Epiphany 6C Sermon (2004)

6th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 6:17-26;
Jer. 17:5-10; 1 Cor 15:12-20

A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME

We love to keep score. There’s the obvious ways with all our beloved games. The Packers and Brewers, the Badgers and Eagles. For me, of course, coming from Detroit, it’s a bit different: the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, and Wolverines. I have to admit that I’m in a bit of withdrawal during February, which is the only month of the year during which no one is keeping score for my two favorite games, baseball and football. Ah, spring training opens this week.

Yes, we love to keep score, and it goes far beyond the games we love to play and root for. This is the year we love to keep score with our politics — who’s going to beat whom in elections. We get a taste this week here in Wisconsin with a very important primary. And even within our politics, there’s unfortunately a lot of score-keeping, the kind of behind-the-scenes score-keeping that we’d be better off without. Our politicians have to keep score with their supporters, of who they owe what for such-and-such a favor. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

This even happens on a global scale with our multi-national corporations and local governments galore. The poor, the hungry, the mournful, the despised of this morning’s Gospel Lesson are the ones usually left out in the cold by all the back-room wheeling and dealing of this world’s wealthy who call the shots in all the real-life games we play. And when someone wants to run up the score it can really get ugly. The deadly games of high finance that leave this world’s poor left out in the cold can turn into the even more deadly games of beginning to kill one another. And this is where keeping score becomes most serious and somber, as we send our young men to put their lives on the line for these global games of killing one another. You hurt us, and we’ll hurt you. We’ll be sure to even the score. In this global village of today, we might also need to realize that the United States is not well-liked because it has the capability to run up the score, to overwhelm opposing sides with a military might that tips the slant of the playing field wildly in our favor.

But let’s get closer to home for a minute. We love to keep score in everything about our lives, don’t we? We tally who wears the latest fashions; we keep track of who gets the best jobs, the nicest homes, the most successful children. Who makes the most money? If our co-worker or competitor gets a raise, we complain that we deserve one, too. And in the everyday trenches of personal relationships, the games often get dirtiest. If our neighbor does anything to hurt us, you can bet we’ll find some way to settle the score. We have innumerable ways in which life isn’t fair. Why? Because we’re always busy keeping score.

It isn’t too much different at church, is it? It can be argued that we have even more rules. We make rules about what it means to be a nice person, and then we keep score. (Pastors are usually out ahead of everyone, by the way, since we do so many nice things for others.) Sadly, these rules about niceness, about being a good person, often also up the ante in the tit-for-tat games we play of personal relationships. When someone offends us, there’s an extra righteous indignation that goes with it, because we’re nice people: ‘How dare they! They’ll regret it! I’ll get even!’ That isn’t too unfamiliar in the history of our congregations, is it?

Well, I’m laying it on thick here with our games of score-keeping because I have a very important question to ask about this morning’s Gospel Lesson. These reversals of the usual outcomes in our world — blessings to the poor, woes to the rich — does this mean that God is simply the most powerful player yet in our games of keeping score? Will God someday step in and reverse the fortunes of our games, helping the poor to win out over the rich? Wouldn’t that be like a divine Robin Hood? Taking from the rich to give to the poor?

Or — just maybe — what we’re hearing in Jesus’ words this morning is not so much a reversal of fortunes from the human games we play, as much as it is a liberation from the game-playing altogether. Why are the poor blessed if God helps us to quit playing so many games, and why do the rich have woes spoken upon them? Because who is most likely to be willing to quit playing these deadly, competitive games of keeping score? Not the rich — not likely, anyway, because they’re the ones winning at our games. If there is someone in this world who is likely to accept God’s invitation to enter into another game, in which score is not kept, it would be this world’s poor, wouldn’t it? They literally have nothing to lose, because they have already lost. They are more than willing to follow a new leader, one who brings healing and fulfillment, one who brings the true source and power of life, one who brings an end to the score-keeping that we might instead live in gracious cooperation with one another. They are eager to follow someone who comes to bring a win-win scenario to our win-lose games — unless, of course, one chooses to cling to our win-lose games, which is ultimately a losing proposition, when someday the abundantly gracious life-giving power of our Creator becomes plain.

The rich are those who don’t want to give up our win-lose way of doing things, because they’re winning. But these’s something else we need to understand about Jesus’ teaching here. The woes he gives to the rich are a hint of what he expands on elsewhere — especially in what’s usually referred to as the apocalyptic material, namely, the places where he speaks woes on a more widespread, global basis. He uses the traditional language of Hebrew prophecy to warn us of coming disaster if we keep to our ways. What I’m saying here is basically that Jesus warns the rich that our win-lose way of playing things ultimately ends up in a lose-lose scenario. One of Gandhi’s favorite sayings was, “‘An eye for eye’ means the whole world will go blind.” In other words, our tit-for-tat ways of evening the score eventually spirals out of control to proportions where no one can really be the winner. After a century of two “World Wars,” can we begin to understand? With over 50 million people laying dead, is anyone really the winner?

Jesus came to offer everyone a different scenario, a way of life that is win-win for those who choose it. The poor were those most willing to follow. In short, Jesus had a mission to the poor, and the poor followed Jesus, not because he came to simply reverse their fortunes within the games we people play, but because, in Jesus, God is offering them, and us, a whole new ball game.

The question is always: will we accept the invitation? Can you see how life changes if we drop all the score-keeping? If, in following the way where Jesus leads, we come to believe in abundance and so feel liberated from the games of clamoring for scarce resources? Most importantly, can we learn to forgive? Because that’s basically what forgiveness means, namely, giving up our desire to constantly settle the score. Instead of evening the score, we let go of keeping it altogether. Forgiveness is the way of entering into that whole new ball game.

And when God sent Jesus into our world of keeping score with an invitation to let go of all that, God knew what the results would be. We would be threatened enough, especially the most powerful and wealthy among us, to get Jesus out of the way. And that’s exactly what they tried to do, of course, in nailing Jesus to the cross. But he returns as our Risen Lord, first of all, as the first fruits of God’s promise of a win-win scenario, because not even our powers of murder and death can prevail against God’s power of life. And, secondly, Jesus comes to forgive us and once again invite us into a whole new ball game through that forgiveness. We learn to let go of all our score-keeping in order to instead discover the blessing of living as if there’s nothing to lose, the blessing of being able to lose what we have to others in a community of mutual blessing, a Holy Communion.

Let’s check this out with a quick example. Why is it that we work together in an outreach ministry to the poor of our neighborhood? If it’s to somehow work that human game of righteousness, of turning the tables on someone, then I’m not sure we’re in it for the right reasons. We shouldn’t be in this ministry to simply re-distribute things more fairly, playing Robin Hood by taking from the rich to give to the poor. No, we should be in ministry with the poor because of the blessing of discovering Jesus’ invitation to step into a whole world, the world of forgiveness. We take our places beside those who have already lost in this world’s win-lose games of keeping score, and together we learn Jesus’ new win-win way of a life of mutual sharing, a life in which we stop keeping score.

Our Lord comes once again this morning to forgive us, to invite us — which amounts to the same thing. For forgiveness is God’s invitation to enter a whole new ball game. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, February 15, 2004

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