him since he was a nobody and the cardinal was so revered and respected in the community.  Maybe he was afraid that the cardinal would use his extensive powers to destroy him.  

He was probably also afraid that in reporting what he had witnessed he would destroy Penn State football and its hard earned reputation for being a program that “did things the right way;” and cause irreparable damage to the university itself.  The young man had spent his whole life revering these institutions as wholly good and honorable, and the thought of harming them must had terrified him.  He knew that once he took the step of going to the police, everything would be out of his control, as well as Penn State’s control, and all hell might then break loose. 

To his credit the young man told the pope of Penn State Football, Joe Paterno what he had seen, trusting that the pope would do the right thing.  We still don’t know for sure what transpired in the follow up to what the graduate assistant saw.  But at this point it appears that after reporting to Paterno he turned a blind eye to the obvious fact as time passed that nothing had really been done all to make sure this sick, sick man no longer had opportunity to harm either the boy he had assaulted in that shower, or any other boy for that matter. 

The concern for that boy and other potential victim which should have taken precedence over everything else was eclipsed by the young man’s paralyzing fear.  The young man buried his testimony in the ground, like the one talent man in Jesus’ story. 

And then the great irony of the story is that his fear of what might happen if he spoke out, as well as Joe Paterno’s failure to do so, and the failure of probably countless others to take decisive action for fear of what might come to pass, ended up greatly magnifying the tragedy, indeed, fulfilling their worst fears of what might end up happen if they lose control of the situation.

In Jesus’ little parable, the harshness of the master that the servant feared ends up on display in graphic detail, as the servant loses all he has.  The master consigns him to the outer darkness, where he weeps and gnashes his teeth. 

At first glance Jesus’ parable seems pretty awful, and perhaps this is because we tend to assume that it is an allegory, meaning, we assume the master in the story must represent God, and the image of God acting in such cruel fashion towards the servant who hasn’t really done anything “wrong”, is akin to imagining a 67 year old former football coach entrusted with vulnerable little boys and actually raping them. 

But the parable is not an allegory, and we need not make the rich man out to be God.  Seen through the lens of the Penn State scandal, however, the parable turns out to be remarkably insightful regarding human nature.  

When fear is the driving force in our live, we unconsciously end up bringing about the very things we fear. Out of fear, the graduate student and others bury the truth they know, and the burying of that truth ends up making the scandal far worse that it would have been. 

Perhaps the parable begins to make more sense if we think of the “talents” given to the three servants as expressing the life energy we are each given  that has the potential of being transposed into love.   This life energy varies in degree from one person to another, and yet in the end, the question each of us must address is, what will we use our life energy for?

In the end, why are we here?

We are here to love.  That is why we were put on earth.   Love is a mystery we cannot solve, or even sufficiently define.  But deep down we all know it when we experience it.  Love is the one thing that never ends.  Everything else passes away.  The purpose of our lives is to channel the life energy we have been given into the pathways of love. 

I came across some words of Henri Nouwen’s that spoke to me:

“What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

The fear of the one talent man makes him so consumed with a need to be in control, that he can’t give himself away in love. 

In the end, love is given freely, or it is not given at all. You can not make somebody love you. You can only give your love away, and trust that no real love is ever truly lost, and that all true love that is given away eventually comes back to bless us, even though it may be hard to see in the present moment how this will come to pass.  

How many parents and lovers have driven their beloved away because they were so afraid that their beloved would leave them.   Because of their fear they ceased to truly love, devoting themselves instead to manipulation and coercion.   

We wonder in the parable what would have happened if the investments of the two and five talent servants had turned bad?   By not doing what the one talent servant did, they took risks.  They weren’t in control.   The possibility existed that they might have had nothing to give back to the master when he returned.  What then?   Would the master still have praised them then?

But if the talents represent our life energy and the investing of that life energy is love, then in the end there is no way to truly lose.  Any true act of love given freely is never lost.   It is the one thing that doesn’t end. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, a significant detail in Jesus’ parable is that the three servants aren’t really given any instructions as to what to do with the talents with which they’ve been entrusted.   Perhaps we think the master should have given clear instructions:  Invest or don’t invest.  If invest, how much at what level of risk? 

But no, they are no instructions.  Each servant has to make their own way forward.

It appears at this point that the graduate student followed the letter of the law:  He reported what he had seen to his superior, Coach Paterno.  Because he did this, he probably won’t be prosecuted.   But in hindsight, we all know that in such a situation as this, simply reporting to one’s superior is woefully lacking.   The right thing – the loving thing – would have been to do whatever was necessary to protect that boy and other boys from further harm.  

Laws and employment guidelines can provide helpful guidance, but in the end they can’t really tell us what it means to live lovingly. 

Some religions try to hide out in rule books.  But in the end, finding what love means in any given situation throws us back onto trusting God.  We walk by faith not by sight. 

So perhaps the lesson of both this parable and the Penn State scandal is that we all should take a look at the place that fear holds in our own lives.  It is a humbling thing to face up to our fears. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into believing that we aren’t afraid — that our actions aren’t based in fear at all. 

It may be that we’ve managed to believe such a thing precisely because we’ve gone out of our way to avoid the very things that terrorize us. 

It is interesting that this whole scandal took place within the culture of football.   Football players are supposed to be fearless. If you are afraid, you can’t play football.  But just because a person isn’t afraid to go out onto the field where the danger of bodily harm abounds doesn’t mean that same person wouldn’t be full of terror at the prospect of losing his job, his reputation, his family.

There is fear in the lives of everybody, and sometimes the most fear is in the lives of those who pretend to be the most fearless. 

And then there is Jesus.  

He commanded no armies, he had no bags of gold in the bank. He had no real power of the sort this world is so often preoccupied by.  And yet of all people who walked on this earth, he was the one least paralyzed by fear. 

Notice that I didn’t say Jesus had no fears.   He was a human, and that means he had fear, just like everybody else.   In the garden of Gethsemene, for instance, he is struggling with tremendous fear as he ponders what is ahead of him in the next 24 hours.   

But he moves through his fear.  He knows of a love that is greater than all fear, and he puts his trust in that love, even when the way forward is uncertain, and the actions he takes bring about all hell breaking loose.  

And if you were to ask what it was Jesus most often said to his disciples, it was a message of “Don’t be afraid… Trust.  Believe.”

That doesn’t mean don’t feel fear. That’s impossible. Again, it is human to feel fear.  But face your fears.  Take baby steps in going to God with your fears.   Finding courage is a life-long process, and it comes from time and again reminding ourselves  that whether we live or whether we die, we truly are in the hands of our God, whose love never ends.

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