The Games We Play

This morning I had the pleasure and delight of worshiping with the people of University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA.  Here is the sermon I preached.


Isaiah 45:1-7 (“I am the Lord, and there is no other.”)
Psalm 96:1-9 (“Sing to the LORD a new song;”)
I Thessalonians 1:1-10 (“you became imitators of us and of the Lord”)
Matthew 22:15-22 (Render unto Caesar)


Something you may not know about me:

In addition to being a biologist and a priest, I am also a martial artist.

Contrary to popular belief,

martial arts has more to do with creating harmony

than creating conflict.

At least the way I practice,

it has everything to do with taking a certain perspective on the world

looking at apparent conflict

and trying to find a way to resolve it

with as little force as possible.

We practice with physical motions,

because they are the easiest to see,

but we teach principles

that apply just as well to mental conflict as to physical.

We practice physical conflict

as a way to understand bigger forces

at work in ourselves and in the world.

One of the central principles is “circular motion,”

redirecting force back in the direction it came.

It gives the attacker’s force back to her,

so that she can decide what she wants to do with it,

if she wants to continue.

I remember very clearly

when one of my brother’s students was testing for black belt.

I asked her to give me an example of circular motion

in a non-physical context.

She asked me what I meant.

I said I wanted her to explain it using a real world case of circular motion.

She wanted clarification.

I started to get frustrated, thinking it a simple question.

It took me a moment to see that she had turned my question back at me.

All unknowing, I had helped her demonstrate circular motion

as the question went around and around.

I figured it out eventually.

(And was quite pleased. She’d done exactly what I asked.)

Sometimes we get caught playing someone else’s game.

I know you’ve all been there, just like me,

often in far less harmonious circumstances.

Too often we get dragged into drama at the office or at home.

We lose track of our own priorities and find ourselves driven

to the cues we are given, instead of the things we value.

Psychologists call it “family systems theory”,

when we fall into patterns of responding to each other,

even when none of us really want to.

We become conditioned and our conditioning

reinforces the roles we’ve fallen into.

The same thing happens in business,

when you are caught negotiating on someone else’s term.

Or more simply when playing a game,

and always feeling driven to respond to the last move

our partner made.

How often have you found yourself

on the losing end of a conversation,

always responding to the last remark

and never really getting to what you wanted to say.

Christians call it integrity and fortitude,

knowing who we are, what we stand for, and sticking with it.

But Christians also need strategy.

We need to know about circular motion and other tools,

for getting the conversation back on track

for steering relationships and communities,

when the forces of convention and selfishness

attempt to derail them.

I think that’s what Jesus is facing in today’s Gospel.

Caesar is playing a game.

He prints money so he can make money.

He’s playing sack and conquer,

but he’s also playing occupy and tax.

The Herodians are his local representatives,

keeping an eye on the game.

Another group, called the zealots are playing a different game.

They’re trying to stir up armed rebellion.

They know Caesar wants money.

They know that stopping the taxes is a great way

to get Caesar to send in the troops.

And, they think that will motivate the Judeans into rebellion.

Meanwhile the Pharisees and Sadducees

are playing a third game.

They are competing for religious power in Judea,

largely with the approval of Caesar,

who is less interested in religion.

They use the Torah, both the law and the book,

as a weapon for attacking one another.

They want to use Jesus as well.

So the Pharisees try to trap Jesus.

They want him playing their game,

by their rules, to their ends.

They ask him what the law, the Torah, says about taxes and Caesar.

If Jesus says they should pay their taxes,

he will appear to be on the side of Caesar and the Herodians

against the Zealots and the common people.

Taxes have never been popular.

If Jesus says they should not pay,

he will appear to be on the side of the Zealots,

and earn the animosity of those in power.

Either way, Jesus must choose a side.

Either way, Jesus ends up losing and the Pharisees

can use that loss to gain power.

This is where the martial arts comes in.

He turns the question against them.

“Who’s face is on the coin?”


“Then render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

Render unto God that which is God’s.”

The circular motion is a great move,

and I’ve seen it pointed out before.

The Pharisees can neither say the currency is not Caesar’s

nor that the gold is not God’s.

If that’s all that’s going on, however –

if Jesus simply redirects their force back at them –

he’s clever but not wise.

He’s avoided the attack, but he hasn’t given us something more.

I think he keeps his eyes on the prize and offers up a lesson,

as well as a retort.

“Who’s face is on the coin?”


Taxation is a game that Caesar is playing.

He mints the coins. He runs the markets.

Caesar is also playing a game of violence.

It’s a game we still play.

Theologians call it the myth of redemptive violence,

when we think harming people is a valid way to win,

when we play the game of stronger, meaner, deadlier.

Let’s be clear.

Jesus did not play and lose.

Christians believe that Jesus is the source of all value,

all light and life.

