A sermon preached on February 13th, 2022 and based upon Luke 6:17-26 entitled, “Winners and Losers”.
When I first read these words Jesus spoke regarding who is blessed and who is cursed, I felt hard pressed to see where to go with this.
But then suddenly I recognized a connection readily at hand.
One way to describe what Jesus is saying here is that he is turning our usual notion of “winners” and “losers” on its head. Crazy as it seems he’s telling us that losers are blessed and winners are cursed.
This is Super Bowl Sunday – the biggest sporting event in the country (I’d say “in the world” but actually for that, the World Cup Finals beats out the Super Bowl.) When tonight’s game is over one team will be shouting with delight because they will have won. Some of them will surely be talking about how “blessed” they are. The other team will be weeping, and will talk about how painful it is to come this far only to lose.
Jesus implies they will have it wrong.
The greatest Super Bowl winner of all time is Tom Brady, winning the game an astonishing seven times. Tom Brady and I have something in common – we both recently announced our retirement. I was first. Maybe Tom took his cue from me?
There was another professional athlete – this one not quite as famous as Tom Brady — who announced his retirement this week: my son Bobby. Bobby has devoted pretty much his whole life honing his skills as a soccer goalkeeper, but early this week his professional days suddenly came to an end. This sounds bad but actually it feels to us like the work of the Holy Spirit.
Bobby was just beginning his second season with a team in Indianapolis. When he wasn’t training, Bobby has worked part time as a coach with the team’s soccer academy. The coaches in charge noticed that Bobby is really good at coaching. When the fulltime goalkeeper coach suddenly resigned to take a job in Scotland, they decided to offer his job to Bobby – a remarkable opportunity for Bobby at the young age of 26.
Bobby loves coaching and it had always been in his mind that when his playing days came to an end, he would find a way to do it full time. With the physical toll the constant training takes — a chronically aching knee, for instance – along with the inherent instability of a player’s life, Bobby didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. Increasingly, coaching had become his passion.
Sarah and I have always been grateful for the role soccer has played in Bobby’s life. Growing up, it provided him with a place for his abundant energy to get expressed when who knows where that energy might have gone without the sport. Soccer gave Bobby an opportunity to learn discipline and what it means to be a part of a team.
But at times the journey has been quite tough.
There are unique pressures on a goalkeeper: Only one goalkeeper gets to play at a time, meaning there are bound to be times of sitting on the bench. And one little mistake by a goalkeeper can result in the team losing.
Sarah and I will readily tell parents of young athletes, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be goalkeepers”. It was rough at times.
Bobby’s playing days did include some great highs. A couple of years back an opportunity opened up for Bobby to cross the ocean to play for a team in Northern Ireland. Sight unseen, he took a leap of faith and went. In the course of the eight months Bobby spent there he became something of a local legend in the town of his team, leading them to first place and a promotion to the first division.
But Bobby has also known plenty of lows. He isn’t retiring like Tom Brady. During his four years in college Bobby never played for a winning team. On more than one occasion he experienced what it feels like to be benched by his coach.
Returning from Northern Ireland Bobby spent a year playing in the MLS — a major accomplishment in itself — but only got to play in two games. When his contract wasn’t renewed Bobby couldn’t help but feel rejected.
Bobby got to play more last season on a second division USL team in Indianapolis, but once again he spent a good deal of time on the bench.
Over the years he’s suffered countless injuries both big and small, and all the frustration that comes with injuries.
He’s made some amazing saves – a couple in Northern Ireland went viral – but through the years there were games in which a mistake Bobby made was viewed as the cause for his team losing — after which he’d visit some pretty dark places for a few days.
If at the outset of their playing days you asked players whether they would prefer a career like the one Tom Brady had or the one Bobby Edwards had, I’m sure every single one would answer, “well, like Tom Brady of course. To experience a lot more winning than losing is surely a blessed life.”
But who knows for sure?
The only other athlete in team sport that I can think of who has experienced a comparable amount of winning is Michael Jordan in basketball. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the impression I get from the aging Michael Jordan is that he lives a lot of his life stuck back in what Bruce Springsteen’s song calls his “glory days.” He’s seems locked into thinking that winning is everything, and one thing you can say with some confidence is Michael Jordan will never experience another win of the sort he knew back in his playing days.
So, there are three retirees referenced in this sermon – Tom Brady, my son Bobby and… me.
What does winning and losing look like in the life of a pastor? Well, just like there are statistics in sports there are statistics that get kept in the life of churches: the number of members on the rolls, worship attendance, the size of budgets – that sort of thing.
When I entered the ministry forty years ago the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches had already entered into a steady statistical decline that has continued right through to the present.
If you think of doing church as a kind of competitive game assessed by such statistics, well we’ve been losing far more than we’ve been losing.
In recent years, a new kind of church has appeared on the scene – the so-called “mega church”. It follows a clearly established model proven to “win” at the business of doing church.
Now before I proceed, I should take note of the fact that there are some very good things the megachurches are doing. They’ve introduced Jesus to a lot of people who might not otherwise have been open to giving him the time of day. They typically provide a lot of opportunity to do hands on missions work to help people in need.
There are definitely things we can learn from them.
But I have concerns about how their basic model has them doing church. Since traditional churches have been so steadily “losing” at the business of doing church, mega churches make sure their buildings don’t look like what comes to mind when people think of “church”. They design the building we call the “sanctuary” to look more like a movie theater or a concert hall.
