Learning Who Not To Mess With

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

October 25, 2020
Youth Sunday
Scripture reading: Matthew 22: 34-46

Today is our annual observance of Youth Sunday, a day in which we celebrate and lift up the youth of our church family, as well as youth everywhere.  It is the young people in our midst who will be the next leaders as their generation grows up into adulthood.  We wish them well, we love them, and we hope for their future.

One major tool that youth will need in their future is wisdom.  This is something we strive to attain, but most of us cannot claim that we acquire it all the time.  If we are lucky, wisdom is something we can appreciate on those occasions when it appears.

Who is wise?  Who is not?  Those are questions most cannot answer consistently.  However, one aspect of wisdom that even little kids can acquire is learning who not to mess with.

First of all, little kids figure out very early who not to mess with.  There are people in their lives that little kids learn to avoid.  Little kids tend to love and accept everyone, especially those people who smile at them or even make an attempt to be friendly.  Some little kids will shyly bury their faces or turn away.  But just hanging in there for a little while will convince most little kids they can trust you. For little kids, this is the beginning of them growing their own sense of wisdom.

Older kids can often be easily won over if things are going well.  When an older kid first encounters an adult or even another kid, they tend to accept what they see.   If they see a friendly face, they relax and begin the relationship.  If something happens – and it doesn’t take much – they will put that person in the category called “don’t mess with this person.”  Again…the beginning of wisdom.

But there are always those who hide their true selves from others, those with a hidden agenda, those who want relationships with others but just can’t help themselves from doing something to destroy that relationship.

From my own youth, I can still remember those fellow students and those adults that I could trust as friends and those I learned not to mess with.  

I made a few mistakes along the way.  

I’ll bet you did too…

Looking at the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we have a group of people who are so caught up in their own power and self-righteousness that they don’t see Jesus of Nazareth as anyone who is a threat to them.  They are the all-powerful religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  They have even managed to get the Roman governor, King Herod, and the masses of people to acknowledge their power and influence.  If not, bad things can and will happen.

Yet, this group of blindly arrogant experts can’t seem to learn that Jesus is someone they should not be messing with.  And it’s a curious thing…Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist, seemed to have shown these same experts that he was not someone to mess with.  Look at their actions!

  • When John set up camp on the banks of the Jordan River, they did not order him to come to the Temple to meet with them; instead, they went to the Jordan to see what was going on.
  • When they arrived and asked John questions, he answered them but he also yelled at them and called them a “brood of vipers” – which is my personal favorite insult from the Bible.  Yet, Scripture tells us that absolutely nothing happened to John because of it.
  • They actually wondered if John the Baptist was Elijah announcing the arrival of the Messiah.  They had encountered several false prophets who claimed all sorts of things, but those imposters were quickly dismissed or eliminated.  Yet John was allowed to continue…and his announcement of Jesus set the stage for Jesus’ ministry.

Religious authorities learned not to mess with John the Baptist, yet they regularly challenged Jesus, the one John announced.  

Wonder why this happened…

Returning to our main theme of youth today and learning who not to mess with, I have three examples of stories told by youth who experienced their individual acquisition of wisdom and learned who not to mess with:

My Little Sister Made My Bully Bleed With A Lunch Box

When I was in the 3rd grade, there was a 4th grade bully named Lester Furman, who would ambush me on the way home, push me to the ground, sit on my stomach, pummel me for a few minutes, then get up and laugh at me while calling me a sissy. He was considerably bigger than me and I was afraid of him.

My sister, who was in the first grade, was usually a block or so behind me because I didn’t want to get caught walking my little sister home.  My friends would all make fun of me if I did. Mom had always told me to walk with her – but I seldom ever did.

This particular day, she came upon Lester sitting on me, pummeling me as usual. She was carrying her metal, square-sided, pink Cinderella lunch box she’d gotten for her birthday. She ran to my rescue and hit Lester as hard as she could in the side of his head with her metal lunchbox. He fell off me holding his head and bleeding everywhere. She had caught him right on the ear and cut him real good.

He ran off crying and howling.

Lester never bothered me again and I walked my sister home every day after that. We laugh about it every time we get together.

I hope Lester reads this! 

He Wished He Never Honked At That Old Lady

When I was a kid living near Miami Beach, I was in my car near an intersection waiting for the light to change.  I saw an elderly woman who was slowly crossing the road when the light turned green. Some young guy in a spiffy fast car next to me got impatient and honked the car horn at the old lady, who wore a pink-and-white, almost worn-out housecoat and carried herself bent with age.  She came to a sudden stop in front of his car, brought herself to her full height, turned her head and looked at him. More accurately, she looked right through his car, clothes, and eyes to his soul. She found it wanting. He was small in her eyes. She stood there staring at him, which seem to make him anxious, so he backed up to maneuver into the other lane and slowly drove around her without making eye contact.

I realized then that it was highly likely that the green discoloring on her wrist was her prisoner number in WWII, and she survived that however she did.

