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Reflection

“The Winner Takes it All”

Delivered by Rev. Rich Sheffer

It’s a pleasure to be here among friends.

Today we are joined by our kinfolk from St. Johns United with whom I had the pleasure of sharing worship several weeks ago.

Both Cedar Park and St. Johns are embarking on new roads for Ministry which is an exciting and, hopefully, a growth opportunity to further “push your edges” of your spiritual journeys.  I note that Elizabeth Jones is exploring the question of “who is this God” of the Old Testament scriptures both in worship services with you this month and in a Bible Study/Exploration series in September which should help fuel your personal journeys of spiritual exploration.  I look forward to participating as I have always found that Elizabeth’s teaching encourages deeper reflection.         

Today, my topic goes in a different direction.  I recently purchased a CD of the Swedish group ABBA’s hit songs which include, among many others, the song “Dancing Queen” to which Sharon danced at the wonderful celebration send-off that you organized for her in June that Fran and I were happy to be a part of. I thought of that as I listened to that song. In some ways that song is

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symbolic as Sharon and Howard danced into the next chapter of their lives and both Cedar Park and St. Johns have begun their new dance into the future. 

On that CD were a couple of other hit songs that caused me to stop and reflect.

Here is a sample of the first (play exerpt from “The Winner Takes it All”). Try to listen to the words and let them sink in.

 “The winner takes it all. The loser standing small. Beside the victory. That’s her destiny.”  What message is this giving  us and our kids?

Although this song was written in the aftermath of a marriage break-up the words resonate in the larger sphere of what we have created as core values in our society. Win/lose. Compete or fail. Go for the Gold. If you don’t win it all you’re a loser.  There’s no such thing as second place let alone being all that you can be and doing your best. Unless you win your best is not good enough.

As a guy trained as an MBA and with, I must confess, more than a trace of that competitive instinct whether it be the marketplace, the football field or even, OK Fran I agree with you, a Scrabble game, that competitive sense is still alive though I hope is now channeled more to being the best I can be rather than to be “the winner who takes it all”.

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As I listened to this song I could not help but think of how different this win/lose paradigm is from Jesus’ teachings and those of the major world faith pathways. As well, there is a big difference between aiming to be all we can be and aiming to be the winner who takes it all with the loser (note the use of the word “loser”) standing small.

Where is the balance with this?   Where is there room for fair competition where both sides can gain from the encounter or transaction? Are we teaching and modeling “win/lose” or “win/win” to our kids?

I think of Jesus’ words in Matthew (Matthew 22: 34-40) as the two most important commandments to  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind… and Love your neighbour as yourself…”

I don’t equate viewing another as a “loser” or thinking in terms of win/lose with this teaching.  It is interesting, is it not, that we seem able to put internal compartments around our value systems and operate one way in one context, perhaps in our work life as an example, and, yet, subscribe to another form of behaviour more in keeping with this teaching in others.

What is our role as parents, citizens, and church-members?

 Finding and living what I may call “the God experience” is both an inner and an outer exercise.

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Loving our neighbour as ourselves as Jesus prescribes needs to start on the inside in learning to love ourselves, not always easy to do with the “shoulds” many of us were brought up with with the social and cultural do’s and don’ts of our time, including within the church.

Above all else, I would suggest that Jesus was a wisdom teacher. I see his ministry as aiming to transform peoples’ consciousness including ours in our world of today.  His is a ministry of transformation.  I suggest that this is really about getting in touch with and getting to know and listen to that deep place of inner wisdom, that God-part of ourselves.  Jesus modeled this to us with his practice of meditation, asking, and deep listening to develop a close relationship with that divine essence we call God. In Jesus’ case he had attained enlightenment, a oneness with God.

Jesus’ teachings about entering the Kingdom of God are not about dying and going to Heaven, they are about raising human consciousness in the here and now.  Jesus spoke about being in this world but not of this world.  God’s reality is not the reality of our material world; “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s”.  The Kingdom of God is the world of spirit.  The Kingdom of God is the God-centre in each of us.  Our challenge is to discover it, nurture it, and live from it. This is what the second reading from Matthew is about (Matthew 7:1-11, 13,14). Ask, search, and knock and the door to this consciousness within will be opened It is

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there, waiting. This is what Jesus called the “narrow gate and hard road that leads to life”.  The strivings of “the winner takes it all” is not of God’s world.

In our “outer world”, loving our neighbour in Jesus’ terms is much more than being a good guy or gal.  It is more than a friendly smile and handshake with those we know and doing good deeds in our communities though these are important too. To fully love our neighbour in the manner Jesus modeled to us is radical justice. Jesus welcomed those he called “the least of these” into the heart of community, “… that which you do to the least of these you do to me.”  He overturned our typical idea of   “hospitality” as a reciprocal social relationship of parties and gatherings with family, friends and acquaintances to one in which instead you invite the poor, the disabled, the dispossessed to dinner because they can’t repay you.”

