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Sermon: Bishop of Guildford Maundy Thursday Sermon: "Playing the Right Game"

Andrew Watson
Thursday 2nd April 2015
Maundy Thursday Blessing of Oils Eucharist
1 Samuel 16:1-13a
2 Corinthians 3:17-4:12
Luke 22:24-30
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I thought I’d won, but in fact I’d lost. The truth is that I was simply playing the wrong game.

The context was One World Week, back in the early 1980s, when I was working as a caretaker and youth worker in a church in Islington. A local activist had invited a dozen of us to supper, and after the meal was over, she produced a board game a little like the game of Risk. We each picked a country out of a hat, and I was France, and was duly given a lot of money with which to buy provisions and an army.  Most of the others received considerably less, depending on the GDP of the country they’d picked.

And so the game began, and it wasn’t long before the world was at war. By a combination of skill and good fortune, France invaded first Belgium and Holland, and then the UK and Germany. We next travelled east and south, gobbling up most of the rest of Europe, before courageously taking on the might of Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte himself would have hugely impressed at the way I simply brushed Russia aside, laying to rest the humiliating memories of 1812 – and with my competitive juices now in full flow, the whole of Asia was soon under my command. Africa was easy, and so was Australasia. The Americas put up something of a fight. But in the end, with all the resources I’d gathered along the way, France prevailed, and after a 90 minutes or so, I found myself Emperor of the World. And it was just as I was graciously receiving the plaudits of my fellow players that the One World activist stepped in.

It was typical, she said. My conduct throughout the whole evening was typical of the way in which wealthy Western nations exploit the rest of the world. Yes, I’d got lucky in Europe, but from then on my conduct had been inexcusable, attacking Russia and those poor, defenceless African nations. (‘It’s true’, chipped in one of those African nations, ‘I felt really humiliated when France came along!’). And so the diatribe continued until it was finally, blessedly, time to leave, my tail firmly between my legs.

I thought I’d won, but in fact I’d lost. The truth is that I was simply playing the wrong game.

The prophet Samuel had to learn that lesson too, as he stood before Eliab, the eldest of the sons of Jesse. Seven was the Jewish number of perfection, and Jesse had never even thought to invite son-number-8 along, the shepherd-boy, the so-called haqqaton – a disparaging Hebrew word that roughly translates as the afterthought, the runt of the litter. No, if the mighty Samuel was in town, you wanted to present him with a perfect family, with seven strapping lads.

And so to Eliab, who was first in the line: and surely it was always the first-born to whom kingship belonged, especially when – like Eliab – he really looked the part! But then that prophetic nudge from the Spirit of God: ‘The Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’. And so to Abinadab and Shammah and the four younger sons – and eventually to the embarrassing admission that Jesse’s family wasn’t perfect after all – that he also had an eighth son, a haqqaton, who hadn’t been invited to the ball. And as David the runt was duly chosen and anointed with oil – and as the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power – so Samuel must have later reflected on his narrow escape.  Had he ignored that prophetic nudge and anointed Eliab, the firstborn, he would have thought he’d won, but in fact he would have lost. The truth is that he would have been playing the wrong game.

St Paul was the same. On one occasion, in his letter to the Philippians, he reflected on just how well he’d played the legalistic card: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless’.  He was also, I’m quite sure, top of his class in the school of Gamaliel.

And yet Paul – then Saul - had discovered three things as he lay on the ground, blinded by the light of the risen Christ, and as he later reflected on his Road to Damascus conversion. One was the priceless value of the treasure that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfilment of God’s command, ‘Let there be light!’; another was the extraordinary fragility of humankind, pots made of the dust of the earth, whatever our grand designs and pretensions; and the third was the miracle of grace, through which God has chosen to place this priceless treasure in quite such unpromising containers. In his former life, Saul had thought he was winning, but in fact he was losing. The truth is that he was playing the wrong game.

And what of the disciples? Well, they really should have known better by now. Their Master, after all, had been breaking the bounds of convention for years, speaking of how the first would be last and the last first, and practising what he preached as he shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners.

And yet we get to the Upper Room, and to that solemn moment when Jesus has just broken the bread – ‘This is my body given for you’ – and taken the cup – ‘This is my blood, poured out for you’; and suddenly the disciples are at it again, at the most appallingly inappropriate moment - arguing among themselves as to who’s the greatest. And interestingly Jesus doesn’t just stamp on their ambition: he even tells them that one day they will be sitting on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel – but he does teach that the normal rules of leadership no longer apply: that while the rulers of the Gentiles might lord it over their subjects, seeing themselves as Benefactors while simultaneously hiding behind endless gates and walls to separate themselves from the objects of their so-called benefaction – sounds familiar? - the disciples, by contrast, are to get up, close, and personal, to be those who serve. We almost expect Jesus to get down on his hands and knees at this point and wash his disciples’ feet – but that incident, of course, is only recorded in John’s Gospel.

