How many of the kids we have in this church, do you think are victims of bullying or of other kinds of childhood abuse? No way do we want to think about that. No possible way any of these strong, loving, capable kids could ever be seen as the victims of a predator at school, the kind of kid who has been given a gift, an actual, real gift from God that allows them to seek out and find the kids who are afraid and the kids who are adrift without a strong household or family structure, they can find the fat kids easy enough but the sensitive kids are a little trickier, the kids who are a bit off center, or a bit artistic, a bit dramatic or a little quiet, they are the ones that these kids are drawn to.
And since there is something broken in their own hearts, something missing in their lives somewhere along the way they just got lost, instead of making common cause with the kids who are different and forming say, a drama club like I was in during High School, they make them their prey, teasing and denigrating them or outright brutalizing them so achieve some kind of validation that is otherwise missing in their lives.
Bullyingstatistics.org states that 77 percent of all kids suffer some kind of bullying abuse at schools these days. That includes cyber-bullying in our modern era so maybe the better question to ask ourselves is, “which of the kids we had up here for children’s sermon isn’t being bullied in some fashion?”
It isn’t just the overt, physical brutality that is in play here. That’s what we think of when we think bullying, right? Judd Nelson’s character John Bender in The Breakfast Club? Boots, swagger, ability to physically intimidate?
But the non-bruising kinds of bullying are also insidious, possibly more so for their longer-lasting effects. Call a kid fatty often enough and fatty becomes a part of their persona, something that they carry around for the rest of their lives. John Candy, one of my favorite actors for a number of reasons, said once that after awhile he began turning down the buffoon characters because he was tired of playing “fat guy falls down.” Chris Farley never seemed to get tired of that role, but neither of those men lived as long as I have, Candy died at 43, Farley at 33 and it would seem from interviews and their body of work that their personae were formed at an early age, probably on a playground somewhere, maybe by being called names.
Almost as disturbing is the thought that if there is a child in our rag tag band of rebels and cutie-pies, Children of God all, who has escaped being bullied, then there is a decent chance that the reason for that escape is that they have been the bullies themselves.
I know, look at them and you’d be hard pressed to think of them being mean to anyone but I volunteer in Caitlyn’s class every Thursday and I can tell you that if I lined up the kids in that class and asked you to pick out the bullies; you’d maybe only get one out of ten right. I’m not speaking metaphorically, or telling stories second hand. I’ve seen the behaviors, subtle sometimes; bold others with my own eyes. Cute girls with little in the way of imposing stature or physical strength acting like Iron Chef’s as they slice and dice their way through their classmates. Ask any woman in the congregation, girls are horrible to each other.
And the worst thing about bullies is that they have the ability to cow and scare you even when they are not in front of you; mostly because they frighten you into believing that they’re ALWAYS behind you. They, not as individuals, but they as a class of people, become the frightening wallpaper of everyday life, lurking around the corners and behind the closed doors, waiting to make each day a little more like hell. Name calling, humiliations, intimidations, threats, fulfillment of threats. These are the tools in the bully’s satchel and they use them to shape and to mold the children they encounter.
It may have dawned on most of you by now that I have a personal stake in this issue. I have some experience being on the receiving end of the bully’s tender mercies. I was not always the serene, self-composed, wholly comfortable in his own skin pastor you see before you, I used to be fat you know. Wait, never mind.
I also was not always the paragon of virtue and measured speech, the urbane, eloquent man who says what he means and means what he says. I used to be a smart-aleck. Wait, never mind. I as not the kind of smart aleck who could defuse tensions with a joke, oh, no, that was not my gift, I could seemingly only heighten tensions, make people angrier, almost like a bully but without the ability to make threats, I could only poke the bear and then wait to be eaten.
Needless to day I got beaten up now and then. Not the strapping lad I am now, I was short and fat and extremely uncomfortable in physical confrontations.
But then I got bigger. I entered High School at 5’ 10” and about 185 pounds, broad shoulders and a healthy spring in my step from all of that growing and I thought this time it will be different. I’ll be able to handle it now, they can’t get to me.
But no matter how big you are, someone is always bigger, or desperate to show that they’re bigger at least, desperate to find a place above someone else on the pecking order, someone they can control even if that’s the only thing in their lives that they can control. Kevin was the bane of my high school years. I know his last name but since I post these sermons online these days I’m shying away from letting you all in on it.
Kevin isn’t even the point. Kevin is just the end of the intimidation train for me, the caboose in the lifetime up to that point. He was reinforced by all the people who came before him because what I hadn’t realized was that even though I had left them behind, in other schools, in other states in some cases, they still had taken up residence in my head and were pulling at my strings all the time.
We are all at the mercy of those things, it would seem. We are the products of all of the things that have happened to us, all of the love we received or didn’t; all of the support we received or didn’t; all of the stability we craved and received, or didn’t. All of those things are worn like grooves into our brains and our hearts, shaping the way we are now, the way we will live and the way we will react to things now, though they are a distant part of our past.
