I don't believe in no-win churches or mission fields.
“It’s the Kobayashi Maru. No one passes the test and no one goes back for thirds.” ~ Bones, Star Trek (2009)
The following is the last sermon I gave to my local church before I was appointed to my new parish in July. I was an Associate Pastor for Students (children, youth, young adults) and you can tell that by the content of the sermon.
I’ve done some editing to make the sermon more universal than local.
Scripture: Genesis 32
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.”
Have you ever been in a no-win situation? When you are eating food at a friend’s house and it tastes awful but the friend asks “how do you like it?” When your spouse is trying on clothes and asks “does this make me look fat?” When I interviewed with my first church up in the northeast, the question was “Are you a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan?” When I interviewed here, the question was “OU or OSU?” When I interviewed with my receiving church, the question was “Ducks or Huskies?” I assumed they were talking about animals, so I said “house cats” Then I understood they were talking about Sports so I said “neither, Red Sox” without realizing they were talking about basketball.
There’s lots of no-win situations that we get into.
In Scripture today, we also have a no-win situation. Jacob is minding his own business when after dark he starts to wrestle with another man, whom Jacob determines is God. Jacob and the man keep on wrestling (real wrestling, like you have in school, not like what is on TV). It becomes apparent that the man cannot overpower Jacob’s determination. But as the night draws short and the dawn approaches, there’s a problem: if Jacob keeps wrestling, he will die. I preached on this scripture in my first few months here and we learned together that the common understanding was that if any human saw the face of God, they would die. When Moses was allowed to see God, he hid in a crack that God covered with God’s hand so that Moses would not see God’s face, only God’s back. Never God’s face. So Jacob would not let God escape, but if God did not escape, then Jacob would die. Sounds like a no-win situation, right?
Hold onto your hats. It’s even worse than that.
Jacob has sent his family ahead of himself and he stays apart from them. Why? Because a few chapters before, Jacob had stolen the birthright from his father from his older brother Esau. He had fooled their father Isaac into giving him the birthright and Esau was mad. Esau was chasing after Jacob with 400 men, ready to kill him. Jacob had only his family, and he sent them across the river ahead of him. In only a short time, Esau would be there. Jacob had sent cattle and riches to appease Esau, but to no avail. So, in a very short time, Jacob would be dead if he stayed where he was, and his family would be dead if he tried to stay at their pace with them as the 400 men would catch them. Sounds like a no-win situation to me if there ever was one.
We know a little bit about no-win situations in these trying times that test the limit of our energies. At our jobs we are often expected to do more and more when we have less and less energy and passion. At our homes, we are expected to be more attentive and focused when we have less energy and are more willing to settle for things. At our churches, the need for volunteers to continue vital ministries demands more and more of our most dedicated aging volunteers. It’s to this situation of more stresses, more responsibilities, more items on our checklists, that we come to the altar for the good news today.
The title of this sermon is The Kobayashi Maru. It is a violation of everything I hold dear to reference a Star Trek episode when I’m clearly a Star Wars nerd. But here we go.
In the movie Star Trek 2, the movie opens up with a warship happening on a terrible conflict in space. A peaceful spaceship full of people has come under attack by a superior enemy force. The name of this spaceship filled with vulnerable people is The Kobayashi Maru. The captain of the warship has a choice to make: do they avoid the conflict and thus doom the spaceship’s people to death? Or jump in and undoubtedly be destroyed and possibly the spaceship too?
In the movie, the captain chooses to engage and one by one the crewmates are killed by explosions until the Captain is the only one left and about to die as well. Then the lights come back on, the fires go out, the crewmates stand up, and it’s revealed that this is a war game, a simulation, a test of the commander as only a futuristic test can be. Here’s the scene. Captain Kirk comes out and reveals that it is a no-win scenario: it’s impossible to win the war game. Its purpose is not to be won but to test the mettle of the presiding captain in the face of certain death.
Our theme for today’s topic seems to be on no-win scenarios, on situations that seem dire and unable to be resolved easily, if at all. That seems like a weird topic to preach on for this preacher’s last sermon. But if we really sit and think about it, there are no-win scenarios around us all the time.