Her reaction to some punk was wordless.  She knew he was a coward, and after that episode, so did he. She bent back down, gathered her small bag, and finished crossing the street.

Less than a minute left me with unwavering respect for the deceptively frail elderly.

He’s The Silent Brooding Teacher

In high school, I took US History from a Vietnam vet who was a stern man with no patience for nonsense but with a heart of gold. I loved his class. He forced us to critically think and encouraged discussions regularly. His tests were always fifty multiple-choice, fifty true/false, and two timed essay questions. You always had to study hard to pass those tests.  When we did well on them, he baked us brownies. I’m not sure if they were delicious on their own merit or because we earned them, but they tasted like victory. To this day, I’ve never had a more challenging or rewarding class.

The only sign of his service was a small banner that read ‘Army Ranger’ he kept posted on his window. From time to time he’d tell us silly stories about his unit, but that was all we were told. 

Aside from AP US History, he also taught Psychology as an elective. I signed up because I loved his classes (also the brownies).  On the first day, he handed out his syllabus and gave a brief overview of the things we would cover. When he finished, he asked if there were any questions. I think part of the reason I loved his AP class was my classmates. We were all there because we wanted to be and took our academic pursuits seriously. Psychology was not the same batch…

I knew this because this one fool raised his hand.

He asked how many men, women, or children our teacher had killed in Vietnam. Immediately, everyone in the class knew what a fool this kid was. There are some lines you don’t cross, especially with a former Army ranger.  

The teacher handled it professionally and said he was only taking questions pertinent to the class. But this kid wouldn’t let it go and said, “So…like twenty or what?”

Everyone looked intently at the floor while we waited for the hammer to drop. Well, everyone except for me. My eyes were squarely on my teacher.

This teacher used to say that life is defined by the trying moments – the difficult ones; it’s easy to act morally and justly on a full belly. The mark of a man is how he handles himself under duress. His jaw clenched and lips tightened as he placed his hands firmly on the podium he lectured from.

“Mister…please collect your belongings and see yourself to the office. I will be along shortly.”

The classroom sat in silence. We knew how it felt when he was disappointed we didn’t do better on a test. We knew how it felt when someone asked a boneheaded question. But this feeling was new. This was coals of anger restrained only by sheer force of will; it was rage incarnate.

The kid smiled and looked around at his silent classmates, “What?  Did I say something wrong? Why do I have to go to the office?”

I want to say this kid had guts, but all he really had were brains of mush.

“Mister,” the teacher’s voice was even and controlled, but radiated power, “you will collect your belongings and see yourself to the office right now…” He repeated again slower and more clearly, “or I will assist you in doing so.”

And then it hit like a tsunami wave crashing against the shore.  The kid realized how wrong he was. He wasn’t being sent to the office because the teacher was angry; he was being sent to the office for his own well-being. Finally breaking my sightline, I look at the kid. His face was pale and mouth slightly open, signifying the understanding currently washing over him.

He quickly grabbed his stuff, without putting them in his bag, and left.  Too late, he has learned the hard way who not to mess with.

My teacher took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then said, “Are there any OTHER questions regarding my class?”

What I should have said was nothing. What I actually said was: “We still get brownies for doing well on your tests, right?”

He looked at me with the same cold eyes my classmate had earned. My boisterous confidence shriveled under the gaze. I would be joining my idiot counterpart soon.

He gave me a slow blink and said, “Everybody but you Mr. Kid, everybody but you.”  He gave me a small rare grin as the class sighed and chuckled. “Please open your textbooks to the first page and begin reading. I have other – ahem – matters to attend to. I will return momentarily.”

The kid transferred classes that day. Three weeks later I received my first, last, and only personal pan of brownies for a perfect score on his test.

[From: “People Share Their Best Cases Of ‘You Picked The Wrong Person To Mess With’ ”By Maddy Heeszel – 10/8/2019, https://www.metaspoon.com/wd1-mess-person/]

Just as the kid in each story learned who not to mess with – sometimes the hard way – those boneheads that confronted Jesus on occasion didn’t seem to catch that lesson.  Their temporary reward may have been puffing themselves up in the eyes of others, but their long-term punishment might have been eternal damnation for interfering with the ministry of the Son of God.

I can’t imagine a harsher lesson than that.

Wisdom may come to some of us, and it may avoid many of us.  But learning who not to mess with is a life-lesson all of us will get sooner or later.

The good news is that Jesus continues to mess with us!  He could leave us alone and just let us figure things out on our own.  But he desires a personal relationship with each and every one of us, and that means getting involved and hanging in there, even when we fail to show any wisdom in our actions.

Praise the Lord for wisdom acquired.

Praise Him for loving us even when we must learn things the hard way.

Praise him that in learning who not to mess with we constantly have opportunities to learn that we can trust that man who confronted foolish religious authorities, who helped even the lowest in his society, who healed all who asked, and who came to mess with us in a way that would save every single one of us.

Praise the Lord…the greatest teacher of wisdom.