Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - This Great Game

Preached on Sunday, February 28, 2016

Scripture readings: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27; Mark 4:35-41

When I was ten years old I thought that I liked baseball. In spite of liking it, I had to face the growing problem that I wasn’t very good at it. The older I got it seemed to matter more and more how good you were at the sport that the other kids were playing.
Vacation Bible School, Desert Aire/Mattawa:
With Foster-Tukwila Presbnyterian Youth Group VBS Mission
Summers 2014, 2016
By the time I was in high school, in P.E., the team captains would argue over who had to have me on their team this time. My standard instructions were, “Dennis, keep away from the ball. We’ll take care of it.” This gave me the incentive to hate baseball, and so I did.
Later on, in my seminary internships and in the ministry, I always worked with kids and I had to adjust my attitude toward sports. There were times when I had to play baseball to make my youth group kids happy. I learned how to look like I was really playing the game when I was only trying to stay out of trouble as much as possible.
Then, I was an “interim pastor” in Davenport. The men in the church often talked about the good old days when there had been a church men’s baseball league in town. Almost every church had a team and they would play each other through the summer. They told me, more than once, how they missed that.
I knew we couldn’t do a league, but I did a lot of talking and planning and we chose a Saturday in August when all the church men and boys (if they could) got together at the high school. We spent that day playing baseball.
I played outfield. At one point, out in right field, I picked up a grounder. I threw it in to one of the basemen, who tagged the runner.
I was almost forty years old, and I had never done anything like that before in my life. No one would ever let me. No one thought I was capable of doing it.
One high school boy, who was an all-round athlete, paid me a huge complement. He said, “It’s great having a pastor who loves baseball so much.” The church gave that Christian boy a joyful day full of something he loved. I was glad to be part of that gift to him. I was nervous all day long, but I had fun too.
This helps me understand what Paul meant, when he wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)
I didn’t lead anyone to Christ by doing this. But I brought joy to the churches of the town and to at least one teenager. I made them happy about their churches, and gave them a feeling that they could do things they thought they couldn’t do. I did this by doing something I was sure that I couldn’t do.
I helped them do what they had given up on doing. And maybe they were better disciples in their community because of the treasure of that day.
You and I (and the church together) are mightily tempted to think that we know who we are, and what we can do, and what we can’t do. It’s even worse than that. We are tempted to believe that we have the right to hold an opinion about who we are, and what we can do, and what we can’t do. We think that our assessment of ourselves gives us the right to say what we will or won’t do. Nothing could be more wrong.
We are being called by Jesus to join him in bringing something wonderful into this world. We have something wonderful that the world around us needs. We barely understand what this is but we have been given a treasure that everyone needs.
Paul wasn’t prepared to let his opinion of himself, and what he was, stand in the way of bringing to the world what it needed. He didn’t water down his message, or hide the unpopular parts of the message.
He held tight to the message of Jesus, but he didn’t hold tight to himself. He knew how to get himself out of the way of what Jesus wanted to accomplish. Paul refused to put a limit on what Jesus might want to do through him.
There is something tough about this. It is a tough spiritual sport: the sport of carrying to others what God gives us in Jesus. It’s like running an obstacle course with a big pack on your back and boots on your feet.
When I have kids in my church, and they are in sports, and I know they have a game coming up, I love to tell them this, “Remember it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.” They hate it when I say that. They know it matters how they play the game, but they want to win.
I had one friend in high school who was an athlete. His name was Chris. Chris tried to encourage me and he would tell me that I just needed to try. I would answer him that I was trying as hard as I could. He would answer me by saying that trying as hard as I could wasn’t good enough. He told me I had to give one hundred and ten per cent of myself to it. I was a geek and told him that that was mathematically impossible. He said I had to do it anyway. He was right.
We say that people play a sport, but it is wrong to say that sport is play. A real game is never just a game.
Being Christians, being disciples, being followers of Jesus together, is like being on a team in sports. What we are playing is never play. Our game is not a game. The sport is mission and evangelism. The sport is carrying Christ into the world.
Paul is so serious. “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)
Paul’s talk about “beating my body” sounds like masochism, but it’s not. It means something more like professional discipline. It means being tough on one’s self. It means making the game the priority above one’s own comfort.
Jesus showed us the way to remake ourselves into a living and breathing opportunity for others to receive him when they least expected it. In the Gospel of John, Jesus became a tired, thirsty man who was not too proud to ask a stranger woman for a drink of water. (John 4:6-7)
In the storm on the Lake of Galilee, Jesus made himself into a sound sleeper on a soft cushion while his friends grew more and more desperate in their sinking boat. Jesus let them feel left alone in order to show them that their greatest and most desperate fears were nothing compared to him.
Mark, in telling this story, doesn’t even use the word “fear” until the storm is over and the disciples get scolded, and they learn something about the power of Jesus. When Mark tells us about their fear, it’s their fear of Jesus. (Mark 4:40-41)
The writer Mark Galli says this about Jesus calming the storm. “God loves us so much that he will not allow us to be comfortable with him.” (Mark Galli, “Jesus Mean and Wild”, p.117)
More than once, when I have needed to make an important decision about my life, Jesus has given me a strong impression of him suffering and dying on the cross for me. Then he says to me, “Are you willing to say ‘no’ to this?”
The love of Jesus is a treasure I don’t dare say “no” to. It would scare me to death to see him hanging on that cross and say “no”.
Jesus has this way of helping me to measure the quality and depth of my own loves. I learn, from what I fear, what I am in danger of loving more than Jesus.
Jesus died for our sins so that we could die with him out of our fears into a new life. Jesus rose from the dead so that we can know that we have nothing to fear. But we don’t love Jesus to the total of one hundred and ten per cent if we fear anything except him and his love.
So Jesus is calling you and me and the church. Jesus is calling us, all together, to be missionaries who can leave our comfort zone and learn to speak the language of the people around us.
We have to learn a new language in order to share our treasure with those who need it. Of course they feel no interest in what we have, but they need the treasure without knowing it. We have to learn to live in the culture, and in the way of life, of those around us.
Then we can know and feel what they need in their own way of thinking. Then we can know how to show them our love. Then we can show them how Jesus in our lives motivates us to be an answer to a question they have never thought of asking, in a way that fits their hidden need. Then they can know the power and love of Jesus for themselves.
We need to be tough with ourselves when we are afraid. We do it to win a hearing from others.

Then, let’s not say that we will win anyone. Jesus is the one who gave more than one hundred and ten per cent of himself for the world. Let’s say that Jesus will win them, just as he won us, just as he is.

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