Sunday, March 18, 2018

Phil Kniss: Winning isn’t, really, it isn’t!

Lent 5: A new covenant between
Psalm 51:1-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

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We all know the proverb,
“To err is human, to forgive divine,”
or the humorous variation,
“To err is human, to moo . . . bovine.”

And we all know it’s true—
that to err, to make mistakes, to fail,
is a normal human occurrence to be expected.

It’s just that we don’t always act like we believe that.
We do everything we can to shield ourselves from failure,
and when we fail, to hide it from others.

Our culture conditions us this way.
It holds up this elusive ideal of perfection.
We live by a fantasy that winning is everything.
Coming out on top is what matters.
Whether in sports, or entertainment, or politics.
There are those who win, 
who get lauded and valued and paid highly.
And . . . there are those who don’t win, 
who get labeled as losers.

Our president has taken this to a new level.
He’s known for labeling people as winners and losers.
Those who are on his side are the winners.
Those who aren’t he publicly insults as losers, 
washed-up has-beens,
no matter their actual accomplishments.

But don’t just blame Trump 
for inventing this winner/loser name game.
He may not be the norm,
in that he does it so openly and unashamedly,
as a political strategy.
But this tendency is ingrained within us all,
within me, within you, within the systems we inhabit.
It’s in the air we all breathe.

The narrative is this:
Winning is good. Losing is bad.
So let’s make sure we win, at almost any cost.
And let’s make sure we distance ourselves from those who lose.

Now, I say all this, in the middle of March Madness.
I care, a lot, right now,
about which college basketball teams are winners
and which ones losers.
In my bracket group of 30 friends and family,
I am currently ensconced at number 29.
In possible points, I’m at number 30.

But if I pull off an upset, like the one against Virginia on Friday,
and come out on top,
you can bet I’m going to make a big deal about being a winner,
and my brilliant strategy that got me there,
and I’ll let the losers know where they stand.

I come from a family of competitive game-players.
When the Kniss family sits down at a table for a board game.
you can be pretty sure the rules will be made clear,
and no one gets a pass, 
no matter how young, or new at the game.
We don’t know the concept of “letting someone win.”

Now, in the world of board games, or competitive sports,
there’s nothing wrong with trying to win.
It is understandable, even noble, to do the best we can,
and attempt to come out on top.
There are good life lessons to be learned in competition,
about being humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
We saw that this week in Virginia’s coach Bennett,
and many of his players.

But I’m afraid, that this pursuit of winning . . . at play,
spills over into a rather disturbing way of thinking about life.
In many arenas of life, including faith and religion,
we carry this winning/losing mindset
to places it shouldn’t go.

Religious groups not-so-secretly take pleasure 
when their “side” looks good,
compared to the other side.

And the Christian church particularly has a reputation, 
confirmed in major public polls,
for trying to hide its flaws, cover up its mistakes,
in other words, it’s seen as hypocritical.

Churches like to polish themselves up for public viewing.
I guess we think our faults might be stumbling blocks for others,
in finding their way to God.
We don’t realize that what people want from the church,
more than anything else, is honesty, authenticity.

When we represent something as big as The Gospel to the world,
it’s hard to admit we don’t know all the answers,
or that some of our answers turn out to be wrong.
Collectively, and individually,
when so much is at stake,
what do we do with failure?
That’s the burning question in today’s worship and scriptures.

Human failure is constantly and everywhere present.
It’s obvious and visible
from Syria, to Israel-Palestine,
from the halls of Congress and the White House to the State Capitol,
from Wall Street, to Harrisonburg’s Main St.
from our denominational and conference offices,
to my own office down the hall,
from our neighborhoods, to our schools, and our families.

Human beings fail.
Often. And miserably.
Human beings disappoint each other.
Often. And deeply.
Human beings hurt each other.
Often. And with great consequence.

I myself make choices that sometimes hurt, and disappoint
others in my life, including the ones I love most.
Human failure is rampant.
And in many situations, the result can be devastating.
Human beings sin against each other, and against God.

So what do we do when others fail?
Well, much of the time, we point fingers.
We make sure that as many people as possible
see the failure of the other, clearly, and in detail,
so that we come out looking good in comparison.

That’s what drives tabloid journalism,
the sensational reporting of the dramatic failure of others,
from school shooters, to celebrities who fall from grace.

