How do you tell people that they are dead? They don’t look dead, for the most part; and they don’t think of themselves as dead, for the most part. In fact, most people don’t think that the lives that they lead are at all deficient, or lacking, or somehow broken, and if you manage to summon up the courage to tell them that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, well, then they might well ask what the hell you mean, they’ve no need of forgiveness, they are just fine.
Even though they are dead.
They just don’t know it, in fact, everything they have learned, everything that they her, everything that they are told is that they are the ones who are truly alive, they are the ones who know what is important, they are the ones who understand.
Caitlyn and a friend were playing a game on the floor, it was this old fashioned thing, a, let me see if I can pronounce this correctly, it was a bo-ard, or is that board game? It was discovered in a dusty closet filled with the things that used to be ordinary and awesome and fun but are now terminally old fashioned.
I was, of course, thrilled, I love things that are simple and do not blink or make a beeping sound. I still think that things like that are relevant to a life well lived so I was reading on the couch nearby and listening to them play and I began to get a larger sense of the game, listening to the cries of excitement and moans of dismay as the game wore on and I realized that it really is a little teaching tool for teaching the Gospel of “whoever dies with the most toys, wins” kind of mentality.
Moans when you drew the card to be a mechanic, or a hairdresser. Cheers for lawyer, or Doctor with all of the accompanying the differences between their respective paychecks. Money is winning in the game, money is winning in the game of LIFE, you can learn about life when you play the game of LIFE.
Then I looked at the board and the game and realized that nowhere to be found on the board was there a square to land on that said, “learn to paint” or “plant a garden” or “go to church.” I should add that this is an old version of the game and I have been given to understand that new versions of the game include things like “volunteer at a charity sports event” but even so, that space is a LIFE space, allowing you to draw a LIFE card, which as we all know, has a dollar amount on the reverse side.
But in the version of the game from so long ago that Caitlyn was playing and that I played and that millions of Americans played at one time or another, the spaces you land on give or take away your money, your prosperity, the one with the most toys wins so the focus is on what you have, not who you are.
Buy a sailboat, lose your job, win a contest, that’s one of my favorites, prosperity comes from the sky, from being lucky, so go out and play the lottery and wait for the next roll of the dice. All the while collect those LIFE cards, little bundles of hidden cash that you only count at the end, the hidden value of surprise money.
Now it’s not that I think prosperity is not a good thing. I just deny that it is the only thing, or even the most important thing. That is my favorite definition of heresy, making something that is important the only thing that is important. Well, the same could be said about money, I suppose. It’s important; you only get into trouble when you make it the only thing that is important.
I like being able to pay my bills and I like having to worry about my roof because it is my roof and all of that. But that is not what makes me a winner in life. Winning is truly not the point, no matter what they try and teach you at Milton Bradley.
Because whenever someone wins, someone else loses. That’s how the world of winning works. You win at someone else’s expense even if they try and deny that in elementary schools and “beginners” leagues across the country. Winner is a position that only one person or team can claim at any given time, it is singular distinction.
That’s okay, as far as it goes, outside of these walls that is. Out there, there can be a winner and a loser and you can try and all stand in the winner line but don’t get too comfortable, nothing is forever and as fast as you are someone is faster, as smart as you are, someone is smarter and pretty soon, if winners and losers are the only thing you see, then eventually you will find yourself in the losers pile, someone will beat you, even at your own game.
In here, though, there is a different message to be found, a different gospel to be heard and a different life to be led. Nobody wins the game of salvation. Nobody wins, not you or me no master’s degree in theology will make you the winner.
Nobody wins the game of salvation because nobody loses. Not one of you is more saved, is more holy, or is more beloved by your God than any other. Sure you have good days and you have bad days but that will not move the Gryffindor thermometer up or down in the slightest. We all are winners despite the fact that none of us are qualified to be, none of us can run fast enough to beat sin and temptation, none of us are nice enough to win the gold star from God, none of us are clever enough to outsmart death and yet the message we bring is that there is a way for us to have all of that, indeed all of that and more and for there to be no loser, no weeping at out triumphant day.
It sounds like madness to the world out there but it is true and in here we tell the stories and we sing the songs and we know the truth and we try and live lives that reflect the blessing that has been given to us so that maybe they’ll see the truth, the reflection of the truth at least, in our lives, in our hands and feet as we make our way through a world that insists that there is a winner and a loser and that the one who dies with the most toys wins.
