Playing Poker in Church

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt
Senior Minister
Westmoreland Congregational
United Church of Christ
Bethesda, Maryland

Sunday, November 16, 2014
Stewardship/Nominations Commitment Sunday

“Playing Poker in Church”

 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’    His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

 Matthew 25:14-30

Sometimes I wonder why we are here.  Why are we here on Sunday mornings?  Why does the Christian church continue to gather week after week singing, “Praise God from who all blessings flow…” when we work our fingers to the bone day in and day out trying to prove those words to be untrue?  We live in a society and a time that says, “Blessings come, not from God, but from our personal hard work.  Blessings derive from a good education.  Blessings are the work of our clever minds toiling away 60 hours a week.” Why do we gather to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…” when we continue to not forgive and certainly not forget?  Why do we proclaim these words from the Bible that “God is Spirit, Truth and Love,” when we wouldn’t recognize the Holy Spirit if she showed up at church in a ball gown with the words “Holy Spirit” emblazened on her forehead in rhinestones?  Why speak of Truth, when we buy into falsehoods of power and greed?   Why speak of Love when we allow hundreds of people to be shot in the streets of our cities and thousands to die on the field of battle and we do nothing.   Where is Love in that?

Why don’t we just give up and go to Starbucks on Sunday mornings?

I have atheist friends, and I have agnostic friends, but more than that, I have “meh” friends, people who have not outright denied God, people who don’t reject the faith, but people who just don’t care.  People who are jaded or bored by traditional religion and so the best they can muster is a half-hearted “meh” in response to it all.

When I hear part of this scripture reading this morning I understand their disenchantment.  Here is Matthew telling a story in the voice of Jesus that pictures God roaring like thunder, “To those who have much, more will be given… but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  And worthless people are tossed into outer darkness.”

That is not an image of God that appeals to me.  This image of God seems harsh and judgmental and ultimately cruel.  This is a God who expects all A’s on our religious report card and perfect choices from us at every turn.

Much of the world seems to work this way already, in that contractual way: If you do this for me, I do that for.   Even some prosperity gospel preachers toe this line:  “If you pray the right way, God will reward you.”   We hear that in so many ways:  “If you do the right things, go to the right school, dress the right way, you will succeed.”

No wonder people say, “Meh” to that kind of theology. It’s no different than what you get from “People” magazine.   And, deep down, while we may like the glitz of a People magazine theology, the ease of that, we know it to be false.

The church, in so many ways, is wrongly a place of success or pretend success, no wonder people don’t engage.  That is Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, or maybe 7 to 7, kind of thinking.  Can’t Sunday morning be something different?  Shouldn’t Sunday morning be something different from the rest of our lives?

On some level we are all a bit cracked, a bit broken, sometimes more than a bit.  And even at church, we don’t know what to do with that.  Fairly regularly, you’ll hear of a church having a giant tussle over something silly.  I know a church that had a huge fight over where the minister should stand to greet worshipers after the service.  One church member took tape and put an X on the floor and said to the pastor, “You stand here.”   For real.

I think that kind of silliness is because we aren’t brave enough to deal with the true aches and pains of our lives.  The church focuses on trivialities, and so a large part of the populace says, “Meh,” and wanders off.

Maybe the church will find its relevance by returning to a theology of failure.

Last Sunday, a piece by James Carrol was published in “The New York Times,” a wonderful piece that I recommend entitled, “Jesus and the Modern Man.”   (I wish the Times headline writers had opted for “Human” rather than “Man,” but it is worth your time.)  Carrol, who is a faithful Catholic and a former priest, expresses his own doubts and his own worries about an irrelevant church.  But he ended by saying that “the centrality of Jesus can restore” the church.  He wrote, “All dogmas, ordinances and accretions of tradition must be measured against the example of the man who … eschewed power, exuded kindness, pointed to one whom he called Father, and invited those bent over in the shadowy back to come forward to his table.”

To overcome the “meh”-ness of our age, we must rediscover Jesus.

And that is risky business.

We live in an age of war.  Jesus preached peace.  We long for retribution.  Jesus practiced forgiveness.  We live in a time of segregation.  Jesus welcomed the stranger.  We walk in a world of fear.  Jesus lived with fear-forgetting grace.  We live in a city that struts with power.  Jesus spoke softly of humility.  We work in a culture that rewards success.  Jesus modeled sacrifice. We live in a culture that sells it soul for safety.  Jesus risked his life for love.

