The Game of Life

The Game of Life

About this sermon series

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied.

52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Let us pray: Astonish us again, Lord, when we were expecting the same old thing. And in my words, Lord, may people hear your word. Amen.

In our sermon series The Games People Play, we are ending up with the one with the most pieces. The Game of Life. SHOW SLIDE It has cards, cars, pegs, money, deeds, insurance paperwork, and 7 buildings that affix to the board, even a tiny plastic church. Spin the wheel, move around the board, make choices along the way about education, career, marriage, children and investments, let your bossy friend be the banker, and whoever ends up with the most money, wins.

I played this game ravenously growing up, losing a few of those pieces in the orange shag carpet of the basement. I once landed on a space that said: “Mid Life Crisis: Time for a Career Change.” So naturally over dinner, I asked mom and dad what a mid-life crisis was. It was this game that introduced me to the concept of a promissory note. It’s also where I got in my mind the idea that at some point in our lives, a bank would just give me $10,000 to start. I’m still waiting for it. Then again, it also taught me in middle school that a speeding ticket cost $5,000. So, I suppose things even out.

The game was created by Milton Bradley who was a lithographer in the 1860s. His first career choice? To sell images of then presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, images taken just before he grew his iconic beard. SHOW SLIDE. After all Bradley’s investment in these pictures, without the beard, no one wanted them. So, ironically, Bradley’s career was going down the tubes. That was when he re-worked this game the Puritans had played … where virtues and Christian morals determined whether or not a person won at life and ended up at the Heavenly Estates. However, Bradley changed it to have someone’s earnings as the goal, and boy did that concept catch on. He called it The Checkered Game of Life. The game didn’t have dice because that still felt too close to gambling for people’s comfort. But the idea that whoever had the most in the bank at the end of the game captured the American imagination. The winner retired at Millionaire Estates, and the loser ended up at the Poor Farm.

To some, this is just a game. But to others, whether we like it or not, it is a worldview, complete with its own Golden Rule: The one who has the gold makes the rules.

Interestingly enough, in the 1990s, Hasbro game makers were concerned that the game was so relentlessly amoral and cash-conscious that they tried to change the game. They added in good deed cards, like Save an Endangered Species or Help the Homeless. But they struggled because the only way to be rewarded in the game was in cash. Even though they did not want a world where the payout to someone winning the Nobel Prize was the same as going on a reality show,[1] they couldn’t sell people on a different set of rules and they quit trying. They couldn’t change their own game, so they settled for the plastic transactional world they had created.

That struck me as a very important warning.

Sometimes, we get caught up in the game so much that we can’t get out of it.

Sometimes, we know that the price tags hanging around our lives are way off, but we struggle to talk about things that have value that transcend money.

Now for a change of scenery – Jesus was surrounded by crowds. He was preaching not in a fancy pulpit but from a boat. He was talking about a new system of values, and he was using parables, these little stories that are beautifully designed to stretch our moral imagination.

He told people, the kingdom of heaven … is like a mustard seed. It is so small, and yet it grows tremendously and hospitably and becomes a home for many creatures.

The kingdom of heaven… is like yeast. Just the smallest amount can turn a stiff cracker into bread, just the smallest amount can give pockets of air in what would otherwise be dense and brittle.

The kingdom of heaven… is like a treasure hidden in a field. Something of jaw dropping value, but to most people it doesn’t look like much.

It’s that string of pearls you’ve been looking for your whole life. It the fishing net loaded with goodness. It is your same house but with surprising new treasure coming out of the storeroom.

Jesus’ teachings were a gamechanger for people. They began to see their lives as worth more than the stodgy transactional system they had known their whole lives. They began to see a kingdom that was wild and generous, surprising and growing, not simply off the grid of the brutal empire around them, but taking root within it, leavening it from the inside out and claiming the very ground beneath it. And what’s even more amazing, some of those very people ended up living it out.

Now for another change in scenery – to the top of a bell tower in Sienna, Italy, in 1999. A gamechanger moment in my life.

Like many college grads with no clue what to do in life and generous parents, I went backpacking around Europe. It was a rite of passage of sorts for those who think flip flops are the only footwear one needs. I had all my worldly possessions on my back, and a storm of questions in my heart. What was my life going to be about? Who would I spend it with? Who was God and did God matter in my life at all? Churches were everywhere, but I felt disillusioned by them. They seemed like mushrooms of the human ego, gilded and vacant, rather than vessels of holiness and humility that I associated with Jesus.

(start music) On a July day, I made my way to the top of the second tallest bell tower in Europe, and I just sat there. I asked God, “Are you real? Because it sure feels like people talk about you a lot more than try to follow you.”

(Music becomes more audible)

Then, the sun beamed on me with a power that felt more like music than light. Washing over me was sense of presence and promise unlike anything I had ever known. I saw fields stitched with trees like a parament someone’s mother made by hand. I heard a distant bell mixing with the songs of startled birds and the aroma of bread. And I sat there for a really long time. I did not want to leave.

(music only for a few seconds)

 I felt myself laughing and crying and singing on and off. I might have looked a little nuts. I have thought about that place many times over the years – whether I was engaged in some kind of wishful thinking or romantic grasping. But, that moment was a game changer in my life. I think that was when I quit talking about God and starting talking to God.

(music fades out)

            What has been a game changer in your life? A moment of reckoning when you asked the big question of what this world is about and what you want to be about?

I think most of us don’t want our lives to be measured by our bank accounts or the size of our home or our tax bill. We can’t put a price tag on the feeling of standing above the tree line looking down at the orange shag carpet of autumn trees covering old mountains. We can’t put a price tag on that person who means more to us than every single thing we’ve ever owned. And if we truly believe that life is a gift from God not something we own for ourselves, then we come to realize that we are playing by a different set of rules than what we experience on a daily basis in our world. Seeing the world through the eyes of faith is a gamechanger. It’s like what Flannery O’Connor said, “And you shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”

            Milton Bradley learned that too. As his own life went on, even though he had amassed boatloads of money through his Checkered Game of Life, andeven though he had previously viewed life as a combination of choice and chance, he couldn’t help but notice that some kids in this world seemed to have better chances than others. So, HE changed. Drastically. He devoted the whole of his later life toward the creation of what we now call kindergarten and head start. This lover of color and drawings poured money into art supplies and crayons and a commitment to young people’s learning, regardless of their ability to pay.

            Before he died, he said this. “In using the word success, I do not wish to confine its meaning to that cheap interpretation which sees only the glitter of gold or the glamour of illusive fame. In my case, I cannot overestimate the feeling of satisfaction which has been with me all these years at the thought that I . . . have done something, if only something prosaic in character, to place the kindergarten on its present solid foundation.”

            The kingdom of heaven is like that…a mustard seed growing beyond anyone’s expectations. A scant amount of yeast leavening the entire loaf. Kindergarten, a field of treasure if ever there was one.

            Faith gives us a way of seeing life in a different way… and it is a gamechanger.

The poet Mary Oliver said it this way:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?