That’s reassuring to me, the average person, the good person.
Sure, I may be greedy sometimes,
but I’m nothing at all like those corporate thugs on Wall St.
I’m not like that scumbag of a person
dealing drugs, or selling their body.
I’m a completely different species
from that monster who went crazy with a gun.
They don’t deserve to be called human, or treated like one.

That’s what we do with human failure.
We create distance.
We point fingers.
We call people monsters, and thugs, and scumbags, and perverts,
so we don’t have to face the pain of self-examination.

But what does God do with failure?
Let’s look.

Each Sunday in Lent we’ve looked at an Old Testament covenant—
one with Noah, 
one with Abraham, 
one with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.
Last Sunday, the bronze snake covenant for healing.

In all of these covenants the people failed.
They did not live up to God’s intentions.
They cheated on God, majorly.

Jeremiah speaks for God, describing their grave offense.
“Both the house of Israel and the house of Judah 
have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors. 
They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, 
refused to listen to my words. 
followed other gods to serve them.
What is my beloved doing in my temple
as she works out her evil schemes?” God asks.

God could not have been more hurt, more disappointed.
The people not only rejected God’s love, 
they did so with contempt.
God was as angry as any scorned lover would be.

But instead of calling them monsters and scumbags,
and closing the book on them,
we turn the page and see Jeremiah 31.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

Is God so desperate as to try to make another go of it 
with these losers?
“This is the covenant I will make,” says the Lord.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Unlike us,
God doesn’t deal with failure by creating distance.
God doesn’t try to bolster his reputation by gloating 
or pointing fingers at worthless scumbags.
God moves toward those who fail.
God pursues them. Persistently.
Even second chances aren’t enough.
It’s fifth, sixth, and seventh chances.
Seventy chances times seven.

That’s the grammar of the gospel—
God’s powerful, persistent, unstoppable movement 
from brokenness, toward wholeness,
from alienation, toward community,
from being lost, toward being found and forgiven,
from death, toward life.

That’s what God does with failure.
Creates new life from it.

Does that say anything to us,
for how we respond to the failures of others?
When people hurt or disappoint,
do we create distance? or move toward?

Not talking about giving blank checks to offenders to offend again.
God doesn’t. Nor do we.
There is accountability.

God calls those who fail back into a relationship . . . that has a history.
God invites them into a relationship based on rebuilding trust.
Being held accountable is part of rebuilding trust.

I’m also not saying there is a perfect parallel 
between God’s relationship with God’s creatures,
and the relationships of us fallen and broken human beings.

But God’s love, paired with God’s justice, 
is a powerful example to learn from.
Failure happens.
And what God does with failure, is redeem it.
Again and again.
That is who God is, and what God does.

This morning’s psalm reading 
is a familiar and bitter lament and confession.
The psalmist is devastated by his sin,
but his bold request of God is evidence of his trust in God.
He expected God to say “yes,” when he cried out,
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”
He expected a “yes” from God, 
because making things new is what God does.

This new and redeemed life, in the face of what appears all but dead,
is also the theme of today’s Gospel reading from John 12.
“I tell you for certain,” Jesus said,
“that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground 
will never be more than one grain unless it dies. 
But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat. 
If you love your life, you will lose it. 
If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life.”

The very same forces of death 
that cause a fallen tree to decay and return to the soil . . .
those same forces do their deadly work 
on the hard outer coating of a seed.
They soften it, and it begins to rot and die away,
and those death-dealing forces
end up freeing God’s life-giving power to burst forth,
and grow new life.
That is the grammar of the Gospel.
That is how God works!

In God’s economy, over-protecting life leads to death.
Surrender of life leads to true and lasting life.
It’s that simple, and that difficult.

In the words of Jesus,
“If you love your life, you will lose it. 
If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life.”

If that is the case with us and God,
who redeems us while we are yet sinners,
how can we not show charity to others of our own kind,
who fail and disappoint us?
how can we not be diligent about 
showing kindness and forbearance to others,
even as God has shown it to us.

Do we want to experience the real presence of God?
Do we want to be where God is?
We would do well to pray the ancient Ubi Caritas prayer
the choir sang this morning.
Where charity and love are, God is there. 
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us love the living God.
And love each other with a sincere heart. Amen.

That is our prayer.
Our hope.

Our realization is that we often fall short of God’s intentions for us.
So after a brief moment of silence,
let us hear the confession spoken on our behalf.

—Phil Kniss, March 18, 2018

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