Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Stand Up to the Bullies

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Wednesday, November 9, 2016 (5:30 p.m.)
Titus 3:1-7; Psalm 91:9-16; Luke 17:11-19

When I was in the 9th grade, I was continually aggravated by a bully named D.J. Graham. One day in the locker room after P.E., he rubbed deodorant all over my back. That was the last straw: I punched him in the face. He punched me back twice as hard, I hit the floor, and my cheek sported a bruise for a couple weeks. The P.E. teacher did an expert job of looking the other way. But after that, D.J. Graham never bothered me again. Please understand that I’m not advocating violence at all. I’m just telling a true story of something that happened when I was 14.

From the Letter to Titus: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” Easy for him to say. Or was it?

The Letter to Titus is one of the last pieces of the New Testament, written in Paul’s voice but no doubt written many decades after Paul’s death—probably early in the second century. The thrust of this passage is that in one sense, it doesn’t matter what goes on in the world around us, because our salvation is not in doubt. We are the baptized, those who have died and whose lives are hidden with God in Christ. We are justified by God’s grace, not by our own actions. We are those who have the hope of eternal life, which doesn’t just mean “heaven after we die,” but also abundant, joyful life today.

The circumstances of the world around us cannot change any of this.

In the past 18 hours, I’ve talked to a number of people who are absolutely terrified—terrified that they might actually be in physical danger because of the results of this election. You might wish to say to them, “Calm down—you’re overreacting.” This is the worst thing you could possibly say. For one thing, those who are afraid are far more likely to understand why they are afraid than those who aren’t. For another thing, they’re not overreacting.

The Letter to Titus was written to a Christian community that was trying to find its way in a country in which Christianity was illegal. We don’t know whether this particular community was suffering actual persecution, but we do know that it would be another two centuries before Constantine would legalize the faith of the church. We don’t have that problem here. Our faith is legal and is likely to remain so. This puts the church in a very privileged position. When people are in danger from earthly authorities, we can decide to make this space safe for them. If a situation were to arise in which certain groups of people were being legally and systematically discriminated against, I would be first in line to protect them—as one person told me last night, to “build a wall” to protect those who are being victimized.

If you think I’m being alarmist, stop and listen. Here are a few stories that have spread on social media in the past 18 hours. A friend of mine in Florida—a woman priest—was verbally assaulted in line at the coffee shop, with language I would never even use in a locker room. A lesbian couple was threatened with violence. A black man was told to leave America immediately. A group of men was seen high-fiving each other and joking about how great it is that it’s OK now to sexually assault women on the street. In downtown Philadelphia overnight, swastikas appeared in spray paint all over storefronts.

Do you understand that I’m not just fear-mongering here? All of these things have happened in the past 18 hours. And those are only the ones I happen to have heard about so far.

We have a choice. Do we ignore these stories, or do we prepare to insert ourselves into a situation to protect those who are vulnerable? Do we consider putting ourselves at risk for the sake of other children of God?

I am dedicated to this notion of the church as a safe space. That doesn’t mean that the church becomes a space where people always agree, or must smile and look happy all the time, or must walk on eggshells to avoid saying the wrong thing. It does mean that the church is a space where we encourage each other to grow, to speak only to our own experiences and not to assume that we understand the experiences of others. It does mean that we learn to feel our feelings and not stay stuck in our heads. It means that we give each other as much grace as possible, that we place a high value on continued relationship. But it also means that we do not tolerate bullying, and that we will respect the boundaries of people who must take steps to protect themselves. It means being OK with not having all the answers, and accepting criticism humbly, and trying again and again to be loving. We will, indeed, spend all our lives learning these things.

And so, ultimately, dedication of this sort means that we are committed to growing in Christian maturity.

Will you join me in this work? Will you join Jesus in bringing healing to people whom bullies see as lepers, reaching out to them with God’s love and helping restore them to their communities? This work really is way beyond politics, you know. It’s about our baptismal covenant: seeking Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being. We may fail often at these ideals, but they are nevertheless our standard as Christians in the Episcopal tradition. These things are non-negotiable.

One more story. Again, this is not some distant story that went viral. This happened to a friend of mine in Port Orchard this morning:

[While I was in line for coffee, a guy] cut me in line so I nicely said excuse me but I was in line. He replied with, ‘It won't be long before you won't need coffee before work.’ Confused, I asked, ‘Why??’ He [said,] ‘Well, Trump is president so women will go back to the kitchen with Betty Crocker where you belong. America wouldn't be the way it is if women would just take their place.’ I stood there perplexed and speechless. I couldn't even move my lips.

Friends, we need to create safe spaces. It’s up to us. And if you’ll all just commit to stand up to the bullies, my friends and I will be deeply grateful. That doesn’t mean punching them in the face—really it doesn’t. At 14 I didn’t know of any other way. We adults are able to handle this in more mature ways.

To Titus: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.”

It’s as true for us as it is for those who first heard the Letter to Titus 1900 years ago. But nowhere does this tell us not to stand up to the bullies. Remember that Jesus, who as far as we know never threw a punch, also stood up to bullies, preventing an angry mob of men from stoning a woman to death. When he did so, Jesus showed courtesy to everyone present. It was courtesy to protect the woman, and it was courtesy to give an example to his disciples. But it was courtesy also to the bullies, because Jesus held out hope that someday the bullies will grow into maturity as well, and that maybe being stood up to is the very first step. Amen.

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