The Wisemen and the Bully

For about the last three months or so, I’ve been regularly seeing a chiropractor in order to stay ahead of some recurring sciatic issues in my back.


Turns out, I have some kind of injury that had been causing me issues and my regular running routine was aggravating the injury. So, I’ve cut back on my running and begin seeing this chiropractor regularly.


The chiropractor’s office is located near 84th Avenue and I-25.


That location is of note to me because when I was a kid, my family and I attended a church that was just a block away, called Mountain States Baptist Church.

Though the Mountain States church has since relocated, the building still remains and is now known as Fountain of Life Community Church.


Back in the day, Mountain State Baptist Church also operated a Christian school out of the building, probably called Mountain States Baptist School or something like that. The school closed down roughly in 1992 and my sisters and I attended the school in the final year of its existence.


However, in the years prior, the church and school were fairly financially stable. The church owned another parcel of land to the east on which they hoped to build a gym, at least one house or parsonage in the neighborhood, and a little corner lot on which once existed a playground.


Every time I’m at the chiropractor, I can look out the back windows of his office and see that old church building in the distance.


And, every time I do, something stirs within me.


One day after an appointment, I decided to drive the block south, past the parking lot, the church, and the empty little corner where the playground once stood.

As I drove past, I found myself surprised by the rush of emotions that flooded over me and I quickly turned the corner and headed back home.


Though my sisters and I attended that school for only a year, I know that at least for me, it has left an indelible memory on my heart and mind.


My family had just moved to Colorado from New York City, after for reasons still beyond my understanding to this day, we had to leave our home, the church parsonage, after my dad’s church had merged with another.


My family, and especially my sisters and I were in a vulnerable situation.

New to the area, from a low-income family, and not very gregarious—we were sitting ducks you might say.


And, that combined with a crumbling infrastructure of a failing school created the perfect environment for my sisters and I to be on the receiving end of endless amounts of bullying.


And those were the feelings, those were the memories that stirred within me as I drove by that day, and those are the memories that seek to come to the surface each and every time I look out the back windows of my chiropractor’s office.


Needless to say, I’m not a fan of bullying.


While I was fortunate enough to get into a much better school situation the very next year, those memories of being on the receiving end have stuck with me and made me very much an advocate of anti-bullying efforts in every area of society.


Bullying most often has to do with an imbalance of power—certain people have access to “power” such as strength, resources, or popularity, and use that power to control others.


And as much as bullying is associated with school, most if not all of us have probably seen or experienced bullying in other contexts such on the web, at work, or in society at large. I mean, Nellis talked about this very thing last week. But what I want to talk today isn’t necessarily the bully or the target of the bullying, rather it’s those who witness the bullying.


In the book The Bully at Work, authors Gary and Ruth Namie spend a significant amount of time writing about the witnesses to bullying, those in the workplace who see bullying happening to a colleague or coworker but refuse to do anything about it.


The authors presume three reasons why witness to bullying so often fail to intervene;

they imagine the bully might come after them, they presume since no one else is intervening they shouldn’t either, or they assume the target must have done something to deserve it.


But, there’s something else not explicitly named by the authors yet in my mind lurking beneath the surface of all these reasons—witnesses to bullying have some power in their own right and going up against a bigger, more powerful bully threatens their own power and risks them becoming the target of the bully.


Think of it kind of like the classic mob-boss scenario.


Name the movie, the scenario is basically the same. The mob-boss hold all the power and is the ultimate bully. But those business leaders, or politicians, or police officers who are in some positions of power realize that part of their power is tied to an acquiescence, to an acceptance of the bully’s power.


If the business leader, or the politician, or the police officer were to confront the bully mob-boss, they might lose every bit of power they once had. So, they look the other way when a small business owner gets shaken down, when another candidate for office mysteriously drops out, when a target turns up dead.


While thankfully, we don’t live in a real-life version of The Sopranos, I do think in many ways, we often find ourselves as onlookers as bullying, mistreatment, and harassment happens among us on a regular occurrence. And I think, much like the witnesses of workplace bullying the book talks about, we can find ourselves either unwilling or at least unsure of what to do.


So, what can we do?


I want to invite us to look to a familiar story, one we’ve been highlighting these last four weeks in our “Unheard of” Message series. We’ve looked at the story of Jesus and the Holy Family, and the events that surrounded their sudden escape to Egypt after the threat of danger from Herod. Last week Nellis shared Mary’s story, two weeks ago Paul Herod, and before that I discussed Joseph.


This week, I’d like to talk about the Magi—or the wisemen as they’re sometimes called.


But, so were familiar with the story, let’s read it one more time.


(Matthew 2:1-1-12)


Now, before we dive in, we should clear some things up about the Magi.


First, they didn’t come to see Jesus in Bethlehem, despite their presence in almost every Nativity scene.


Second, there may have been more than just three—we get that amount from the number of gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


And last, they were probably from somewhere in Persia, or modern-day Iran.


One thing I think we can say fairly is that the Magi had some access to power and money, whether their own or from another.


Traveling such a long distance couldn’t have been cheap.