- With public education, if your school does really well, then you enter a different tier where it is harder to obtain more money. If you do really bad, then they take money away from you per the ironically named ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Either way, it’s a no-win situation where the students and teachers lose out.
- With big business, if you focus on the customers, you can lose the confidence of the shareholders. If you focus on the shareholders, you can lose the satisfaction of the customers. No win without a superhuman balancing act.
- Even in the church, we live in a no-win world. If we focus on church growth, we lose sight of our discipleship of making stronger followers of Christ. If we focus on discipleship, we lose sight on our call to reach the whole world with Christ’s message. It’s hard to focus on both, and an error to believe in one over the other.
We live in a world of no-win scenarios, yes. But more than that, in our church and especially with our students, we teach a lot of values that seem like no-win scenarios as well.
- We tell our girls to seek to be beautiful – If a teenage girl makes herself too beautiful or develops before her peers, she gets unwelcome attention. If a teenage girl hides her beauty and wears less-than-flattering clothes, then she is hiding herself and punishing herself because of other’s decision. Beauty can be a no-win situation.
- We tell our students to seek to be smart. – If the students focus on smarts over compassion, then they can suffer from arrogance or know-it-all-ness. If they act dumb or intentionally minimize their intelligence to fit in with others, they fall short of their potential. Smarts can be a no-win situation.
- We tell our students to seek to give Charity to everyone they meet – If they do this and bend over backward, then they will hurt themselves and be taken for a ride. And the opposite can be even worse: a church without charity becomes a museum: a great building with no people and no soul. Charity can seem like a no-win situation.
- We tell our students to seek to be Humble in all things – If they exemplify being humble completely, you stand for nothing. There’s no spine in your step, no convictions to hand your hat on. If you minimize it, your life becomes “my way or the highway” with utter certainty that you are right. Humilty can be a no-win situation.
Jesus was the master of teaching no-win scenarios. He told the rich young ruler to give up all he had to follow Jesus. He told Nicodemus that he must be born again, born from above, in a fashion that Nicodemus did not think possible. He was trapped by the Pharisees demanding judgment for a woman caught in adultery. Time and again, Jesus encounters or preaches a no-win situation. Why is this? In Jesus’ time, there was a no-win sitatution with every jew at every moment of every day. They believed in purity and observation of the Law of Moses. You had to be a good Jew to be rewarded. And good jews followed all 613ish commandments. All of them. If you broke or failed to uphold one, you were excluded. In the Pharisee’s zeal to purify their religion and culture, they purified it by making it extremely difficult.
So following Jesus Christ, we are called to preach and engage these no-win situations, to offer a word of grace and encouragement, to dismantle injustice and offer grace to those hurt by these situations.
So hear the Good News. There is hope. There is a way out of this mess that you are in.
Here the sermon breaks down into three different messages. Hear them all, and then you can decide which category you fall into. First, a message of hope for the adults. Second, a message of hope for the students. Third, a message of hope for the church.
For the adults, my hope for you is that you keep wrestling.
In the scripture story, Jacob kept wrestling. He refused to let go of God until he got a blessing. He even got his leg torn up and he kept holding on, even though he knew death would be upon him at daybreak. And only in his persistence was he rewarded with a blessing. Likewise, in Star Trek, the only way a Captain failed the test was by not engaging, by avoiding the conflict. If the Captain entered the conflict, they passed. If they didn’t, if they made the logical choice to save their crew, they failed.
In the same way, keep wrestling with those areas of your life that need attention. And as your minister over student ministries, with our youth, keep being engaged. Keep volunteering, even though high schoolers are scary and middle schoolers are crazy energetic. Keep being involved in their lives. It’s important. In the recent book You’ve Lost Me by David Kinnaman, it examines why young people leave church. One of his research points is that a large majority of those who leave the church report only having their parents as adult friends. Get involved and you can preserve the church for the next generation one relationship at a time.
For the students, my hope for you is that you cheat.
