God is always playing the long game

Standard

Sermon for March 17, 2019

Readings:

If you are going to play with God then you need to know the game that God is playing.

 

If you are going to pray to God, listen to God, follow God, serve God, and ultimately be blessed by God, then you need to understand how God works.

 

There is one simple clue I can give you. It’s there in all of scripture. If you really want to understand scripture and the stories of our faith, this clue will help you. If you want to deepen and strengthen your walk with God, and if you want to see how God is working in your life, this clue will help you. It is a clue that God showed Abram towards the beginning of his walk with God. It is a clue that the prophets understood, and it is a clue that, of course, Jesus knew and taught and lived.

 

The clue is this:

 

God is always playing the long game.

 

God is always playing the long game. What does that mean, you may be asking. What is the long game? Well it’s this: there are two basic games we play in life, the long game and the short game. The short game is the path of immediate results: instant gratification, swift resolutions. If you are playing the short game, you want to visibly win and win now. The short game wants to sell you on the idea of living your best life now…oh wait, that sounds like a good book title. Sometimes the short game is the path of least resistance; it could be, for instance, paying to get into an elite college or university rather than doing your homework every day. Sometimes the short game seems perfectly sensible: selling off your stocks before there is a dip in the market. Sometimes the short game uses strength and power to achieve immediate goals without really considering long-term consequences. And here the short game can quickly move from being benign to being very destructive. Forcing yourself upon someone, rather than spending the time to build a relationship with them. Using power rather than persuasion. That’s the short game.

 

The other game is the long game. The long game is not a game you are going to sit back and watch on TV, because the long game is incredibly boring. It is just what it says it is: long. It is the opposite of the short game. It isn’t looking for immediate results. It is always focused on long-term goals. The long game isn’t so much worried about every bend in the road; the long game is worried about the final destination. And the long game takes work; daily work. The short game might ask you to exert a massive amount of force or power once to achieve something immediate, but the long game asks you to exert a little strength and will-power over, and over, and over again, with no immediate gratification. The long game is saving money. The long game is exercise. The long game is diplomacy. The long game is relationship. You can’t always see the effects of the long game, at least not quickly, so the long game takes patience.

Sometimes we humans manage to find the grace, the will-power or the wisdom to play the long game, but let’s face it, what we really like, and the game we are best at playing is the short game. We don’t necessarily need to be ashamed of that; sometimes we willfully make bad choices, but sometimes we are playing the short game because we simply can’t see into the future. We are after all humans.

 

But God is always playing the long game. God always sees things from the perspective of eternity. Hours and days and years, those things do not mean the same thing to the eternal God as they do to us little humans that lives our lives on a little ball that spins around everyday. God can always see the future. So God is always playing the long game. You can see it throughout our scriptures:

 

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him,”this man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” The he said to him, “so shall your descendants be.”

 

Today, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Abraham as our father in the faith. Yes, we Christians worship Jesus as the son of God, but he was very clear that his God was the God of Abraham. So Abraham is our father in faith too. So every Jew, Christian or Muslim is a child of Abraham. That is almost 5 billion people living today that are in some way descendants of Abraham. 61% of the world’s population, and that’s just the people that are living now, not counting all the generations that have come between us and Abraham. I would say God made good on his promise to Abraham, but it didn’t happen quickly. It wasn’t instant. God was playing the long game.

 

And God wanted to make clear to Abram just what game he was playing. So after Abram (or Abraham) makes this sort of bizarre (to us) sacrifice to God, he falls into a deep sleep, and in that sleep the Lord comes to him again and says to him: “know this for certain, your offspring will someday inherit this land I am giving you, but there is a long road ahead of them. There will be slavery, there will be suffering; oppression is not over.” In other words God made it clear to Abram: “I am making a covenant with you and will bless you and your descendants, but make no mistake, I am playing the long game.”

 

“O Tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

 

So said the Psalmist. Tarry and await. Wait patiently for the Lord. Why? Because the Lord is always playing the long game.

 

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is their destruction; their God is the belly…their minds are set on earthly things.”

 

Brother and sisters, people in the world want instant gratification. They let their hungers and their desires rule their lives. They can’t be bothered to endure suffering. They don’t want to hear Jesus’s word ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ They are only playing the short game. That is what Paul is saying to the Church in Phillipi. And he goes on to tell them that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. Our Lord lives there, he is returning from there, and ultimately all things will be put in subjection to him, so brothers and sisters…”whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” Play the long game brothers and sisters, because that is the game that God is ultimately playing. Don’t be afraid of this day’s struggles because we are here to play the long game.

 

“Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

 

Watch out Jesus, they said in the gospel, or your game may be over. Herod may kill you and then what? You will lose. They thought Jesus could lose. They thought Jesus was playing a short game, but he wasn’t. Jesus was playing the game of the prophets. The prophets play the long game, because that’s the game that God is playing, and they usually suffer greatly for it. Some people think pain and suffering are signs of being a loser, but Jesus knows better. He’s not about to lose, he’s just winning at a different game…the long game. Because that is the game that God always plays.

