Game Changer (message for July 20th)

Scripture: Luke 14:1-14


For those of you who have not yet gotten to know me, one of the things that people learn about me fairly quickly, is that I love to play games.   Now usually because of my age, people assume I am talking about video games.  While I do play my fair share of video games, what I enjoy most of all is a good board or card game.  I do not know the last time you looked at the board game aisle in Target, but there has been a renaissance of sorts in board games, and games have evolved far beyond the old classics everyone knows like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk.  For example, some of our favorite games have unfamiliar titles like Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Memoir 44.  


  My wife and I love to play these new style board games together, and it seems we are always learning a new one, and I am often teaching these games to other people.   When teaching a new game, I always begin by explaining the goal of the game, and the goal is always the same.  The goal of the game is to win.  I then explain how that specific game is won.   I have played hundreds of games, and the goal is always the same.  The object is always to win by being the first to accomplish something, first to reach a goal, the person with the most points when time is up, or sometimes simply the last one left standing.   This really got me wondering, is there a game where the goal is to lose?  Out of curiosity, I began looking to see if I could find such a game.


            I found what I was looking for as a variant of a popular game: Suicide Chess.   I am assuming most people have played or at least have a basic understanding of chess.  In regular chess, the goal of the game is to win and the game is won by getting the opponent’s king piece in a position where it cannot evade capture or checkmate.   Suicide chess flips this around, and the goal of the game is to lose all of one’s pieces.  Paradoxically, the first player to lose everything is the player that wins.   In this variant, all of the pieces move the same as normal chess.  The rules are changed so that captures are mandatory if possible, and having the king in check or checkmate does not matter.  I have played this chess variant.  I am not a very accomplished chess player, but I do understand the basics, and playing with these rules completely flips how the game works.  Moves that are normally strong, smart moves are completely wrong.  When playing this version of chess, the way one needs to approach the game changes and requires a completely different mindset.   I mention suicide chess, because I cannot help but think of the way that particular game plays when I read this morning’s scripture.  What Jesus is advocating in this scripture is a change to the rules, which completely change how the game is played.


Like a game, there are rules that govern our society and culture.  These rules may not be explicit, but we are all taught them on many level.   We are taught that the goal of the game is to win, and we are taught that we win if we have the most; the most money, the most stuff, the most fame, the most whatever.  We are also taught that we win if we are the first and if we are the best.  We are taught what is acceptable and not acceptable to accomplish these goals, and we are even taught which rules we can bend to better accomplish our goal.   I find it remarkable that even though we are separated by thousands of years from Jesus’ day, there are similar rules.   It seems that some of the same societal rules we have present today were present in Jesus day as well.  


            The first of these rules that this scripture shines light on is that in order to win the game of life you need to be viewed as important.  If this was true in Jesus’ day it is most certainly true today.  The difference is that in our digital age, people can quantitatively measure how important or popular they are.  For example, In March of this year it was headline making news that Ellen’s selfie from the Oscars became the most popular tweet, in number of likes and retweets, of all time.   Speaking of selfies, one of the big trend now is to post pictures of ourselves or “selfies” on the social media site Instagram.  From my time in youth ministry, I know that for many teenagers these kinds of pictures are more than just pictures.  These pictures are used as a barometer to measure how popular they are.  This popularity is measured in the number of likes their picture get, and the number of likes they get is compared to the number of likes other people have on their pictures to see where they rank in comparison.   In Jesus day, status was determined by where one sat at a banquet and today it is by twitter followers and “likes”, but the principle is the same.   We seek validation by being viewed as important in the eyes of others.  


            The second of these rules deals with the very messy concept of reciprocation.  I mentioned it a few weeks ago, but we are really bad at receiving gifts.  This includes random acts of kindness.   Among certain circles, there is a big “pay it forward” movement.  The idea is to randomly do something for someone, such as pay for the person behind you in a drive thru.  The hope is that person will then pay the act of good will forward.   I am not opposed to this idea, and I fully support the idea of doing more things to help others.  However, I have to wonder how often things like that guilt people into generosity.  The “random act of kindness” is less random and more of a perceived obligation.   Our societal rules, just like in Jesus day, make it hard to give selflessly because there seem to always be strings attached.  There is always a lingering question, “What do I get out of it?”   The social interactions that govern all of this are complex, but are best summed up by true deeply engrained proverbs of our culture.  “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” And “You can’t get something for nothing.”


