11 AM, St. Bartholomew’s Church, April 24, 2016
There are two ways to play dominos. The first way is to set up a table with you on one side and your opponent on the other. You hide your dominoes from the other person. You pay close attention to the numbers on each domino, some have sixes or blanks, and some are the special doubles. You lay down your dominos on the table, like laying down small bricks, matching your opponents numbers, hoping to find any advantage to get ahead, so that you might be able to be free of all of your pieces and claim the victory, and that glory of victory can only be claimed by one, until the next match, where the glory could be yours this time!
But then there’s the other way to play dominos. I guess the better way to put it is there’s a way to play with dominoes. As a child, I liked this way better. I used to play in this way at my grandmother’s house. She’d have ready for us countless sets of dominoes. More than you could count! And me and my sister would line the dominoes up on end, one after the other. It took meticulous care, requiring all of our burgeoning motor skills not to disturb the other dominoes. Our goal was to create a serpentine line that would wind its way over the table, onto a chair, and perhaps through cut-out a shoebox. As we got better, we learned how to make the lines of dominoes comprise of loops, or towers, or multiple lines that would split off and then converge.
The neat thing about this game is that you don’t pay attention to the numbers. Actually, the numbers don’t matter much, double-sixes are placed next to ones and blanks without much respect for their rank in that first game. Actually, every domino matters. Because each domino plays its part in the great kinetic chain that is the payoff of the game. The only conflict in this game, for me and my sister, was who was going to be the one to knock down the first domino. But after that it didn’t matter, because then the drama begins. The path that was set would come to life, each domino moving the other, the cascade scurrying down the trail, keeping us in suspense as to whether it would make it all the way. And if it didn’t, no problem, we just tapped it again. For there was so much potential energy there, just waiting to be used. But sometimes the cascade would make it all the way without any help from us, the Creators. And, O the joy that came from seeing our Creation come to life, and not only coming to life but also making it all the way, from the Alpha domino to the Omega domino. What satisfaction and delight!
I imagine if you were to watch a domino tournament of the first sort, that played by the rules, you would see a warehouse of people paired up around tables, looking inward toward the board, counting every dot, seeking to claim whatever territory they can, domino by domino, a field of slow and steady battles. But if you to watch a domino tournament of the second sort, and you can look at these online, you would see a warehouse full of dominoes arrayed in some of the most complicated patterns that you can imagine, colors and shapes and de
signs to delight the spirit, and you would not see people set against one another. Instead you would hear the roar of the crowd, the crowd who probably spent days setting up the dominoes in that warehouse, you’d hear them cheering and laughing together at every twist and turn of that wave of dominoes. In fact they are united in delight at the unfolding of their creation.
We encounter Jesus today in our Gospel at his final meal with his disciples. And in that reading, if we are going to understand it, we have to know what Jesus was up to, was a lot like that second game of dominoes. It wasn’t about something like the first game, establishing territory on the board, or in the Holy Land. He wasn’t about counting up and comparing the numbers of every person’s domino. He wasn’t about exhausting his resources to defeat his enemies, say the Romans or the Temple priests. When Jesus said that night, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified.” this was wasn’t about winning or victory, at least not in the way that most of us are used to.
He came to establish a different kind of way, a way of playing the game like that second game, where the first domino falls, which pushes the next domino, and the next. It’s creative and sprawling. Not as many rules. Perhaps only one or two, love God and neighbor! As long as you have enough dominos, that game never ends. But to play that second game, as a domino, you’d have to be willing to fall. And maybe fall hard.
Most of the disciples, his dear friends, wanted Jesus to find a way to serve God that had him as the winner, as the triumphant one. They didn’t want to think that he would fall. But he wasn’t going to fall for nothing. If he was to be defeated, what they didn’t know is how that defeat would become the spark of a great fire, the first pebble of an avalanche, or the first domino of a chain of humanity that would circle the globe. For the sake of love of his friends, and the world, and his Father in heaven, he was willing to give it all, whatever it took, loving it all to the end. He wasn’t going to let the rules of the first game, stop him from unleashing the wonder and power of Easter life, Resurrection life, the kind that outlasts and outlives any kind of fall. That last night he showed us what gets Resurrection going. He fell on his knees before his disciples in love and humility to wash their filthy feet. He called them his friends, when he could easily have called them servants. Do you see how he’s breaking the rules of the first game, to make room for the second? He did it all through his ministry. Not counting up people’s status and sins, leaving that for the endtimes. Instead he chose not to rebuke them for all the ways they didn’t measure up, to dominate them with virtue, instead he chose to clean them, to feed them, and to give his life for them. Even when they don’t get it, even when they hurt him, even when they betray him, he loved instead of judged. He would rather have his heart and body broken, rather than take up the sword, to live into even righteous vengeance.
As you may recall, one of his best friends betrays him, hands him over to the authorities who plot his doom. Immediately before this reading, we see that somehow, at the Last Supper, Jesus knows Judas is going to do betray him. His spirit is deeply troubled, John tells us. He’s in the kind of agony that comes with a friend breaking your heart. He can’t hide it. Things escalate. Jesus asks Judas to get it over with, to do what he was planning to do. And in one of the most affecting scenes of Scripture, Judas runs from the Upper Room into the night, into the darkness to carry out his dark plan, starting the process by which Jesus would be arrested and crucified, one of the hardest falls one could ever have. And, wonder of wonders, instead of chasing after Judas, sending Peter with that sword of his to stop him, he takes the time, this urgent time, to teach his disciples what matters most, how to go on without him. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer,” he says. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you,” just as I am willing to love you as friends even if people may kill me for it, “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
He loved them to the end. He loved them, and proclaimed the truth, even if it meant he would fall. But, in the Spirit, he fell on their hearts, and then they loved the people people in their life to the end, most of the disciples were murdered for this, they fell on others, whose hearts were turned, falling on hundreds, who fell on thousand, who fell on millions, who then fell on billions in a great cascade that has has reached our day, a great Eastertide that has flowed from person to person, from heart to heart, made of countless souls who gave their lives, in so many ways even to the end, living lives of love, mercy, forgiveness, sisterhood and brotherhood, sometimes dying for it, so that we might have a chance to walk in that blessed path as well.
This path is open for you. I hope you can see it. I hope you can know that there is a peace that the world cannot give. You can fight to get what you “deserve” to get your due, you can contend with your neighbor to get maybe more than you are due, trusting that to the victor go the spoils. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself living your life to “win” your life, as if life were like a game or a sport! It is so much bigger than that! Life is so much more mysterious and beautiful than a playing field with winners and losers. If you constrain your spiritual imagination to that field, to that grim box, losing is one of the worst things imaginable. Losing means despair. But for the Church, for the heirs to the disciples, we see that loss is not the final word. Defeat is not the end. Love and truth outlast all that. God has life to give to broken spirits and broken hearts.
This whole process, the one we call Easter life, or Resurrection life, it all started, ironically, with the death of Jesus, like a single domino among a field of billions. And as his life fell, the powers of this world didn’t end things, they unknowingly set off a cascade that made all things new, a cascade that spread to the ends of the earth. And if we are caught up in that wave, we are turned from the game of life where someone has to be beaten for you to win glory. And he turned our faces toward the second game of life, not a game at all, but the Way of everlasting life, where you can lose it all for the sake of the truth and for the sake of love and still find victory. A deep victory that the world cannot give, but that the world can take away from you. The everlasting glory of God.
2016 copyright Matthew John Moretz