February 3, 2013

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC



Micah 6:1-8

Matthew 5:1-12

I’m getting old enough I can remember the olden days.  I can remember the first Super Bowl.  It wasn’t called that then.  It was called the “First World Championship Game”.  They spelled out the word “First”.  They didn’t use a roman numeral.  I’m not sure when they started using roman numerals for the Super Bowl.  This afternoon’s game is the 47th one played, but no one will use the number 47. It is Super Bowl XLVII.

I also remember when the Super Bowl was played at the same time as church.  You had to choose.  “Am I going to go to church this morning or am I going to watch the Super Bowl?”  As long as I’ve been a pastor, the game has been played late enough in the afternoon that there hasn’t been a problem.  That’s a good thing.  It wouldn’t look good for the pastor tomisschurchfor a ball game.  And it also wouldn’t look good to have no one in church.  I should tell you though that the pre-game show started at 9 am this morning, so you are missing that.

Sports is big inAmericaand it seems to be getting bigger.   We hear about the huge salaries athletes are being paid, but the real  money is in the television contracts and the advertising revenue and the cost of new stadiums that must be built or the team will move to another city that will build one.  A ticket to the first Super Bowl would have cost you $12.  That same ticket for today’s game costs $1200.  A 30 second ad back in 1967 cost $38,000.  30 seconds this year goes for $4,000,000.  Sports has become big, big business.

And of course there is money in sports because sports fans are so fanatical about their teams.  If your team wins, its almost like you win.  If your team loses, it’s like you’ve suffered a crushing personal defeat.  Attach yourself to the right team and you too can be a winner!

The winning coach in the first two Super Bowls was Vince Lombardi who is supposed to have said, “Winning isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing.”

Sports has become a religion of winning, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this obsession with winning has crept into religion as well.  Christianity is presented as kind of a game plan so you can win in life.  It’s a way to be successful.  Some will even say it’s a way to become prosperous.  Some churches preach a “prosperity gospel”.  If you want to reach your goal, including your goal of becoming very, very wealthy, become a Christian.  Let Jesus be your coach.

Of course there’s a problem with this.  If Jesus is a way to get you whatever matters most to you, it means that Jesus doesn’t matter most to you.  If you believe Jesus will make you successful, Jesus is not your Lord.  Success is your Lord.  And I’m not sure success is a very worthy Lord.

Maybe you can help me, but I have a hard time finding Bible passages about winning or about success.  Unless it’s the old battle stories in the Old Testament that tell of mass slaughter and rivers running red with blood.  Somehow I don’t think that’s thehigh pointof God’s truth in the Bible.

What is the high point of God’s truth is the teaching we find over and over again that we are to love one another, forgive one another, be reconciled with one another.  We are to tear down the walls that divide and build bridges that bring people together.

We have a passage from the Old Testament and from the New Testament to illustrate for us today that the Bible teaches something very different from a religion of winning.

We begin with Micah.  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8)

This verse takes us back to the old days of animal sacrifice.  You would please God by making a sacrifice that conformed to the many specifications spelled out in scripture.  That’s what God “required” of you.  If you made a worthy sacrifice, you were good with God.  You had done your part.  But now Micah comes along and takes a fresh look on this whole matter of what it takes to please God.  He says it takes more than just these ritual sacrifices in theTemple.  That’s just the beginning.  God may require that as a starting place, but that’s really an incidental requirement compared to the main thing God’s people are expected to do.  We are to live lives of justice and kindness and humility.

And these words, justice, kindness, and humility, have no meaning apart from our relationships with other people.  Justice means standing up for those who otherwise would be taken advantage of.  Kindness means thinking of others, not just yourself.  Humility means seeing in others, all others, value and worth equal to your own.  To put it in contemporary terms, God wants you to come to church on Sunday and put something in the offering plate, but that’s not all God wants.  That’s not even the main thing God wants.  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”

And then we go from Old Testament to New Testament, to the opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we call the Beatitudes.  It too is telling us how God expects us to live.  It keeps repeating a single word:  “blessed”.  It says if we live the way it is telling us to live, we will be blessed.  In other words, the goal of your life should not be to win or even to succeed, but to be blessed.  But what does that mean?

Some modern translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed”.  I think that is a mistake.  Blessedness is deeper than happiness.  Happiness is dependent on things outside of yourself.  If things go right for you today, you will be happy.  If Coach Harbaugh’s team wins today, you will be happy.  Happiness is the result of things going right outside of you.  Blessedness is the result of things being right inside of you.  Blessedness is the result of living your life the way you are supposed to live it.  Blessedness is the result of loving and being loved.  Blessedness is the result of being right with God.  Blessedness can be yours, regardless of what is happening in the world outside of you.  Blessedness is that inner peace Jesus speaks of that “the world can neither give nor take away” (Jn 14:27).

Alan Paton was a Christian leader in the battle against apartheid inSouth Africa.  In his autobiography, he tells of those who gave him the courage to live out his costly path of discipleship.  One of these was a man named Railton Dent.

