Play Your Game, Not Theirs

Sermon for Sunday, November 3, 2019 || All Saints’ Sunday || Luke 6:20-31

The only person you can change is yourself. 

Recently, I began a practice of silent meditation every morning. For twenty minutes, I sit cross-legged on the center cushion of my couch, and I breathe the prayer-word “Maranatha,” which means “Come, Lord Jesus.” I decided to build this practice into my spiritual life because I felt myself changing for the worse. The culture of immediacy had captured me with its constant need for updating feeds. The tough subjects I was (and am) tackling in my person study didn’t have a space to go inside me because I was too cluttered with other, incompatible ideas. I talked about God so much that I had forgotten simply to dwell with God. 

And most perniciously, with the rising tide of negativity, hate, indignity, and disrespect in our society, I could feel these evil chemicals starting to build up in my system. In silence, God and I can purge them together, and I can feel the treatment beginning to gain ground on the disease.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is intensely aware of the potential for the infection of hate to enter the human bloodstream. Remember, Jesus is speaking to an oppressed group of people. His country is under the thumb of the Roman Empire. And while the empire preaches peace, the locals know that the Peace of Rome comes at the point of a sword. It would have been so easy for Jesus’ followers to hate the Romans, to hate the Israelites who worked for the Romans, even to hate themselves for having been conquered in the first place. I’m sure Jesus saw such hate laying his countrymen low every day. Jesus came to bring abundant life, and here was the infection of hate ready to strike.

So Jesus says this: “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

I can imagine the looks he got for that statement. I can imagine what people said: “You want me to love the Roman soldiers who occupy my town? You want me to do good for the Jewish tax collector enriching himself on the Roman payroll? You want me to bless those who trample us underfoot and leave us in abject poverty?”

Surely, Jesus, you can’t be serious.

Oh, he is, and Jesus proves he’s serious with his next set of statements, but we’ll stick with this one sentence today because it gives us plenty to chew on. I hear Jesus say these words: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And I have the same reaction I imagine his first listeners had. “You want me to pray for those who are abusing power?”

Jesus, why is this the path you’re leading us down?

I can see him in my mind’s eye pointing down the path in the opposite direction and saying, “Because you don’t want to go that way.”

I look that way, and I see myself not just allowing the infection of hate to invade me. I see myself injecting it into my veins like heroin. I see myself engaging in the opposites of each of Jesus’ commands.

Instead of loving my enemies, I fear them. (The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s fear.) I fear my enemies, and the fear shackles me and keeps me from standing up for the side of love.

Instead of doing good to those who hate me, I do evil to them. I perpetuate the machine of violence and degradation instead of throwing the wrench of goodness into its gears.

Instead of blessing those who curse me, I curse them right back. And whenever a curse curls on my lips, I live the effects of it long before it reaches its intended target.

And instead of praying for those who abuse me, I shut myself off from giving to God the power that the abuser is trying to take. The abuser seeks only to dominate, while God seeks to liberate, and when we give our power to God, God sets us free.

I look that way, and I see myself succumbing to the death-dealing ways of negativity, hate, indignity, and disrespect. Then I look back at Jesus. He gives me an inviting smile and beckons me to follow him the other way, along the Way of Love. And I realize that the reason he calls me – calls us – to this way is that it is the only life-giving way. The only people we can change is ourselves, and Jesus shows us the way to healing the disease of hate. We can’t change others, but with God’s help, we can purge ourselves of the infection. And we can beckon others to follow us – to follow Jesus – on the Way of Love, so they too might be changed.

When I was in high school, Coach Carter Hill held our soccer team to what we thought was an impossible standard. If the opposing team was playing too – let’s say “chippy”: swiping at our legs instead of the ball, grabbing handfuls of jersey, stepping on our feet during corner kicks, calling us names that I will not repeat in this sermon – whenever another team did this, Coach Hill made us swear we would not dish it back at them. “Play your game, not theirs,” he would say. We hated him for that doctrine. We thought he had abandoned us to getting battered up and down the field. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that Coach Hill’s command was the same as Jesus’. We couldn’t change our opponents, but we could choose to keep them from changing us. 

Everyday, each of us has a choice. We can choose love or fear. We can choose good or evil. We can choose blessings or curses. We can choose liberation or domination. Jesus beckons us down the path of love, good, blessings, and liberation. This is his Way. And this is the Way we follow. We follow this way so we can, as Gandhi said, “be the change [we] want to see in the world.”

Photo by Tevarak Phanduang on Unsplash.

Check out my new project, the Podcast for Nerdy Christians, available wherever you download your podcasts. Episode 5 of Season 1 is out today, and it’s all about Mentors. Check it out here and find the podcast on Facebook. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

One thought on “Play Your Game, Not Theirs

  1. What a wonderful sermon, especially for today’s political climate. At 84 a “new way” is difficult, but I will try, with God’s help. God Bless you and your ministry. Your parish is well with your leadership.

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