A great deal of money gets invested in top-of-the-line sound systems and theater lighting. Professional rock musicians are hired to perform the music. Typically, there are enormous screens similar to what you find in football stadiums where the pastor gets projected as he preaches. The senior pastor is a combination entertainer and CEO.
When you enter and exit their buildings you’ll always find a space that resembles a Starbucks serving expensive Starbucks-like coffee. Megachurches have taken note of the fact that in the business of coffee shops in America, Starbucks is the clear winner.
The focus in megachurches is to make the experience of going to worship as entertaining as possible.
And it works. Megachurches attract large crowds, and in particular younger crowds.
Last year my son Bobby reluctantly accepted somebody’s invitation to attend worship with him at a megachurch in Indianapolis. One thing that caught his attention was that all of the musicians and worship leaders had the look of “winners”. They were all young and dressed in just the right “casual cool” clothes.
Particularly noteworthy was that by the common cultural standards they were all very physically attractive – the sort of people who might appear in a clothing advertisement. Evidently, to get hired as a musician or a worship leader at a mega church you’re required to be good looking.
To Bobby’s eye, it all seemed kind of fraudulent – one big show. He found himself feeling homesick for the Parsippany United Methodist Church.
It seems to me that megachurches have embraced the idea that the goal of life is to be a “winner” in the sense that the culture defines winning. The implicit message is, “Come to our church and we’ll make you a winner like Tom Brady.”
As a matter of fact, megachurches love getting famous pro athletes to come and speak at their worship services. A while back our neighborhood megachurch drew a larger than usual crowd when they managed to get the good looking, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to speak at their worship service.
Maybe I sound a little jealous – a little bitter. And I acknowledge there is some of that in me. I am, after all a sinner like everybody else.
Nonetheless, how does doing church their way make sense of Jesus? I mean, his life was intimately acquainted with failure. He wasn’t really “cool.” At the outset of his ministry the devil offered Jesus the power that would have assured he would have been a success in the eyes of the world, but he turned it down. In the course of his ministry Jesus experienced rejection, abandonment, disappointment and ultimately death on a cross – the most humiliating way possible to die.
What does Jesus mean when in our reading he says,
Blessed are you who are poor…
who are hungry now…
who weep now…
Blessed are you when people hate you…
Woe to you who are rich..
who are full now..
who are laughing now…
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you…
Now I’m quite sure Jesus isn’t telling us that it is inherently good to be poor or to be in a state of grief or to have people hate you.
I do think though that he is saying that it is important that we have first hand experience of such things.
The way I make sense of Jesus’ words is to think about my son Bobby.
Sure, back at the outset of Bobby’s career if somebody had come to me with a magic wand offering to guarantee that my son’s playing days would resemble those of Tom Brady, I surely would have been tempted to take him up on his offer.
But that somebody-with-the-magic-wand — I suspect he would have been the devil. And the reason I say that is that there really is this mystery inside each of we call the “soul”, and that what ultimately matters in life is what happens to our souls.
“What does it profit a person,” said Jesus “to gain the whole world but lose their soul?”
Strangely, a life that knows primarily success is one in which the soul is likely to wither. It has a way of hardening a person’s heart.
The thing Sarah and I have truly appreciated that we’ve witnessed in his journey as a goalkeeper are things that have a spiritual quality to them.
Bobby has learned how to be a good teammate, and one of the places he learned that best was when he got benched and managed over time to move from feeling sorry for himself to a place where he could sincerely support his teammates, even as he sat on the bench.
He’s learned compassion, and there is no way to learn compassion except by having endured times when you visited dark places yourself – wept yourself – and having gone to those places there is the recognition that sooner or later we all visit that darkness – a fact that knits us all together.
Bobby’s learned perseverance. He’s learned how to work hard and give his very best to reach a goal.
But he’s also learned perspective – that in the end what matters in competing in soccer isn’t winning – it is, after all, simply a game played for the sake of fun – and that the reason it is important to learn how to give one’s very best is that there are places in life in which giving one’s very best matters a great deal – in a marriage, for instance, or as a parent, or a friend, or a coach, or simply as a human being who heeds the call of God to serve those with whom you come in contact.
Bobby has also learned that winning as the world defines winning has the quality of a drug, which is to say it gives a person a momentary high but the high never lasts – that in short order the success-addict becomes desperate for another fix to feel good about himself.
And for all of these learnings, I’m quite certain Bobby will be a very good coach – because he has first hand knowledge of the challenges faced by those he will coach.
Tonight, if you watch the game and see at the end of the game one team celebrating and one team weeping – well, at the very least keep in mind that it’s not always obvious where the blessings and curses are in life.
And maybe Tom Brady and Michael Jordan need our prayers more than we realize.
As for me, as I come down the home stretch of my formal ministry, what I think Jesus would tell me is that it never really was the “church business” that mattered – that is, those church statistics that have been in steady decline throughout my career.
What mattered was the care of souls — whether my own heart has softened through the years and whether God’s spirit moved through my ministry to soften some other peoples’ hardened hearts as well. There are no statistics for this sort of thing.
I hope that I’ve managed somehow to get you to pay more attention to the treasure that is soul. I know that you have done that for me.