Sermon 08-23-15: “The Glitch in our Program”

August 31, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

In the movie “Wreck-It Ralph,” Ralph mistakenly believes that winning a shiny gold medal will prove his worth, and his quest for a medal inadvertently causes a lot of harm. Are we “real life” humans so different from Ralph? Where does our worth and value come from? What “shiny gold medals” do we think we need to be happy? How does the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to this need?

Sermon Text: Mark 2:13-17

[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.]

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In the opening clip, Ralph introduces himself at a “Bad Anon” meeting for video-game villains. He confesses to the group that he no longer wants to be a bad guy, over the protests of other villains who say that Ralph must learn to accept his role. As Zangief, the villain from “Street Fighter II” tells him: “Just because you’re a bad guy doesn’t mean that you’re a bad guy.”

The unhappiest I’ve been in life is when I’ve felt like I’m stuck in circumstances over which I have little control. For example, early in my high school career—the summer between my eighth and ninth-grade years—I pulled out my high school yearbook, and I looked at the senior class from that year—including the “senior superlative” section: you know, here is the young man and woman most likely to succeed, or most intelligent, or funniest, or best looking, or most athletic. And I thought, “I’ll never be any of those things.” I mean, already, having just been in high school for one year as an eighth grader—a sub-freshman, they called us—I saw how things were shaping up, and it wasn’t looking great for me. I could make a change here or there, but mostly I was stuck with the body that I had—the brain that I had, the social skills that I had, the athletic ability that I had. And when I thought about these successful seniors in this yearbook—they had so much more going for them. I thought, “I’ll never measure up to them.”

I wanted to be like these other people. I wanted to have what they had. I wanted to be admired as they were admired. And that sinful thought has recurred from time to time—in both my secular and church careers: how do I measure up when I compare myself to someone else. 

Needless to say, I hope, comparing ourselves to others is a recipe for deep unhappiness—which is what Ralph is experiencing in this clip we just saw.

In the Bible, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes something remarkable to a group of people who, in the eyes of the world, are mostly unremarkable. He writes, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Did you hear that? Paul uses two words that are freighted with religious significance: Called and assigned. These Corinthian Christians are called and assigned. Notice: He’s not directing these words to clergy like me, although they certainly apply; he’s not talking to missionaries who serve the Lord in faraway places; he’s not talking to brave Christians who will be martyred for their Christian faith.

No, he’s talking about ordinary people with ordinary lives, doing ordinary things.

We are called and assigned. God has put us where we are right now; God has given us what we have right now; God has given us our bodies, our physical features, our personality, our family, our gifts and abilities. What he requires is that we use these gifts for him!

Lord Jesus, make us faithful in our calling and assignment! Amen?

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In the second clip, Ralph crashes the party that Fix-It Felix and the Nicelanders are throwing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their arcade game. To say the least, they don’t make Ralph feel welcome!

Jesus said in today’s scripture, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Sinners means people like you and me. But… do we ever act like our church is a country club for winners rather than a hospital for sinners? Do we ever forget who we are?

After all, how did many Christians react to the news last week about Ashley Madison? Did you hear about this? Ashley Madison is, sigh… a dating website for married men and women who want to commit adultery—and be completely discrete about it. The promise is that no one, including your spouse, will ever find out—or so they promised. Hackers broke in to the system and publicly released the names of millions of people—mostly men, as it turns outs—who’ve signed up for the service. And Josh Duggar, an outspoken Christian from the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, even admitted last week that he was one of them!

Listen, I will be delighted if the controversy puts an end to this evil enterprise. But I’m not happy about people being exposed like this. I can’t gloat and say, “Serves them right! They’re getting what they deserve!” After all, what if someone took a picture of us, or filmed us, at our sinful worst—and put it online for all the world to see?

Maybe we’re more “respectable” sinners than those sinners who are caught up in this Ashley Madison mess. But we’re still sinners, although it’s so easy to forget—there but for the grace of God go I. We are no more worthy to be accepted by God through the blood of his Son Jesus than anyone else!

So, unlike these Nicelanders in this clip, let’s make room in our hearts and in our church—for sinners who are not so different from us—especially those sinners who haven’t yet found Jesus for themselves and received this amazing gift of eternal life!

In this next clip, Ralph believes that if only he wins a shiny gold medal—the same kind of medal that Fix-It Felix wins each day during the video game—then the Nicelanders will finally love and accept him. So he’s going to sneak into another video game in the arcade to try to win one.

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After being told by a Nicelander that the only way he’ll fit with them is to win a medal like Felix, Ralph retrieves a gold medal from the “Hero’s Duty” arcade game.

Did you hear about what Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison posted on Instagram last week? He posted a picture of a couple of “participation trophies” that his two boys, ages 6 and 8, received for participating in a team sport. They weren’t singled out for the trophies—they were just something that every member of the team got. For participating. The caption beneath the photo read:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing—participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…

This Instagram post sent shock waves through social media. Everybody has an opinion about it, good or bad. I’m sympathetic with Harrison, to be sure. But I bristle when he says that he believes that “everything in life should be earned.” Because it’s simply not true. It can’t be. Most things in life come to us as gifts. I didn’t win any “senior superlatives,” as I said earlier, but—good heavens—God blessed me with a great family, great schools, great teachers, great opportunities. A great country that affords these opportunities. I was always well-provided for. Yes, I worked hard in college and grad school—but God blessed me with this brain, this body—this life. I can’t pretend that I’ve earned everything!

Not even close: As the apostle James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” Paul writes, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”

A part of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, after all, is appreciating that we don’t get what we deserve. Thank God! Because we deserve nothing more than death and hell and eternal separation from God because of our sins. That sounds harsh, but if we don’t understand that, then we don’t understand why Jesus came in the first place!

