Sunday, September 22, 2013

On Becoming a Loser
(and friendship with God)

So, the Packers lost today. 34-30, Bengals. Boo. So it seems like maybe bad time to bring up the words of Saint Lombardi, who said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Oops. Winning is the only thing. I wonder if you can resonate, if not in football, then in other realms of life. I wonder if you can resonate with the great Jackie Robinson, who said, “It kills me to lose...I can’t stand losing. The way I am about winning, all I ever wanted to do was finish first.” All I ever wanted to do was finish first.

Winning - or 'not losing' - is a drive that shapes most of our lives. So, given that winning is a drive that shapes most of our lives, what happens when the unthinkable does happen? What happens when you lose? Not just generally - what goes on inside you? Maybe you’ve never lost? But assuming you have, even once, how did you make sense of yourself in that moment? How is that feeling different from the way you felt about yourself before you lost, when you thought you still had a chance to win? What changes? 

Fear of losing can sure suck the life out of winning. You students especially know the pressures that come with sky’s-the-limit expectations. Let me ask you: have you ever found yourself making choices that ran opposite to all you knew about goodness, God, yourself, and the world, simply because it might mean the difference between winning and losing, and losing was not an option? I think of the sports world again and PEDs and blood doping and cycling, and those rare athletes who get caught, and the rarer athletes who are glad to get caught, because it ends, once and for all, the win-at-all-costs charade and gives back to the individuals the permission to return to what was most important in life, in the first place. Sometimes losing can save your life.

Jesus tells a story tonight about a man who played the game and lost. Specifically, this man lost his job. In the words of one not-quite theologian, “You’re fired.” A couple of days to wrap up business and turn in his keys and his fob for the company car. And we get it. Even students years away from hitting the job market sweat out the prospect of joblessness. At least the english and philosophy majors do. So on the one hand, we can imagine the rich man’s dread. What does he tell his wife? Where does he go from here? We can empathize with the economic and emotional pressures - the loss of control - this guy is feeling.

On the other hand, despite our attempts at empathy, we are still Americans - living in the richest, most powerful, arguably most violent, and influential nation in the history of the world. What do we know about losing really? About powerlessness? And more than that, we are Episcopalians! Did you know that 27% of American presidents have been Episcopalians? Easily the most popular denomination among those who have called the Oval Office home. Next closet is the Presbyterians more than 9 points back, at 18%. That’s power, baby!

So the rich man muses, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?,’ and Episcopalian Americans especially find ourselves arrived at a quandary. We cannot imagine losing anything. At the same time, we have more stuff not to lose than maybe anyone else in the history of the world. The having and guarding - to keep us from losing what no one else has ever had to this extent - that part, we get. The losing itself, not so much.

So let me name an elephant in the room with respect to ourselves and our gospel: Christianity (not just Episcopalians) is in the process of losing her position. Long gone are the days when you could expect the school programs to leave Wednesday nights open for youth group meetings at the local church. Heck, Sunday morning is not a given anymore. Used to be being a Christian made you respectable. Gave you clout. I walk the streets in Madison, wearing my collar, fighting looks that tell me most people think, from my uniform, that I either hate them or am not safe to have around their children. Because I both love people and am a helluva dad, these kinds of looks are hard to brush off. But right or wrong, that’s the starting point for a lot of people these days.

It’s the world we call post-Christian. And it’s dishonest to say we lost out-right, because much of the post-Christian world stands on the foundations laid by Christians. And it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Not good, maybe, but not bad, either. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible to be a Christian anymore. It does mean that when one looks at the life of Jesus, and takes seriously the shape of the life that led to the cross, it is not at all clear that Christians should ever have needed the kinds of power we historically associated with Christianity in order to be faithful followers of Jesus in the first place.

So the rich man’s question is there for us: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” And maybe it’s God taking the position away; maybe the master taking the position away is one of the many idols we’ve confused with Jesus. In any event, living the life of faith in your lifetime will not look like the Episcopal Church, circa 1952. And I hope this is not news for you.

To be sure, in this post-Christian world, you can still live the life of faith; can still continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. Only, you may find a day when doing so will not afford you 501c3 tax-exempt status. That’s okay. Jesus understands.

Because there are times when losing can mean ending the charade and receiving permission to return to what was most important in the first place. Sometimes losing can save your life. If the Church is losing position, I hope losing will mean rediscovering this kind of permission. Even the permission to fail. If anyone should understand permission to fail, it’s Christians. Christians who know that death has been defeated, and with it the need to win our lives. No more posturing over-against or harboring hopes of defeating the others. Just the good stuff. Nothing to lose. Discovering a way of being that needs a Savior. 

So the man formerly-known-as-rich loses. And his first instinct is to make friends with the boss’ money. He cooks the books. Cuts some deals. Clearly, his is a self-serving generosity. He’s hoping to score a backyard bungalow somewhere after he loses all he has. For this reason, some theologians and preachers write-off Jesus’ endorsement of the crook in this story. Even though Jesus says the crook gets commended by his boss for his shrewdness, and even though Jesus turns to his disciples, post-story, and says, “You guys do the same,” some in the tradition insist that the moral of the story must be something like, “Jesus loves the rich man in spite of his thievery.” It follows from this interpretation that Jesus can’t have meant what he said in the end (when he told his disciples to do the same thing), but that perhaps he was being sarcastic.

But let me throw one alternative out there. What if Jesus did mean what he said? (Crazy, right?) What if coming to grips with losing - what if surrendering our attempts to win our lives apart from God - is to end the charade and receive our lives back as gifts? What if ending the charade is exactly what Jesus did on the cross and in the early hours of that still-dark Easter morning? What if ending the charade is what it means to be friends with God? What if friendship with this God means a weight off our shoulders, a deep breath and long look around, and the possibility of previously impossible friendships with those around us? What if new friendships with the master’s money really is the stuff of eternal homes?

It’s not just a hunch, right? What we’re doing now is reading this story from a half-step back, in light of the rest of Luke’s gospel. It’s Luke’s gospel, after all, that gives us the parable of the rich fool, who thinks he can win, stores up all he has, and, on the day before he dies, has no one but himself and his stuff to talk to. It’s Luke’s gospel that gives us the parable of the banquet in which all the folks who should be invited to banquets - the ones in manager’s positions - say no, and the host tells his servants to go out to the streets, to bring in the blind, lame, the crippled, and poor. The one’s who aren’t distracted with winning. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends his followers out twice - in a kind of echo of this parable - to announce the nearness of God’s Kingdom, to make friends with the master’s peace. And all of this in the initial context of Jesus’ first sermon in which he calls himself the Jubilee year, the year in which debts and divisions of material wealth were forgiven, thereby ending every illusion that the powers by which we separate ourselves from one another are anything other than the sin Christ defeats on the cross. Over and over again in Luke’s gospel, we hear it: the theme of friendships made possible by the God who, in Jesus, against all odds, befriends us. 

Friends of God and one another. Love of God and love of neighbor. This is the beating heart of the Gospel and of the New Jerusalem.

So go be a loser. The sooner the better. Make friends for yourselves, as if those friendships mean more to God than anything. Make your generosity with others an affront to this world and a witness to the disarmingly unguarded love of Jesus. 


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