Rev. George Miller
“Pleasing to God”
Sept 1, 2013
Throughout the Bible there are images of God; ways for us to imagine and understand our Creator.
Last month we read Hosea 11:1-11 which referred to God as a heartbroken parent who has taught their children how to walk, healed them and held them.
That same reading from Hosea also referred to God as a mighty lion; a lion who roars and calls the faithful back home.
Throughout the Bible there are also images that refer to the people of God; ways for us to imagine and understand who we are in relation to our creator.
Hosea 11 refers to us as trembling birds; doves who return to God the roaring lion.
It also refers to us as children; children who are taught by God how to walk, who are held and healed by God; children who grow up to break God’s heart.
In the Joseph sermon series which we recently completed, we witnessed what happens when siblings fight and how transformation occurred when one of those children realized it’s time to become a man.
Time and time again throughout scripture God’s chosen people are referred to as children: during the Exodus, throughout the Exile, in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
In talking about children and the process of growing up, there are also the games which children play: board games, card games, and the athletic activities that not only pass away the time, but teach children valuable lessons.
Lessons like the importance of strategy and thinking ahead, how to play fair, how to be a gracious winner, a courteous loser, and the reality of just how much luck plays into things.
Most games that kids play come with rules. There are rules that are universally accepted; there are the rules that are specific to families, location or age group.
Think of Scrabble. Before sitting down to play a game you have to decide what counts as a word and what doesn’t. Is there an approved dictionary? Is slang valid? Are racial slurs appropriate and curse words ok?
There’s Monopoly. Everyone has their set of rules that you need to agree upon before you play, or watch out! Do you get extra money for landing on Go? Is money put in the middle? Just how does buying property, houses and hotels really work?
There’s another game called Mancala. We played it during Vacation Bible School. It’s considered the oldest game in the world, created by those who built the pyramids.
Mancala involve s nothing more than marbles, a working hand, a quick mind and a sharp set of eyes.
Because of its nature, Mancala has over 100 ways to play it, with different ways to count and move around the board.
I have the game in my office, and every time we have Vacation Bible School I take it out and play it with the children. I always have them play the way I know how.
But this summer one girl wanted to show me the way she played it. At first I said no, because it was unfamiliar, but then I gave in. And we played, and it was just as fun.
I lost and another kid stepped in to challenge the winner. At first I hovered over them to make sure they were following the rules, whatever they now were, and then realized they were fine; they were OK. They could handle things on their own.
I also realized something else: in an age of internet, computers, cell phones with digital games, this simple, ancient game was holding their attention.
It wasn’t about bells and whistles or technology; it was about the time spent together and the relationship being established.
It didn’t really matter which way we played Mancala because what mattered was two individuals were taking time out of the day to sit and engage with one another.
If we talked about the day or how summer was going, we talked; if we didn’t talk, well it was just as ok; silence can be a good thing when you are not alone.
And the outcome of the game didn’t really matter; it was more about the process and the time together.
I think that can apply to scripture as well. I’m sure you’ve heard people refer to the Bible as an acronym: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
I’m not too keen on that acronym because it sounds a little too rule-based and we’ve all experienced those who take the teachings of the Bible as very literal, a stern list of dos and don’ts that is used as a tally to reward and condemn people.
“Oh, very good. You are one step closer to heaven. Go straight to Reading Railroad and if you pass Go collect $200.”
“Ooh, not good. You are one step closer to hell. Go to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”
I hear this at the theater when people raised with more conservative beliefs then I apologize for not going to church or act surprised when they see me enjoy a cocktail or tell an off-color joke.
It does not fit into their understanding of the “rules of faith”, of how a Christian is or is not to act.
When faith is approached this way, it doesn’t seem to me to be much fun; it doesn’t seem to bring about flourishing. Such an approach to faith almost seems like one is more prone for failure and fatigue.
That’s one thing that came to mind as we approach today’s scripture. Depending on where you are in your faith journey, it can sound like a celebration of what it means to try your best and live a life of faith.
But it can also come across as a list of do’s and don’ts to be checked off.
