Writer Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.”
In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room.
But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play the game, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They too were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game.
This time, however, the game proceeded very differently. The instructions were given too quickly to be grasped very well. In all the confusion the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op.
One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. They were all winners. No one was put out of the game.
What this version of balloon stomp pictures for us is a vision of the world radically different than it is now. Right now the world operates on a system based in comparison and competition – and by the way, this is true in democracies as well as dictatorships. It’s the way almost all of the social systems operate that we are part of – in business, education, sports. Can you think of a system that you are a part of that does not to some degree function on the basis of comparison and competition?
Paul has a completely different vision for the church and for the world. Both Paul and Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, believed that the church is called by God to give the world a foretaste and preview of the kingdom of God and in a sense, be the first installment of God’s vision and dream for the world. A world that does not organize and operate on the grounds of comparison and competition, but rather, a just world of equality and mutuality where all are included and no one is tossed aside. A world where exceptionalism does not exist. There is no exceptionalism in God’s just world. It’s hard to even imagine such a world isn’t it? And yet, here’s the kicker, we who are the church, representing the body of Christ in the world, are called to model God’s dream for the world and give the world a taste of God’s new creation.
Paul described the Spirit of Christ who indwells the church and to whom the church belongs both as a “deposit” and “first fruits” of what is to come. Paul believed the church should be living now what God wants for the whole world – God’s dream for the world. Paul wanted the church to be a microcosm of God’s macrocosmic dream and will for the whole world. What I mean is: Paul believed that the local church, a local gathering of Christ followers could live out in a particular place in a particular community what God wants and wills for the world globally and universally.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul emphasizes that every member of the community is gifted and while the various gifts serve various functions all the gifts are for the purpose of the common good: “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul even goes on to argue in this passage that those who seem to be of lesser value in the functioning of the body, God deems of utmost importance and bestows the most honor. God turns our value system upside down. This is why Jesus gave special preference to the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the mentally and physically challenged, and those excluded and put down by those in power.
Luke apparently shared a similar vision of the church. In the account in Acts the Spirit of Christ fills this gathered group of Christ followers and enables them to communicate the good news in the various languages of the known world. Everyone hears the good news in their native language. Luke interprets this event as the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world, when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, all humankind. In that day the Spirit empowers everyone – young and old, men and women, people of all nationalities – everyone drinks of the Spirit and is filled Christ’s Spirit, which is the Spirit of love, the Spirit of grace and truth. It is the Spirit who empowers works of mercy and works of restorative justice.
Now, I think we have to be honest and admit that the church has not done very well in embracing this vision and being an example for the world. And this is nothing new. I suspect Paul even wondered at times whether the communities he was forming could ever arise to such a vision. For the most part we have letters from Paul because the churches he formed and worked with seemed to be plagued by one problem after another. There are forces at work from both within and without the church to thwart this vision of a compassionate and just world.
And yet still, it is the church, or faith communities like the church that gives hope to the world that we might become a more merciful, compassionate, loving, and justice seeking people.
Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid, and the family lost their farm and they had to move into town. The kids dressed in what was given to them by charitable organizations. The first day of school the teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everyone telling what you did on vacation.”
Fred felt so out of place and embarrassed. One girl reported that she spent a week in
. Another had gone to Florida . Another
kid said their family went to Niagara Falls
and seen all the historical sites and all that. Fred was worried, all choked
up; he didn’t know what to say. Time ran out and the teacher said, “We’ll
continue tomorrow.” Washington
Fred didn’t want to go back to school. His father asked him why and he told him. His father said, “She asked you what? What you did on vacation? Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” And he did. When it was his turn he told the class, “We went up to
New York and and on an on.” Somewhere this
side of Washington
the teacher called him out of the room. She said, “You didn’t do all that.”
