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Calvinball

07/14/13

02:07:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1791 words  
Categories: Ordinary Time 2013

Calvinball

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
July 14, 2013

Prayer
Jesus, this is the best place in the world for us to be. Because we’re with you, with you together. By the Holy Spirit, you fill this place and touch our spirits. By the Word, you speak in this place, speak to our minds and hearts. And by the Table, by your Body and Blood, you welcome us in this place, and you commune with us body and soul. Convince us of your presence, Lord Jesus. Assure us of your love. Focus our attention on your Kingdom. We have faith in you. Help us with our doubt. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Deuteronomy 30:2-4, 9-14
Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Sermon
Those who believe in me will do what I do.  —John 14:12

Calvin and Hobbes fans know about calvinball. Calvinball is a game. A game that only six-year-old Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes know how to play. An unusual game, calvinball. Unusual because it’s different every time they play. Because the rules are always changing. Even in the middle of a game.

You and I would have a hard time playing calvinball. We wouldn’t know how to start. And if we figured out how to start, we wouldn’t know how to end. Because the rules would keep changing. Which is like having no rules at all.

But games have rules. They have to have rules. Without rules, you get chaos. Without rules, you get calvinball!

Life has rules, too. Some of those rules are written down. We call them laws. If they get really detailed, we call them regulations. Some rules are unwritten. We call them traditions or community standards. We know all about rules. There are rules for driving and rules for paying income taxes. Rules for going to school and rules for putting up a fence. Rules for getting married and rules for getting divorced. Even rules for cutting your grass.

After I had been at Comstock Church in Kalamazoo for a while, I decided that the massive pulpit—like that one, only much bigger—I decided that the massive pulpit didn’t suit my way of preaching. So I dragged it out and replaced it with a lectern—like this one, but fancier. The lectern suited me much better. But when I returned from a couple weeks of vacation, the massive pulpit was back! Apparently I had broken an unwritten rule.

An expert in the Law of Moses had a question for Jesus. What do I need to do so I can live in the Kingdom of God? That was his question. It was a test. He wanted to see if Jesus respected the rules. He wanted to see if Jesus respected the written laws and the unwritten traditions that had come from Moses. Those were the laws and traditions that defined Israel, the laws and traditions that identified a Jew as a Jew.

Jesus knew what was behind the man’s question. So he turned it back on him. You know the Law of Moses. What does it say? The expert could have quoted 10 commandments. He could have cited 613 regulations. Instead he expressed the “vibe” of the entire Law of Moses. He summed it all up the same way his teachers had done. He summed it all up the same way Jesus did. Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor the way you love yourself. That was his answer.

Jesus nodded his approval. He told the man, Do this, and the Kingdom will be yours. It was all straight out of Deuteronomy. There Moses told Israel that two possible futures awaited them. Future A would be blessed. Future B would be cursed. And it all came down to the rules. Obey the commands and decrees of the Lord, Moses told them, and blessings will overflow. 

It was that simple, according to Moses. It’s not too hard for you, he said. It’s not out of reach. But the expert . . . being an expert, he wanted precision. Love God, and love your neighbor. That was a good summary. But it was too general.

Not the God part. The expert knew which god he was supposed to love. The Lord. The God of Israel. The God who had brought his people out of Egypt. That part was clear. The God part.

But what about the neighbor? Which neighbor, which neighbors, does the commandment have in mind? That part was not clear. So the expert asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? He wasn’t trying to weasel out of anything. He just wanted to make sure he had things right. He didn’t want to go around loving the wrong people by mistake.

So Jesus told him a story. A simple story. A story about loving your neighbor the way you love yourself. Only in this story, it wasn’t the priest who loved his neighbor. Even though they were Jews, both of them, the priest and the wounded traveler. And it wasn’t the Levite who loved his neighbor, his fellow Jew. No. As the story goes, it’s the Samaritan who loves the wounded traveler.

