Bouncebackers, Week 2 — The “Horrible Bosses” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Hinged on an obscure detail from an already-obscure story in Jeremiah 38;
  • Continued my commitment in the Bouncebackers series to looking at characters and narratives that normally float under the biblical radar;
  • Covered work issues that, apparently, many people struggle with;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  Why be life’s pawn when you can be God’s partner?


One way I KNOW we could get sidetracked for a good long time here is if we gathered you all in circles and threw a question up on the screen (do it!) that said:  TELL US ABOUT THE MOST HORRIBLE BOSS YOU’VE EVER HAD.  And you would launch right in!  It’s such a common subject, such a familiar feeling that they even made a movie with that title (AV)!  Now: two rules before we would actually do that: 1) NO ONE who works here at GS could participate; and 2) if you’ve never had a boss because you are still in school you could edit it to the most horrible teacher or counselor or even coach.  Yep, I know our discussion would be lively, animated, and lengthy.

            Because some of us would have had a boss, or an authority figure, like Michael Scott:  AV fear how much they love me

            Or, more seriously, the ulcers you developed, the blood pressure that elevated, the depression that hit and rendered you almost incapable of leaving bed in the morning.  Because whether it is a boss or a coach – or, even, for some of you, a parent or a spouse or a pastor or a politician – so many of us feel like we are AT THE MERCY of those who are in authority over us.  Like we are but pawns in the larger chess game of life THEY are playing.  Goodness, in my little world of UMC clergy, I have colleagues who LITERALLY feel like they are pawn who get moved all over WNCC, at times against their wishes and at other times even over the objections of the churches involved, because SOMEONE (or 2 or 3) in authority was making decisions in a massive chess game of Methodist ministry.  Fortunately, that has never been my experience & I sure don’t expect that to change.

            But preacher or not, UMC or not, I just know we could devote a lengthy, lively, animated amount to talking about horrible bosses & how they manipulate, minimized, moved us like pawns … and how it is you ever bounce back from them.

            Well, few of us have ever had a worser, horribler boss than Jeremiah – and he has the scars to prove it.  Now, to be fair, this horrible boss was dealing with a pretty terrible situation.  The year: about 587 BC.  The scene:  Jerusalem and the Jews living there are under siege from mighty, malicious Babylon (modern day Iraq!).  The Babs have encircled the city, slowly but surely starving the life out of it.  We learn later, for example, that some of the ppl inside Jerusalem’s walls became so desperate that they resorted to cannibalism to survive.  So this is a legitimately awful situation – one that requires bold leadership.  Which is not what they get. 

            Because King Zedekiah, Jerusalem’s leader & Jeremiah’s de facto boss is trying maintain his own tenuous grip on leadership AND trying to hold his crumbling, cannibalizing city together.  Meanwhile, Jeremiah – sort of a cross between Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh, meaning both wildly popular and deeply hated – is playing his part … by encouraging surrender.  Actually, he just wants King Z and the others to SURVIVE the INEVITABLE.  Look at Jeremiah 38:2-3: 

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians[b] will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’ And this is what the Lord says: ‘This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’”


However truthful and prescient his words, they did nothing to increase his popularity, especially with the generals.  Who go to King Z in 38:4:


Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.”


 The king’s answer? 

“He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.”

Now: can we all agree that that is NOT going to make it into Profiles In Courage?  Weak, ineffective, possibly traumatized … and definitely horrible.  But not quite as horrible as what happens next.  Look at 38:6:   So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.

            Now: a cistern (AV) is a large, hollow, underground rock … much like a broad, wide, well … that the ancients in the desert used to collect rainwater.  So: Jeremiah is down in the pit and if it rains, he drowns.  If it doesn’t rain, he starves.  Look at 38:6 again: READ “he sank down in the mud.”  So while he is stuck in the mud, it remains to be seen if he becomes a stick in the mud.  But remember: he is there, destined to die a slow, tortured death, because his boss, his patron, his authority said, “I can do nothing!”  For those generals it was like “I fight authority & authority lets me win!”

            But for Jeremiah, there’s mud, there’s much, there’s death in the air, and he’s stuck.  A pawn in a larger contest, he’s stuck.  You know what that’s like.  You’ve been stuck.  You’ve been pawned.  You ARE stuck.  At the mercy of people who you just can’t trust.  It’s the coach who plays favorites, so you don’t play.  It’s the boss who is inscrutable, expecting you to read her mind.  She values privacy over clarity and you consistently mis-read her and you just found out this week you’re under the two most feared words in the professional world:  PERFORMANCE PLAN.  It’s the spouse who for whatever reason ALWAYS seems to have the upper hand – more $, bigger temper – and you feel manipulated, minimized & used. Your horrible boss is the one you wake up next to in the a.m.!  Or it’s even the UMC executive who moves you, unsettling family & the fragile ecosystem of the church.  You’re stuck in the mud, moved around by people you can’t quite trust; merely a pawn in a game of life that feels much larger than you.

            But look where intervention comes from in Jeremiah’s story in 38:7-9:

But Ebed-Melek, a Cushite,[c] an official[d] in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, Ebed-Melek went out of the palace and said to him, “My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.”

