Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8 • Romans 12:9-21 • Matthew 16:21-28
Please pray with me.
God of life, we look at the cruelty of this world and we are filled with indignation. Yet we know that too often it is our own mouths that curse instead of bless. Fill us with your word, that we might utter what is precious and not what is worthless. In the name of your Beloved, Jesus, who did not stand by while others suffered, but took the side of the poor, the sick and the despised. Amen.
It’s been two weeks since I’ve been with you all in worship. As you gathered here this time last week, I was boarding a plane from Orlando to Chicago, having spent the previous week at the ELCA’s biennial Churchwide Assembly along with Bill and Judi, a delegation of about twenty from Chicago and over a thousand from around the United States.
I had one day of down time between the Churchwide Assembly and my flight home and, as any of you who have friended me on Facebook know, I spent it at the Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios. I’m not ashamed to say how much I loved that experience. Whoever planned out this attraction capitalized perfectly on Harry Potter fans’ love of that imaginary world. I was immediately drawn back to a place where the battle between good and evil was always determined by courage, friendship and love.
But, with all seven books and eight films now behind us, I’ve been searching for new young adult fiction in the tradition of the Narnia Chronicles, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I think I found it in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, a trilogy I’ve managed to devour in the last week. These books follow a young woman, Katniss Everdeen, as she navigates a world ruled through violence in which the suffering of the poor is nothing more than entertainment for the rich, where power and control are maintained through the cruel and conscious use of violence. In other words, they are a parable for the world in which we all live.
Early in the first book, as Katniss prepares to be thrown into a televised death match in a futuristic coliseum her friend and ally, Peeta Mellark, shares his hope for this hopeless situation. He says, “My best hope is not to disgrace myself and… I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only… I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense? I don’t want them to change me there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
Peeta articulates early on what the entire series ends up being about, the struggle to remain yourself in a world that is always trying to convince you, coerce you, seduce you, and even force you to believe that love and compassion are for the weak, and that the future belongs to those who accept the centrality of violence as the means to virtually every end.
Although I enjoyed the books very much, initially I was disturbed that they were being marketed to junior high and high school aged young adults. The themes are pretty mature. But as I settled into the books, identifying with the characters, I was able to remember what life was like as a teenager. The conditioning to accept violence – whether it be verbal or physical or sexual – begins very early. Playground bullies lay the groundwork for workplace tyrants, and children as much as adults are always being forced to choose the set of rules by which they will play life’s games.
I remember the phone call one summer many years ago during college. I was an intern working in the forests of New Hampshire and my sister was away at a summer camp for young girls. My mom was telling me how they’d gone to pick her up early and bring her home. She was the only brown-skinned girl in the camp, and the other kids taunted her, refusing to allow her into the pool, saying that her beautiful, dark skin would make the water dirty.
I talked to my sister this week and she asked what I’d be preaching this morning. I told her I was going to talk about bullying, and that I was remembering this story from her childhood. I asked her to tell me what she remembered about the experience. She was quiet, then simply said, “they were very mean” and quickly changed the subject.
Bullying leaves scars that last a lifetime, and the names others use to tease us stick with us as well. In the passage from Jeremiah this morning, we hear the painful lament of one who knows what it’s like to be bullied. Jeremiah says, “know that on your account I suffer insult.” Because he has taken the word of the Lord to heart, Jeremiah says, “I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.”
People who stand with God on the side of justice, compassion and love have always been called names. We can each remember the sorts of names used for Whites who stood alongside their Black friends and neighbors at the height of the Civil Rights era. We know what sorts of names boys get called when they take a stand against vulgar words and harassing behavior toward girls. There are always names reserved for those who refuse to join in the violence, who refuse to be bystanders to bullying.
At the Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, the ELCA acted on the memorials of almost forty of our sixty-five synods, including Metro Chicago, related to bullying and harassment. The assembly voted 97% in favor of a memorial calling on all expressions of our church, from the local congregation to our colleges and universities, camping ministries to our churchwide organization to create or partner with programs that raise awareness about bullying, focus on prevention, and change bystander behavior into ally behavior.
It is the last part that seems most important to me: changing bystander behavior into ally behavior. That is what it’s going to take to change the rules of the game, shifting the power from those who bully to those who are bullied. I don’t know if you’ve seen the ABC show “What Would You Do?” but I have, and I love it. In a modern day take on the old show “Candid Camera,” this program shows us what happens when bystanders speak up on behalf of people being bullied or harassed. In one episode the victims are immigrants, in another an inter-racial couple or a gay soldier. But as a viewer, the show is always inviting you to imagine not what it would feel like to be the one getting bullied, but the one stepping in. Invariably, the bystander who steps in to stop the bullying is portrayed as an every-day hero. Shows like this are game-changers, and that’s exactly what we need to do: change the game.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with deceptively difficult instruction, “let love be genuine.” Pa
ul isn’t talking about romantic love. He uses the word agape here, a form of love that is different from philia, or friendship, different than eros, or passionate love. Agape has been described as self-sacrificing love, or political love. One theologian has called agape “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” This makes sense in light of the rest of Paul’s advice, as he continues with “bless those who persecute you” and “do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
Genuine love, the kind Paul is talking about, is the love that motivates one stranger to step in on behalf of another stranger when power is mixed with violence in the form of bullying, harassment, prejudice and any other form of blind hatred. In a culture like ours, where the average child witnesses 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence on television by the age of 18, genuine love is counter-cultural. It is a game-changer.
This is precisely what Jesus acknowledges when he tells his disciples, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
Or, as Peeta Mellark puts it, “I want to die as myself.”
How does the world try to convince you, coerce you, seduce you, or even force you to settle for anything less than the justice-seeking, compassionate love that is our birthright as God’s children? Where, or in what relationships, is it hardest for you to remember that to follow Christ means to take up the cross of self-giving love? Whose rules are you playing by?
Jeremiah complains to the LORD that he has spoken God’s truth to power, and has been called names in return. But the name he is called is God’s name. He says, “I am called by your name, O LORD, O God of hosts.” In response God says to Jeremiah, “if you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them… for I am with you to save and deliver you.”
In Christ Jesus, God shows us what bystander intervention looks like. God puts God’s own body on the line for all the bullied, all the tormented, all the teased and tortured children of the world. For all of us. In Christ Jesus, God speaks to us saying, “I am with you to save and deliver you” and also “take up your cross and follow me.” We are rescued to become rescuers. In Christ Jesus, God is changing the rules and calling us to live and to die in a new way, creating for us and for the world the freedom to live and to die as ourselves.
God grant us all the courage to play by these rules and to claim with pride the name “follower of Jesus” when it is hurled at us.
In Jesus name,