Sermon: “Winner take…what?” (Mark 8:31-38)

monopoly2

I haven’t played Monopoly since about 1981, when my friend Chip and I were playing with his younger sister, Meig, and in retaliation for his landing on one her properties with a hotel on it, we made a rule that “mergers” were possible and then immediately colluded to bankrupt her as quickly as possible.

Meig responded by flipping over the board and shouting for their mom, which we richly deserved.

For many, cheating and making up new rules in the middle of the game is just part of playing Monopoly.

Well, it seems that the people at Milton Bradley have been listening.

This week, they announced a new brand extension called the “Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition.”

In addition to the standard game, the Cheater’s Edition comes with fifteen cheat cards with various little scams for players to attempt during the game — taking a little extra money from the bank, moving someone else’s token during your turn.

If you succeed, you apparently get extra cash or a free hotel for one of your properties.

But if you get caught, there are new consequences.

Either you have to pay out money, or instead of being sent to the “go to jail” spot, in what seems like a distinctly reality t.v. kind of twist, now you also get literally handcuffed to the game board itself.

This is all absolutely true.

Say what you will, it’s a very interesting way to try jazzing up Monopoly, which we’ve all been jazzing up on our own since the Great Depression.

When the game debuts, I’m sure there will be any number of thoughtful op-eds and blogs about what it means that breaking the rules is now officially considered part of the game itself.

But I wonder if that’s really the point.

Part of me wonders if the point is not about giving permission to cheat, but rather about introducing formal punishment for those who are caught doing it.

I wonder if the point is actually to enshrine a new kind of vigilance about the rules.

Because whatever thrill there is to be found in cheating at Monopoly, surely it will pale in comparison the thrill of seeing sweet, swift justice being done–oh, the pleasure of seeing your older brother or his friend now a prisoner, their arrogance finally exposed for all to see!

No flipping the game board in frustration ever again — let the truth be proclaimed to the last hotel on Park Place!

Stepping back, we can have such a strange relationship to winning, can’t we?

We can turn almost anything into a contest.

Maybe the game is Monopoly…or maybe the game is showing the world who your older brother really is…but in any case, let the games begin.

A pastor colleague of mine was once doing a graveside committal service in a cemetery out of his usual area, and he happened to pass by a random gravestone, and instead of name on the gravestone or the dates of a life, there were simply these words: “I told you I was sick.”

Pastor Shawn would probably call that the ultimate troll.

But if gestures like that suggest our strange relationship to winning, the deeper truth is that we have an even stranger relationship to living.

A life with winning at its center — with winning as its purpose — can turn out to be strangely misshapen.

We are built for more than just that.

II.

The Book of Ecclesiastes famously talks about the notion of life having seasons, lifting up “a time for every purpose under heaven.”

That points to Scripture’s view that there is something in us that is bigger than the vicissitudes of daily life…that there is something transcendent about our lives in God.

Ecclesiastes takes the view that God is to be found as much in losing as in winning, and that the point of life is to seek what abides, whatever the circumstances may be.

Our Gospel this morning is in that same vein.

As we’ve heard in Mark’s telling, Jesus has begun to speak directly about what will happen in Jerusalem — to tell the story of Good Friday and Easter that are yet to come.

It’s telling that what Peter seems to hear is just the Good Friday part, and he even goes so far as to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.

Peter is not entirely wrong, of course.

The other gospels record that Jesus’ preaching began to grow more foreboding as he got closer to Jerusalem, and that some of those who had been following him began to fall away.

So we can have a certain amount of sympathy with Peter, I think.

“Jesus, we have some great momentum going here. Let’s not blow it.”

“Jesus, we have to keep our focus on people’s hopes, not their fears.”

Peter is a loyal lieutenant who sees how important it is for this movement to succeed, and he wants to keep Jesus on message.

But on some level, maybe he’s also simply afraid of losing.

In fact, he’s so afraid, that he can’t hear that Jesus is talking about this thing that will happen…this moment in the life of God and the world that is going to blow the doors off.

What is about to happen is beyond those little categories of winning and losing, because God is so utterly beyond those little categories, and so utterly greater than these little games that people play.

Peter isn’t quite ready to hear that. He’s going to have to learn that lesson the hard way.

III.

But for us, maybe it doesn’t have to be quite that hard.

For one thing, I’m very certain God doesn’t want it to be.

If we’re having trouble hearing God, I’ve found that usually it’s not because God isn’t speaking…it’s typically because we’re having trouble really listening.

This morning, I’m particularly wondering if the prospect of winning or losing might be preempting much of our regularly scheduled programming, kind of the way the Olympics preempts so much else.

Do you watch for the medals…for who wins, or for who loses…or do you watch for something else…do you watch the games in another spirit?

Do we spend our time and energy focusing on life’s winning moments…or trying our best to steer clear of life’s losses? Or do we seek to live in a different spirit?

If we’re not careful, we can come to misunderstand what the real victories are — and the losses, too.

That’s what happened to Peter.

And yet wisdom is always eager to teach us, if we are willing to learn.

For the last couple of years, our daughter Grace has been involved with Girl Scouts, in a troop that meets right here at the church.

Part of that, of course, is that she is slowly beginning to gather merit badges for various kinds of things.

And there are times I look at her vest with its various badges, and I wonder, you know, what would it be like if we adults walked around with vests like that?

What would our badges be?

Would we only carry the badges of our victories?

“Hey, I see you got the CEO badge! I know you were really working for that one…way to go!”

“Hey, is that a law school badge?” (Or a “first time parent” badge, or a “speaks fluent Spanish” badge?)

Or would we have badges for the wisdom we gain in other ways?

Shouldn’t there be a badge about caring for an aging parent or spouse…a badge for getting downsized at work, or a badge for divorce?

Isn’t there wisdom in those moments? Isn’t there holiness in those moments?

And if our answer to that is no…or not really…then what does that tell us about whom we’ve become?

IV.

As we prepare our hearts for Easter this year, we’re invited to rejoice God’s victory over death and over all that diminishes human life.

Yet it is the victory of a wisdom that is bigger than winning and losing as we typically think of them.

Because in Good Friday and Easter, God shows us that love is always present, always at work, always poised to make a difference.

Whatever the game is, Easter breaks its every rule.

Because God is never finished with us. God is never out to beat us. And life is not either.

No matter what we may do, no matter what may happen, we are never handcuffed to the board.

And so we are invited to live our lives, learning as we go, and finding God in the midst of all of it, good and bad.

In these weeks of Lent, as we live with Easter particularly in mind, may we ask ourselves what it is for us to win and to lose, and invite ourselves to listen for the God who abides with us and loves us above and beyond any contest, any challenge, and any final score.

Amen.

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