A Samaritan helping a Jew! Unbelievable! Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other. They hated each other. Despised each other. But in the story, the Jew is desperately wounded. So he can’t refuse the Samaritan’s help. He can’t refuse the contamination that would go along with that help. So a Samaritan helps a Jew. Imagine that. And a Jew accepts help from a Samaritan. Imagine that.

And what Jesus invites the expert to seethe expert in the rules and regulations—what Jesus invites the expert to see is not the rules and regulations. Not the written down ones about bodies and blood. And not the unwritten ones about how despicable Samaritans are, despicable and beneath contempt. By his story, Jesus encourages the expert to see a Samaritan—a Samaritan of all people!—to see a Samaritan loving his neighbor, a Samaritan doing the very thing that the rules are all about.

The Christian Reformed synod met last month. The agenda included an overture asking for official guidance in connection with same-sex relationships. The overture wanted answers to questions like these:

  • If a same-sex couple wants to use our church building for their wedding, what should we do?
  • If my friend wants me to stand up for her when she marries another woman, what should I do?
  • If our son marries another man, can we be at the wedding?

In 1973 the Christian Reformed Church said officially that same-sex relationships are sinful. Since then we’ve been trying to figure out how to love certain people while we hate what they do (or what they want to do). Obviously we haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Maybe more official statements will help.

Let me tell you about two awful things I did years ago. The first was when Jan and I got married in 1981. Jan did most of the planning. The main thing I had to do was to decide who would stand up for me at the wedding.

I was a new Christian back then, and one thing was obvious to me. Everyone who was standing up in the wedding had better be a Christian, too. After all, we were getting married in the sight of God. That meant none of my old friends could be groomsmen. And it meant my brother Tom couldn’t be my best man.

I explained it to him. And he took it pretty well. But to this day, I regret that decision. I think it was misguided. I think it was cruel. I think it was a rejection of one of God’s first and best gifts to me, my brother. I have apologized to Tom. But 32 years later, I still feel bad about it.

The second awful thing also concerned my brother. Tom got married before I did. Then he got divorced and remarried. None of what he did fit within synodical guidelines for Christian marriage. So when he asked me to be his best man at his second wedding, I didn’t know what to do.

I knew what the rules were. The rules about divorce and remarriage. But I didn’t know what to do with those rules. Especially if I wanted to love my brother and my family. There were no official guidelines to tell me what to do. And Jesus wasn’t standing in front of me so I could ask him, Who is my brother?

So I had a talk with Ted Minnema, professor of moral theology at the seminary. He gave me an approach to take. He said, Sure, go ahead and be your brother’s best man. But first you need to tell him that you think what he’s doing is wrong. Which is exactly what I did. And I regret it. To this day, I regret it.

What happened in both cases is that I reduced my brother to a category. I looked at him and I saw a certain type of person. I looked at him and I saw a “person who didn’t believe in Jesus.” I looked at him and I saw a “person who broke God’s rules about marriage.” That’s what I saw. But do you know who he really was? He was my brother! Shame on me for not first and foremost seeing him that way! Shame on me for not first and foremost loving him! Whatever the rules say. Whatever the official statements require.

That expert in the Law—he  didn’t want to love the wrong people by mistake. He didn’t want to waste his limited supply of neighbor-love on the wrong people. But Jesus invited him to see people in a different way. Jesus invited him to see love where he wasn’t expecting to see it. And to show love where he wasn’t expecting to show it, because of what the rules required.

I’m not sure exactly how this all works out for us today. In connection with our brothers. In connection with our sisters. In connection with our children and with our friends. Or in connection with people across the sexuality spectrum. But somehow I can’t help but think that there’s more to it than rules, much more to it than rules.

Now, you may be thinking that messing with the rules is dangerous. That this amounts to changing the rules in the middle of the game. And that if we go this way, then life is going to turn into the chaos and anarchy of calvinball. Maybe. But maybe not.

I do know this. As crazy as calvinball gets, in the end Calvin and Hobbes always love each other. It’s like they’re neighbors. No. It’s like they’re brothers.


In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.

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