DO: Let mutual love continue.
DO NOT: Fail to show hospitality to strangers.
DO: Remember those in prison.
DO NOT: Commit adultery or have sex outside of marriage.
DO: Be content with what you have.
DO NOT: Have a love affair with money.
The “rules” kinda seem straight forward, right? But now they get a little deeper-
DO: Follow your religious leaders because they know what’s best for you.
DO NOT: Be fooled by false teachers.
DO: Be like Jesus and suffer the same abuse he did.
DO NOT: Focus on where you live now, but on what’s to come.
Gets a little more complicated. For example, you are commanded to listen to what I say but beware that what I’m teaching you could be wrong.
And here’s a rule, a theology that has kept slaves in their place, women silent, and a way to justify the suffering of others: stop your complaining because suffering makes you more like Christ and besides, this isn’t where you are going to end up.
If we approach Hebrews 13 as a set of rules to be followed at all costs, we will either find comfort in what the winners get- a city yet to come.
Or we will be distressed by the notion of punishment. Will those who lose or those who violate the rules be cast down into a waterless pit? Sold into slavery? Locked in a dungeon?
There are denominations that approach the Bible this way. There are faiths that hold this viewpoint.
Either you play be the rules and you win; or you break the rules and you lose.
Here, at Emmanuel United Church of Christ, I believe we see things differently. The United Church of Christ, as a denomination, tends to view the Bible a bit differently.
As a UCC pastor I cannot tell you what to believe, I can only share with you what I think and what I am wrestling with. You are to take what I share and to process it on your own, with God, with your own Bible, with what you believe the Still Speaking God is saying to you.
I believe that readings like today are more like holy guidelines, spiritual marks on how to live our lives the best way we are able.
I believe that scriptures like today help us understand ways in which we can play nice with one another. How we can sit beside one another, talk with one another, relate with one another, and live with one another.
How we are able to flourish together.
Like Scrabble with a dear friend, like Monopoly on a rainy day, like Mancala during Vacation Bible School, it’s not so much the rules of how to win and who is to lose, but it’s more “Hey, this is what you are to do so you can have the best time possible together.”
Like Scrabble, like Monopoly, like Mancala, it’s not so much the end result, it’s the time spent getting there.
It’s about relationships.
It’s about how to be gracious to one another. How to be gracious to those who are not doing so well.
It’s about being gracious to ourselves.
As Christians, we do so by following the example God gave us in Jesus Christ. As Christians, we do so by recalling the ways in which Jesus was able to show forgiveness to people who had done terrible things or lived a life filled with mistakes.
As Christians we do so by recalling the ways in which Jesus reached out to and listened to, talked with and empowered those who were sick, those who were festering, those who were on the outside of the city or thirsty at the well.
As Christians we do so by recalling the ways in which Jesus cared for himself. How he spent time alone, how he took time to be with and talk to God, and how Jesus did things he enjoyed, like attending community events and partaking in a glass of wine.
I see today’s reading as a way to remind us, God’s children, that we are called to play beside one another and to play nice.
That we are not to cheat, or get vengeful at one another. That when we don’t get what we want we do not wipe all the pieces off the board or permanently walk away from the game at hand.
It doesn’t mean that we won’t have conflicts, it doesn’t mean we won’t have disagreements or argue over the rules or what they mean or what is applicable or what is not.
But it means that we, as Christians, as children of God, know how to sit side by side one another. We know how to engage with another. We get to know one another and how to be in relationship with one another.
And when others come along who want to see what we’re doing, or engage with us in the game, we can show them how it’s played and the guidelines which make the playing worthy and fun.
God, the loving parent, the mighty lion, roars, to bring the children back together. Jesus teaches us how to play nicely.
The Holy Spirit fills us with the creativity, imagination and energy to play and to move around the board.
And not so one person wins, or one person looses, but so we all get to pass GO, we all get to collect $200 and we all get the double letter and triple word score.
That, I believe, is what becomes pleasing to God.
Amen and amen.
***invite congregation to sing “Jesus Loves Me”