            One of the things that is so great about Jesus, one of the reasons why he is so worth following, is because he changes the rules.  He flips them on their head and he changes the way the game is played.  In this morning’s scripture Jesus takes the life rules of seeking personal importance and giving with string attached and flips them around.  Instead of exalting oneself, Jesus says to humble oneself.  Instead of giving and expecting in return, he urged to give without any chance of repayment.  Just like suicide chess completely changes the way the game is played, Jesus is changing the way the game is played.  In the game of life we are all taught to play, the winner is the one who puts themselves first to be number one.  In the game Jesus is teaching us the winner is the one who puts others first.   In the game of life, the goal is constantly acquire more.  In the game Jesus us is teaching us the goal is to freely give.   In the game of life, the point is to achieve personal glory above all else, and in the game Jesus is teaching us the point is to glorify God who is already above all.   In order to play Jesus’ game, we have to lose the world’s game.  If we are following Jesus correctly, then we are losing the game that it seems everyone else is playing.   


            The story of Millard Fuller’s life is a good example of what it means to lose the game of the world, yet winning so much more.  In the 1950’s Millard was living the American dream and playing the game well.  He had attended college, graduated from a prestigious law school, and by the age of 29 he was a self made millionaire.  By all accounts, he was a success.  However, Millard was not happy.  Even though by societal standards he was winning, Millard felt like he was losing:  losing his marriage, losing his faith, losing life.   Millard and his wife Linda stopped playing the world’s game, and made a huge change.  They sold everything, gave it all to the poor, and eventually found themselves living and working at Koinonia Farm, a commune community, in Georgia. 


            One of the foundational beliefs of the Koinonia Farm is that God created all people equal-including people of different skin color.  You can imagine how well this belief went over in the deep south in the 50’s and 60s.  There was constant friction between the farm and the local community.  Despite this, the Fullers and other residents of Koinonia farm sought to live humbly and sought to help others without reward.   Millard took this to the next step in the late 60’s when he noticed that many of the poorest people in the community did not have adequate housing.  The residents of the farm began working hand in hand with their poor neighbors to build houses.  Millard had come across a real need, and the scope of people to help broadened to neighboring communities.  The scope continued to broaden, until it evolved into Habitat for Humanity.   Today, Habitat has helped thousands of people get the start they needed by providing housing.  Despite, Habitat for Humanity being a huge success Millard Fuller did not use that success to further himself.  A few years ago he died at the age of 74 in relative obscurity.  When it comes to the game of the world, he was a bit of a loser as he threw away a millionaire fortune and the opportunity to be a real move and shaker in the business world.  However, he won the game that really matters and I have no doubt that when he entered God’s heavenly realm he heard Christ say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  


            We do not all have a million dollars to give away, but we can be faithful at following Jesus.  We can seek in our daily interactions that we seek to humble ourselves.  To humble ourselves does not mean that we lower our opinion of our self, and try to make others look at us the same way.  C.S. Lewis said it best, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”   To live humbly means simple things sometimes.   It can be a simple as driving less aggressively, taking time to notice that the person checking us out at the store is a person that God created and loves, or not using every interaction as way to promote ourselves or increase are number of “likes”.  To live humbly means we will be playing to lose the game of the world that says to put yourself first, but we will be winning the game Jesus is teaching which says to love our neighbor as ourselves.   When we go through life thinking about others first, then we will naturally live more humbly.   When the think of ourselves less, and think of others more we are more able to see what is happening around us, and we are more able to make a real difference in lives of others.  If we do that enough, then we can make a real difference in the world.  


            We can seek to play by Jesus rules in our own lives, but I believe that a church as a whole can also choose to do this.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus said “When you give a banquet invite the poor, the cripple, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”  The crippled, the lame, and the blind are people that the society of Jesus’ day had given up on.  They were outcast, excluded, and it was thought that their condition was a punishment from God for great sin in their lives.  These are the people that society pitied while not doing much, and the people that the religious leaders had shut out as not the right kind of people.  They may not always be crippled or lame but we still have the poor, the outcasts, and the unwanted with us today.  In our community, in your workplace, in your school, dare I say in our church, who are those people?   Who do we know or know of that needs to be invited in?   We do not invite to gain or earn anything, but we invite so that we can share God’s love and the richness of God’s blessings with them.   As a church family, this is a mission that should be taken on by the whole faith community.    One example of this in the Indianapolis area is the Interfaith hospitality network.  This organization works with homeless families, and local churches take turns housing these families in their buildings, so that the parents can focus on getting both feet back on the ground and off to a running start without having to constantly worrying about where their kids are going to sleep.  This is just one example, where people are quite literally invited in but all faith communities should seek to follow Jesus command an invite the poor, the unwanted, and the unloved. 


            May we no longer be caught up by the rules that dominate our culture and the selfish game the world plays.  May we lose that game with joy.  And instead, may we continue to listen to and follow Jesus.  May we continue to play the game that he is teaching us, the one that turns all the rules we have been taught upside down.  May we seek to humble ourselves, may we seek to invite in those who are uninvited, and may we seek to love others the way that God loves us.  So that when the day of resurrection comes, we will win in righteousness.