“Not at All by Chance”

June 21, 2020

Matthew 10:34–42

Jesus is instructing his newly called disciples before he send them out to work:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

I recently saw a cartoon of a man reverently kneeling at the front of a church. This was not your ordinary church. There wasn’t a beautiful stained-glass window or a large cross or a picture of Jesus in front. Instead, perched at the front of church was huge replica of a #1 lottery ball. Under the cartoon was printed the words the man was using to soulfully close his prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, the Powerball, and the glory forever. Amen.”

Our culture’s interest in gambling continues to grow. Whatever your position, in many ways, state-run lottery games have brought black ink to many checkbooks. It my state, lottery proceeds are used to reduce property taxes. Other states use proceeds to fund public education. Not only has the lottery been a new source of revenue for states and schools, local merchants have benefited also. A key attraction to many a Kwik Trip or Casey’s store is the easy access to lottery tickets. Need a tank of gas, a gallon of milk and a loaf a bread? Pick up your chance for winning millions at the same time!

Proponents of a gambling culture admit there are downsides to all this risky business. The threat of organized crime still lingers in the casino industry. We are painfully recognizing that gambling can be as addictive and destructive to some people as drugs or alcohol. An economy built on gambling neither produces goods nor provides necessary services.

It seems to me the lure of gambling is that hope for “success-by-chance.” And it is not only individuals who hope for success by chance. City, county, and state government, fretting over how to balance budgets have turned to lottery games and casinos as their ticket to salvation — if not financial solvency.

It is not my intent to argue a point about the lottery, gambling or the choices people make on how to spend their money. For our purposes as Christian people, followers of Jesus, the deeper issue is not whether holding a lottery ticket in one’s hand or pulling the handle of a slot machine is “right or wrong.” The real question is what we see as the true measure of our success. That applies to all of us. I know some people find great entertainment in gambling and they handle it well, within reason. But the question for all of us is measuring our true success. Is success primarily a matter of winning or how much money or power we can wield, or how much admiration or notice we can generate in other people?

Jesus talked about a different measure of success that has nothing to do with our money, the positions we hold, or our possessions. When Jesus called people to follow him — he did not promise them 1 in 10 odds with the Powerball. When Jesus called people to follow, he did not tell them they would become prominent members of their communities. Instead of offering his followers “success” Jesus told them and practiced with them a sacrificial way of life. Instead of promising his followers they would always be “winners,” Jesus insisted they must learn to give up the things of this world.

Was Jesus a success? Well, when you hear a summary of his life it is hard to answer “yes.” The guy lived in a small town of no consequence, and his message was confined to a tiny segment of the population. Jesus’ own closest friends and associates were slow to learn and quick to doubt his words. He infuriated the local religious leaders and people with power — to the extent that his days were numbered. He was arrested, tried, and convicted while being abandoned by his friends. He suffered a humiliating, tortuous death on the cross. Is this a success story?

I think Jesus was a true success because he was faithful to God’s call. He was faithful to what God sent him to do. He was faithful in reaching out with a gracious, compassionate welcome to people. Jesus followed God’s design for loving and turning from the world’s definition of success. God’s plan was not about success as we define it by income and status and possessions, but about things with eternal value.

In the bible reading from Matthew today Jesus is instructing his disciples and he is saying tough things. What he says is a gigantic contradiction of everything we consider in measuring success and power. Jesus has called these ordinary people and now he is transforming their lives with directions on how to live and follow him. I think his goal is to ultimately cause his followers to measure life’s success in a way very far from how you and I measure success. Here are a few of his words again:

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Whoever loves father or mother, son, or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So, let’s admit it. These words clearly contradict what we see as logical in our living. Until we begin to understand that Jesus is a gigantic contradiction of everything this world calls powerful or successful, we will be confused, we just won’t get it.

The story is told of a guy was hired by a highly competitive marketing firm. After a few months he began showing some signs of wear and tear, so one of his friends invited him to lunch and asked him how the new job was going.

The man said, “The way it works at my job is that when you get hired you get 100 points. When you make a mistake, you lose points. If it’s a small mistake you lost one point, but if it is a big mistake, you lose three, or maybe five. When you get down to 80 points, they fire you and hire someone else.’

“Being naive in these matters, his friend asked, “How do you gain points?’

“With a steely gray expression of despair, and a look right in the eye he replied, ‘You can’t!’”

If there is a success story for Christian people it starts first with the cross of Jesus. Because of that, we have hope, there is no reason for despair. Our true success as Christians, is not in anything we have, or make or possess. The good news is that we need never fear slipping below 80 points.

But like those disciples called and instructed by Jesus, you and I have callings, too. Jesus gives us directions. We find them at the end of the bible reading today. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Jesus tells us to welcome others as be people of grace and mercy.

You see, the daily lives that we pick up again tomorrow morning after this day of rest, have immense purpose when seen as a calling by God. You are going to get up tomorrow morning and remember that you are a child of God, deeply loved, forgiven, and sent by Jesus to extend his love, mercy, and compassion for others. Jesus wants you to live out your faith wherever you go and in whatever you do. The success many strive for in so many ways — including the chance that so many hope for in the POWERBALL or scratch ticket is a quest that leads nowhere really. But following Jesus and living out His call in our lives leads to purpose, meaning and joy, and that is not at all by chance. Amen.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.