In Austin, Texas, where we lived before coming to Westmoreland, there is a beautifully built bridge across the Colorado River.   The bridge is held up by two steel arches that span the river.   The arches are about a foot wide and they stretch 600 feet from end to end.  At the top point the arches are a hundred feet above the roadway and two hundred feet above the shallow river.

I have a friend who is a psychologist.  Several years ago he was talking to a teenaged boy who was in counseling.  At one session, the teenaged boy told the therapist that the night before he and a friend had climbed over the fence that guarded the arches. In the middle of the night they walked over this metal arch, risking their lives, risking a fall into the six lanes of traffic below or risking a fall into the rocky river down even further.

“Why did you that,” the therapist asked.

“Because we needed a challenge. Our lives are so boring.” 

This was a kid who had everything.  Good schools, good parents, plenty of money, clothes, a car.   He had everything except for challenge, adventure.

And so he climbed a bridge in the dark of night. 

My therapist friend – who is himself a lapsed church person, but the son of a minster – said to me, “The church has failed if it does not engage people with the hard work of being a Christian.”  Being a disciple of Jesus is not about memorizing creeds or showing up on Sunday morning or singing certain songs. It is about a life that is challenged to be transformed.  “The church must offer a challenge,” my friend said. “Or the next time that kid may decide to jump, just to see what happens.”

When I was a kid, my dad taught me to play poker.  Some families play charades or Go Fish or Apples to Apples.  When I was a child, my family played poker. My father, who is a pretty decent poker player, thought that was a skill that my brothers and sister needed in life. And it is. Not so much the poker-playing itself, but the sense of risk-taking. We played poker with match sticks or maybe pennies, no big cash pots at our house.  But I learned some things from playing poker.  I learned that you play the hand you’re dealt.  I learned that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.  And I learned that if I never bet any of my matchsticks, I would never win any more match sticks.  That is, I learned about risk.

So, I think we should play more poker in church. Now, I know that my grandmother and some of our Puritan ancestors just rolled over in their graves.   Hear me say this: I am not advocating taking our church’s endowment fund and running over to casino.  But I am saying we should take more risks.  Not unsafe risks, not silly risks, but purposeful, meaningful risks.  We should live and love with a faith that is daring and brave and adventuresome.

It’s nominating time.  I hope you fill out your nominations forms and suggest people to serve on boards and committees for next year.  What if, just what if, we said that for every hour a board or committee meets at church, they should spend two hours standing at the Friendship Heights Metro with a sign that says, “I’m a Christian, let me tell you about Jesus.”  I think I just heard our Nominating Committee members throw up a little bit in their mouths.  We’re not going to require our board members to publicly talk about Jesus because that would be embarrassing. What would the neighbors think?  Let’s be honest: That’s too risky.  Instead, we’ll just have a cup of coffee in the social hall and go home and hope that we’ve done something important.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had a couple of people sleeping in our church building.  Part of me says, “That’s wonderful, that’s what a church building is for: to provide sanctuary for people in need.”  Another part of me, a louder part of me, a part of me I don’t like so much, says, “We have to make sure things are safe.”

So, I’ve spent time over the past few weeks trying to find better housing for these friends.  It is not easy to find housing for people in need in Montgomery County.

So I was doing research on how different churches across the country provides houses for homeless people.   And I ran across a sermon preached by Saint John Chrysostom.  He was a priest at Antioch, which is in Turkey, in the late 300s.

In his sermon John Chrysostom urged his congregation to set aside a Christ room in their homes, to set aside a guest room specifically called a Christ room so they could welcome strangers, so they could welcome people in need, as if they were Jesus himself.  In his sermon, John Chrysostom said, “You are earnest in worldly matters, do not be cold in spiritual matters.”   Then he said, “You have a place set apart for your chariot, but none for Christ who is wandering by?”

If we wanted to put that in modern context, we could say, “You have a garage for your car, but you do not have a room for homeless people.”

