Cersei Lannister is not impressed.
“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord!”
Our Micah reading today echoes a lot of things I’ve heard as a pastor and a chaplain:
“I don’t go to church much, but I’m a good person, Pastor.”
“I’ve trusted in Jesus all my life and repented of my sin – I know I’m going to heaven.”
“I’m not sure why I’m going through this – I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.”
These are words from hospital beds and even deathbeds as heard by pastors and chaplains everywhere. But you don’t have to be sick to think of it: we all have little existential crises from time to time — “Am I really okay? Am I really ready to face death with the assurance that God will take care of me?” “Does God really love me after all I’ve done?”
We all wonder from time to time if we are enough or do enough. We are used to earning our way in the world, after all. If I work hard, I will excel at my job. If I study hard, I will get good grades. If I practice hard, I will be a great athlete. If I give tirelessly to my kids, I will be a good parent.
We are used to earning our worth.
People think that pastors are an exception. If you learn nothing else from me in our time together, I hope you learn that pastors are just as human as you are. We’re not an exception to trying to earn our own worth, no matter how good our theology may be.
Pastors think, “If I spend hours researching for my sermon, and visit every person in the church, and answer every email and tie up every loose end, I’ll be a good pastor.” But we’re no better at the game than you are. There is always the parishioner not visited, the person not emailed back, the commentary not consulted. We work for Jesus, and quite frankly, that’s a high standard to live up to. Pastors, too, fall victim to the idea that we must earn our worth to be good enough.
We live in a Type A society, after all — one that says that you have to earn anything you get, and that you better try hard, because winner takes all.
There’s a cartoon strip that I love to reference in which there are two people, one labeled “TYPE A” and one labeled “TYPE B,” representing Type A, aggressively achieving personalities, and Type B, the more passive, easygoing personalities. Type B says to Type A, “C’mon, stop trying so hard — you have to stop and smell the flowers every once in awhile!”
On hearing this, Type A gets a determined look. Immediately, he gathers all the flowers he can see and shoves them towards his nose and breathes deeply. Then he hoists a trophy over his head that says “FLOWER SMELLING CHAMPION” while Type B cowers in shock.
This is often how I feel in yoga when told to relax and be.
I am the relaxing and being champion.
This kind of thing is woven into our DNA. It always has been, ever since the days when warring tribes would fight over resources. Even today, in a world that seems filled with violence, we often associate winning with survival: we, like our ancestors, want to get our enemies before our enemies get us. As Queen Cersei famously says on Game of Thrones, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.”
We still function this way. You want to be the winner because the winner makes the rules. The winner survives. You win or you die.
This is absolutely the way the world works.
But is it the way Jesus works?
“Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”
That’s quite a passage after the week that the world has had, the world which seems so unstable, so divided. We want to strike before we are struck. We are stuck in a Game of Thrones mindset: you win or you die.
I can’t help thinking that maybe it’s time that we mortals listen to Jesus a little more closely before we destroy ourselves.
We live in a world that is violent, unstable, and scary; no one worth listening to is denying that. Jesus lived in such a world, too: one where it felt like violence could strike at any moment. John was arrested and killed for preaching the same message Jesus did, and Jesus was well aware of that.
It is human nature to think about self-protection in violent circumstances. It is human nature to think about how to get the other guy before you yourself get got. I even dare say that, at least on a surface level, it’s smart.
But the problem with such a philosophy is that it can destroy us as well as our enemies. We see this in everything from dysfunctional family dynamics to gang violence: you make me angry, so I hurt you. You are hurt, so you get revenge. Revenge feels great, but before long, we are trapped in an endless cycle of hurting. I kill what you love. You kill what I love. Before long, everything we both love will be dead.
Even if you win in such circumstances, is it worth it to have gained the world and lost our souls?
One of the reasons I believe so strongly in the Gospel is that it runs counter to everything in our self-protective nature, such that it is the only thing that can break a cycle of hurt and hatred. “Love your enemies.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Welcome the stranger.” “By grace you have been saved.”
It is not safe, and I would be lying to you if I told you that it were. It is often not safe to love, to welcome, to refuse to meet violence with violence. But we were never promised safety. We are promised only that resurrection is a reality and that Christ is with us. But no, this is not a safe way to live.
History is littered with the bodies of the prophets who came before us, of whom Jesus spoke at the end of our Gospel passage today. Jesus himself did not live a safe life. We worship a God who died, and we are called to follow. And yes, there comes a time to stand up to a bully, but I believe history shows that more battles are won with truth than with strength.
In my second year of seminary, all of seven years ago, I took a course on the Gospel of John that I have never forgotten. My professor, Dean O’Day, so called because she was also our academic dean but loved to teach, made a statement so profound that it will never leave my mind. She was discussing the moment in the trial of Jesus when Jesus is trying to explain to Pilate who he is. He says, “I came into the world to testify to the Truth. Everyone on the side of Truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NRSV).
Pilate’s reply is the most famous part of the passage: “What is truth?” he says (John 18:38 NRSV).
Dean O’Day blinked and looked up over her glasses from her Bible. She pointed out that this conversation happens in the midst of Pilate arguing with Jesus about whether he was a king, which would mean that he was a challenge to Rome, an instigator who was trying to gain power. He says to Jesus before this, “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you or let you go?”
Pilate thinks that Jesus is playing the Game of Thrones: you win or you die.
Pilate is wrong.
Dean O’Day remarked, “Given the context, Pilate’s question is not ‘What is THE truth.’ It is, rather, ‘What is truth, compared to power?’” (1)
Jesus will go on to answer that question with his death and resurrection.
Truth is greater than power because truth can rise, again and again. It does not need to dominate the way that power does. It is free instead to love, to survive outside the cycle of violence, knowing that even its death is not the end.
I remember a drawing that got passed around a few years ago, much to the amusement of my colleagues, of a muscular Jesus on the cross. Now, Jesus is often depicted as having great abs, but this particular Jesus was so strong that his bulging biceps are grabbing the nails to break the arms of the cross. I get the idea – that Jesus is stronger than death – but I also think that this type of Westernized, Americanized Christianity is making us sick. No, Jesus didn’t break his way off the cross and survive. He actually died, killed by the state and by the religious authorities. He is killed by power. But truth always rises.
The Gospel is that even death is not the end of truth, beloved. Truth rose from the grave and lives among us and promises to be with us always. Truth lives inside our vulnerable bodies and comes to our table in bread and wine.
You see, a world that longs to win and to dominate is short-sighted. Because even if you subdue all of your enemies, you will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world but lose your own soul.
And yes. The call to love in the midst of a world of violence may seem foolish, but Paul reminds us in our epistle reading that the cross is indeed foolishness to common wisdom. It is foolishness to those who are perishing, caught up in the Game of Thrones, the endless cycle of hitting and hitting back.
It is foolishness, even, to those of us Type A personalities who long to earn our way, to earn God’s love, to earn our own inner peace with God. We wonder, over and over, whether we’ve really been good enough. But God tells us, over and over ‘cause we’re dense, that it’s not about winning but about Grace. About love.
“God has shown you, O mortal what is good,” our Micah passage today tells us. Spoiler alert: it is not being the strongest or the mightiest or the best Christian.
The next verse is in our Old Testament lesson and on our wall outside: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?” (Micah 6:8).
You are freed from the Game of Thrones. Jesus gives you a better choice than winning or dying. You do not have to be the Type A Church Champion.
You are free. Free to do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with God.
To love Truth. To love others, even when it’s scary.
We are free from the cycle of earning our way. Now let us welcome others in also. Amen.
1. the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day, lecture, Gospel of John course, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, 2010.