Truly “loving your neighbour” in the manner Jesus modeled doesn’t necessarily mean the end of poverty and discrimination but it can change judgment into respect and fair treatment.  Just think of how you feel when you are treated with respect and without judgement.  It certainly is not “the winner takes it all” leaving the “loser standing small”.  “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

We can extend this analogy into our relationships with all of creation.  Too often we, as personkind, have interpreted the words in Genesis to have dominion over the

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earth as exploitation of finite resources and other living beings who share our planet, a win/lose paradigm, rather than as sustainable stewardship, a win/win paradigm. We are now beginning to realize the price though we are still slow in changing course.

Yet, I for one hold up much hope and optimism. It’s fair to say that I’m a glass half-full rather than half-empty kind of guy. I think, for example, of the great strides that are being taken in curing disease and in growing world-wide movements to address environmental concerns. I see the refugee family getting a new start in life through help from our Montreal City Mission and the children getting a “hands-up” boost at the After School Program at our Saint Columba House.  I see the Talibe children being given a new lease on life through the Maison de la Gare project and the efforts of the LeRoy family, and much, much more.

We through our own efforts can and do make a difference.

As Cedar Park and St. Johns follow your calls to future ministry you may be interested in what Diana Butler Bass has to say in her recent book “A People’s History of Christianity”.  She speaks of the church during the Medieval period as “mediating the mysterious territory of earthly existence embracing the mundane and the transcendent, making little differentiation between the spheres, acting as a thin place – a kind of permeable spiritual membrane – between the worlds.” 

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As we go deeper in understanding Jesus’ teachings for a more direct, more intimate connection with the Divine should the church not be, then, a window into the divine and, perhaps, even a doorway into that thin place that embraces the sacred?  Thinking this way, church becomes a helping hand for each of us and the wider community towards that transcendent experience in discovering and experiencing the presence of God in ourselves and in our lives and in living out of this experience.

From what I have seen in our congregations we can, I feel, do a better job in preparing people to develop their own spiritual practices, such as deep prayer, meditation, and deep listening, and in providing guidance and support on practices to establish our personal relationships with God, that quiet wisdom voice within each of us.  The spiritual path can be a lonely path. Sharing this path with others in community encourages and supports us in following this path.

This, however, is not only a Sunday morning exercise.

This direction has implications for how we train our Ministers and worship leaders as this goes beyond, in many cases well beyond, a standard worship service.

In our churches we can, as well I suggest, more intentionally encourage exploration into our spiritual selves and some of our belief systems. We know that there is a great deal of searching going on, polls have

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consistently indicated that some eighty percent (80%) of people are searching for greater spiritual connection but few are turning to our congregations as part of that searching.  People are looking to experience their own personal connection with God not to hear of someone else’s experience   Our church community reaching out to those in the wider community interested in spiritual exploration could, with appropriate leadership, be a vehicle to do this. 

I know that the Cedar Park congregation has taken some important steps in these directions including, for example, mid-week meditation and discussion/exploration series including the one being led by Elizabeth Jones in September. Taking the further leap to do this in an interfaith context would expand the circle and help us realize that the wisdom teachings from the different major faith pathways have much similarity. 

There is another song on the ABBA CD which, in part, captures our aspirations for a better world,  “I Have a Dream” (play exerpts).  “If you see the wonder of the fairy tale, you can take the future even if you fail.  I believe in angels, something good in everything I see…  And my destination makes it worth the while, rushing through the darkness still another mile…I’ll  cross the stream, I have a dream…”

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We all have dreams.  Dreams for our children, our families, our communities, our church, our world.   Some dreams are bigger than others but all dreams count.

Jesus had a dream, a dream that personkind would find the Kingdom of God, our higher state of consciousness of  our God–centre within.  Jesus’ teachings still encourage us to, as the hymn “My Love Colours Outside the Lines” says to “… colour outside the lines and walk beyond the boundaries where we’ve never been before and discover “worlds outside the lines”, our God-self within.

As I listened to the “I Have a Dream” song  the vision I was seeing was the picture of a solitary Black man standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on the 29th of August, 1963.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…”

I wonder what Martin Luther King Jr. would say to President Obama of the United States today as he shook his hand.

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As we choose to live a paradigm different from the “winner takes it all” to one where one is not judged by the colour of their skin, or their language, or their ethnicity, or their religion, or their ability to run faster or jump farther but rather by the content of their character, we begin to truly “love our neighbour”.

In his wonderful book, “In the Name of Jesus, Reflections on Christian Leadership”, Henri Nouwen reflects that “the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest… a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love.  It is a true spiritual leadership.” 

If you, as I do, see God as being an integral part of each of us at the heart of our spiritual selves then loving God, loving ourselves – that spiritual part of us, and loving others – that God part of them, is a circle of love.

As we learn to relate to and love the God-part of ourselves and relate to the God-part of others our world-view changes from one of “us” and “them” to “us” as we’re all “us”, all “one”.  There are no “losers standing small”. 

Think of the changed dynamics in our families, our communities, our workplace, our church, our world if we began to live and act this way.    It starts with each of us.

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As one of our hymns says “It only takes a spark to get a fire going”. 

So, what are your dreams?   Our next hymn encourages us to “seek ye first the Kingdom of God” the God within, “to knock and the door will be opened”, “…and all these things will be added unto you.”

So, let’s cross the stream and live our dreams from that deep God-centre within each of us.

 

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