Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Amen.
When I was a little boy, around the age of 6 or 7, my family and I frequently played the classic board game, Hi Ho Cherry-O! I should probably rephrase that. When I was a little boy, around the age of 6 or 7, my family would frequently play the classic board game, Hi Ho Cherry-O! and I usually quit in a rage over the grave and random injustice the seven-sectioned spinner mercilessly dealt out.
For the uninitiated, hi-ho cherry-o is a game in which:
Each player starts the game with an empty cherry basket and 10 cherries on his/her tree. Players take turns spinning the spinner and performing the indicated action. The spinner is divided into seven sections:
Take one cherry from tree
Take two cherries from tree
Take three cherries from tree
Take four cherries from tree
Dog: Replace cherries on tree: two if the player has at least that many in his/her basket, one if he/she has only one (no effect if player’s basket is empty)
Bird: Same as dog
Spilled basket: Replace all cherries on tree
The first player to collect all the cherries from his/her tree and call “Hi Ho! Cherry-O” wins the game.
I always landed on section number seven. My basket spilled and I had to put all the cherries back. Usually ,I dumped out my cherries all over the board and stormed into my room. I despised the seventh section of the spinner. I hated the rules, I didn’t want to play by them, but time and again I kept coming back to the game, expecting that this time it is going to be different. This time I was going to win. This time, I was gonna beat the odds. But the game was the game, and no matter how hard I tried, how carefully I spun, I was still at the mercy of the spinner.
Lately, on Facebook, Master Class has been hitting me with a new advertisement for a new online course they’re offering. Master Class is a company that offers, you guessed it, master classes online with some of the leading thinkers and doers in their respective fields. You get a pretty serious introduction to whatever the topic is, from one of the best in the game. Learn cooking from Gordon Ramsay, screen writing from Aaron Sorkin, basketball from Steph Curry, comedy from Steve Martin, tennis from Serena Williams. You get the idea.
So as I said, I’ve been seeing an advertisement online for a master class facilitated by David Axelrod and Karl Rove. The ad is fascinating. You have these two giants of political strategy, one republican the other democrat. And they’re sharing their insights, their wisdom, their playbook on how to play the political game, how to engage voters, how to debate, how to message. It’s a class about how to get elected or how to get someone elected, it’s a class about how to win.
Today’s gospel reading is a class on how not to win. Jesus offers a lesson on how not to play the game. We pick up today’s story in the middle of Jesus’ trial. He is being examined by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect in the area of Judea. The Jewish religious leaders have brought Jesus to Pilate to have him executed because they were unwilling/unable to put someone to death. They maintained that Jesus had violated their religious law. Pontius Pilate is fundamentally unconcerned with Jewish religious law. But he is nervous that Jesus poses a political threat, a military threat. Pilate seemingly see in this man Jesus, someone who has the ability to mobilize the masses and that is dangerous for a man like Pilate, who no doubt has greater political aspirations of his own.
Pilate has been playing the game, and he’s been winning. But now there is an upstart from a backwater town in Judea who is stirring up the masses, who is fomenting unrest, and he needs to know who this character is.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
But Jesus doesn’t play.
He says, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Jesus’ kingdom is not from here. It’s not of this earth. It is a kingdom that is not bound by borders. It knows no ethnic or racial constructs. Jesus’ kingdom isn’t bolstered by military might or economic agreements. Jesus’ kingdom cares little for trade deficits. It’s a kingdom that knows no political ideology or partisan divide. Jesus’ kingdom, his influence, his reign and power aren’t demonstrated by playing our games or winning our battles.
Jesus doesn’t win. He loses. He spins a 7 and he dumps all his cherries back onto the board, figuratively speaking. He pours out his life onto this world that rejects him. Not because he’s angry, or frustrated or mad at the injustice of the game. No Jesus, empties himself, he hands it all over because he loves you. Jesus doesn’t play to win. He plays for you. Jesus lives, he dies, and rises again for you. His ministry, his life, his forever is for you and for the entire world. His strategy, his end game, his victory is you.
We live in a world with so many examples of just the opposite. That it can be hard to remember sometimes that we don’t have to play the game of this earth. The game of empire. The game of I win and you lose. It’s hard sometimes to remember what true leadership looks like.
But today, we’re taking a moment to remember and celebrate a true leader who stewarded the sacred trust of this congregation for over 20 years. Pastor Chris Nelson left an indelible mark on this congregation. He’s the reason that many of you are here today, that you have made a commitment to this congregation. But he’s not why you stayed. You stayed because under his leadership the work and ministry of Bethlehem was never about Chris. It was always and only about the kingdom of God. It was always and only about making God’s life-giving word accessible and real for as many people as possible.
This congregation is the vital and vibrant community it is because our work together was never about one person, it was always about and will continue to be about the one God who gives us life in Jesus name.
Many of you know that after Pastor Chris received his diagnosis of cancer, he and I sat down to some interviews. We did so to capture some of his stories, some of his wisdom and some of the knowledge that he has accumulated over his many years of ministry at Bethlehem.
During the interview, I asked Chris, “What do you want your legacy to be.”
He paused for a second, then he said, “I would like my legacy to be that he left and it didn’t make any difference.”
Of course, it made a difference. Chris’ death made a profound difference on each of us. We don’t love and live life with someone and not feel the pain of their loss. But our work continues, with the same urgency and vitality as before Chris died. That dear ones is a mark of a true leader, a godly leader, a faithful leader.
So today, my prayer is that we would all remember that we don’t have to play the game to win, we play to love, as we have first been loved. We live this life with reckless abandon, with radical generosity and compassionate love. Trusting that a life well lived is one in which we empty all our cherries onto the board for the sake of the world that God loves. Amen.