Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

I remember the 1980s move War Games, where a computer geek manages to dial into the war-games computer at NORAD, in the middle of the end of the Cold War.

After playing tic-tac-toe and chess, he and the computer try playing “Global Thermonuclear War.” The computer gets hooked on the challenge and plays over and over again, until it finally comes back with the response, “This is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” And of course that was true, and thank God that we haven’t played that game for real.

Jesus and his followers were living under the power of Rome. That’s a game that was built so Rome always wins, and the people always lose. Jesus invites people out of this game, to stop playing by Rome’s rules (or Jerusalem’s, or…) and instead live by God’s rules. But there’s a catch: you’re going to lose life for it. This was a literal reality in Jesus’ time – he wasn’t the only biblical figure to die on a cross – but Christians weren’t the only people Rome crucified. Crucifixion was a rebel’s death, often done in the hundreds or thousands at a time. What’s different in Jesus’ words is the call to pick up a cross without picking up swords first. The thing is, swords were Rome’s game pieces. Jesus isn’t just proposing that we lose the game, because the game is lost already. He’s going a step further and suggesting we refuse to play. We’ll lose anyway, but this way we’ll lose better.

We don’t lose our lives for refusing to play by our empire’s rules, at least most of the time. We get to pretend that Empire is a carpet store. But the game of life still about getting to the top of the ladder of career, consumption, or social status. The game is still about achieving, winning, or at least holding things together. We judge each other (and ourselves) by how well we’re doing at things. We find various ways to keep score: how much is in the bank, how much is in our closets, how many friends we have (and who they are). We all find ways to keep score and reward ourselves, which is human nature. Just look at how much of advertising comes down to some combination of “impress other people” and “you deserve it.”

Scorekeeping creeps into the church life as much as anywhere else. We can get so pleased with our Messiah that we lose track of people who don’t measure up. At the least, we tend to build our ways of being together around fitting in, playing nice, and doing your fair share. This can develop to the point where attending church feels like a test of your standing – you have to bring something to contribute; you have to avoid burdening us with your grief, your relationship difficulties, or your illness – as if you can’t come when you’re not winning at the game.

This was the rule in Jesus’ world too, only more explicitly. You had to behave correctly, think correctly, and pay enough to get into the community. You had to play the game right, whether the game of religion or of Rome. But Jesus said to quit playing. He came to give us something we don’t have to earn, create, or do correctly. Instead, he came to give us something we can only receive: his own life.

I’m preaching to the wrong people. You’re not the people who aren’t here because they don’t feel enough like “winners.” But that makes you very important to talk to, because you’re the ones who can go out on behalf of this community to find those who really need what we have to offer – to give our lives away on behalf of those who don’t have lives of their own. When we do that, Jesus’ promise is true: in giving our lives away, we find them. We surround self with relationships of trust, generosity, and joy. We come to the end of the day knowing that, even if we have little to show for it, we’ve done something of God’s work.

We know that promise when we share food with the hungry, when we work for justice for people without opportunities, when we offer hope to someone who needs to know that someone else has been down this road before them. We know it when we offer ourselves – our body, resources, and experience – to the healing of God’s people. When we do that, God is with us.