SERMON 11-10-13 Proper 27 St. Boniface, Sarasota
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
“The Christian life is a challenging life. These are the words we heard in the bishop’s letter I read to you, God’s people of St. Boniface, last week. Often, the most intriguing challenge of Christian community is how we deal with the reality of power issues. Most communities of people, who gather in common life together, eventually have some formal and informal structures that define responsibilities, accountabilities, authority, and power. Employing and sharing power in a Christian community is something that has the potential for unimaginable good, and at the same time, if conflicted, there can be implacable destruction.
There is a power struggle in the story we hear in today’s gospel. Jesus, the young radical, “change the system,” rabbi, Our Lord, encountered a power bent on his destruction. In this particular event, several Sadducees approached Jesus and asked him well-crafted and disarming question about the resurrection. It was a blatant attempt to trip up Jesus, and topple his influence in the community. Why? Because Jesus threatened the perceived importance of those learned and experienced folk, and the power and influence they wielded in the community.
The basis of the Sadducees argument lie in the fact, they did not believe in the bodily resurrection, and it was this differing value, which opposed the Pharisaic sect of the community and later the Christian community. From this disagreement tensions and hostilities were ever present between these groups. The Sadducees on that particular day were blatantly making a power grab, by thwarting the authority of the young rabbi Jesus. They were engaging in what some call the “Gotcha game.”
THE GOTCHA GAME
Have you ever had someone ask you a loaded question, and waited for you to fail? Have you ever had someone try and catch you in a compromising position, so they can exert power over you, and knock you off your heels? Have you ever had someone intentionally expose your weaknesses in order to inch ahead in the old ladder of success? Many of us have experienced these scenarios in our lives. “The gotcha game” occurs when someone intentionally engenders distrust, disharmony, and downright evil intentions, so that legitimate authority might be disarmed. It is kind of like a “spiritual filibuster” or a “community shutdown” that just seems to expand and never stop. Recent political “gotchas” have proven that “filibusters” and “shutdowns” are ineffective when it comes to complex problem solving.
I personally have experienced the “gotcha game” in my first career as a Retail Buyer. For multi-million dollar product lines, I was responsible for managing and negotiating assortment, pricing, terms, delivery, and support partnering with large suppliers. There were times I engaged in heated negotiations over issues, but you can bet, I took no risks when it came to the company’s assets, or the relationships I had with my suppliers. Some of my colleagues engaged in the “gotcha” game in business, and they played it well, but there was always a price with this approach. My colleagues usually set out to shift the buying and negotiating power to their side, by tripping up their suppliers, in order to put them at a disadvantage. ]
In the end, by manipulating, maneuvering, and undermining the other, trust was lost, integrity was diminished, and long-standing vendor relationships were severely damaged. What usually worked best in the realm of retail buying was to establish relationships of trust, to seek mutual support, and to respect each other when hard decisions had to be made. The “gotcha game” really had no place in business, and the “gotcha game” certainly has no place in the church either.
Love your Neighbor
The problem with the “gotcha game” in the church is that it violates Our Lord’s sacred command to “love your neighbor.” The unhealthy wielding of power in the Christian community that undermines one’s sister or brother, is what Martin Luther called “a demonic spell cast upon the soul.”2 Luther described this power wielding “gotcha” as Anfechtung, a German word, which really has no accurate English equivalent. As nearly as possible, it means doubt, inner turmoil, and pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and a lot more bad things. Remember the word blitzkrieg from World War II–a lightning-like attack? Well, that’s about what an anfechtung is: a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body.2
Anfechtung always has devastating results. The aftermath of such godless power, to accuse, manipulate, and destroy another person for whom Christ died, is quite honestly, beyond our imagine. Anytime we choose to engage in the “gotcha game,” Christ is crucified anew and his body, the church, is wounded.”1
Loving one another is the remedy for the gotcha game. Healthy dialogue is the alternative to the “gotcha game.” Self-examination and releasing our innate desire to destructively wield power and influence, is the process toward peace and the end to the power grab. Releasing power diffuses and moves us from anfechtung to reconciliation. When faced with conflict, which is a natural part of moving, growing, changing, and transitioning, we need to practice the ancient spiritual practice of discernment with patience, so that reconciliation and peace might abound.
I imagine in the temple that day, had the “religious experienced” listened with patience, rather than the well planned “gotcha game” strategy, the story would have been much different. Maybe the religious leaders could have approached Jesus with love and respect. Maybe they could have acknowledged his wisdom and respect the burden he was carrying. Maybe together they could have dialogued, listened, and supported. What if the religious leaders had taken a chance to be vulnerable and had spoken truth? “Teacher, we don’t believe in resurrection,” maybe those words alone, and possibly, Jesus response, “let’s talk about that for awhile,” could have been all that the Gospel reported for that event. Maybe if the story followed an alternative path, the ensuing well-lain trap to undermine Jesus’ authority, thwart his approach, and circumvent his mission would never have happened, especially if the dialogue had begun in mutual respect, integrity, and love. How tragic!
Later in Jesus ministry, he faced the “gotcha game” once again. While Jesus body hung almost lifeless on that hard cross, bleeding, broken, and near death, the religious stood pointing fingers, taunting, and possibly thinking, “we gotcha now.” But Jesus did not succumb to the game, he like he always does, turns death in to life, despair into hope, brokenness into restoration. In beautiful words that cut to our core, Jesus fully reveals the depth of God’s love. At Golgotha, we are shown the vulnerability of the God of love, which is the kind of love, God demands we have for one another.
Jesus hung there with outstretched arms and said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” With these brief words from the lips of our dying Lord, Jesus overturned the power game. Through the cross, the “gotcha game,” anfechtung, inner turmoil, pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and a lot more bad things, lost their power.
God’s power comes not from manipulation, undermining, and maneuvering over and against the other, but from a love that finds its power in ultimate vulnerability. It is in the work of God reconciling the world to Godself, that we are given hope of reconciliation with each other. The icon of reconciliation is that beautiful Christian symbol we lift high as we enter this place of grace, and leave it to go out into the world to love and serve the Lord. Redemption means that in order to experience love, mercy, grace, peace, and reconciliation, we must actually take up the cross of relational vulnerability, and die to the “gotcha games,” self-importance, and communal power struggles. We die to the old self, so that we might be raised to new life in loving community where in our relationships, we reflect the grace of the “God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of are alive.”
1Lueking, F Dean. “The Gotcha Game.” Christian Century 115.29 (1998): 993. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.