Fred said, “No ma’am.” She asked, “Well, why then did you say that?” He said,
“Because I am embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?” He said, “Because I
worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That put
an end to all stories. Niagara Falls
Fred goes on to tell about how a group of women from a church brought the family clothes for the kids. There was a pair of Buster Brown shoes just his size. His mother said, “Good, you will go to church on Sunday.” Fred didn’t want to go because he figured it would be the same. Someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask. Fred says that he was never embarrassed in church. He says he didn’t ever remember feeling any different, any less, any more, any different from anybody else in church. Fred says that from the age of nine he has had this little jubilee going on in his mind: There is no place in the world like church.
I believe this is what God wants for the world. And we are called to live into that vision. We are called to be a people who gives the world a taste of what can be, of what is possible, of a world where all people are valued and honored and loved. A world devoid of places of privilege. A world without exceptionalisms.
In order to do that most churches will have to leave behind their pride of privilege and dig themselves out of the shell where they have buried themselves. Instead of circling the wagons and digging in, instead of preaching a message and practicing a religion of exclusion and exceptionalism, we should be modeling to the world how a Christ led people can work with all people of all faiths or no faith all for the common good of society. And especially for the good of the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the ones that Jesus gave special preference too.
And so I say to our graduates who are here: A healthy church, a church that has this wider and deeper vision of a good, loving, compassionate, and just world, could help you immensely in your spiritual life find purpose and meaning and joy as you participate in God’s will and work in the world.
It is not likely that you will be able to break away from your own ego, your own agenda, your own pride and sense of privilege on your own. It’s the way almost all of us are socialized into the world that makes it so difficult. We need the help and grace and truth-telling and empowerment that we receive in a healthy faith community that is committed to the work of the kingdom of God, which embraces the earth and all that inhabit it.
It was hard for the first disciples. Before the experience of Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples ask the risen Christ in Acts 1: “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel.” They were still locked in to their own group, their own glory, their own pride of place in the world. Are you now going to make Israel great? I wonder how many Christians are asking that today? I wonder how many Christians are praying that God would make their group or denomination or church great? I wonder how many Christians are praying that God would make their nation greater than all other nations? “God bless America first, then if you have anything left God, you can spread some blessings to those other folks. But we know they are not as special or exceptional or worthy as we are.” That’s what we are up against. And there are a lot of churches that have become cheerleaders of American exceptionalism. I think one of the reasons Jesus overturned the tables and staged a protest in the Temple of Jerusalem is because he knew that God wanted the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations, for all peoples. But the Temple gatekeepers had turned temple religion into a worthiness system rooted in a system of meritocracy and privilege.
I don’t want to downplay God’s love for the individual – of God’s love for you. God loves you with an eternal love, but God does not love you more than God loves anyone else. We are all God’s children. I can’t tell you how often I have heard a preacher tell a congregation to personalize John 3:16. Instead of saying, “God so loves the world” insert your name in place of the word “world.” I suspect that anyone struggling with low self-esteem or a diminished self-image or feeling such guilt as to think God couldn’t possibly love them, will find great comfort in knowing God loves them personally. But I think we have to be careful as well. Balance is everything. God loves you, but God also loves the world. God doesn’t love Americans anymore than God loves South Africans or Asians or anyone else.
How do we nurture a wider vision? How do we let go of our sense of privilege and exceptionalism? How do we cultivate a large, big, God-like dream of a just world? That’s where a healthy faith community is needed. You can’t do it on your own. We need the Spirit of Christ who is present and at work in the church, Christ’s body to move us and empower us. It is in the church gathered, as in this first community in Acts 2, where the Spirit gives dreams and visions to young and old. In the Christ community gathered the Spirit raises up men and women to prophesy – to tell the truth and challenge the domination system and call us to be faithful – to be loving, compassionate, justice-seeking people. An inclusive, grace-filled, justice-seeking, mercy-doing faith community can guide you into the work of the Divine Spirit in the world.
O God, may each one of us open our lives to you so that our lives become a manifestation of your Spirit. Open our eyes that we share a bit of your vision for a just world. Open our hearts that we might feel the hurt and pain that so many of your children feel who suffer from the injustices of life. Let us trust in your Spirit to guide us and fill us with the compassion, motivation, courage, and the spiritual and physical strength necessary to make a difference. In the name of Christ. Amen.