He did not make me into a good man.  That would have been too much.  But he taught me one thing.  That life was to be used in the service of a cause greater than oneself.  This can be done by a Christian for two reasons.  First, in obedience to his Lord.  And the other truly pragmatic, namely that one is going to miss out of the meaning of life if one doesn’t.

That’s blessedness.  It comes from things being right inside of you.  It comes from being in a right relationship with God and with your neighbor.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  That means humble.  That’s what Micah was talking about.  That means thinking of other people and not just yourself.

“Blessed are those who mourn.”  Those who can see the suffering and injustice in this world and it causes them pain to see it.  Such pain that they do something about it.

“Blessed are the meek.”  If you’re meek you won’t be plotting and scheming about how you can take advantage of someone else.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  That means, those who live the highest that they know.  They don’t worry about what’s wrong in someone else, they worry about what’s wrong in themselves and making it right.

“Blessed are the merciful.”  That means, those who forgive.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.”  That means those who have no place for duplicity in their lives.  Their lives are focused on pleasing God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.”  These are the people who are building up this world, not tearing it down.

“Blessed are you when men persecute you.”  That means that part of the blessedness that comes from all the above is that you will meet resistance and misunderstanding.

Jesus met resistance and misunderstanding.  It wasn’t because there was something wrong with Jesus.  It was because there is something wrong with this world.  And one of the things wrong with this world is that it divides itself into winners and losers.  Winning is defined as being superior to everyone else, which implies that the other side is inferior.  Winning is defined as having the truth on your side, which implies that everyone else is in error.

Now there is a place for winning and losing, and I think the sports field is the perfect place.  I am not suggesting they give out two Vince Lombardi trophies this afternoon, or give all the players on both teams blue ribbons for trying hard.  Competition has its place.  What’s unfortunate though is that our love affair with winning and losing has gotten into places where it has no place.

Politics has been described as sports for the uncoordinated.  Winning and losing is certainly part of the political game.  But it seems to have been carried a bit far in the last decade or two.  There’s the old story about President Reagan and Tip O’Neil, Speaker of the House of Representatives.  They agreed on very little.  They were always arguing.  But then after hours they would get together to work out deals that would benefit  the whole country.  Not win-lose deals, but win-win.  That kind of thing doesn’t happen much any more.

Just this past week, two long-time senators, Saxby Chambliss and Tom Harkin, one a Republican and one a Democrat,  announced that they will not seek re-election.  Both of them essentially gave the same reason for their decision.  Our political system is broken.  Compromise and consensus and cooperation are dirty words.  It’s all about victory.  One side wins.  The other side loses.  And the real loser isAmerica.

Maybe part of the problem is that we use too many sports analogies to talk about life.  I would have to plead guilty to that.  If I were to stop, I’d have to get rid of my best stuff.  But the life God has given us is not meant to be a battle, with winners and losers.

I mentioned the pregame show that started at 9 am this morning.  Actually on the NFL Network the last two weeks have been one extended pre-game show.  I love the old films of past Super Bowls.  But the way they are presented really is kind of silly.  There is the slow motion and the mythological language.  Its like Greek gods going to war.  They are modern day gladiators, risking everything for the greatest prize on earth.  To win is the greatest glory.  To lose is the ultimate humiliation.  Poor Scott Norwood, who missed that makeable field goal 22 years ago and it just about ruined his life.

That’s not the way the Bible talks about life.  Not at all.  The Bible says life is like a body.  Paul uses this one over and over.  Everyone has a part in the body.  Everyone is needed.  If one organ in the body is sick, the whole body is diseased.  If one part of the body hurts, the pain is felt throughout the entire body.  If one cell in the body is determined to be a winner and goes to war against all the other parts of the body, you know what that is called?  It’s called cancer.  It can kill the whole body.

We’re all in this game of life together.  We win together.  We lose together.  If there is a sports analogy that captures the Bible’s vision of life, it would probably have to come from Special Olympics.  We have several of our Simply Worship attendees who compete in Special Olympics.  They are proud of their individual accomplishments, as well they should be.  But they understand better than most the truth of that old Grantland Rice chestnut.  What matter isn’t winning or losing.  It’s how you play the game.

It happened inSpokane,Washington, 1976.  It was the 100 yard dash.  The gun sounded and eight of the nine athletes started down the track.  One of the nine stumbled and fell before he could even get going.  He was lying on the track crying.  His cries were loud enough that one of the competitors heard him and stopped and went back to see what was the matter.  This was a girl with Downs Syndrome.  She knelt beside the boy on the track and kissed his scraped knee.  She said, “This will make it feel better.”  Then she helped him to his feet and they ran down the track and crossed the finish line together.

They tied for last place.  But by the roar of the crowd, there could be no mistake.  They both were winners.

Dear God, teach us your rules in this game of life.  Teach us that sometimes what seems to be winning, really isn’t.  And what seems to be losing can be the greatest of victories.  You keep score.  Your score is the only score that counts.  May we live this life the way you intend for it to be lived.  May we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you, our God.  And as a result, may we share with all your children in your final victory.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.