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January 6, 2013

Unbullied


Sermon for Year C, The Feast of the Epiphany
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
January 6, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Unbullied”

So here’s how it is.
Herod tells the wise guys to go and look for this child Jesus
  Who is threatening his power and his standing,
  Only he doesn’t say Jesus is a threat;
    He just says he wants to worship the child, like they want to.
But the wise guys aren’t called wise for nothing;
  They know baloney when they hear it.
The wise guys follow the star, not Herod;
  They find Jesus, worship him, give him their gifts,
  (In other words, they acknowledge the one who is the real king),
    And then they depart.

They return home “by another road.”
They go back a different way,
  So as not to meet up with Herod’s men.
Again, they aren’t called wise for nothing.
They see the situation for what it is; they don’t want to be arrested, tried, executed.

You might call this strategy thoughtful avoidance.
Really, in a funny way, it’s one way to stand up against bullies.

The Bible actually contains a number of strategies for dealing with bullies.
First to come to mind is David, standing up against Goliath.
David takes five smooth rocks out of a ravine,
  Puts one in a sling,
  And fells the giant in one quick stroke.
Call it the Direct Approach.
He doesn’t have much, but what he does have, he uses effectively.
Never blame your equipment.

And what else? Well, there’s Pharoah the bully.
Israel crossing the deep water when fleeing from the Egyptians.
God tells Moses to stretch out his hand,
    That the waters will part,
  And everyone on his side will cross over in safety on dry ground.
Lo and behold, the Israelites do stay dry
  And the Egyptians are drowned in the sea.
This is the Do Very Little and Allow God to Work strategy.

There’s quite a lot of this in Scripture.
It’s a message you’ve heard me put words to before from this pulpit:
  The humble, those in the place of danger, …
    The isolated, the marginal, the small and insignificant and weak ones …
  These are the ones who often have the direct experience of divine favor,
    And always in the moment when it’s most desperately needed.
This is one of the great themes of all the themes in the Bible:
    That it’s not just enough to say you love someone, to say God loves you –
        Talk is cheap:
    It needs to be shown, instead, in a concrete way at precisely the right time.

Make no mistake.
Most of us live in a world where power dynamics are constantly in flux,
  And sometimes we’re on the powerful side,
    And sometimes we’re on the not-so-powerful side.
Sometimes out of a lack of power in one area of our lives,
  We create a small, maybe unhealthy place in the rest of our lives
  Where we can be power-full.
Sometimes, when that power is hoarded up and used to exploit people,
  You can have a bully.

But now Jesus is what you call a game-changer.
And right here in this very Gospel of Matthew,
  He speaks with an almost alarming level of knowledge about bullying.
I have gathered some of his wisdom from here in Matthew:
  Listen to his words, and see if you can get a feel for the overall ideas.

You have heard that it was said,
   “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”
    But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
    And utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
    Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;
    For this is the law and the prophets.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
    For with the judgement you make you will be judged,
      And the measure you give will be the measure you get.

Jesus’ attack on bullying in Matthew is two-pronged.
You just heard the first one:
  It’s more passive, gentle, nonjudgmental,
    And it contains some of the hardest advice there is to follow in all the Bible.

Here’s the other prong of Jesus’ attack against bullies in Matthew:
  He stands up and he speaks out and with great love and compassion;
  He speaks directly and clearly to those who do the bullying;
    He tells them, in so many words, to stop it – to repent.
And he calls into question any system that allows bullying to become commonplace.
As uncomfortable as it may make us to say this,
  He does all this using forms of political speech and political demonstration.
He is not unaffiliated.

He cleanses the Temple, and he goes to great lengths
  To excoriate and lampoon all the religious and political bullies he sees.

He says,

It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,”
     But you are making it a den of robbers.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
     For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.
     For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
     For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate,
     But inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Jesus speaks the truth, see, and it costs him everything.
For now he is small and timid and speechless, adored by men of wisdom.
All that changes pretty quickly on our calendar:
  Next Sunday in our lessons, he is a man who changes water into wine,
  And the week after that, he announces good news to those who’ve been bullied,
  And the week after that, the people will try to bully him off a cliff,
    And the week after that, he will be transfigured before Peter, James and John.
And then it will be Ash Wednesday.

So it’s conveniently easy to miss this one invitation from the wise guys
  To consider how they stand up to corrupt power in their own small way,
  By worshipping the one true God and by shucking the dust of Herod –
    In effect telling Herod he’s not the big man he thinks he is.

There’s one more prong, though, to consider,
  When it comes to how Jesus dealt with bullies.
An idea so revolutionary that if we took it seriously it would absolutely change the world,
  And yes, I am na├»ve enough to think that,
    For to do otherwise would just be a cop-out.

That idea is simple and straightforward.
  He welcomed everyone who came into his orbit.
He sat and ate and talked most especially with society’s outsiders –
  With prostitutes and tax-collectors, lepers and Gentiles
    And at least by the day’s standard, every other sort of unclean situation
      You can possibly imagine.
He welcomed them all,
  Took them into himself,
  And offered them the absolute best of his own substance,
    His healing power, his wisdom.

So it is no light thing, no triviality,
  For us as a church to decide to live by this same standard.

Downstairs on the bulletin board,
  And starting very soon in many places,
  You’ll see a draft statement of Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals for St. Thomas.
That little document doesn’t use a lot of words,
  But it tries to put what we believe and who we are and what we do
  All into a very plain format.

It was something I wrote a few months ago after thinking on it for a few years,
  And took around to every Senior Warden I’d worked with since I got here,
  And took to the Vestry for their counsel.
Some added a thought here or there,
  And all affirmed it – I hope not out of some duty to please me,
  But I hope and pray because it seemed to both represent St. Thomas
    And, at the same time, to show something which,
    If we were only a little more aware of it, we might aspire to.

It affirms the following Vision:
  “We gather together as One in Christ.”
Have you seen that phrase before? Does that sound vaguely familiar?
“We gather together as One in Christ.”
It’s on the banner at the back of the sanctuary!
And it’s my profound hope that we might use it as a rallying cry and a vision
  And a whole way of seeing ourselves –
  A statement that will find its way onto everything that goes out of this church
    Not because it sounds good from a marketing perspective,
    But because it’s true. Patently true. “We gather together as One in Christ.”
Our oneness as the gathered people of Christ exceeds everything else.
Our oneness means that each new person who walks in
  Is warmly greeted as one more part of the One:
  That this is a circle that always has room to expand.
This is all confirmed in the statement of Mission, which opens up by saying
  That “Inclusion – welcoming all people” – is a key ingredient of who we are.
Now, this is, as I say, both an affirmation of what we do well
  And a challenge to do it better.

But I can’t think of a better way to deal with bullying
  Than to show the world that there’s at least one place and one people
  Where it doesn’t matter who you are:
    That you are, and that you can be, loved beyond reason.
By God, by other people, maybe even by your self.

And listen – when it’s understood that this is the case at St. Thomas,
  Then the people in Siouxland who are spiritually starving will get the word,
  And things will progress at a rate that may boggle our minds and our hearts.
And all that, if we can just live in a little more fully to what we already are.
God will truly be praised.

Now, to him who is the Morning Star and the incarnation of divine light,
  To this one be all honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

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