SERMON Proper 27 Pentecost 22C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
The “Gotcha Game”
Back in the 1990’s, I was an Associate Buyer at Sears Corporate outside Chicago, and I worked later a Buyer with a major regional retailer. I was responsible for the assortment planning of multiple product lines for over 800 retail stores. I negotiated with vendors to create assortments, set pricing, and determine delivery and terms. It was all a negotiation game of give and take and economic power wielding. The best buyers were the ones who listened to their vendors’ advice, partnered with them to achieve common goals, and admitted when they were wrong or when they had made mistakes.
The worst buyers were the ones who tried to trip up their vendors, reduce orders when something did not go their way, demand unexpected concessions in order to secure market position, or wield their economic buying power in ways that put their partnerships at risk. These retail executives failed because their core values were based in the “Gotcha game.” The Gotcha Game is one where one player trips up another through inappropriate power wielding, and that game is similar to the one we hear about in today’s gospel reading.
There was an encounter between a group of Sadducees and Jesus in which the Sadducees asked Jesus a well-crafted and disarming question, about the post resurrection marital status of a woman. She wound up married to seven brothers, after each one of them had died. According to Jewish tradition, “if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”
The question was a part of the Sadducees “Gotcha Game” against Jesus. Like a parking lot conversation after a controversial church meeting or good Sunday sermon, these religious leaders have huddled together for days, cooking up a little scheme to try trip Jesus up and undermine not only Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, but they really wanted to embarrass and defame Jesus, in order to lift themselves up to a level of power and influence in the community.
The Sadducees were blatantly going for a power grab, by thwarting the authority of the young rabbi Jesus. The heart of today’s gospel is not a theological discourse on marriage in the afterlife but rather, the whole encounter is an example of the potential evil of inappropriate power wielding in community. The gospel through this encounter, teaches us about out the evils of engaging in the “Gotcha Game.”
“Why did they want to undermine Jesus,” you may ask. Because Jesus threatened the perceived importance of that little power-wielding group in the community, those learned and experienced folk who felt threatened by this young upstart teacher. Rather than engage in relationship building, the Sadducees went after a “power grab” to sustain their long-standing or yet, to better their ongoing influence in the community.
Now some of us may look at this event and say, “Well that just does not happen in churches or in the world today Fr. Eric. We all are beyond that kind of pettiness.” Really? Do you watch political news stories these days? The “Gotcha Game” is happening on both sides of the partisan aisle, and within the aisles themselves. It also happens every day in our professional lives and yes, it does happen in the church. Trust me, I have stories about this topic from my days working on diocesan staff, and I can tell you about some incredible “Gotcha Game” situations in churches that ended up in unhealthy conflict.
Now, conflict does happen, and healthy conflict is necessary for us to move forward. Conflict in church is a natural part of growing, changing, and transitioning, but unhealthy conflict is destructive. When we have differing viewpoints, we often fail to engage in the ancient spiritual practice of discernment with patience, so that reconciliation and peace might abound. There is a communal destructive power in the “Gotcha Game”. The manipulating, maneuvering, and undermining of the others through the “Gotcha Game” destroys trust, diminishes integrity, and damages Christian relationships. The “gotcha game” has no place in politics, business, and it definitely has no place in church.
Often, the most intriguing challenge to Christian community today is not buildings and committees. Our greatest threat is how we deal with the reality of power issues. Most communities of people, who gather in common life together have some formal and informal organizational structures that clearly define responsibilities, outline accountabilities, and sets healthy boundaries around authority and power. Employing and sharing power in a Christian community is something that has the potential for unimaginable good, but at the same time, if unhealthy “Gotcha Game” power wielding emerges, then there can be cruel destruction to the community.
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 as Anfechtung, a German word that as nearly as possible, means doubt, inner turmoil, and pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and many more evil things. Anfechtung is like blitzkrieg, a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body. (2) Unhealthy conflict in church, the wielding of power to destroy the other always has devastating results. The aftermath of such godless power, to accuse, manipulate, and destroy another person for whom Christ died, is quite honestly, the work of Satan and it is evil. Anytime we choose to engage in the “gotcha game,” Christ is crucified anew and his body, the church, is wounded.”(1) Thanks be to God, we are not left to our own demise. Jesus commands us that by loving our neighbor, we discover the remedy for the “Gotcha Game.”
The best way to love our neighbor is to listen to each other, be vulnerable to one another, and learn from one another. I imagine in the temple that day, had the “religious group” listened with patience, rather than engage in the well planned “gotcha game” strategy, the story we heard would have been much different. Maybe the religious leaders would have approached Jesus with love and respect. Maybe they would have acknowledged his wisdom and respect the burden he was carrying. Maybe together they would have dialogued, listened, and supported one another, and taken a chance to be vulnerable speaking truth to one another.
Maybe it would have gone something like this, “Teacher, we just don’t believe in resurrection and your teaching is challenging to us.” Maybe Jesus would have said, “Well, let’s just talk about that for awhile.” Maybe if the story followed this 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 with mutual respect, integrity, and love.
You see, when we experience conflict, differing ideas, and divergent approaches, it is through healthy vulnerable dialogue that we find the alternative to the “gotcha game.” Self-examination and a release of our innate desire to destructively wield power and influence, can become the process towards peace, and the end to the power grab. Releasing our own desire for power diffuses and moves us from “Gotcha Game” to a holy practice of reconciliation.
When disagreements arise among us, we need to abandon power grabs and do some holy listening, asking questions, especially when we experience conflict with a sister or brother. We need to sit down and talk and ask questions of ourselves like: (1) “Can I learn something new, (2) “How is this situation calling me to be transformed, (3) “Can I adapt to these changes.” Here is the best one yet, “Could I be wrong.” In order for Christian community to shine its light in the world, we must really follow Jesus and learn to be vulnerable to one another.
Jesus faced the “gotcha game” once again in his ministry. While his body hung near lifeless on that hard cross, bleeding, and broken, the religious ones once again stood pointing fingers, taunting, and possibly thinking, “we gotcha now.” But Jesus did not succumb to the game. Like he always does, he turned death in to life, despair into hope, brokenness into restoration. In beautiful words that still cut to our core today, Jesus fully revealed the depth of God’s love. We see the vulnerability of God’s love, which is the kind of love God demands we have for one another. Jesus 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,” inner turmoil, temptation and a lot more bad things, simply lose their power.
The power of Christ and his body the Church, comes not from “tripping each other up,” or trying to wield unhealthy power in the church, which many of us were able to do in our former or current professional lives. The power of Christian community comes from our ultimate vulnerability to God and each other. It is in the work of God reconciling the world to Godself, that we are given the 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 the same one we follow out into the world, knowing we are redeemed, and sent out to love and serve the Lord.
Redemption simply 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,” our need for self-importance, and the pursuit of communal power struggles that threaten our witness of grace. It is only when we die to our old self that we have the hope of being are raised to new life in loving community. Then and only then will our relationships reflect the grace of the “the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.”
Lueking, F.Dean. “The Gotcha Game.” The Christian Century, vol. 115, no. 29, Oct. 1998, p. 993.