The Reverend Christopher Hogin
It’s Not About Me
The Episcopal Church of The Ascension
July 2, 2017
In 1953, novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story called, All The King’s Horses. It’s about a colonel in the United States army assigned to a post in India. He and his family fly over Southeast Asia on a transport plane, but the plane crashes in territory held by a Communist faction. They are captured by a sadistic Communist guerilla chief, marched into the jungle and imprisoned. The guerilla chief summons the colonel and tells him that if he can outwit him in a game of chess, he, his family, and the soldiers can leave. If he loses all will be executed.
Before they begin the guerilla chief says, “I forgot to mention, there’s a twist.” The colonel is marched into the courtyard. Before him is a life-sized chess board. The soldiers are pawns, the officers as rooks and bishops. To his horror his wife is positioned as queen and his two sons as the knights. The only spot remaining is the King, which is reserved for the colonel. On the opposite end are wooden chess pieces. The rules of the game are simple. The colonel and guerilla chief call the moves. When attacked, the guerilla chief’s wooden pieces are discarded. The colonel’s pieces, however, are removed from the board, taken to a back room, and executed.
Pleased, the guerilla chief sits comfortably next to his girlfriend on a bamboo throne. The girlfriend sits there with a vacant, expressionless look on her face. The game begins.
The colonel’s battle hardened instincts kick into gear. His objective is simple: play straight-forward defense chess, trade no pieces, and keep all on the board alive. The guerilla chief has the opposite objective. He makes wild moves for the purpose of eliminating American soldiers on the board. One by one, a pawned soldier is removed and taken to a side room. A quick pop is heard. Silence descends.
In these reckless moves the guerilla chief fails to notice a weakness. The colonel sees his chance to checkmate the guerilla chief in two moves, thus ending the game. He would win, and presumably have their freedom. Then the horrible realization emerges though that in order to win he must sacrifice his knight—a position held by his ten-year old son.
The colonel’s world comes crashing down. Saving the whole requires a sacrifice of one, the most painful sacrifice of all—his son! His wife gives a horrified look. The remaining soldiers on the board are befuddled. In a moment of detached clarity, the colonel steps outside of his emotions. He whispers to himself, “if x is dead the rest shall live.” The guerilla chief’s eyes glisten for he realizes the game is now exciting.
The colonel shouts to his son on the chess board, “Son, move forward one square, and two to your left.” The colonel’s wife gasps. The guerilla chief, giddy with excitement, says “Do you realize what you’ve done!” Just as the guerilla chief gives the order to execute the boy, his girlfriend, accompanying him in a side bamboo throne, jumps, to her feet and kills guerilla chief and herself. She becomes the sacrifice, not the boy. The game ends. All are saved.
This short story is not too far off from our reading in Genesis, with God testing Abraham. I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in here. In fact, when I read this passage earlier in the week in a coffee shop, I literally cried out loud, “Oh sugar I don’t want to preach this!!” (I didn’t say, “sugar”.” I used a word quite the opposite sugar. People looked at me, this priest wearing his collar. I told them I was from Sacred Heart Cathedral.)
I’m a father. I have a son that I love my son more than life itself. I’m not sure I could make the agonizing decision Abraham did, or the one colonel makes in Kurt Vonnegut’s story.
What I did notice this week is that God reminds us of something profoundly important in Scripture. Last week in our Gospel, Jesus spoke about family divisions: mother against daughter and son against father. We also read about Abraham casting his son Ishmael and his mother into the desert. This week we again read about family division and awful choices.
There’s a theme here. The theme is that it’s not about us. There are issues greater than our own needs in this world. How many of you have read Rick Warren’s famous book, The Purpose Driven Life? The opening lines are, “It’s not about you.” I like that. It’s a truth that’s hard for us to accept, but it’s true. It’s not about us.
We are reminded by God, and we are reminded by Jesus, not to cling too tightly to this world. We are reminded not to make an idol of anything in this world, and that includes family. Does that mean that God is egocentric, or somehow selfish? I don’t think so. As one of the prayers in the BCP states, “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being.”
You see, we come from God, we are God’s own, and to God we will return. We own nothing in this world. Abraham made a choice as did the colonel. Both choices communicated the same message. A message that says, “It’s not about me. There are issues greater than me.”
All of this—everything is temporary: our material possessions, our bodies, our minds, and yes, even our relationships—all are temporary. We really own nothing, and no matter how painful this world may be, and no matter how many senseless acts we endure, in the end, God redeems it all. God redeems us. God did so with a sacrifice of his Son. In the end, all will be made clear. We will all one day understand. All will be well, but remember, it’s not about us. Amen.