the unfolding stories of the 194th olympiad: “the losers who win,” august 14, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
It’s part of our faith heritage—
It is God’s assurance—
God’s promise.
There is some divine investment
in a cosmic balance,
and it’s predisposed towards
those who have gotten the short end of some stick.
They will receive, our faith and our God claim,
the long end of said stick—
which is not the corresponding expression,
but makes the point, right? … which is the point!—
that it’s not whatever end of the stick we have
that determines—that predetermines our life.
Life is more far mysterious than that—
far more terrible and wonderful than that,
and so much of what we take for granted
as real and fixed and absolute
is merely what appears to be.

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God …
the God whose very name is holy,
set apart from all others.
God’s mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who in awe before God.
God bared a mighty arm and showed strength,
scattering the bluffing braggarts.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet,
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
Luke 1:46-47, 49b-53

Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things
and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here.
Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented.
Luke 16:25

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning….
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you’re ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
Luke 6:20-21, 24-25

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them,
‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock,
he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager,
‘Call the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and then going to the first.’
When those hired about five o’clock came,
each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more;
but each of them also received the usual daily wage.
And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal
to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong;
did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go;
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Derek Redmond, Barcelona, 1992

Pastoral Prayer
Another week, our God, more shootings.
More killing.
An imam and his assistant both shot in the head in Queens.
A man shot and killed in a police chase in Milwaukee.
Violence in Milwaukee in response.
A police officer shot and killed in Georgia.
Another officer stabbed in New York City.
An Ohio man arrested for killing a police officer in New Mexico.
Our own police department investigated
indicted for profiling—for excessive violence.

Yes, It’s a scary world in which we live,
but there are attitudes and choices—
ways of talking and acting—ways of being,
that make it scarier—
that amplify the fear and the hate—
amplify the anger and the violence.

May we be those who amplify
justice and peace,
grace and love,
amidst what’s scary—
creating a better world—
actively intentionally resisting what’s worst about us.

May we be sustained in this
in and through our worship and prayer and community,

always in the name of Jesus,

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
It’s one of the tenets of our faith
wouldn’t you say?
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We toss it out relatively easily—relatively often.
I do—
and usually without thinking too much about it.
Just kind of generally—abstractly
thinking of reversal—inversion—
that verse I love from Acts
about being a part of turning the world upside down.

Point being, of course, were that to all happen—
reversal—inversion—oopsy daisy,
there are few, if any of us, without a lot to lose.

There are few categories in the world
in which all of us would not now already number among the first.
We have the long end of the stick and are due,
according to some of our scriptural affirmations, the short end.

So there are, it seems to me, as usual,
different levels of understanding—
or of applying Scripture.
(And the shift from understanding to applying is important—
part of a bigger shift
from our faith as something we believe
to something we live.)

And there is one level at which
Scripture has to do with some sense
of a divine tally being kept—
some cosmic balance
that will be imposed upon reality.

I don’t understand that.
I don’t see it.
I am not comfortable assuring anyone of this.
But it’s pervasive in our sacred texts.
It’s the apparent meaning of our gospel reading—
of other parables—think Lazarus.
“Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things
and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here”
(Luke 16:25).
It’s the Magnificat.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet,
the callous rich were left out in the cold
(Luke 1:53-53).
It’s the beatitudes—especially in Luke
with the blessings and the corresponding woes
(Luke 6:20-26).

All of which is hard for me to hear as anything other than
if things are hard now, wait.
There will come a great reversal.

And I always have to wonder,
how is that not pie in the sky by and by?
How is that not false hope?—
an opiate distributed by those
who benefit from the way things are now—
those who don’t want the applecart upset—
things inversed—reversed—
the world turned upside down?

That’s when it’s so very important to remember—
as usual, that most of those to whom Jesus spoke—
many of those to whom the original writers wrote,
would have been those already with the short end.

So the question remains:
how to hear this—
how to imagine people with the short end of the stick
hearing this,
and not as wait—
not as good news one day,
but as good news now?

Because we’re not talking about philosophical balance,
but about sustaining hope in people struggling to hope—
about working for justice in a world that is not just
(our world is not just)—
about maintaining some sense of worth
in people whose worth is not celebrated in and by the world.