Feathered hair on a blonde head will still take me back to Kevin and so it is fortunate that that particular Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy hairdo is past and gone, but still, there is a place for him in my brain and if you all think pretty hard, you can think of a tormentor that still has a couch upon which to crash for the weekend in your own psyche.
We react the way that we have been trained to react by the lives that we have led. We all do better as we get older, well, most of us do, at taking back the reins from our pasts but it is harder than we think and every once in awhile, old fears rear their heads once again and it is as if we are fifteen again, back against the locker, threatening face looming over us and we just react.
Herod, it should be noted, was a bully. He was also; it should be noted, bullied. His swagger was the pose he had to adopt when entering into discussions with the mightiest fighting force in the world and when someone got out of line, it was expected of Herod that he smack them back into line with a well-placed, well-delivered threat or show of force. After all, the Romans were essentially “letting” him be king because he could deliver the goods and therefore they didn’t have to. That could all change if he failed to keep the peace.
So he has one of his entourage, they all seem to have an entourage, don’t they? A circle of followers? he sends his entourage to tell Jesus to clear town, cuz Herod’s going to kill him.
And this is where the story takes an unexpected jag. Jesus calls his bluff. He sends the message back, hey, you want me? Then you know where to find me. I’ll be here and here for the next few days and then I’ve got some other things to do out of town. <pause>
Why didn’t I think of that?
Jesus reacts in an entirely different way than we do, different from the way most of us are even able to. He says, sure. He assents. He acknowledges that sometimes these things happen and He knew the risks when he came to this place, that he is at peace with His own deeds and actions and that he will not play Herod’s game.
As Jesus always does; Jesus says, “yes.”
Jesus knows what is in store for Him but the stakes are too high to let the mission, the ministry go and so He says yes because to say anything else would be to betray who he is and the people he has come fro, the ones who He has come to save.
You, me, Herod, the Pharisees delivering the message, everyone, forever, always, everyone.
He knew who Herod was when he entered Jerusalem, so Herod’s posturing comes as no surprise now and still, amidst all of this, the threats, real and the ones which are just posturing, Jesus says, sure. Here’s where I am, if you need to, come and find me. I’m ready.
I don’t know about you, but I never gave Kevin my itinerary.
But then I had only my own safety and security at stake, I had a lot to protect, I had a lot to be afraid of I didn’t like pain I was scared, I was so scared.
I didn’t know to what lengths God had gone to bring me back from the edge of fear. I hadn’t a clue what a life without that fear might be, how Jesus this morning standing up to Herod might make a difference, how I could just say yes, defuse the bomb, unmake the anger, maybe take the beating, but who knows? Maybe, just maybe I might have come out on the other side of the meat grinder of the soul that is high school with a new friend.
Probably not, but who knows?
And bullying does not end there; it carries on in more subtle and refined ways, urging this and that, luring you here and there only to spring the trap. You have to have the best or the newest, you have to have this or that or you will feel the pressure from the community to conform. Why do you think they come out with a new iphone every year? So you will discard the last one and get the new one because it’s the new one. The forms of bullying may have become somewhat less obvious, but they persist.
Our salvation, won by such fearless acts as this one, by such loving acceptance of what the costs were; that salvation is the power to remain true, to remain who we are, broken yet redeemed, our humiliation conformed to his glory because we have seen him laid low for our sake, seen Him show us how to give unreservedly and even at the end when things grow the darkest, rise again.
When it would be easier to hide ourselves, either physically or spiritually, hey, I sneaked out of school a number of times in order to avoid certain individuals who I thought meant me ill, when it would be easier to deny our faith and go along with the crowd and bow our heads to false gods name security and safety and popularity, we can stand and say, whatever you have for me, I can take it, sticks and stones and all the rest. This is who I am, the one Jesus died to save, what have you done for me lately?
When it would be OH so tempting to surrender our values to save our skins; to cast about desperately to be popular in a secular world, chasing those we are called to minister to with shallow enticements and all the tools of the world outside which fit so clumsily in our hands, we know that we can hear the words of our callings, the words of our scriptures, the witness of our Lord and stand for what we believe, walk our talk, love our neighbors even if they do not love us and in the end redemption is ours, salvation is ours not because we stood firm, but because He stood for us.
When we cast about, looking for a reason to resist the cries of the modern enticements, the bullies from the outside world that scream and shout, “There are more fun things to do on Sundays!” or “Nice words, your Gospel, but living them is HARD, our way is easier” we have the gift of Christ, who not only showed us how to stand for what is right, but also showed us why.
So we can gather the kids into our arms and love them, but also know them, their hurts and their fears and we can tell them the story of Jesus, who stood and took the blows and the hurts and the scorn and the humiliations and at the end the cross, so that there might be less fear for us, that we might find boldness, that we might dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of our lives. Some of them have been bullied, some of them might yet be bullied, and some of them might be bullies.
Jesus died for all of them. Let’s stand for them and show them a better way, stand for them and show them a brighter tomorrow, let us stand together.