Easter 6B Sermon (2000)

6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 15:9-17;
1 Jn 5:1-6; Acts 10:44-48

CHOOSING THE LOSERS

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

“You did not choose me but I chose you.” I would like to begin here. What does it mean to be chosen by God? And who is it that God chooses?

When we talk about choosing and be chosen, I think the image that comes most readily to mind is that of choosing up sides on a playground or gym class before a game. Now, most games are designed to have winners and losers, and the whole point of choosing up sides is to try to pick the winners. But I want to submit to you today that God absolutely doesn’t want to play our games, so when God comes to choosing up sides, what does God do? Does God choose those who we usually think to be the winners in our games of life? No, I submit to you today that God’s game is for us to realize that his power of love and life make virtually everyone winners, whether we know it or not. In fact, our way of playing the game with winners and losers prevents us from knowing it most of the time. We continue on with our win-lose thinking. So if God is ever going to break into that lost way of thinking, how would God do it? By choosing the losers! God chooses those we would normally count as losers in our games.

You don’t believe me? My first case in point is God’s chosen people. Not us Christians, mind you — at least, too much of the time in our Christian history, I think we have failed to be the chosen people because we have failed to be the losers, or on the side of losers, of this world. We have too often striven to be the winners among this world’s games of winning and losing. No, I’m talking about God’s chosen people, the Jews, who I would suggest as historically remaining more faithful to what God has endeavored to do in choosing the losers of this world.

When people have asked me how my teaching at Carthage went, one of my responses has been, ‘Great! I learned a lot!’ It’s one of those mysterious things in life: that one would learn a lot by teaching. I think that as a teacher I probably learned more than the students this term. And one of the things I learned the most about was this notion of being chosen by God.

Look at the history of the Jews: their identity as a people was forged in slavery to Egypt. Talk about losers! Can you think of any groups of people who historically bigger losers in the world’s games of winners and losers than slaves? “I am Yahweh,” says God, “the one who chose you and brought you out of slavery in Egypt.”

With Kings David and Solomon, then, the Hebrew people hit their peak. Under their leadership the Hebrew people became winners in the world’s game of winning and losing. They conquered their corner of the world.

But it was short-lived. Solomon’s sons imitated their father, who had fought off his brothers for Grandpa David’s throne, and the result was a split and weakened kingdom — the beginning of a long history of being everyone else’s losers. The Northern kingdom fell to Assyria; the Southern Kingdom fell to Babylon, which began their exile, as well, their being a people scattered all over world. To their credit, the Jewish people have maintained their identity as a people against incredible odds. They have even thrived from time to time, doing well in their neighbors games of winners and losers. But whenever times of crisis have arisen, the Jews have gone back to being Gods chosen people in this sense of becoming other people’s losers. Tragically, in the history since of that Jew Jesus of Nazareth, who some of us have come to call the Christ, the Messiah, those who have called themselves by Christ’s name have been the most frequent to make the Jews into their losers. Whenever the “black plague” hit Europe again, for example, Jews were blamed — and, yes, killed, too. And do you know where the word “ghetto” comes from? The dictionary tells us: “in some European cities, a section to which Jews are, or were, restricted; the word is also applied, often in an unfriendly sense, to … any section of a city in which many members of a national or racial group live, or to which they are restricted.” In other words, a ghetto is a place where we force to live the losers in our world’s games of winning and losing.

Finally, there was the Holocaust. Ghettoes weren’t a good enough solution for the Nazis. No, they needed a final solution. In a time of depression and crisis for Europe, someone had to be clear winners and someone had to be clear losers. And so even those who called themselves by the name of Christ were apparently more ready to listen to Hitler than to their God. That’s how blind and deaf we can be, because we haven’t completely stopped playing these games still, have we? Even when we have come to see how deadly they are?

If there is anything good to come out of such a horrible tragedy, perhaps it is at least finally having our eyes and ears open to who it is that God chooses. Not that it’s easy, even today. A typical feeling after the Holocaust among Jews is, “If this is what it means to be God’s chosen people, then please, God, choose someone else!” Can you blame them? We want to think that we are chosen because we are the winners. That’s our game. Unfortunately, it’s not God’s. And if God can’t get us to stop playing our games, if God can’t break into our blindness and deafness to the divine game where everyone wins, then God will enter our game as the loser. Maybe that will finally open our eyes and ears.