So back to the argument about who was greatest; and perhaps Peter or James or John were the most likely to come out on top, had that argument run its course. But whoever won would in fact have lost. The truth is that those disciples were playing the wrong game.

So to a question this morning – a question for all of us, myself very much included. Are we sure we’re playing the right game?

It’s a question that has come to me most sharply when I have been considered for new positions within the Church, interviews that have blessedly resulted in the answer ‘no’ as often as the answer ‘yes’. Because on two occasions I can think of – not, I hasten to add, the most recent one - I’ve become increasingly uneasy about the post itself as the interview date has drawn closer; and yet by then the competitive juices have got going, and that part of me has really wanted to win.

There is such a thing, I believe, as godly ambition – a desire to be as fruitful as we possibly can be with the gifts that God has given us. Some clergy, and the churches they lead, are far too unambitious for the Kingdom of God, never stretching themselves in mission, discipleship or prayer, but keeping safely within the well-kept boundaries of their own or their church traditions, whether high, low or somewhere in between. And yet the mixture of good ambition and bad, the godly and the godless in these fragile jars of clay is often hard to separate, and there’s an ever-present danger that we might win, but find we have been playing the wrong game. To be turned down for a post can be disappointing; but it’s sometimes more dangerous to be offered one.

In clergy fraternals and deanery chapters, too, it’s all too easy to play the wrong game – indeed, to see ordained ministry as an individual rather than a team sport. In a team, a least a good team, we instinctively rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep: if a member of the team scores a goal, they are enthusiastically mobbed by their team-mates; if they miss a penalty, there are plenty around with whom to commiserate.

But precisely the opposite is true where individualism gets a hold, and we start to treat our fellow clergy as competitors, even rivals. I remember one deanery chapter in which I was involved where the ethos – to begin with at least – was quietly to rejoice with those who weep and weep with those who rejoice: to engage in that nasty activity that the Germans call shadenfreude, where another person’s successes were belittled and another person’s failings magnified. And where that’s going on, even in the secret places of our hearts, we’ve completely lost the plot: we’re playing the wrong game.

There’s a wider lesson too for our lives and ministries: and that is the need to rediscover – to be renewed in – those three lessons that St. Paul learnt as he lay on the ground, blinded by the light of the risen Christ. Have I forgotten the priceless value of the treasure that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfilment of God’s command, ‘Let there be light!’? Am I ignoring the fragility of the clay pot, cruelly working myself into the ground, perhaps, or allowing the persistent, unsettling voice of discouragement to drown out the still, small voice of God? Have I lost touch with the miracle of grace, through which God has chosen to place this priceless treasure into my heart and yours? There’s a prayer of the Psalmist that I find myself praying very often – and it’s a prayer that I pray for my own benefit but also for the benefit of all whom I serve: ‘Lord, renew in me the joy of your salvation’. And I pray that prayer because it keeps me playing the right game. There’s no real joy in playing the wrong one.

And so from my experience in One World Week to a second story from my youth: because I don’t want to be either ageist or sexist, but I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that those disciples who were arguing in the upper room were testosterone-driven young men!

As an undergraduate, I remember talking to a fellow law student (now a QC), and brilliantly arguing the case for the Christian faith - at least I thought I was brilliant! - while destroying what I saw as the feeble arguments he was putting up against it. At the end of the evening, a wise Christian friend took me aside with a simple sentence that I’ve never forgotten: ‘Andrew, our job is not to win arguments – it’s to win people’. There was I, lording it over this poor fellow; and there was my friend’s uncomfortable challenge: that God was calling me to come beneath him instead. An unbeliever can argue with every aspect of Christian theology point by point. What they can’t argue with is the power of a humble, loving, selfless life.

And so to finish with Jesus, and with a word of warning which may be particularly relevant to the wealthier parts of our diocese, where it’s especially easy for people to think they’ve won, but in fact to lose; where playing the wrong game seems almost endemic.

In words that I might have usefully taken to heart before setting off for that evening in One World Week – and in words that spelt out a temptation that Jesus himself had faced and rejected during those forty days in the wilderness:

‘What shall it profit a person to gain the whole world, yet to lose their soul?’