So there’s another level
at which inversal or reversal is not a promise for the future,
but a strategy in the present.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath
names the first part of the book
“The Advantages of Disadvantages
(and the Disadvantages of Advantages)”—
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
[New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2013] vii).
It’s a fascinating read.
Basically he suggests
there are opportunities in disadvantage—
a potentially helpful different perspective
that someone only has by virtue of the very disadvantage—
a perspective that is suddenly insightful—

It’s not an example he references,
but I invite you to imagine
how much I have lamented through the years
my nearsightedness.
Snowskiing I have one more thing than anyone else to fog up.
Waterskiing I’m always a little apprehensive—especially in back coves
that there’s something in the water I’m not going to see.
Snorkeling, the water actually increases magnification,
but there’s too much out of focus.

Then it occurred to me one day,
what if the first impressionistic painters were nearsighted?
Now I have no idea.
I googled, but sometimes that’s just more confusing!
But I do now occasionally take my glasses off and look at—
mainly trees
with the light coming through the leaves and branches
distinction dissolved into colors,
and they are beautiful.

I’m not sure that’s what we’re talking about though in our Scripture texts.
An opportunistic approach to circumstance?
And I’m even more uncomfortable to think in terms of strategy
(a we are intentionally last so as to be first kind of thing).

And we saw the footage from the 1992 Olympics
of Derek Redmond, a runner from Great Britain,
favored to medal, tearing his hamstring.
We saw him get up.
We saw his desire to just finish the race.
We saw his dad coming down out of the stands to help him.
Derek himself said, when he heard that familiar voice,
the emotions he had been holding in check, overwhelmed him.
We saw that.
His dad said, “You don’t have to do this.”
And he said, “Yes, I do.”
Said his father, “Then we’ll finish together.”
And they kept moving toward the finish line,
waving away the officials who came up to them.
What we didn’t see or hear was the crowd’s response.
It was powerful.

But did that invert/reverse what happened?
Turn it on its head?
Did it make up for not winning gold?
I saw an interview with Derek.
“To be honest, no,” he said.
And as beautiful as trees are,
I would still love not to need corrective lenses.

In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin,
four pole vaulters cleared 13 feet 11¼ inches,
but only one cleared 14 feet 3¼ inches,
and Earle Meadows took the gold.
Bill Sefton, of the US, and Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe of Japan
went to a jump-off.
The two Japanese both cleared 13 feet 7¼ inches, but Sefton did not.
Now there are a couple of different stories as to what happened next.
According to one, Nishida and Oe kept jumping until it got dark at 9 p.m.
But in the end, whether after a day of jumping or not,
the Olympic Committee told the Japanese team
to decide who would take silver and who would take bronze,
and Nishida was awarded the silver medal, Oe the bronze.
Some say it was a coin toss.
Some say it was because Nishida cleared a jump on his first attempt
that took Oe two attempts.
No one was happy. Least of all Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe.
So back in Japan, they took their medals to a jeweler—
one silver medal, one bronze—
and asked the jeweler to cut them in half
and then join bronze to silver and silver to bronze
creating new, heretofore unknown, unseen, unconceived Olympic medals.

And that was more than a different way of seeing things.
It was not opportunistic
It was not strategic
That was a rejection of the categories and labels of our world—
the assessments—
the criteria for winning and losing—
the designations of relative significance.
“The medals became known as the Medals of Eternal Friendship”

On the cover of the bulletin today,
are pictures of people who didn’t win their events.
Fencing. Gymnastics. Track and field. Tennis.
Some just lost.
Some may have been defeated by their loss.
Some transcended their circumstances.
Some may have transcended the very categories of win and loss
in the discovery—the affirmation—the celebration
of something more important.

The surface level of our scripture texts
inverts circumstance.

But for a while now, I’ve wondered how it makes sense
to simply invert circumstance
without changing their value—
the way they’re understood in the world.
Don’t you otherwise just perpetuate their failing—
their blindness or short-sightedness?

If someone is rich now and someone is poor,
to invert their circumstances
is to maintain the inappropriate significance of money, right?

So the question
the more important question, I believe, is—
is not how do I get the other end of this stick,
but how do we stop using this stick to measure our worth—
our esteem—our success?
How do we stop using this stick to beat some down
and raise others up?
The more important question, I believe, is,
what is transformative here in someone’s life?
What creates new possibilities in and for that life?
How and where is something more important named here and now?

