Strange Games — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:38-50; September 26, 2021

In the 1983 film, War Games, Matthew Broderick plays a young computer hacker named David Lightman. Lightman works his way into the computer system controlling the United States nuclear arsenal. He accidentally launches a game which will lead to an all-out nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union unless the game is stopped.

Of course, no one can stop the game. The film moves toward the inevitable, catastrophic result. In the final moments, Lightman lands on a radical solution. He and the system designer, Dr. Stephen Falken, get the computer (aptly named WOPR), to play tic-tac-toe against itself.

The computer plays more and more games at an accelerating rate. The result is hundreds of “draws.” WOPR then applies this experience to the game of Thermonuclear Warfare. Scenarios flicker across the display in dizzying succession. “What’s it doing?” a character asks. “It’s learning,” Lightman replies.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Over and over, the result of the game is “Winner: None.” Suddenly, the screen is dark, and the room is quiet. “Strange game,” WOPR notes. “The only winning move is not to play.” The crisis is past, and control is returned to the humans. “Dr. Falken,” WOPR asks, “would you like to play a nice game of chess?”

We pick up where we left off last week. The disciples are playing the “greater than” game. Jesus tells them that the only way to win that game is not to play it. The disciples aren’t convinced. John immediately launches into a report on how some of the disciples dealt with a “competitor,” an unknown exorcist who is getting results by invoking Jesus’ name. The disciples tried to stop that first-century copyright infringement, but Jesus tells them they are still getting it wrong.

Strange game. The only way to win is not to play.

It’s clear that the disciples are just not getting it. They argue about who is greater, and Jesus gives them a living illustration of real greatness in the Kin(g)dom. It’s even clearer that they still don’t get it. John reports that the unnamed exorcist is practicing his craft outside of normal channels. Jesus decides it’s time to bring out the heavy rhetorical artillery in order to break through their willful obtuseness.

Jesus continues to sit in the midst of the disciples with a small child cradled tenderly in his arms. He deflects John’s administrative detour and returns to the matter which is literally “at hand.” He points the disciples back to the child as his continuing case study. Eager outsiders must not be rejected, especially when they’re just trying to help by giving the disciples a cup of water to drink in their labors.

Jesus warns his disciples against creating any “faith trip hazards” for the little ones who put their faith in him. Was their constant bickering and their jockeying for position one of the reasons why some community members dropped out of the group along the way? If so, that was a big problem. It would be better to be executed at sea than to be responsible for such a falling away. If only some church leaders in conflicted congregations took this admonition seriously, some church fights might turn out better.

It would seem that a similar dynamic was at work in the Markan community. Imagine, if you will, the gospel account being performed in the presence of such a conflicted community. People on the various sides and in the several factions would sit or stand with one another. Perhaps they glared across the room at one another during worship. They might have refused to meet at the same communion table together. I’ve seen all that and more in contemporary conflicted congregations.

In the midst of that tense situation, the performer of Mark’s script comes to this place. It’s no accident that the text is filled with “you’s.” Just put yourself in the place of those conflictors in the Markan community. Then hear the “you’s” and how they would sound to you. The impact must have been like a spiritual sledgehammer for at least some of the folks. I wonder if some of them heard anything else from the performer that evening.

I find it important to remember that this gospel account is not offered simply to inform. It is presented in order to persuade people to come to put their faith in Jesus and/or to deepen that faith. It is intended to lead people to change their perspective, their worldview, and their behavior. It is a radical, life-changing script that would shake people up. I wonder if sometimes during the presentation, the performer had to stop for a while to allow some of the folks in the crowd do some work of repair and reconciliation before the story continued.

Instead of acting like a bunch of beggars who get to show the other beggars where the bread is, the disciples in Mark’s composition continue to act as if they own the bakery. That unfortunate trend will continue at least through the end of chapter 10. The Twelve had been invited into Jesus’ campaign about five minutes earlier (at least in a cosmic sense), but now they had become the membership screening committee. Rather than inviting all comers in for the party, they were giving the newcomers the boot.

Jesus is teaching the disciples about the suffering, death, and Resurrection which lie ahead for him (and perhaps for them). The disciples are establishing the organizational church in the new Messianic administration, thumb-wrestling over who will occupy which rungs on the ladder of position and power.

In the midst of that argument, they see someone who isn’t even part of the home team. He doesn’t deserve the power he has, in their view, to cast out demons in the name of (by the authority of) Jesus. So, they try to stop him – even though he is accomplishing what they, a few verses earlier, could not. The unnamed exorcist is destabilizing their budding Messianic meritocracy.

The myth of the meritocracy covers up the fact that, as we all know, some of us win the zip code lottery by the accident of birth, and some of us lose that lottery by the same accident. Some of us begin the race of life five yards from the finish line, while others begin that same race a hundred yards away. In such a race, speed has little to do with the outcome. It’s all about where we begin.

Of course, we all know this intuitively. If we, as a culture, acknowledged this openly, we would have to retool everything we do in life. If we acknowledged that “deserving” our power, position, privilege, and property is based on a lie, we would either have to give it up for a better distribution scheme, or we would have to embrace the violence required to maintain the inequality.

Therefore, we tell ourselves stories to justify the system that privileges us. Or we are fed stories that justify the system that oppresses us. In the American system, we hardly think about these stories, and when we do, we who are privileged believe them.

I think the disciples are beginning to tell themselves a story that justifies their assertion that they are “greater than.” They will continue to tell that story throughout chapter 10 of the Markan composition, no matter how many times Jesus teaches them to the contrary. It is perhaps not until after the crucifixion and Resurrection that they can begin to see just how wrong their “greater than” story is for the Kin(g)dom of God.

Jesus advocates radical surgery as a treatment for the disease of the disciples. I want to be clear that Jesus is not advocating any actual amputations. This is figurative, hyperbolic language. No one should begin hacking off limbs or plucking out eyes in response to this text. But the surgery Jesus prescribes is no less painful.

The myth of meritocracy declares that my worth depends on what I control, what I know, what I produce, and what I own. There is no grace in that for me or anyone else. There is no Good News in a system that renders human beings as units of production and property. Fortunately, God regards us as “little ones” who are valued and loved before we can produce or own or think about anything. Our vocation is to regard one another in the same way.

If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That is particularly the case when we are acting as the administrators of the established order. When we church people function in that way, we are on very shaky ground in terms of the Markan composition. If an “outsider” is working toward outcomes similar to ours – especially when it comes to hope and healing – that “outsider” is to be commended, not condemned.

If there is anything clear from Jesus’ ministry in the gospel accounts, it is that when being loving and being right are in tension, love trumps being right. How else can we read “The one who is not against us is for us”? The unnamed exorcist may not be getting it all right, but he is doing the Lord’s work. And that’s enough. Demands for higher standards are like offending limbs and wandering eyes. Get rid of them, not the neighbor.

We live in a time when at least some of us have been trained to view all Truth claims with suspicion. Somewhere behind those claims is likely lurking a desire to dominate. One of those lurking claims is the worry on the part of some Christians that we have too much empathy for our own good these days. Such nonsense!

Assertions of “my Truth” are much more likely to result in sin than surrenders to “too much” empathy. Warning that empathy is a sin takes us into a sort of Christian Orwellian use of language which is hard to manage.

Really. I’ll take “too much” empathy over “the Real Truth” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I trust Jesus to sort it out if I have loved too much. The game may be strange to me. But it’s not strange to him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s