It is hard to accept, once you have played the game of life according to the rules, that there might not have to be a winner and there might not have to be a loser. Words like grace do not have the power we give them in here because people are so little used to there being anyone generous enough to simply give without counting the cost.
Forgiveness too is a term that means one thing in here and something else entirely outside. While for us it is the ideal of human love, the setting aside of enmity and jealousy and grudges and allowing things to heal, we also have to remember that forgiveness requires a crime, requires a wrong to be forgiven. We have to admit our own failings in order to be forgiven them. True enough, we have to admit that failings are the lot of mankind but it is a stumbling block for many, that admission, they, or rather I should say we all take it personally, as if by forgiving them, we are at the same time accusing them.
Just ask the widow in this morning’s reading from the Elijah story. She sees the coming of the man of God as nothing more than a stark reminder of how far she is from God. If the one with the most toys when they die wins, then she is the loser, with nothing, only a son who is then taken from her leaving her with absolutely nothing.
Would you want to be reminded of your position, of your own tattered self-image at a time like that? I think that we need to realize exactly how the gospel message is heard to a world of winners and losers, how much of a challenge it is for some folks to hear that they are forgiven, that they are dead and that with forgiveness, Jesus can make them alive.
How brash of us to say that we are the winners and that they are the losers, in a world where the one who dies with the most toys wins, that is hard to hear. And that is what they hear so often, from a thousand different voices, that they are not enough, that they are failing, that they are in the loser’s line, why should we expect them to hear anything different from us?
I think we need to surprise them.
I think we need to find a way to share the gospel story in such a way that it does not sound like condemnation to them, as if it were just another sales pitch like all of the other ones that they’ve heard about how they are not good enough and that they can be fixed if only they come and buy our product.
Because it is not our product. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Those words of Paul’s are our clue to how we might proceed.
Because at the end of the day it is not about how broken I am, or how broken they are, or how alive I am or how dead they are in their sins. It is not about me, this is not my thing.
I have only my story. We have only our story. It is the story of how Jesus changed the very nature of the game, declaring once and for all that winner and loser were no longer adequate categories to use, that salvation was not a prize to be wrestled from the grasp of our opponent, something we had to seize.
No need to make a loser out of anyone in order for us to win.
No reason for us to brag or to boast that we are the winners, worshiping, in essence, our own salvation instead of worshiping Jesus, the source of that salvation, the ground of our faith and the goal of our lives.
Elijah had only recently been taught that he was not the center of the world because of his faith. They don’t have you read this part but Elijah had just caused the famine that was killing the woman’s son. He worshiped his salvation, his own position as a Man of God instead of worshiping God and the results were not good so when the widow hurls that very title at him, Man of God, it lands like a whip upon his pride and he knows that he has to shine forth the love of God without trying to own it; to give grace and not claim it as his own.
Elijah truly becomes the man of God he had claimed to be when he let go of himself and let the story be about God.
So it is with the people we know, the ones who are dead. We know the sting of fear and the blessedness of peace when that fear is eased; we know the uncertainty of the world and the joy at finding hope in the word of God; we know that we are sinners and that knowledge is not a shame to us but is instead a blessing because we know what it is to be forgiven, to be truly washed clean. We know how it feels to walk freely, to breathe deeply of the love of God and to know that whatever the journey may bring, our destination is assured by Christ, who came not to declare winners and losers but to end such foolishness by taking all shame and fear and loathing and hurt onto himself that we might be freed, that we might live.
And it has all been for you. You are at once the widow in both this morning’s readings, mourning your losses; and you are also the son, cold and dead at the first then bursting with the kind of life that only God can give you; you are also those in the crowd, who hail the revival of one so lost and so very, very dead.
But you are not Christ. You may aspire to tell this story; and the one in which you are the widow or the one where you are the one raised from the death of sin and sorrow but you are not Christ. Remember that and you can tell the story so that it can be heard by a world that is taught over and over again that the one who dies with the most toys wins and they can hear it without shame and without anger because they are not being told that they are dead, that they are losers.
You can shine forth with the grace of God that has been given to you and live. Live so that your money is not what defines you, so that your toys are not what you are known for, so that the grace of God in which all of us may claim the prize that is His victory, that grace may be your voice, your work and the very air that you breathe so that all may know that God has truly looked with favor upon His people and given to them all the toys in the kingdom.