I can imagine all of the reasons the people at Antioch would have given Saint John Chrysostom for not adding on a Christ room.  Just like I can imagine all of the reasons we can come up with for not welcoming strangers into our homes.   (In fact at coffee, I want you to play a game.  I told you I learned to play poker as a child.  Here’s the game I want you to play.  I want you to pair up or form a group.  One person should come up with all of the reasons you can’t welcome a homeless person into your house.  And one person should come up with the very best reasons that you should welcome homeless people into your home.)

By the way, most of the reasons we come up with to not have a Christ room, will be some variation of what servant number three said in our scripture passage, “I was afraid.”

Just like not asking church members to hold signs at Friendship Heights: We are afraid. Afraid someone will laugh at us, afraid someone will think less of us, we are afraid. And so we keep on with our tepid take on church, and the world shrugs it off with nothing more than “meh.”

In addition to being nominations time, it is also stewardship time.  You are invited to place your completed pledge card for our 2015 budget in the offering plate.

A church member a few years ago said to me, “Tim, you preach the worst stewardship sermons ever.”  And I said, “You’re probably right.  And that is the least of my shortcomings.”  “Yeah,” said this church member.   “When you finish a stewardship sermon, I always want to give all of my money to the church, but it’s because you make me feel like the world is about to end.”

I didn’t quite know what to say, so I just shrugged and said, “Sorry.”

Which is what I say to you today, “Sorry.”  I’m sorry to be such a downer.  But I think we need to be honest.  If we are complacent, if we settle for safe, the church will die.  We may have enough money in the bank to pay for long-term ecclesiastical hospice care, but make no mistake.  If we settle for safe, if we are complacent, the church will die.

I don’t think it’s so much a matter of being cast off into outer darkness, as this scripture alludes. I think it’s a matter of drifting off into inner nothingness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Last Sunday I heard a story that I think I knew, but needed to hear again.  Last Sunday was the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  Our choir took part in a service at the German Lutheran Church.  (Beautiful music, choir.  Thank you.)  That service focused in part on the role that Christians in East Germany played in the fall of the wall.

Under the Communist regime, the East German government strongly discouraged its citizens from becoming involved in religious activities.   Christians and churches suffered a great deal in the 1950s and 60s and 70s.

And then in 1980s, Christian Führer came to be the pastor at Nikolai Church in Leipzig, a city of about 500,000 people in East Germany.  In 1982, Pastor Fuhrer began organizing prayers for peace.  In 1985, Pastor Fuhrer put a sign outside his church.  The sign said, “Open to all.”   That may seem like no big deal to us. But that sign spoke volumes in Germany where Nikolai Church provided the only space in the country where people could talk about things that could not be discussed in public.  The prayers for peace meetings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians, and atheists all sought refuge there.

And they prayed for peace, and they read the scriptures, and the pastor preached about nonviolence, and they lighted candles, and they sang songs.  Beginning on September 4, 1989, the peace prayer gatherings became weekly, Mondays at 5 pm.  Hundreds of people showed up, then thousands.  On October 7, 1989, the government ordered the church closed.  Police beat people who tried to gather there, so the prayers for peace happened outside the church.

On Monday, October 9, 1989, there were 70,000 people present.  In a city of 500,000, where religion was essentially outlawed, 70,000 people came to church.  There were death threats. The army encamped nearby.  Streets were blocked.  Lives were at risk.  And they showed up.

They stood in the streets, holding candles and singing and praying.

The next week, in Leipzig, on October 16, 1989, 120,000 people showed up.  The following week, October 23, more than 320,000 people showed up.

Now these people praying for peace in Nikolai Church were not the only factor at work.  There were political realities, economic troubles, a corrupt system rotting from the inside out. But on November 9, 1989, at 10:45 pm, an East German commander told his troops to open the checkpoints, and the Berlin Wall was no more.

Those people at Nikolai Church in Leipzig – 70,000, 120,000, 320,000 people – were brave people who risked their lives.

Never doubt the power of prayer and song and candles lighted for peace.

So, what do you feel called to risk?

I invite you to give more of your time.

I invite you to pray more fervently.

I invite you to increase your pledge of financial support.

I invite you to light more candles in the face of darkness.

I invite you to rediscover the centrality of Jesus.

I invite you to take your faith into the streets of our city.