Sermon: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Sunday, October 24.

Imagine that every day you go to work, and someone calls you names, or trips you as you walk by when no one is looking. You are afraid to go the bathroom for fear that your harasser might follow you. When you leave at night, they grab your purse or briefcase and dump the contents on the floor. Maybe they even slap you around. You dread going to work, and you don’t tell anyone not even your spouse. All you feel is shame.

This stories happens to kids every day, and you probably recall those moments yourselves in school. This week, they have come front and centre again with the tragic stories of a number of teenagers, some as young as 13, who committed suicide. They were all bullied by their peers – many of them with the weapon of homophobia. In the case of Asher Brown, one of the 13 year olds, he had been bullied for years. He was picked on for not wearing the rights clothes, for the style of his shoes. They called him gay, though he may not have been, and subjected him to horrible abuse in the locker room. His parents tried for 18 months to get him help, calling the school. But hardly any calls were returned and nothing was done. One afternoon, Asher took his own life.

Now those cases are extreme: most people who are bullied suffer in silence, praying it will just stop. But just one Asher Brown should give us real pause. And though those among us who don’t have much contact with a school environment might say that bullying isn’t something they can do anything about – that’s not true. If you say that then you haven’t been listening to the gospel: all the lessons that Jesus gives us can relate back to how we stop bullying – within families, between spouses, on playgrounds, at work, and in larger society. Bullying, in the end, feeds into the worst of human nature.

This line from our second lesson jumped out at me this week: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” In fact, this line comes at the conclusion of a letter to a young minister, and it is meant to offer a perspective on life from someone approaching the end of theirs – and indeed I often read this lesson at funerals. Paul is saying, in this lesson, that while other people may have disappointed him, he is certain of his faith, and that God stood beside him throughout his days.

But some of the things we say and read at funerals can be the best instruction for the living. And so it is a prescription for us. Let us break these three parts down into an understanding that may apply to us, who are moving forward.

“I have fought the good fight.”

We know what Paul meant – he stood by Jesus, he carried out the work of God. But we have to find a modern definition of discipleship – so we have to ask what is the good fight. Right now, in our schools, there is often a zero tolerance policy for fighting – that is everyone who swings a punch gets punished, usually equally. On paper, that sounds good. But lately many parents, myself included, have been questioning it. What happens in the case when a student rises to the defense of another and gets into a fight – should we treat him the same way? Fighting is never the right choice – and when the insult is to ourselves, most time we should walk away. But rising to the defense of others, Jesus would say, is a good fight, and it carries risk. In fact, we teach our children to come to the aid of people in need – we must also strive for a world that lifts up those who do so as an example. We should also teach our children – and heed that lesson ourselves – to question the hatred of others. When fundamentalist churches came out last week, criticizing the bullying, but condemning homosexuality, they only fueled the hatred on the web, giving license to bigots to bully some more. We need to examine whether there is a time when our own opinions might not contribute to a positive debate. Clearly, we know the good fight: it is tolerance and forgiveness and the courage to make right choices – and those are often “fights” in themselves, in our own hearts, let alone against a bully.

“I have a finished the race,”

Paul says. He is talking about life, but it is also a call to action for us. That is to finish what we begin. The good fight can be a long time coming, and it requires sweat and persistance, not a sprint but a marathon. Standing up against a bully may not stop the abuse the first time, or ten times, but we have no choice but to keep standing up no matter what. This is also a lesson in patience. To understand the world spins one way, and it can take a long time to get it moving in a different direction. Hate has momentum. And sometimes it takes time to push back against it.

“I have kept the faith.”

This week, Barack Obama added his voice to an online video project called “It Gets Better.” It was started by a Seattle writer after the latest suicide, and it’s meant to send a message to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teens who are being bullied, to help them see that life does turn around. Hundreds of people are now online – including Hillary Clinton and celebrities and youth themselves, speaking out to kids everywhere who are being bullied and ostracized for not fitting in. It is a message to keep the faith, as our second lesson tells us. And there is a reason why it comes last. Without faith, we could never brave the good fight, or keep running the race – we have to believe, even when it seems impossible, that things turnaround. That’s a good message for our kids, and it’s meant to be a powerful one for us. In my own life, I have been in that dark place, where the fight seemed impossible, and all I had was faith: and it’s true, life does get better. We know it well, because Jesus makes us that promise with his offering on the cross, and in the story of the resurrection.

As a father, I think one of the most powerful lessons I can give my sons is to stand up for others. To they learn to do so, they must gain so much. They feel confident in themselves. They have to take the time to decide what is right, and they have to learn when and how to step in. Most of all, they must take risks for other people. In doing so, they become truer to themselves and their own natures. They become optimists that the world can change. “They understand the definition of a good fight, they join the race, and they keep the faith.” This week, someone I know attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. At the ceremony, her children and grandchildren and friends stood and told wonderful stories. It wasn’t a religious ceremony. There was no music, and no moment of prayer. My friend, who would call himself an agnostic, came away, he said, feeling like something was missing. “I prefer,” he told me, “to surround myself with optimists.”

If we incarnate the gospel, than we can’t help but be optimists. We see a good fight that can be won, even if the race is long, and a faith that will hold. We see that Life Gets Better. This is, ultimately, the message Paul wants us to hear.

Pass it on.

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