In this next clip, after Ralph accidentally launches himself and a deadly “Cy-bug” into a video game called Sugar Rush, the commanding officer from Hero’s Duty, Sgt. Calhoun, explains to Fix-It Felix just how big a problem this is.

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In this fourth clip, a soldier from Hero’s Duty explains that Sgt. Calhoun is as “intense” as she is because “she’s been programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

“She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In an interview last week in GQ magazine, comedian Stephen Colbert, who will be succeeding David Letterman on The Late Show next month, talked about his own tragic backstory. When he was 10 years old, he lost his dad and two of his brothers in a plane crash. The two brothers nearest to him in age—literally his best friends. He said that his mother was a great example of Christian faith for him. He wasn’t bitter about the tragedy, he said, because she wasn’t bitter. “Broken, yes. Bitter, no.”

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings, received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall.

Colbert then quoted what Tolkien said in reply: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” The interviewer said Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table and repeated, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Then Colbert’s eyes were filled with tears as he said: “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

Maybe we would prefer, instead of the “punishments of God,” the “disciplines of God”—the fact remains, and scripture loudly affirms, that God uses our tragic backstories for good—to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be. Therefore, when Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” he means that we can even rejoice and give thanks for our tragic backstories.

In this final scene, the Sugar Rush video game has been taken over by these deadly Cy-bugs. Sgt. Calhoun has rescued all the inhabitants of Sugar Rush, but there’s one girl, named Vanellope, who can’t be rescued. Unlike the other video game characters, she can’t exit the game because she has a glitch in her programming. The Cy-bugs, meanwhile, can only be destroyed by flying into the equivalent of a giant bug zapper, referred to here as a “beacon.”

And by the way, you’re about to see a mountain of Mentos collapse into a lake of Diet Coke.

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In this final clip, Ralph risks his life to destroy the cy-bugs that have invaded Sugar Rush and to save Vanellope’s life in the process.

Did you hear about what happened last Friday on a high-speed train bound for Paris? A terrorist on board the train, armed with an AK-47 automatic rifle, a Lugar pistol, and a knife walked down the aisle train when three Americans—a U.S. Airman, a U.S. Coast Guardsman, and a civilian friend—all unarmed, mind you—saw the terrorist’s gun and leapt into action, knocking him to the ground and beating him unconscious—and in the process, saving probably hundreds of lives. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

I’m both inspired by these kinds of selfless acts of heroism, and a little intimidated: What would I do in the same situation? Would I be able and willing to put my life on the line like that? Would I have the courage to do so? Would I have the faith to do so? Would I have the faith to believe Jesus when he warns, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Do I have the faith? I hope so!

Because the truth is, even if we’re never put in that kind of life-or-death situation, we all face the daily challenge of putting our faith into action: For example, am I going to let this crisis I’m facing worry me and bring me down, or am I going to face it with courage? Am I going to take time out of my busy schedule to pray, believing that God really does hear and respond—that I’m not wasting my time? Am I going to be brave and share a word of witness with a friend, without letting myself worry that by doing so I’ll be rejected? Am I really going to be faithful in my financial giving—giving a tithe to church—and believe that in doing so I’ll still make ends meet.

And while we may never put our life on the line like those three Americans, we will all put our life on the line some day—when we face our own death.

I’m going to do a graveside service later today for Janet Wallace, and I’ll offer a traditional prayer that includes these words: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

May that be our prayer today. Amen.

3 Responses to “Sermon 08-23-15: “The Glitch in our Program””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Interesting about the “backstories.” I recognize that we should see everything that happens to us as “appropriate”–God always acts properly as to any situation that he responds to (obviously), so “punishment” is a “good thing” because it is calling our attention to our “sins” so we will (hopefully) give them up. As such, we can be “thankful” for them.

    At the same time, however, I don’t know that we should be “happy” about them. As in, as a high school hypothetical, I know it is appropriate for me to get an F if I did not study as I should have for the test, but I think I would still be “sad” to get it. Much more so for the “punishments” for our sins. I consider David as the best example I can think of in that regard. God’s “punishment” was certainly appropriate and he could thank God that he is “righteous” and merciful (“God has forgiven your sin, you will not die.”) However, when Absalom died, David was pretty brokenhearted. Joab called him down on that, but I don’t know that David could (should?) be “happy” upon receiving that particular punishment. There is a place for “regret.” Those who build only with wood, hay, and stubble will be saved, but not receive rewards. So, happy partly, but also recognizing that they might have come out much better had they only been better. Is that consistent with what you are saying? Any thoughts?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Regarding the first paragraph, I completely agree. Regarding the second, I’m not at all meaning to say that we should be “happy” when bad stuff happens to us. Bad stuff is really bad. We can and should mourn and grieve—and inasmuch as regret is a part of penitence, that’s good. But we can’t stay there, can we? God hasn’t given up on us. God is still working for the good of those who love him. If he “revoked” that promise every time we sinned, we’d all be doomed.

      At some point down the road, I do believe we have to, through God’s grace, make peace with our past. We need to assimilate these experiences in such a way that, yes, we can be grateful for them.

      But keep in mind, this only takes place on the other side of genuine repentance. Some people won’t accept the grace they need to be healed of the hurts of the past, self-inflicted or otherwise. But I believe strongly that God wants to heal us.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Remember the prodigal son. Remember all of Luke 15. We all get lost sometimes, even those of us who know our Father and live in his household.

      On the other side of our repentance, however, we can look back and say, “That was crazy and stupid and what a fool I was! But, thank God, look where I am today! Hallelujah!”

      It seems undeniably true that that stuff in the past has been good for us. And that’s the basis on which gratitude is possible.


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