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Win By Losing

Proper 25C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


What a weekend to be a Cubs fan! I can’t help but think of all the dedicated Cubs fans who kept the faith their whole lives without seeing what you and I are seeing. (e.g. Chester Larson, Howard Morton, Theresia and Steve Klos)

They say baseball is a humbling game. The numbers bear that out. Batters at the pinnacle of success reach first base just 30% of the time. The only team that won more than 60% of their games this year was the Chicago Cubs at 64%.

Former historian, professional player, coach, manager and scout of baseball, Wesley Westrum once said, “Baseball is like church: many attend, but few understand.” So I wouldn’t be surprised to see baseball players who devote hours a day, nearly every day of the year, for a decade or more to experience stretches of failure at the plate like an 0-for-20 streak, nod their heads in agreement to hear Jesus say, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

Jesus said, ”I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Luke 5:32) His words echo the accusation of his enemies: “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) The gospels tell us that many sinful people followed Jesus. Today, we could call them “failures.” Failures flocked to Jesus. They felt safe, somehow sheltered rather than judged, valued rather than dismissed, called rather than belittled, transformed rather than labeled.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke contrasts two characters.  They’re polar opposites, and set in bold relief two ways of being religious. One way is death-dealing, the other is life-giving. The winner loses and the loser wins.

The Pharisee was religiously righteous, the taxman extorted revenue for the Roman oppressors. The religious expert was smug and confident, the outsider was anxious and insecure. The saint paraded to the temple, the sinner “stood at a distance” from the sacred building—a nonverbal expression of his spiritual alienation. The righteous man stood up, the sinful man looked down. In an act of shocking narcissism, the Pharisee prayed loudly “about himself”; whereas the tax collector could barely pray at all. The Pharisee puffed out his chest in pride; the publican beat his breast in sorrow.

Yet, Jesus said, the respectable, reputable believer, so competent and accomplished, who had done everything right, was rejected, whereas the secular sinner — the disreputable, inadequate, and incompetent failure — “went home justified before God.” (Daniel Clendenin)

What happened? It’s hard to imagine a more earnestly religious person than the Pharisee. He prayed often, he fasted regularly, and he gave generously to the poor. His spiritual regimen was stringent. But he made two tragic mistakes in his religious life: first, he “looked down on everybody else,” and second, he thought he could justify himself, thanking God he was “not like other people.” Somehow, we imagine that in judging others we validate ourselves, or that at least we will compare favorably in the eyes of God.

We’ll invoke almost anything to justify ourselves — intelligence (GPA and SAT), alma mater (“This is where I went to school thirty years ago”), money (“I’m frugal toward myself and generous to others”), family (“Great kids!”), sports (“I’m in shape, you’re a slob”), politics (“My vote is enlightened, yours is ideological”), and work (“I work at X; what do you do?”). A common form of self-justification invokes your zip code (“Where do you live?”), a transparent insinuation that net worth equals self worth. (Daniel Clendenin, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, 10/16/16)

Like the Pharisee, we keep trying to make religion a way to climb higher up the ladder of spiritual success. But self-justification doesn’t work, and it isn’t necessary, for in the words of the famous hymn, God accepts me “just as I am.”  Full stop. We have a hard time accepting that God comes down to us, which is the meaning of the Incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-8); somehow we think we’ve got to go up to God. We start running up the down escalator! And we miss Jesus on the way—as he descends into our so very ordinary world.

Christians have named this mystery—as the path of descent, the Way of the Cross, or the paschal mystery. Although we name and symbolize it quite well, we have not lived it much better than many other religions and cultures. All humble, suffering souls often learn this by grace.

Jesus, however, brings it front and center. A “crucified God” became the logo and central image of our Christian religion: a vulnerable, dying, bleeding, losing man. If that isn’t saying you win by losing, what is it going to take for us to get the message? How often do we have to look at the Crucified and miss the point? Why did we choose that as our symbol if we’re not going to believe it? Life is all about winning by losing—losing with grace and letting our losses teach and transform us. And yes, this is somehow saying that God suffers—and our suffering is also God’s suffering, and God’s suffering is ours (Colossians 1:24). That has the power to transform the human dilemma of tragedy, absurdity, and all unjust suffering. (Richard Rohr, The Paschal Mystery, 10/16/16)

Follow Jesus on this pathway of descent. Walk the way of his cross. Learn the wisdom of winning by losing so that you may be more kind, that you may be a better listener, that you may grow thicker skin, be more compassionate, more ready to cry foul when others suffer injustice, that you may be more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable, that you may be a better lover, friend, parent, spouse, sibling, and neighbor.

To get to that place, Jesus says we need only seven words — those mumbled by the tax collector as he stood at a distance from the Temple and stared at the ground: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) The Orthodox famously named these seven words “The Jesus Prayer.”  It may be the only prayer you’ll ever really need—because it proceeds from a clear-eyed appraisal of our human condition and, more importantly, from confidence in the character of a God who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  (Clendenin)

We win by losing. We stand transformed before God and each other. All our pretentions and strivings are ended. Our humble and abundant life begins.

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