Again, let me help bring this home with a difficult story, a cross-shaped story, from a Jewish person. Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Prize winning Jewish author who survived Auschwitz. And he tells the terrible story of a hanging there, in which a young boy was included. The adults died almost immediately, when the chairs were knocked out from underneath them, but the young boy, who was much lighter, struggled for more than an hour. It was horrifying to watch, as the Nazis made them do. A man behind Wiesel kept asking: “Where is God now?” And suddenly Wiesel heard a voice within himself answer: “Were is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . .” (1)

God hanging on the gallows. Does that sound at all familiar? Yes, we proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, or in Hebrew, as the Messiah. What does Messiah mean? It means Chosen One! Messiah means the chosen one among God’s chosen people, the ultimate Chosen One. It is natural for us to think of that in terms of being one of this world’s winners. But as Christians we believe that that is not what God gave us, right? God chose one who looks like he lost everything. Why? Precisely to explode our games of winners and losers in a way that might finally open our eyes to the power of God’s love, the power of God’s life, to make us all winners, especially those who are deemed losers by this world. And so God calls us to love as Christ himself loved us. That becomes the only commandment. And notice that Jesus has to remind his disciples that he chose them. We like to think of ourselves as winners, as their being some good reason for having been chosen. But Jesus, on the night before he would look like one of the biggest losers of all time on the Cross, had to remind his disciples that he chose them. And he still chooses us.

Let me close with another story, this time more of a resurrection story. It is told by Jim Roberts, (2) a family therapist in Kansas City, who was visiting the fourth-grade class of his son Daniel. Daniel’s teacher had organized one of our typical games, one with clear winners and losers. He had organized a balloon stomp:

Each child had a balloon tied on his or her leg, and the object was to obliterate everyone else’s balloon without letting anything happen to yours. It was every man for himself and each against all. As soon as somebody stomped you, you were ‘out,’ and the child who still had a plump, glistening balloon when everybody else’s hung limp and tattered would have the winner’s glory.The teacher gave the signal, and the children leapt ferociously on each other’s balloons, doing their best, meanwhile, to protect themselves against the onslaught of others. All, that is except one or two who lacked the spirit of competition. These were just dismayed by all the hullabaloo, and their balloons were predictably laid waste. In a few seconds all balloons were burst but one.

What happened next, though, was the amazing part, because this teacher’s next class was a class of mentally handicapped children. The plan this teacher had had, without thinking it through thoroughly, perhaps, was to have all his classes play the game for some fun at this end of the school year. Now, he was having second thoughts. Would these children understand the game? Or might they, in effect, all end up losers not even knowing how to play the game. Here’s what happened:

Balloons were tied to their legs and they were briefed on the rules of play. Said Robert, ‘I got a sinking feeling in my midsection. I wanted to spare these kids the pressure of a competitive brawl.’They had only the foggiest notion of what this was all about. After a few moments of confusion, the idea got across to one or two of them that the balloons were supposed to be stomped, and gradually it caught on. But as the game got under way, it was clear these kids had missed the spirit of it. They went about methodically getting their balloons stomped. One girl carefully held her own in place so that a boy could pop it, and then he did the same for her. When all the balloons were gone, the entire class cheered in unison.

They all cheered in unison. Could this be what Jesus meant when he said ‘make my joy complete’? Yes, these children didn’t play the game the way it was supposed to be played. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? They turned a game of winners and losers into a game of only winners.

What I want to know is: can we take these children as a model for ourselves? Can we see ourselves as losers in the world’s games of winners and losers and love each other in a way that turns everyone into winners?

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Amen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 27-28, 2000

 

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Endnotes

1. Elie Wiesel, Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.

2. Robert C. Roberts, Taking the Word to Heart: Self & Other in an Age of Therapies, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993. Quoted in Pulpit Resources, by William Willimon, (Vol. 25, No. 2, April – June 1997), pp. 21-22.

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