Having the freedom and knowledge to study the stars and ancient religious texts would have been a privilege. Coming and talking to King Herod would suggest they had some experience and familiarity interacting with powerful leaders. So, while they certainly weren’t the most powerful in the room when they met Herod, they weren’t powerless themselves either.


One thing we can be sure on is who in that room did hold the most power—and that was Herod!


A few weeks ago, Paul laid out what not-nice-guy Herod was. He was, by any definition, a bully. And, as most bullying experts will tell you, bullies want to be in control of everything. Exhibit A, Herod.


Let’s look at the story.


In verse 1, Magi know enough to come ask him about the newborn king. He was recognized as an authority.


In verse 7, after having apparently sent them away, Herod calls the Magi back.


And in verse 9, after being told by Herod to do so, they go.


Herod was a bully and he was doing all he could to take control of the situation.

And remember, what other act of control by Herod? Yeah, he told the Magi to go and honor the new baby—but report back. But they don’t. After being warned in a dream not to return, the Magi head back a different way.


Again, as Paul detailed a couple weeks ago, Herod wasn’t interested in looking up the Holy Family’s gift registry at Target, no, he was interested in doing whatever it took to preserve his own power.


How easy, how incredibly easy it would’ve been for the Magi to simply do what Herod asked. To come back and report what they had seen.


I mean, think about it. They’d just be doing what they were told.


They didn’t know who this new baby was.

Maybe Herod was being honest.

Maybe if they didn’t tell Herod, he’d come after them.


They were, after all, guests in a foreign land.


Maybe, if they got stopped at a checkpoint, Herod would be on the lookout for them, and they’d be apprehended and imprisoned. It’s easy for us to say that they did the obvious thing. No, the obvious thing would have been just to return to Herod.


But they didn’t.


And in so doing, they likely risked their freedom, their power, even likely their own lives.

This is why doing the right thing is often so hard—it costs us something.


All of us in this room, and some more than others, have a measure of power and privilege.


Whether because of our gender, our skin color, our sexuality, our financial status—or perhaps because of a combination of these—we have a certain amount of power and privilege that others don’t have.


And I want to be fair and say, yeah your power and privilege might not seem like much, but like in the classic school bullying scenario, you’re the one not being bullied at the moment.


At minimum, you have more power and privilege than the victim.


And we have a choice what we can do with that power and privilege.


We’re not the bully—no. But we’re afraid we might become the bullied.


If we try and stop the bully, we might lose our position of privilege, we might lose our power, we might lose our safety.


Do you think the Magi woke up the next morning and asked themselves these same questions?


If we don’t obey Herod we might lose our privilege, our power, our safety.


I’m hear to tell you today, be like the Magi.


Whether at school, at work, or in the national sphere, be like the Magi.


And sure, maybe you think, just turning around and going the other way won’t do anything—don’t be so sure.


Again, bullying is about power and control. The bully wants you to see them overpowering their victim—and for you to know they can do the same thing to you.


When you turn around and walk away, at the minimum, you’re saying to that bully, you don’t have control over me.


Let me tell you, in my own personal experiences, I wonder, what if one of them had just walked away? What if someone had said, “nah, I don’t want any part in this.” Would the rest of the group had lost their will? Might things have ended up differently?


Maybe.


And, yes, in some contexts, turning around and walking away might not be the best thing to do or the only thing to do, the point is that we can do something.


Because, if we don’t do something, eventually the bully will come for us.


Yes, the bully will eventually come for us.


A few weeks ago, I was brainstorming ideas for this message with another pastor, and he told me about an old James Taylor song called “Home by Another Way.”


Though it’s a bit lengthy, I want to read those lyrics:


Those magic men the Magi

Some people call them wise

Or Oriental, even kings

Well anyway, those guys

They visited with Jesus

They sure enjoyed their stay

Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme

They went home by another way


Steer clear of royal welcomes

Avoid a big to-do

A king who would slaughter the innocents

Will not cut a deal for you

He really, really wants those presents

He'll comb your camel's fur

Until his boys announce

They've found trace amounts

Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh


It’s a line in the last stanza that really stands out to me.


“A king who would slaughter the innocents

Will not cut a deal for you.”


I’m reminded of the poem by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller.


First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a socialist.


Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a trade unionist.


Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.


Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


It’s so easy.

It’s so very easy.


For those who us with access to privilege or power because of our gender, our skin color, our sexuality, our financial status to not want to do anything to risk that privilege and endanger ourselves.


And on some levels, we can justify our inaction as self-preservation.


But this is the thing.


A king who would slaughter the innocents. Will not cut a deal for you.


Each and every day, I believe, we have the opportunity, whether in big ways or in small—and do not discount the small things—but each and every day we have an opportunity to do the right thing, to care for the vulnerable, to welcome the foreigners, to help those in need, just as Jesus asked of us—and continues to ask of us.


And, speaking of Jesus.


In the face of the bully, his own life threatened, he wouldn’t relent. And it cost him everything.


But, as we know, that wasn’t the end of the story.


This, I believe, is what this whole Jesus thing is all about.


Even when we lose, we win.

Even when we sacrifice, we gain.

Even when we die, we are born again.


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