Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: Matthew 25:31-46;
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
‘STRIVING FOR JUSTICE’ AS CHANGING THE RULES OF THE GAME
One of the suggested activities for the Famine 2014 which our youth undertook last weekend was to play a modified version of Monopoly. We didn’t have time to actually play a whole game, but we used the idea in the last hours to talk about what they were learning while fasting 30 hours.
Here’s how that modified version of Monopoly goes: Instead of everyone starting out with the same money and no property, the players, or teams of players, begin with unequal stakes: Team 1 gets $5000 and a couple high-end properties; Team 2 gets $2000 and mid-range properties; and Team 3 starts with $500 and a couple low-end properties. If you played under these rules ten times, how often do you think each team would win? Team 1 would win the majority of the time, wouldn’t it?
Now, think of this game as a metaphor for real life: Which version of Monopoly is closer to the way things work in the world? The traditional Monopoly, where everyone starts out equal; or the modified version, with unequal starting places?
The last two confirmation vows (which are displayed prominently on the youth room walls) are: “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” Thinking about the modified version of Monopoly akin to real-life, what would it mean to serve others? And what would it mean to strive for justice and peace? We had a good conversation, and came up with this for the confirmation vows: (1) To serve those in need, or charity, is being generous within the rules of the game. (2) To strive for justice is to seek changing the rules of the game.
Both are confirmation vows; both are very important. Here’s how. I believe that this morning’s Gospel reading is showing us how God is changing the rules through King Jesus. All human communities in history — our clans, tribes, nations, empires — have been sacrificial in the old sense, where we believed the rules were set up for God blessing the community by sacrificing someone. Someone has to get left out of the bounty. Not everyone can be blessed, because scarcity is the reality, not abundance. So the rules of the game are set up for some to win and others to lose. When humankind reached the point in history of organizing ourselves into nations and empires, this has made for an awfully bloody history — a survival of the fittest, a history of winners who imposed their wills on weaker communities through military conquest.
Here’s what I believe: that God in Jesus the King is showing us that these rules of the game have been all wrong. God our Creator is about abundance not scarcity. There is enough for everyone. No one needs to be left out and sacrificed. So the rules of the game are changing. It’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s not about mighty winners and tragic losers. It’s about all of God’s family winning. And that happens precisely by taking care of those who are usually left out, those usually sacrificed — the poor, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner. Jesus the King tells us that we can always find him precisely when we care for the least of his family.
So, ultimately, it’s a matter of justice, of God radically changing the rules of the game. And you and I are called to be a part of that. Since God doesn’t use military conquest, history is like what Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” God through King Jesus is slowly changing the rules of the game towards love, towards caring for everyone by prioritizing care for the least.
But’s it’s going to take a while. It’s a looonnnggg arc, not a magic bullet. And it takes disciples of King Jesus to be salt and light, to live as examples of how the rules are changing. That’s why serving those in need is also so essential. Striving for justice happens by being examples of how God is changing the rules, through our serving those in need. Another way to say this is that God is not only changing the rules of the game, but God in King Jesus was changing how the rules are changed. Human nations and empires have changed the rules by taking over through military conquest. King Jesus shows us a way of changing the rules through loving service. It takes much, much longer to bring change by being vulnerable to other people’s force instead of using force yourself. But if the rules to which we are changing involve love instead of force, it makes no sense to change to those rules by using force. So on this Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the most unique and unusual ruler in history: a ruler who most definitely is bringing change to the rules, but not by using force. We serve a King who leads by serving. We follow a powerful King who is powerful precisely by taking his place with the least: the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner.
So let’s ask ourselves: How are we doing as a congregation with these two confirmation vows of serving those in need, being generous within the rules of the game, and striving for justice, seeking with other to change the rules of the game. As your pastor, I am constantly proud of the way we serve. Prince of Peace has a heart for service. Our Social Concerns Team is our biggest and most active committee, leading us into all kinds of projects to serve those in need. Our Youth Ministry isn’t just about helping our youth. Last week’s 30-Hour Famine was another example of how our youth lead the rest of us, too, in serving those in need. Together we partner with organizations like Open Doors, Habitat for Humanity, Lutheran Social Services, ELCA World Hunger, and many more. I am truly proud, and I hope you are, too, that we have not only a heart for service, but hands and feet, too.
As your pastor, I also lift up that striving for justice — working to change the rules of the game — is a growth challenge for us. I know it has been for me, even in the way I read the Bible and our theological tradition. The changes in interpreting who we are through encountering God’s Word continue to challenge me as a pastor in challenging all of us as disciples.
So let me conclude with a brief overview of how that change in reading the Bible works to challenge us toward being a part of the long arc of God’s justice. This morning’s important Gospel Reading is a prime example. With my old glasses on, the ones I grew up with in reading the Bible, I hear this story as about the fate of individuals in the afterlife. And it’s actually not very gracious. How many of us truly want our eternal fate — whether we live in eternal bliss or eternal torment after we die — how many of us want to be judged on the basis of how we responded every time we’re confronted with someone who’s hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or homeless, or in prison? What’s your track record? Do you respond generously 100% of the time? 75%? 50%? 25%? What percent does it take to get into heaven? Do you see how the old way to read this story ends up not being very gracious?
Now I’m going to put on my new glasses for reading the Bible. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the new reading. You can do that on you own if you wish by reading the chapter I sent out yesterday (Brian Zahnd’s “Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come,” chapter 7 in A Farewell to Mars). But here in a nutshell is what changes: instead of seeing the Bible as focused on my eternal fate in the afterlife, I see it as God’s promise to change the fate of the whole Creation, me included. So instead of reading this morning’s Gospel as about my fate as an individual, I read it as a way of interpreting real history. The sheep and goats represent nations in history, and Jesus is telling us about what happens to nations when they don’t follow God’s rules. To the extent that nations fail to care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner, they enter into times of punishment — or, to put it more in today’s categories of thinking, they suffer the consequences. They fail as nations and end up defeated in wars — a “time of fire” or conflagration.
But as citizens of this current nation we love, the opposite also holds true: to the extent that we as a nation care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner, we will succeed as a nation. Can relying on charity alone be enough for us to succeed? Consider the modified Monopoly game once again. Is it enough for some players in the game to be generous within the rules of the game? Or do we at some point need to agree to modify the rules for everyone to have a more equal chance to win? Or here’s the real rub: do we disciples of Jesus need to help our nation understand that the rules of history have been set up so that only finding a way for everyone to win is an acceptable, ultimate outcome? Otherwise, as nations we always pay the price. We succeed or fail as nations based on how the least of our national family succeed or fail. As Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, “I don’t succeed until everyone succeeds.” We can choose to ignore those rules. But then there’s also consequences — ultimately becoming a failed nation which ends up in fiery defeat.
The Good News for you and I is the promise that the long arc of history is bending towards God’s justice, God’s rules of the game. And you and I have the call to take part in that unfolding, with the promise that we need not even fear death, because death will be defeated someday, too. You and I are called to be light in the darkness, glorifying our Father in heaven by lovingly serving those in need, and by striving for justice and peace in all the world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 23, 2014