 

Remember that friends. Remember that God, the God of all our history and all our future, the God of eternity, remember that God is always playing the long game. When it feels like you are failing or losing in life, when it feels like God isn’t answering or listening to your prayers, when you can’t see the results of any of your labor, remember that God is playing the long game. And be careful of the call of that short game, because it is seductive. You may think you can play it well, but you can lose.

 

Playing the long game takes patience, it takes work, and most of all it takes faith. Maybe that is why God is so determined to play it, because it takes faith. For whatever reason, it is the game God is playing, so if you want a deeper walk with God, I recommend you learn how to play it too. It isn’t easy, but when you are playing the long game with God, you can’t lose.

Verses

Standard

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 10th 2019.

Readings:

I want you to hear again the words of Psalm 91:

 

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

 

Now, having heard all those words, how many of you feel confident that you could jump off of a building and not hit the ground?

But clearly the bible says that he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways, on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone…so we should be good right?

Of course, I am jesting. If you read all of Psalm 91, what you will find is God’s promise of protection. You will hear comforting words of God’s presence with you during difficult and frightful times. You will hear that God is a refuge and a fortress. You will hear God’s promise that those who love him do not need to live in fear.

What you will not hear is encouragement and permission to do something stupid. At least, that’s not what I hear. But if I only looked at verses 11 and 12, if I didn’t read them in the context of the rest of the Psalm, or in the light of the rest of the scriptures, I might really struggle to know what those words really meant. I might be tempted to misuse them. That’s what happens when you only look at one verse.

The Psalms are some powerful prayers and songs and expressions of the struggle of having faith in a world of good and evil. There are 150 of them, and they touch on just about every mood and emotion that you can imagine; everything from the greatest joy, to the depths of despair, to even anger and hatred. Consider this verse:

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

That is scripture. It’s Psalm 137. Now those words could cause you to recoil. You could say let’s just cut those words out. You could try to convince yourself that those words represent a primitive and brutal God that we enlightened folks have had the good sense to do away with; that we no longer believe in. Or you can step back look at the entire Psalm, look at all the Psalms actually and realize that the psalms are taking all our emotions, our joy, our pain, our fear, our anger, our hope, the psalms are taking the great big mess that is human life and throwing it down in front of God’s altar and saying: here, Lord. This life of mine, with all it’s beauty and all its ugliness…this life belongs to you.

It is so tempting to want to pare scripture down to just those parts that we agree with, or that make us feel good; it is so tempting to use verses to justify ourselves and our opinions, but we have to remember that we are not justified, we are not made right with God, by verses of scripture. We are made right with God by the cross of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection are our justification, not this verse or that verse of scripture.

 

In our Gospel today we are told the story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert. And one of the ways that the devil tempts Jesus, is by trying to use a verse of scripture to mislead him. In fact he uses verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 91. The verses we just heard. The devil tried to use the words of scripture to tempt the Word of God, the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But it didn’t work. Jesus knows that scripture is not about using this verse or that verse to support doing or believing what you already want to do or believe. Scripture is a gateway into a living relationship with God. Scripture is a story that we are invited to see ourselves as a part of. Scripture is about so much more than just the words of the page, it is about having a relationship with the power behind those words. We read and study scripture, not to memorize the verses (although many of them are quite memorable and meaningful), but rather to continually see ourselves as a part of God’s story.

 

You know, it is important to remember that there were faithful people in the world, long before there was a bible in every hotel nightstand. There were people that knew the story of God, even if they hadn’t memorized all the words, and even if they couldn’t read them. When the Children of Israel entered into the promised land, they may have had some writings of Moses, but they certainly didn’t have all the scriptures as we know them. What they did have though was a story and a ritual, and they were instructed to keep them together: make your sacrifice, make your offering to the Lord and when you do, repeat this story. And this is the story they were instructed to memorize:

 

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

 

Go back and take a look at that passage in Deuteronomy again and when you read that little story, pay attention to the pronouns. The story moves from he to we to me. The story moves from talking about God’s relationship to an ancient ancestor, to God’s relationship to his faithful people, to God’s relationship with me. That is what scripture, when used properly does, it makes the connection between us and our ancestors, and between us and God.

 

Friends, the Bible is such a treasure trove of stories and insights and wisdom. You will find here words that will comfort you and words that will challenge you. Some verses will make you feel righteous; other verses will call out your sins. Listen to all of them. Hear the whole story.

 

As Jesus proved in the desert: the power of scripture lies not in knowing one verse, but in knowing the God that inspired all of them.

If you aren’t careful, Jesus may transfigure you!

