Chutes, Ladders, and the Kingdom of God
By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is confirmation day. At 10:30, some 19 smiling, shiny–faced young people will stand in front of their parents, and grandparents, and Godparents, and pastor, but most importantly, stand before God and say “I believe.” It will be a holy moment for everyone gathered in the CLC at that hour.
But if you think that nothing holy will happen until 10:30 today, I have wonderful news for you! This is confirmation day for each of us. Luther said that this idea of “affirming one’s baptism” is a daily event; that every day, we recall that we were chosen of God; every day, we are invited to say “yes” to the God who loves us. Today, perhaps someone will say “I believe” for the very first time; they have wandered and wondered long enough, and today they will hear God’s call to come home. So this is a holiday – a holy day – for all of us. May God bless YOUR smiling, shiny faces today as you respond to God’s gracious invitation to faith.
Now I want to begin today by reminding you of the board games that you may have played with your parents when you were a child. In our house, we played checkers until the kids started beating me, then I threw the checkerboard away. And then we played Monopoly until Kyle began investing the Monopoly money in whole-life insurance and Roth IRA’s instead of buying Park Place. I was never very patient, so we never played chess in our house. But we did play Candyland and a game called Chutes and Ladders.
Do you remember Chutes and Ladders? We are told that it’s a game appropriate for children 3 years and older, and that the strategy of the game is simple: spin the wheel and move your board piece 1 to 6 spaces. The first one to the top wins. But there’s a catch! If you land on a ladder, you can instantly be advanced several rows higher. And in you land on a chute, you can suddenly slide down several rows.
The manufacturer says that this game develops small-motor skills, hand/eye coordination, counting skills, and social development. That may be true. But it can also develop lousy theology! There ought to be a label on the outside of the box: Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that playing Chutes and Ladders can lead to self-centeredness, works righteousness, and Hell! Okay, I may be overstating my case just a bit, but let me tell you what I mean.
We live in an age when there is great confusion about God’s relationship with us. That statement could probably have been made in every generation, I realize. Luther would have said that there was confusion among the people of the 16th century, so they bought indulgences. In Hitler’s era, there was confusion among the people, so many Christians joined his movement. When Jesus walked the hills of Galilee, there was confusion as to whether one ought to follow the Jews and the rule of Law, or follow Jesus and the rule of Love. Always confusion about the relationship God has with us.
But today, the confusion has to do with the way we live our lives. There is this sense that the Christian life is about climbing a ladder of religion. Every step counts. Every act should be righteous and religious. We must look a certain way, and speak a certain way, and think a certain way in order to get to the top. And woe to us if we ever land on a chute! If we do something bad, commit some sin, utter some inappropriate words, or think some inappropriate thoughts. Woe to us! We slide down the chute and we must start all over again, working our way up the ladder of religion.
I am not saying that the way we live our lives doesn’t matter; it matters much. But whatever happened to grace? Whatever happened to God’s promise to love us and forgive us, and to be our Savior, no matter what choices we make and sins we might explore?
The goal of faith is not the same as the goal of Chutes and Ladders, where we must strive to get to the top. We have already reached the top by the death and resurrection of Christ. Our purpose is not to earn it or prove to God that we deserve it; we don’t! Our purpose is to live lives of thankfulness, to be gracious to others because God has been gracious to us. Our purpose is to cease striving to be righteous and religious, and settle for being real. At the peak of Colorado’s Mt. Princeton there is a timber cross inscribed with these words from the 46th Psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Be still. Be still. And therein lays the problem. It’s not easy being still. Being still doesn’t look very religious. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” we say. When we are still, we’re not climbing ladders. When we are still, we’re not striving to reach the top. And so being still is hard work.
In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples that it would be this way. “Enter through the narrow gate, for the wide gate is easy, and leads to destruction.” Another scholar translated Jesus’ words this way: “The one gate is convenient to enter and popular to follow. The narrow gate is more difficult for us.” Why is that? It is because grace and forgiveness are hard to grasp. It makes more sense to us to earn our reward; but it made more sense to God to give the reward to those who don’t deserve it, but believe it anyway. That’s the narrow gate.
These confirmation kids are a remarkable group of young people. They have been influenced by some wonderful people along the way; people like Missy Seekel, and Brian Rock, and Jason Okrzynski, and the members of this congregation. And now they are prepared to profess their faith in the narrow gate that leads to eternal life. Sometimes I wonder if they get it, or if the confirmation journey is just something they endure so their parents will let them get a driver’s license. So I asked them on our final Wednesday to write a letter to God. Someday, I’ll send these letters back to them, maybe when the graduate from high school, but let me share just a couple of brief portions.
Dear God, I know I’ve sinned and done stuff I’m not supposed to do. But I thank you for always helping me out, because at times I feel like I’m so lonely and have no one to look up to, but I know I always have you…
Dear God, I want you to know that I believe. I’m not perfect and I do sin, but I feel lucky that I am confident enough that your grace and unconditional love will save me…
Dear God, thank you for loving me when both you and I know when I am doing something wrong…
Dear God, I haven’t done anything to deserve your undying love, yet you love me anyway…
They get it! They have experienced the powerful grace of God in their lives, and now they choose the narrow gate of grace. May God bless them and keep them on that path, whatever the future holds. Amen.
Copyright 2006 Steven Molin. Used by permission.