Not on tests, not in school, but you cheat and find a way to not play the game that the world wants you to play. In the scripture story, God and Jacob are seemingly evenly matched. God doesn’t want to harm Jacob by being around at daybreak, so God uses God’s powers and breaks Jacob’s leg and force a resolution. God cheats in a fair match to save Jacob’s life. In the Star Trek scene, it is revealed afterward that there was one winner of that no-win scenario. Captain Kirk himself cheated and hacked the computer so that he could win. When he was brought up on charges for it, in his defense he said “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.”
I don’t believe in any no-win scenarios in your life. Whether you are wrestling with beauty, smarts, ability, or family/friends, there’s a way through it. It’s not the easy way out and it’s not by pulling away and walking away, but it is by refusing the play the game. You can’t beat the game of gossip by participating in it. You can’t beat the game of beauty by responding to everyone who is attracted by your outward appearance.
For the church, my hope for you is that you pick which ditch to die in.
It’s a phrase from our Bishop at the Ordination service in Tulsa last week. He said that the #1 thing he learned in his 8 years and counting as bishop is to know which ditches he was willing to die in. Meaning that he knew there were situations that if he intervened in, he might lose everything and find himself in a ditch in the dark. And if he didn’t, if he avoided the ditch, then he may not forgive himself for playing it safe.
In the scripture passage, Jacob couldn’t deal with his brother Esau’s wrath. He had given away his wealth and his humility. He couldn’t win. So when the man whom Jacob knew as God started wrestling with him, Jacob chose to keep wrestling, even though it would put him closer to death because he know that a blessing from God was the only way out of this mess. And it did. After this scene, with a new name, a new limp, and a new blessing, Jacob and Esau made amends and continued forward separate but together. Neither won their conflict, they chose to set it aside for the greater good.
For the church, I hope you set aside your difficulties for the greater good. There’s unwinnable scenarios. We will always lose people and we can choose to die in the ditch of numbers or we can die in the ditch of faithfulness. A recent report in the book You’ve Lost Me said that overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement. I challenged last year’s Confirmation class that there would be a 50% drop off after they were confirmed and I challenged them to beat it. Out of 14 Confirmands, 4 are no longer regular or even irregular participants. That’s 72% of them continued on in active participation. We beat the odds, but it wasn’t 100%. Do I lament the 4? Of course. But I don’t guilt-trip the remaining 10 for failing to keep up their end of the bargain. So may it be with you. Keep wrestling. Keep being engaged. Keep shooting for project 500 but care for each of the 400 until you get there.
For the next Associate Minister, my only advice that I hope you tell him is that there’s unwinnable scenarios that will come across your desk. Word got around that the Methodist church is not like many of the other churches in town, in that we would listen to the youth first rather than telling them they are sinners and hellbound in the first breath. In our town, I’ve talked to teenagers who have had abortions, teenagers who are gay, teenagers who think about suicide, teenagers who have had sex for the first time and are scared to death. Teenagers who are being bullied. In all these situations, the church could have consulted the big book and offered judgment and been right in some cases, but in my full responsibility, I tried to offer as much grace and guidance and funneling towards professional help that I could. The way to beat the drop-off from the teen years is to focus on one person at a time in the hope that the grace given is multiplied in weird roundabout ways.
In conclusion, in the movie, Captain Kirk cheats in the test, yes. But he doesn’t cheat to win. He cheats to save the people aboard the Kobayashi Maru. He cheats to show that his convictions match up with his actions. He cheats so that for every crewmember that sits on his ship from then on, they know that he believes it when he says “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.”
I don’t believe in no-win churches.
I don’t believe in no-win students.
I don’t believe in no-win situations where families can’t find a way to reconcile.
I don’t believe in no-win schools where the bullied kids have no way out.
I don’t believe in no-win bible studies where there’s “no way the youth will get it.”
I don’t believe in no-win volunteers who assume that because of their age they have nothing to give.
I don’t believe in no-win churches and I suspect you don’t believe in those either.
I hope you continue your work, your involvement, your wrestling,
your cheating of the games of life, in order to save the people
who need the saving power of Jesus Christ in their lives.
Often, in the act of saving others,
of offering God’s saving grace and power,
you find that you yourself have been saved from the no-win situations in your life.
And may God continue that grace that flows from you to every person that you meet.
Glory be to God. Amen.