CHOOSING THE LOSERS
"You did not choose me but I chose you." I would like to begin these words from Jesus. Wow! To be chosen by Jesus. What does that mean, to be chosen by God? Who is it that God chooses?
When we talk about choosing and be chosen, an image that might come 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. It feels great, then, to be one of the first people chosen. But it's really crummy to be last. You feel like a loser.
So what does it mean to say that God chooses you and I? I want to submit to you today, first of all, that God absolutely doesn't want to play our brand of games with winners and losers. When it comes to life, God is a God of abundance, so much so that there need not be any losers. So, when we human beings play the game of life, we generally do so not according to the True God of Life, but according to our idols of scarcity. We still play the game of life very much as one with winners and losers. Contrary to us, though, God's game is for us to realize that his power of love and life make virtually everyone winners.
The problem, then, is what to do about our continued win-lose thinking. Here at Our Savior's it's an important night for us tonight. Our bishop is here to begin the process of looking in earnest for our new pastor. But over the last thirties years or so, our numbers have been declining. It's so easy to give in to scarcity thinking. In terms of "successful" churches, we appear to be losers. What pastor would want to choose us?
But we need to break through that scarcity thinking to the God in Jesus Christ who came to give us life, and to give it abundantly. We might ask, then: If God is ever going to break into that lost way of thinking, how would God do it? By choosing the losers! At least the losers to this world's way of thinking. God chooses those we would normally count as losers in our games.
You don't believe me? Let's play a quick game according to our rules: Abraham and Sarah, childless at the age of seventy-five -- winners or losers if one were to start a chosen people. Losers! But God chooses them and turns them into winners. Esau, the first twin born, and Jacob, born just on his heels -- whose the winner according to our games of inheritance. Esau. But God chooses Jacob. Egyptian overlords or Hebrew slaves -- who are the winners here according to our human rules of life. The Egyptian overlords, of course. But, again, God chooses the losers, the Hebrew slaves, and makes them his chosen people, the people to carry his message that he is a God of abundant life -- so much so that he can choose the losers according to this world in order to make everyone winners.
Let's not underestimate ourselves, though, and our persistence in playing the game of life our way, with winners and losers. It finally took one last, dramatic choice from among God's chosen people. 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 Jesus 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, suffering the utter shame and defeat of the cross. 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 others as Christ himself loved us. That becomes the only commandment.
Let me tell you a story told by Jim Roberts, (1) 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.What happened next, though, was the amazing part, because this teacher's next class was a class of developmentally disabled 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:
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.
Balloons were tied to their legs and they were briefed on the rules of play. 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? As we stand poised to call the next pastor of Our Savior's, it has been alluring to think about a drastic move. According to this world's way of playing the game, all the successful churches are moving out to the suburbs and planning programs galore for our society's winners in the economic games we play. But we have chosen instead to stay put where we are and to bring the Good News to the people of this neighborhood that we serve a God of abundance whose plan is to make everyone winners in the game of life. We serve a Messiah who let himself be identified with the losers, so that as our Risen Lord he might make it clear to us how God plays the game of life. And God chooses you and me. Winners or losers according to this world's way of playing the game of life. It doesn't matter. Because he comes here again this evening to show us how to play the game God's way.
"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.... I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."Amen!
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior's Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 28, 2003
1. 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.