We play a lot of children’s games in our house, right now. When I was a kid, Babar was the game I loved best, and I was a sore loser. I didn’t realize like most 4 year olds, that it isn’t about winning, but about relating to each other and having fun. Now my favorite is UNO. We also like dominoes, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders to play as a family.
In Chutes and Ladders, you spin to find the number of spaces moved. If you land on a space with a ladder you get to move up the board. If you land on a space with a chute, down you go.
In the reading from James, folks are moving forward on the board as teachers in the Christian Faith. But the game they are playing is not God’s game. They are trying to gain in importance and recognition. The further forward they try to move, to get toward their goal of perfection, the more chutes they encounter. The more they put themselves out in front of other people, the more people see their flaws and inconsistencies, the more times they put their foot in their mouth. The more they let their mouth run, the more trouble they get into and the more people see them for who they are, not wise, faithful people, that God has in mind for them, but two-faced, and bitter and far from their goal of glory, or wisdom, or respect.
The reading from Isaiah reveals someone who is on the path where God is leading, spinning the spinner and moving forward, sustaining the weary and teaching with compassion. But others don’t value the path that the speaker is on. Maybe they are jealous. Maybe they just have different values. But they are threatened by this path, so they strike with violence, they insult and spit, they pull, they try to influence. They try to get the one speaking to play a different game, the game this world values. But it is God who acts to support the one speaking here and help them move forward. Sometimes we feel so alone out there on the path, but when we are on the path toward the vision of God, God is with us.
There is a question here, who is this reading about? Who is it that is faithful, not rebellious, who is accosted, who got his beard pulled, who did not hide his face from spitting? Is it about the prophet Isaiah? Isaiah is persisting despite all kinds of obstacles and people who stand against him. Some say it is a prophecy about Jesus. Some say it is about Israel. In that case it might be more wishful thinking. I think it still applies to people who stand in resistance to the values of this world, with a vision of God’s Kingdom, people willing to sacrifice for what they believe in. We could say our veterans, and those serving in the armed services have put themselves at great risk to stand for the greater good. This could be about them. Some have said that those protesting at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building against the incarceration of children and those seeking asylum are putting themselves at some risk and pain to keep attention on the plight of vulnerable people. Often as people have moved forward toward the vision of peace and wholeness they see as coming from God or from ultimate good, others have mocked them, hurt them, and tried to make them doubt themselves.
The disciples are on a path with Jesus. The end point is not that clear to them. All they know is that they have been invited to move forward with Jesus and they feel drawn to leave their home and everything they have ever known at start, and move forward in faith. Sometimes they land on a chute. They argue about who will sit next to Jesus in the heavenly realm, they fail to heal people, they ask who sinned this man born blind or his parents. Sometimes they climb ladders. They participate in a healing, they see Jesus transfigured. Today Peter climbs up a high ladder. He correctly identifies that Jesus is the Messiah. He realizes Jesus defies all the categories, that he is different from anyone who has come before. I get the feeling Peter didn’t even know what was going to come out of his mouth, speaking of taming the tongue! But this time his tongue bore witness to what was beginning to dawn on him, it spoke a deep truth that was just being born in his thoughts. So he climbs so high. He feels like he’s almost finished the game. But then he listens to Jesus say what will happen to the Messiah, and Peter isn’t following Jesus anymore, he’s trying to lead him. Peter’s trying to lead Jesus to safety, but that’s not where Jesus is going. And no sooner has Peter climbed so high, that he encounters this chute, and Jesus is rebuking him and calling him Satan! He couldn’t be more wrong about who Jesus is and what his followers are being called to.
Peter is playing a human game, in which the point is to win. It is to ascend the throne, gather all the power, and gloat before your enemies. Jesus doesn’t play that game. He plays the game that he knows from his father in heaven. This is a game in which everyone is liberated, everyone has enough, those in power give up what they have so that others can share that power, in which we all cooperate, and in which often chutes are ladders and ladders are chutes. The Kingdom of heaven is like turning chutes and ladders upside down. When the Scribes and Pharisees and people in authority try to get Jesus to climb their ladders and bow before their gods, Jesus seems to slip down a chute, but he climbs with the outcasts. When Jesus touches a leper and talks to a woman divorced 5 times he should be going down a chute according to earthly customs, but he climbs closer to a vision of the Kingdom of God.
So many times the values of our faith collide with the values of this world. It is so much easier to follow the ways of this world, that value power, money, recognition, comfort, and glory. It is easier to set my mind on earthly things just like Peter. But it also isn’t easier, because the powers of this world pain me, and I know they do you. We see the damage they do. We even experience the damage they do. So we look for a more true vision and we have found that in the life and death of Jesus. So we find ourselves making choices that don’t always make sense to the powers of this world. Give your money to people in need? Spend your time with people who are hungry or old or alone? Make friends with sinners? Give up comforts? Sit among crying babies and wiggly kids? Are we climbing a ladder or going down a chute? Sometimes it isn’t so clear.
We are Christians. We have chosen to follow Christ. We go where he leads us. We see him stopping to spend time with people that make us uncomfortable, we do it, too, and we find ourselves challenged, growing, enriched by new relationships. We find him giving food to all who are hungry. We do so, too, and we find ourselves fed at a deeper level. We find him standing against the powers of this world that are greedy and threatened by shared power. We stand looking at the cross, wearing his cross on a little chain, but do we really want to take the risk to pick it up and carry it? We know the consequences of standing against the corrupted powers of this world to sustain the weary, sick, and lonely of this world. We will go the way of the cross. We will pay with insults and humiliation, with losses of friendships, with incarceration, with financial losses. We may even pay with our lives. But as we plummet down the chutes of this world, we follow our liberator Jesus through the valley of the shadow of death, and are born into eternal life, into the Kingdom of God, into God’s love and light.
August 31, 20 pastors were arrested in front of the ICE building blocking an entrance to bring attention to the plight of asylum seekers in our nation and our state. They took on a small sacrifice for the sake of people they had never met who are fleeing violence in their home country, who had left everything out of desperation. The pastors said they were scared and inconvenienced, however, they kept in constant prayer for the children removed from their parents and the unimaginable suffering they were enduring. I hope I find myself, someday, standing up for what is right in a similar way. Because this world is so cruel and unjust, we simply cannot let it stay the way it is. We must be willing to make sacrifices, to face suffering, to reduce the suffering of others, to remake this world into the image of God’s Kingdom, into a place of wholeness for all, of cooperation, of joy, of hope, of love.