A poem by the polish poet Anna Kamienska entitled “Transformation”:

“To be transformed
to turn yourself inside out like a glove
to spin like a planet
to thread yourself through yourself
so that each day penetrates each night
so that each word runs to the others side of truth
so that each verse comes out of itself
and gives off its own light
so that each face leaning on a hand
sweats into the skin of the palm

So that this pen
changes into pure silence
I wanted to say into love

To fall off a horse
to smear your face with dust
to be blinded
to lift yourself
and allow yourself to be led
like blind Saul
to Damascus”
(Anna Kamienska, Astonishments
[Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011] 79)

“Well, that’s lovely,” some of you may well be thinking,
“but John, we never know quite what to make of it
when you say—and let me see if we’ve got this right—
when you say, here’s what Scripture says,
but that’s not what it says—
or that’s not what it means.”

And well should you always wonder!
But here’s the thing … or part of the thing!

Because it’s not that Scripture just inverts circumstance—
takes what society deems desirable
and makes sure everyone gets their fair share at some point.
It’s that Scripture calls our criteria for evaluation into question.
In one of Isaiah’s descriptions of the suffering servant—
Isaiah takes what society values and, well—
describes the faithful follower of God
who had no form or majesty that we should admire,
nothing in appearance that we should desire.
despised and rejected by others;
an individual of suffering—acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces,
despised and held of no account
(Isaiah 53:2b-3).
And here it’s not that the short end of the stick
is inverted into the long end.
It’s that the long and short ends of the stick don’t matter.
The stick doesn’t matter
It’s just the person beloved by God—
seeking God’s will.

Time and time again through Scripture,
we have words and ideas falling over themselves
to say what can scarce be believed—
to contain truth vaster than can be worded—
not so much failing as always falling short—

falling inevitably into our categories of evaluation—
our ways of thinking,

and yet, nonetheless,
falling toward truth.
And this is for me the inspiration of our sacred texts—
always containing hints, intimations, clues, suggestions
of the more that lies behind and underneath and beyond.

Not in any absolute correctness,
but in the consistency of indicators beyond itself.

Biblical rules? Biblical precepts?
None of them—none of them are perfect absolutes—
all pointers—indicators—signs
of life lived together in healthier ways—
of creation more whole and more holy.

So, a couple of questions for us to all consider.
First, do we really want for things to be inverted
Do we really want the world turned upside down?
And I would invite an honest reflection here …
because for most of us
the lines have fallen in pleasant places
(Psalm 16:6).

And so that question, I think, has to be heard as:
do we care enough about those without our advantages—
those with that short end of the stick?
Do we care enough about them to risk
our own benefits?
Do we care enough about God’s creation
to look beyond our own measures
of success, convenience and security?

And second, if so, if that is what we want,
then how do we invert, reverse,
and turn the world’s categories upside down?
How are we undone
and remade?
How do we fall into the dust
to be lifted up blind
and led to the light—to new sight?

We are in training.
That’s what it means to follow God.
We are in training.
And the events in which we can earn medals
(although in these games to win any individual medal
is to prepare the way for more team medals)—
the events in which we can earn medals,
are love and kindness—
peace and justice—
forgiveness grace and mercy—

Some of y’all—many of y’all are gold medalists.
You know.

and so you know it’s so not about winning some gold crown,
but about realizing
that winning in a way that allows others to win too
creates not just a new way of being
but a new reality—
in which differences are celebrated—
the other is included and welcomed—
in which competition is not about winners and losers
but about ever growing into more.

So, again, I ask you,
have you had someone in your home
at your table for dinner with you
who’s different?
Someone from another country?
Someone who speaks another language?
Someone who’s gay or transgendered?
Someone from another socio-economic bracket?
Someone of a different ethnic background?
Someone of a different faith?
Someone you don’t understand?
Someone who’s been left out?—
seated at your table—with you—in your home—
someone inviting you into bigger and more?

That is God’s dream coming true,
which is our dream coming true too,
though it may be one we don’t even know we dream.

Our categories left behind
in celebration of what is more important:
all people—every single person—
beloved of God
and by the people of God.


Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
As for those who in the present age are rich,
command them not to be haughty,
or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,
but rather on God who richly provides us
with everything for our enjoyment.
They are to do good, to be rich in good works,
generous, and ready to share,
thus storing up for themselves
the treasure of a good foundation for the future,
so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Philippians 3:12-16
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;
but I press on to make it my own,
because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own;
but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind
and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on towards the goal for the prize
of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;
and if you think differently about anything,
this too God will reveal to you.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.


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