I did something that I have never done before—entered the Sweet 16 Bracket pool for staff. I used the same system that I use to pick racehorses and unknown political candidates. This is the system: if I have heard of the name or just like the sound of the name, that’s my pick. Even better if I went to that school there or one of my children or husband went to that school. For instance, I went to University of Georgia, so I picked them- but not over Virginia, because I live here. My daughter Kristin went to Valpo, so of course, I picked them. My daughter Callie was born in Arizona—so you guessed it. Gonzaga has a really cool name, so I picked them. Note that I did not look up any statistics or find out about any players or coaches. Did not reflect on prior Sweet 16 winners or even toss a coin. Ethan Richardson, who is keeping our pool, was willing to take my $5 anyway. The one thing I was really aware of as I made my choices was an almost voracious desire to be the winner, to wow everyone with my out-of-the-box, black sheep, cinderella choices and win the entire pool, gaining the respect and admiration of the whole staff, and who knows how many others in the basketball universe. More than anything I was keenly aware of how much I didn’t want to lose. I was not going to be a Loser. Webster’s defines winning as “obtaining by effort, labor, competition or conquest.” When I googled Winning, Charlie Sheen popped up with a long You Tube rant. He said winning is “defeating the nay sayers with zeal and focus,” but he looked like a crazy man while he was saying it. Even with my great system, we all know that I am going to lose my $5. My zeal to win will end in losing. But I will be joined by 67 college basketball teams which somehow makes that feel better.
A Loser- someone doomed to fail or disappoint, someone not successful or attractive. Losing always brings up thoughts of middle school for me. Feeling like a Loser is an everyday occurrence in middle school, isn’t it? Is there anyone who felt like enough in middle school? When I was working in a counseling facility with men who were fresh out of prison for felony assault, the first question I would ask them was, “Tell me how it felt to be 12 years old.” These men, covered in tattoos and heavy with anger, would break down and weep. They shared stories of being the Man of the House as just a boy, being told to Man Up and stop crying, to be tough and not be weak. They described learning how not to trust people and how to hide your real self. We know what they mean. We all have had a moment where we learned to hide our Loser side and look like we have it all together, that we are a Winner not a Loser. Being cool becomes the name of the game and we carry that into our adult life. Don’t let people see that you don’t know what’s going on, that you are uncool, that you don’t know everything, that you are weak. They could hurt you and sometimes they do.
Unfortunately that jig is up when we get to theology. In our scripture today, Christ tells us that we have to die to our own life in order to save it. Our life is like a dead seed planted in the ground with Him that will break open and bring new life. There are many parts of Christ’s pronouncement that make us uncomfortable, especially the deadness and breaking open parts. Who has to be dead? What has to break open? When its Jesus that has to die, we’re ok with that. But when it’s us—that’s a different story. But to have this new life, we have to be dead. We have to break open.
Like in Middle School, we protect ourselves from letting anyone know that we feel dead inside, that we can’t seem to fill that hole in our soul no matter how hard we try or how high we climb. We deeply suspect that we really are big Losers, but don’t want anyone to find out. We are impostors. We put on a good front to the world but inside we are crying out to our very Loser core to be known, loved and accepted just as we are. We think that each new relationship, new job, new degree will bring us the love that we are seeking. We try all kinds of ways of feeling better, including soothing ourselves with any number of feel good solutions or do-gooder acts. We try all kinds of ways to fight that Loser feeling and deaden the pain of our failure to spiritually thrive. The truth is it works, we do deaden the pain and ourselves at the same time. We think that each new relationship, new job, new degree, new purchase will bring us the love that we are seeking. We might as well use snake oil for all the good it does us. Our solutions may even work for a while, but then we are back to Imagineering an answer to our lack of wholeness, purpose and meaning. After we try everything we can think of; achievement, approval, trying to be ‘good,’ we find the shelf life of our own power has a very short expiration date. We’re out of ideas. We don’t have a plan for the good life anymore. We become dead inside. There is no life in us. We go through the motions.
The hard, dead husk of defenses around our heart will have to break. The walls we have built around us to keep us safe have kept everyone out, including our sense of God. No wonder we are lonely and scared! What we don’t realize is that this is the very moment that God has been waiting for, the end of our management. We are ‘laid off’ with a great severance package.
This is where the Loser part comes in. We have to be willing to lose the old life that we have been constructing in exchange for the new life God has in store for us. The death that we experience is the death of the management of our own lives. We relinquish the self-management of our dreams to the founder of the company. It seems like a moment of losing—because we are losing control and letting go of outcomes—but it would be akin to allowing Warren Buffet to manage your financial life. Why wouldn’t you let Warren take over? You would have to be convinced that he could do a better job. And that’s what God is waiting for from us. That we become convinced that, since He made us and the universe we live in, He can do a better job managing our lives. What did Adam and Eve do in the fall? They took over the management of their own account. And you can see where that got us! So we lose in order to win. We admit our lack of power in order to surrender to the One who has all power, and grace does the rest.
Grace works on dead things. Grace specializes in resurrections. When the seed God planted in our heart breaks open, a new, free life grows from where the old fearful, self-managed life bit the dust. We realize there has been a plan all along. God made us and knew us before we were born, but we have been operating on our own power for far too long. In our text today, the Greeks tell the disciples that they want to see Jesus. Isn’t that really why we are all here today, to see Jesus? Robert Capon tells us that Jesus “states flatly that everybody, with no exceptions, will find him nowhere but in the brokenness of the world; in the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead. That is where Christ is found.” (30, Foolishness of Preaching) Christ is found in us when we admit we are one of the Losers who need Him. We are one of the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead, but we are certainly not alone.
Why do we need to be dead, powerless, without a power source? Because that way, when something does happen, we are sure it is God’s power at work not us. God works with timid young girls, runty shepherd boys, and pastured old men—the least likely people- in order to make it very clear that it is God at work and not human power. 1 Corinthians 1:27 tells us, “God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing in order to destroy what the world thinks exists.” This is where you find Christ, with the shameful, weak, nothings like us.
What does Jesus need from us? The bible tells us in Genesis that God creates Ex Nihilo, out of nothing. God doesn’t need anything from us. Christ knows how to tell our ego to go have a seat and be quiet. So what breaks us open and makes us want to lose the life we’re living? Love. God causes us to fall in love with Him because He has loved us since before we were born. We will find Him right in the middle of our own lostness, littleness, loneliness and deadness. He’s been there all along. Our eyes are opened. We taste grace. We hear forgiveness. We look around and notice there are others. Christ shows up in them too—all around us are people who are broken and hurting and we are not alone. We belong to the losers who have traded in their dead battery for a new supernatural one with everlasting power.
Our text from John today tells us, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Our grain of wheat has fallen to the earth dead, been buried and resurrected. We have hated our life without God’s management and given it up. We have followed Christ right through all our defenses and walls, and let Him shine through the broken places in us to others. Because it’s not just Christ’s death we are experiencing with Him—but His resurrection and ascension. Giving up our spiritually dead selves is quite a good bargain to gain a life with Christ that fills us with love and spills over onto our neighbor.
In closing, I feel called to read a prayer that I suspect many people have heard and know well. It’s one of those prayers you can listen to often and still feel like its new. It won’t help me with my Sweet Sixteen Bracket winning but it will illuminate how Christ’s power of the cross works. It is the Prayer of St. Francis and it is a prayer about the abundant life that comes through the death of self management.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
May it be so also for us.
May these be the good works that God has prepared for us to do now and forever more.
- John 12:20 - 33