Nick Saban, the University of Alabama Football Coach that everybody except Bama fans loves to hate, gave more fodder to both sides of the Roll Tide divide in a recent media interview. Ahead of the next Saturday’s game, he was asked about the availability of a quarterback who had sustained an injury in the previous game. You would think this would be an innocuous question, but apparently not. Here’s what Coach Saban had to say in response.
“You know, we’re focused on winning the game. Alright so, we’re going to try to win the game. We’re going to play the best players that we can play to win the game. We’re not assuming that we’ll have the opportunity to play just anybody that wants to play, to expedite anything except winning the game.”
At this point in the interview, Saban, who started the interview in a state of agitation, raised his voice and pointed his finger and pounded the podium. “So that’s what we’re going to do! So I don’t think anybody should expect us to do anything else!” Then he walked off with a withering look of disgust for the reporters.
Within the span of that 40 second interview, Coach Saban talked about winning the game 6 times. To be fair, I suppose that is the job of a football coach – to win the game. And for the record, the Tide won the game, just as they win nearly every game every season.
In contradistinction to Coach Saban’s interview, we have our gospel reading from Luke on this All Saints Sunday. It is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, in which Jesus addresses the people who have lost, are losing, or will lose the game of life: the poor, the hungry, those who weep, the hated, the excluded, the reviled and the defamed. Jesus promises the losers in life that they will one day be the winners. Then Jesus addresses the winners in life: the rich, the full, the laughing, and the admired. He then says that they will one day be the losers.
Everything we take for granted is turned upside down by Jesus. Most of us assume that the point of life is to find wealth and fulfillment and happiness, but Jesus casts a different vision for us. He then concludes this passage by instructing his disciples to intentionally lose in life – to defy the self-evident norms of common sense.
Instead of taking revenge on our enemies, we are to love them. Instead of shunning or badmouthing those who hate us, we are to do good to them. Instead of defending ourselves from a punch, we are to make the other cheek available for another blow. Instead of pursuing justice for someone who steals from us, we are to pursue the thief in order to give him more of our property.
I could almost stop the sermon right there and let the absurdity of Jesus’ teachings sink in. Of course we are familiar with “turn the other cheek”, but have we really heard what Jesus is saying? Could you imagine actually following his commands? We would lose in everything and lose everything! Unlike the Crimson Tide, we are to be “focused on losing the game.”
Most of the time we either ignore scriptural admonition, or we make it conform to the ways of the winning world. I re-watched Rocky this past week. Mickey, the weather-beaten trainer comes to underdog Rocky’s apartment and tries to pump him up for his against all odds shot at the boxing title. “I’m here to warn ya, that ya gotta be very careful about this shot that ya got at the title. Because, like the Bible says, you ain’t gonna get a second chance!” I’m pretty sure that verse is found right next to “God helps those who help themselves.”
For me, and perhaps for you, the effect of reading the actual Bible and taking Jesus’ words seriously is twofold. First, there is conviction. How can I actually begin to love my enemies and do good to those who hate me? I want to follow Jesus’ teachings because I really do believe that the vision of life that Jesus casts is so much better than the vision cast by the winning dog eat dog world.
The second effect is what theologians call the 2cd use of the Law. Although I do want to try to love my enemies, I realize I just can’t – at least not very well and not for very long. I know it is the right thing to do, but as the Apostle Paul says, I do the thing I don’t want to do, and I don’t do the thing I do want to do. And realizing my predicament, I know that I need a Savior. As Luther says, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of God.”
The good news on this All Saints Sunday is that we have a Savior. The scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the “Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8) Did you hear that? Christ’s blood was shed for us before the world began. Somehow, in the mystery of God’s plan, the cross of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, has always been in existence.
That means that everything is already won! Striving to be a winner in this life is utterly pointless, because in Christ everything is already won. That’s the vision that St. John recorded in the book of Revelation. “I looked and saw a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
I’ll close with a scene from Flannery O’Connor’s short story called “Revelation.” Mrs. Turpin is a self-satisfied woman who prides herself on being one of the winners in life. While in a doctor’s waiting room, a young, angry woman has enough of Mrs. Turpin’s prattle, hurls a book at her head and calls her a “wart hog.” Later on her farm, while tending to her to her own hogs, Mrs. Turpin has a revelation worthy of All Saints Day.
“A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of (filthy), clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of (disreputable people) clad in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
Then Mrs. Turpin’s revelation really hits home, as she sees the erstwhile winners in the game of life. “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself… had always had a little of everything and the God-given wits to use it right. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key.”
And finally her vision reaches its culmination. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” The revelation fades and leaves her stunned. “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
Hallelujah to the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Everything is already won.