Bullies, John the Baptist, and Narcissists as Nothin' But a Footnote
a revived sermon for managing our anxiety today
Here is a video of me delivering this message.
I was speaking somewhere in the Midwest once when a middle-school kid raised their hand during a Q & A. I called on her and in her anxious bravery she asked “Pastor Nadia, what advice do you have for someone my age who might be bullied and not have many friends and is maybe someone who other kids make fun of”
I looked directly into her eyes and said: “Look kid. I totally get it because I’ve been there. But as horrible as it is right now…just do whatever you can to get through it because I promise you one thing: grown ups who were bullied in Middle School and survive it, are like, 10 times cooler and more interesting as adults than the ones who were doing the bullying. You get through this and you’re gonna be amazing. I promise you. Those kids will be nothing but a footnote later on. I mean, come on…who wants to peak in middle school?”
Her whole face changed like I just told her some combination of “the cancer is treatable and you’re stunningly beautiful”
I remember that time in life all too well. I remember the psychological body armor I had to gear up with every single day to endure it. The social Darwinism, the powers and principalities of middle school felt absolute and the anxiety it created, totally inescapable.
But like you, I survived it and regardless of how powerful those people seemed to me at the time… for the most part I can’t even remember the names of those kids anymore (except that one girl Debbie Quackenbush…)
I’ve been thinking about how at different times in my life, there were forces that felt equally powerful and totally in control. My addiction, my unhealthy relationship, my horrible boss, my depression. These felt like emperors who ruled for a certain number of years and during their reign it felt like nothing else existed.
And if I am honest, I feel that way right now too. Like many of you, my anxiety is sky high, so I need to remind myself about this reading from Luke:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of this other land, during the high priesthood of these dudes who were high priests…. the word of God didn’t come to a damn one of them. The word of God came to this weird and totally insignificant guy John – and not while he was in a courtroom or the White House or the temple…but the word of God came to John while he was in in the wilderness. And that dude, John the Baptist, ate bugs and wore weird clothes so you know his ass was bullied in middle school. The word of God, came to THAT guy.
When I read those verses from Luke, I wonder what it feelt like to be ruled by Emperor Tiberius and be under the domination of Pilate? I wonder at the time if, to the people of Judea, the tyranny of the men who were named in these verses felt inescapable.
I wonder about this because like that sweet, brave middle schooler – I find myself in the midst of the powers and principalities of this world that seem so powerful as to be inescapable andI can’t see past them, I find myself in the chaos of a country in ideological lock-downand I am desperate for some hope. Real hope. Not platitudes or cheerful sentiment. I need for something to feel more powerful than the forces that rage around us. And to be perfectly honest, my anxiety makes prayer difficult.
So if you too are anxious and can not pray, maybe we can all take a note from Brother Curtis of the Society of St John the Evangelist: who suggests that maybe what we can do is to pray for the conversion of our anxiety. Because, he says, when anxiety is converted, you know what it becomes? it becomes hope. I couldn’t think of a better thing to preach: If you have anxiety now, you are almost hopeful. You’re like, superclose.
So here is what can push me that tiny distance between anxiety and hope - it is when I realize this:
You know that list of powerful men at the beginning of our reading? Those emperors and rulers and governors and power brokers who were so feared and powerful at the time- you know what? The only reason anyone knows their names…the only reason anyone even says their names – the only reason these tiny, pathetic so-called powerful men are even remembered at all 2,000 years later is as a footnote to Jesus of Nazareth. Those who were caught up into the powers and principalities of violence and empire and greed – whose power at the time they were alive felt so absolute– are only a footnote to Jesus. Jesus - the prince of peace, the man of sorrows, the friend of sinners, the forgiver of enemies. Jesus – a homeless dude who hung out with fishermen and sex workers and said we should love our enemies. Can you imagine what a blow to Pontius Pilate that would be if he had any idea?
So my prayer this week when I just didn’t know what to pray was simple. I named every single thing and person that seems so powerful right now as to feel inescapable – rulers, tyrants, my own sins, societal forces etc. and I named them and then said “footnote”.
Pontius Pilate? footnote.
Your depression? footnote.
Student Loan debt? footnote.
Pathetic Narcissists of every variety - footnote
Don’t mistake me – all of those things are very real and the harm they have on us and on the world is also very real. But to me, the whole point of having faith – the whole point in believing in a power greater than ourselves –is that it allows us to believe in a bigger story than the one we tell ourselves, a bigger story than the one being shouted on Cable News, a bigger story than the one being shouted inside our own heads. In my own anxiety I can only see a few feet in front of myself and the world can feel like it’s closing in on me, but in the bigger picture I defiantly believe that God can convert our anxiety into hope. In the bigger picture I defiantly believe that forgiveness is more powerful than resentment, that compassion is more powerful than judgement, that love is more powerful than fear. In the bigger picture I defiantly believe tyrants will be footnote. In the bigger picture I defiantly believe the cancer is treatable and you are stunningly beautiful. Amen.
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Many years ago as I grieved the worst loss I have ever known, someone sent me this prayer handwritten on a card: Father, give me the strength to wait for hope — to look through the window when there are no stars. Even when my joy is gone, give me the strength to stand in the darkest night and say, “Father, the sun still shines.” I will have reached the point of greatest strength once I have learned to wait for hope.
I love the prayer because it acknowledges that unspeakable helplessness of overwhelming loss. It doesn’t promise that good will arise from suffering. Nobody who is that low can even imagine an “after this is over” time. It doesn’t make the suffering my fault for being faithless or weak. It seems to say that hope has its own timing, and it can be expected but not summoned.
Anyway, your sermon, the idea of extremis being the threshold of hope made me think of this.
Your words are like a lightening bolt to my heart. My soul. In a time that I so desperately need it.
I’ve shied away from Christianity for 40 years. I consider myself Buddhist, but ever so often a little light shines in me from your words. Please keep going, as hard as it is right now. Know that you are giving hopeless people hope in a hopeless time.
Hear me when I tell you that you matter. You are making a difference. I am grateful for your offerings.
Peace, love, and light.