Standard

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3rd, 2019

Readings:

We have come to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, a Sunday wherein each year we get a gospel reading about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, that moment in the life of Jesus when three of his disciples got a glimpse of the true glory and power that was within him. Now I should add that this is not the Feast of the Transfiguration, that is in August, but each year right before Lent we hear this story of a few disciples on their way to Jerusalem, on their way to what we already know is going to be Jesus’s death and resurrection, these few disciples get a glimpse of who this man really is, and it’s scary. They are powerless and dumbfounded and they don’t know what to say. That is what we hear on this Sunday right before Lent begins. And I think that this story might just serve as a warning to us, to be careful about how we spend this next forty days and to be careful about how close we get to God.

 

So as your priest and pastor, I am hear this morning to tell you to be careful how you decide to spend this Lenten season. Be careful what disciplines you take on, and what forms of piety you explore, because this Jesus that we follow has some real power and if you are not careful he might actually change you.

 

Be careful with planning your Lent this year.

Be careful with disciplines like fasting or abstaining from something. If you are going to give something up, stick to things you don’t really like, or things you don’t really eat that much to begin with. Stick to abstaining from or giving up things that you already have control over, because if you pick something that is really hard, if you pick something that you really love, or something that has control over you, you might actually struggle with it. And if you struggle with it, you are liable to realize that you can’t do it on your own, and then you might be tempted to ask God to help you with it. This is dangerous territory, because if you lose control and ask God to help you with something, he might actually do it. And then you will be stuck with this dual realization that you need God and that God can actually help you with things. And you are going to have to keep carrying that around, probably even past Easter, so be careful what you try to give up.

 

And then, if you choose to give something up that you pay for on a daily basis, like lunch or donuts and coffee, be sure to keep the money. Because if you just give alms or give money away you don’t know what that charity or that church is going to do with it. You could be throwing your money away, and then what are you going to do when you realize that your life went on anyways? That you actually had enough to get by without it? If you aren’t careful and if you give God the chance to take care of your needs, what are you going to do if he actually does it? What if you discover that there really is something spiritual about sacrifice? You are risking changing the way you look at your stuff, and the material world…that’s very dangerous.

 

Now some people don’t want to give up things in Lent they want to take on things, but you have to be careful with that too. You want to be sure to pick things that have definite steps and goals where youcan see the progress youare making, like finishing the chapters in a book, or cleaning out the garage, or working on a project. Make sure that you are accomplishing something that will make you feel proud of yourself. Again, stick to things that you have control over. Be careful with prayer and just being in the presence of God. Learn a lesson from Moses here. You have to be careful when you are spending time with God. Spending time with God can be dangerous, because you might be changing and not even know it. You can’t see your progress. You can’t take credit for it. You don’t have something to point to to feel proud of. If all you do is pray, when Lent is over, what are you going to have to feel proud of? And then, if you spend all that time with God, and he does change you, and people do notice, you’re going to have to figure out how to put on a mask and hide it. You don’t want people to start thinking that it was God that changed you; you want them to think it was your good choices and your hard work. Because if God changes me in ways that I didn’t intend or even want, then how am I going to get to take the credit for being virtuous? I mean, if I’m going to put all this effort into observing a holy lent, I want to be able to walk out the other side confident in my ability to change myself; I don’t want to have to recognize that just being in the presence of God changed me and I had very little to do with it. So if you insist on malking prayer a discipline, at least make sure that you are the one doing all the talking.

 

And if our gospel lesson teaches you anything this morning, let it be this: be especially careful when spending time with this Jesus character. If you insist on listening to him, then make sure you pay really close attention to what you think he has to say to others. Make sure that you can identify the ways that Jesus can fix the other people in your life, but don’t let him start talking to you. You may sing “what a friend we have in Jesus,” you may think Jesus is your friend, until starts calling you out on your stuff. You got watch him. Be very careful when you stand with him when he starts calling out people for being sinners, because he is a slippery character. He’ll start talking about sin and calling out hypocrisy and you will be with him telling him to preach on and if you aren’t careful he’ll turn it right back around on you and calling out your sins, and you’ll be left wondering: “whose side am I on?” Be careful with Jesus and if you do happen to get a glimpse of his glory, be sure you keep it contained. Keep it on the mountain or in your private prayer space or in the church, don’t let it get out into the world, because if people become aware of how much power this man Jesus really has, they might be tempted to ask him to use it. As a matter of fact, he might even give you a little share of it, and ask you to do something with it. Other people may start asking you about where this power comes from, they may see a change in you that you don’t even see yourself, they may get a glimpse of God’s glory in you, and if you are honest, which at that point you may be inclined to be, you will be stuck pointing up to the mountain, up to the cross, or up to the heavens above and saying: there, that is where the power comes from. It’s not from me.

 

Friends, Lent is a dangerous time in the church; it’s dangerous, because if you don’t take control over it, God just might. Be very careful with practicing things like fasting and almsgiving and prayer. Be very careful spending time with this Jesus, because if you get too close, you just might see his glory, and others may see it in you, and then what are you going to do?