OK, this Ebed-Melek is an Ethiopian and very likely a Eunuch which means that in the Jewish culture there he was likely a DOUBLY rejected man.  Outcast of outcasts.  We don’t know much about him, his motivations, his viewpoints, even his relation to Yahweh, other than the unlikelihood that HE would be the one to rescue Jeremiah.  And look what Jeremiah’s horrible boss does!  READ 38:10. 

10 Then the king commanded Ebed-Melek the Cushite, “Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.”

Ok, rescue him.  Take 30 men with you in case you run into trouble. Just do it.”  Huh?  It’s like that candidate:  “I voted FOR the bill before I voted against it!”  It’s the worst abuse of authority: vacillation & inconsistency.  No conviction, no spine, no core values … just horrible.  This is the despicable guy, King Z, at whose mercy Jeremiah remains.

            So check 38:11:

11 So Ebed-Melek took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern.

Old rags.  Worn out clothes.  What high tech tools of rescue!  And they are necessary because down in that cistern Jeremiah has become not just skinny but EMACIATED and if he puts the ropes directly under his arms the skin will burn right off.  So the old rags & worn out clothes are an act of incredible tenderness; the kind of details the bible’s authors REALLY want you to notice. 

            And Jeremiah.  Don’t you know that he would have preferred a Beam me up, Scotty! moment?!  He’s dying, he’s a pawn, and he could be more than forgiven for being passive.  I can’t help you here guys, you gotta do all this for me.  I got nothin’!  But Ebed-Melek won’t allow that.  Look at 38:12-13:

12 Ebed-Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, “Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.” Jeremiah did so, 13 and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.

There was no rescue then or now that didn’t need the participation of the RESCUED.  And look at the three most important words of the story:  JEREMIAH DID SO.  Oh wow.  The pawn takes control.  He is no longer at the mercy of incompetence but is now the master of his own freedom.  Given this improbable reprieve from the unlikeliest of sources, Jeremiah has to take part.  He can’t just observe; he has to own.  He can’t watch.  He’s got to wade in.  He’s moved from the pawn of others to one who uses the little power he has left to assist his own rescue.  Which leads me to ask this, all of you who feel at the mercy of your horrible boss, coach, spouse, pastor, politician:  Why be life’s pawn when you can be God’s partner? 

            I ask that because I can’t help but wonder if perhaps you’re stuck in the mud because you GIVE (in a pattern established & entrenched for years) your boss, your leader, your preacher, your politician, your coach TOO MUCH AUTHORITY over your own well being!  Maybe you find it easier to complain than to control!  More convenient to whine than to work.  And now, in Jeremiah, you see that God longs to do all kinds of things WITH YOU that he refuses to do FOR YOU.  You want to be passive, you want a beam me up moment, and God hands you an old rag and worn out clothes and says, “You GOTS to put these under your arms, take that first step, and then we’re in this together.”  So: stop allowing your boss, coach, authority, politician to determine your emotional well being.  You’ll bounce back from their horrible ness by owning the first steps you take.  Because, really: you only have ONE MASTER & he’s not only not horrible, he’s not even visible.  Oh, many of us have learned a long time ago to be helpless because deep down we want someone to do FOR us what God longs to do WITH us.  We get passive – DO IT! – and God says, “nope. I like partners, not pawns.”  Why be life’s pawn when you can be God’s partner? 

            Our recovery friends know this so well.  That’s why it’s a 12 Step Program and not a One Leap Program.  There’s no spiritual by-pass, no ZAP to sobriety.  It’s 90 meetings in 90 days, it’s realizing there is no way you can do without God but also no way he will do it IN SPITE of you. 

            It’s so much like what happens when a giraffe gives birth.  In the moments just after birth – a birth that, for obvious reasons included being dropped 10 feet first thing! – mom will kick baby until he gets up.  Baby is in shock, wants to go back to the comfort of the womb, but she kicks him til he stands.  If she doesn’t, baby will die.  What seems cruel is in fact filled with love.  Just like it seemed harsh to tell emaciated Jeremiah to take care of his own underarms, but it was an ultimate act of love.  And ownership.  Why be life’s pawn when you can be God’s partner? 

            Or it’s like Martha Berry who in 1932 was named by Time Magazine as one of the country’s greatest innovators for what she was doing with young orphaned boys.  Emboldened, she asked Henry Ford for $1M (1932, $1M was real money!).  He gave her a dime.  Huh.  She took that dime, bought peanuts, had her boys plant them and tend the crop.  The next year the proceeds bought a new field.  With THAT crop, they bought a piano for the orphanage.  She wrote Ford a letter telling him what she had done with his dime … and he sent her an additional $1M.  Maybe if we spent more time working with the dimes we HAVE instead of complaining about the dollars we need, we’d end up better off than we dreamed. Why be life’s pawn when you can be God’s partner? 

            You feeling at the mercy of the untrustworthy?  Listen: God will send you some unlikely allies – you’ve got a doubly REJECTED person in your sphere I bet – not to lord it over you but to come alongside you.  So you don’t allow others to determine what you have already decided:  your life doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to Jesus, and he is going to manage it just fine, thank you very much.  He’ll manage it so well that he’ll invite you to be managing partner – not managed pawn – with him.  And that’s the best bounce backing you can have.  Why be life’s pawn when you can be God’s partner?