He could have been a entrepreneur,

accumulated wealth from his followers,

perhaps even jumpstarted the economy of Judea.

We remember his as a homeless beggar.

Christians believe that Christ is the ruler of all,

with legions of angels ready at his command.

He could have conquered the Empire easily.

Instead we remember him dying on a cross.

Jesus played an entirely different game.

God’s game has different rules.

We are not competing for fixed resources,

what economists call a zero sum game.

There can be multiple winners.

Indeed, we believe that all can win.

We are not striving against one another, but for one another.

Neither are we playing against the house.

God cheers us on.

So what game are we playing?

We are trying to build something,

the kingdom of heaven

the peaceable kingdom

the Body of Christ.

Or, more precisely, God is working in us to bring it about.

It appears to be a massive, multiplayer, collaborative game

where success is measured in faith, hope, and love,

in healthy relationships,

in grace.

We are bound together and bound to Christ,

and pray that all may be bound with us

as in the healthiest of families

where we truly know one another and know God

as we are known

where the full measure of our wealth is spent

serving one another

where the labor of our bodies

builds up instead of breaking down.

where the world truly is a garden

and a paradise.

It turns out this game is played with the same pieces as the other games.

You can only play one at a time.

And it matters which one you choose.

Whatever games the people around us want to play,

we must keep our eyes on the prize of the goal of the heavenly kingdom,

even if it means losing those other games,

and we must lose those games if we are to win this one.

Whatever gains I have in those games, I must count as loss,

and every loss a gain, even the loss of my life,

if by it I know Christ Jesus (Philippians 3).

And here, the comparison breaks down,

for the word game can be misleading.

I am serious, if joyful in this work.

It is more than a pastime, more even than a profession.

It is my all in all, that I should love you and God,

that I should bend my will and wealth,

heart, mind, strength, and soul

to the coming kingdom.

The money has not disappeared.

I know the game that Caesar played,

the game governments and markets play to this day.

To be wise as a serpent means recognizing that game,

turing its energies to our ends.

I know the game that the zealots played.

Through martial arts,

I strive to know that game as well,

and strive to master the use of force,

though I pray I will never use it to harm another.

Still I recognize the game.

Knowledge is powerful and useful.

But we must also be innocent as doves.

We must forgo the trophies earned in commerce and war.

We must play God’s game.

They are the same pieces,

but we must stop asking whose they are

and start wondering what they are doing.

We must work to align wealth with need

and strength with service.

Sadly, most of the world is utterly unfamiliar with our game.

You can blame it on evolution, or culture, or original sin.

Perhaps it is all three, but I choose not to play the blame game either.

Instead, I start with the simple recognition

that most people don’t know how to love properly.

They don’t know about real faith.

They don’t know about sacrifice and grace, redemption and forgiveness.

They have gotten so caught up in the other games,

that these seem utterly foreign.

And they worry that trying too hard to learn what we know

will only lose them the game they play,

perhaps the only game they know how to play.

In the education hour this morning,

I talked about life coming only from life,

and faith coming only from faith.

We learn to play by playing the game with others.

We learn from the masters, from the saints who have gone before.

And we bear the responsibility of teaching all who come after.

We are reminded of this in the letter to the Thessalonians.

“our message of the gospel came to you

not in word only, but also in power

and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction;

just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be

among you for your sake.

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,

for in spite of persecution

you received the word with joy

inspired by the Holy Spirit,

so that you became an example

to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”

We are imitators and examples,

for only by example, by word and deed,

will the Gospel spread.

It must be demonstrated.

We must love,

not only so that we will be known as followers of Christ,

but so that others might see what love is.

We must love those who hate us,

many of whom cannot even imagine the rules we play by.

We must forgive the unforgiveable,

trusting in the Lord to make all things new,

and being willing to take our part in that newness.

It is not easy, but it is necessary.

It is not simple, but it is joyful.

It has been given to us to share this gift,

not only with our lips but with our lives,

trusting in God to redeem our sacrifices,

and hoping that the grace shines through us into the world.

I suspect there is a great harmony in the world,

that the game forms a pattern

deeper and wider and more beautiful

than I can see or imagine.

I suspect that God’s game,

which runs from the depth of the pit

to the heights of the heavens,


when the last buzzer rings,

be spectacular,

full of surprises, heroism, humor, and skill.

I know that God plays it with us

and for us

as well us in us

and in the world.

I challenge you to know the game you’re playing.

Ask yourself,

where you have been caught up in the expectations of the world,

where you truly play for yourself,

and where you play for God.

I challenge you to keep your eyes on the prize,

but also to master the practices of grace,

the principles and techniques that allow you

to achieve your goals,

to make your game visible in the world,

and to make God’s grace visible in you.

I challenge you to be imitators of Christ

and examples of love.


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