All in the Game

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on July 31, 2016 (Lectionary 12C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This last week I was in Philadelphia visiting my brother. I love Philadelphia. It’s a wonderful city. And it was especially exciting to be there amid all the hustle and bustle of a major party convention. Before I get to my message today I have to just say that it was powerful to see how hard the city’s workers were working to keep everybody safe and moving along. Hundreds of police officers, bus drivers, transit ambassadors—I tried to make a point of thanking them, because they had a thankless and frustrating job and they were doing it well. 

Anyway, before all the excitement and big speeches were underway, we were out on the street on a hot Monday looking for something to do. And we stopped at a bar whose gimmick is old school arcade video games. This was a place aimed squarely at me. I lost interest in video games in the mid-nineties, and that’s about when this place’s collection stopped, too.

But it turns out that I can still get excited for some Qbert. Remember Qbert? Great game. And I put some serious tokens into Rampage. That’s the game where you play as a giant mutant monster, and your goal is to smash all the buildings before you take too much damage and shrink back down to human size. The more you smash, the more points you get, and the more cities you go to so you can smash them up too. 

And Ms. Pac-Man! Holy cow can I play some Ms. Pac Man. Gobbling up those pac pellets, getting chased by the ghosts, or chasing the ghosts, eating the bonus fruit. 

It brought me back to childhood and those days when my relieved parents could send us off with pockets full of quarters knowing that they had purchased themselves some peace. We’d Rampage through Peoria, Chicago, Detroit; we’d blast all the Asteroids; we would gobble up the cherries and apples and peaches and get all the points we could. And we’d run out of lives and put in another quarter to continue the game. More points, more ghosts, more smashing. Maybe this time I’ll set the high score. We’d do this over and over again. But eventually the last quarter would be gone. Then you watch the screen: 10…9…8…7…6 are you sure we don’t have one more quarter? 5…4…3…2…1. Game over. The points were all gone. It had all been for nothing.

I think I had almost as much fun playing these games last Monday as I ever did as a kid. One of the joys of parenthood is letting yourself regress to childhood now and then without feeling too self-conscious about it.

But it feels different, as an adult, too. Zooming Ms. Pac Man around the maze, staying one step ahead of the ghosts, eating all the pellets you can get while you delay the inevitable “game over”—that’s a little too real life. That’s a little too close to home.

This day your third life will be demanded of you, and all your pac-pellets, whose will they be?

Today’s Gospel shows us Jesus being asked to settle a family dispute over wealth. Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me, a man asks Jesus. This is not some trivial request. Inheritance was an important thing, and a child who was disinherited would be at a serious disadvantage in life. 

And the man had reason to expect Jesus to help him. Jesus is someone you would expect to plead the cause of the poorer, younger brother. You might have expected Jesus to criticize the custom of giving a larger share of the inheritance to the older son, because customs like that were not especially sacred to Jesus. 

But Jesus declines to act as a judge in their case. And he does so with a fable: 

A man had a bumper crop one year. Now, the man is already rich. But he’d like to be richer. So instead of selling his crop in a bumper year, when prices are low, he decides to do something drastic. He pulls down his barns, builds up bigger ones, and stores up his goods for the years ahead. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” He’ll do all this and be set for years and take his ease. He will be secure. But God speaks to him: You fool. This night your life will be demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

So it is, Jesus says, with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God. Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Your life is given freely by God and it will be demanded freely by God in return, and all the work and scrambling and gouging of our brother or sister or neighbor is just a way to hide from that simple fact. Nobody is secure forever unless God is the one who makes them secure.

Now I want to say two things about this passage.

First, Jesus is not rebuking the younger brother. He’s not accusing the younger brother of being greedy, exactly. He says “who made me a judge or arbiter over you,” the “you” is plural. My hunch is that Jesus is speaking to the man and his brother, as if the man says—tell my brother here to share the inheritance with me. Jesus’s words are not just aimed at the brother who wants an equal share. They are aimed at the brother who already has a bigger share. Jesus is not going to command that brother to share the inheritance equally. But he is going to tell a story that should startle that brother, too. Neither the one who has more nor the one who wants more should think that having more stuff, having more wealth, will keep them safe in God’s world. 

This is an important lesson for a society as incredibly unequal as ours is. We work and strive, strive and work. And depending on where we are right now in our society’s hierarchy, we can get a little benefit for our striving, a bigger benefit for our striving, or a huge benefit for our striving. And everyone only feels the need to strive harder, to rack up more pellets, more points. The poor are insecure, the middle class feels insecure, and even the richest people in the world tend to feel insecure, as if they need more. There is no cure for the feeling that you need more. There is only a game that keeps going and going. And Jesus asks his hearers to step outside of that game, and to consider what it means to seek for what God wants rather than what we think we need. 

Second, Jesus insists that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Now we all know this, if we think about it. Even if we bear in mind that possessions, in the world of Jesus, is not stuff—toys, gadgets, cars and so on—but land and wealth. We know that there is more to life than money, at least if we ask ourselves that question in so many words. But Jesus is really pushing us here. “Life” for Jesus is not just about happiness or financial security or physical health, it’s about the awesome power of creation by which God called each of us into being. Life doesn’t begin or end with us. It wasn’t waiting for us to drop our quarter into the machine. We just jumped in, and some day each of us will jump out. But life, God’s life, keeps on going, and it is generous beyond measure to each of us and to everything that exists or ever will exist. 

And we can never do that life justice. We can never honor it enough. We are all caught in that game, chasing those pellets, pumping in our quarters. We can never be even one hundredth as generous with God as God has been with us. 

But there’s a reason we try. There’s a reason we try to hand over one day a week to rest and worship. There’s a reason we try to hand over a percentage of our income to God’s work. There’s a reason we look at our neighbor here or across the globe and try not to think—let me keep mine and him shift for himself. There’s a reason we devote our voices for one hour a week to prayer and praise. We do these things because in all our insecurity in this life, in all our chasing and striving, God has been gracious. God has given us abundant mercy for our sins, and God has freed us to love our spouses, neighbors, and even people we will never know.

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