Yesterday after the Iowa – Iowa State game, Chad Leistikow wrote that it was a game “neither team deserved to lose.”  You all know I’m a huge Iowa Hawkeye football fan… but I am also the sort of fan who loves to cheer on Iowa State or UNI or any other Iowa team, as long as they aren’t playing the Hawkeyes. But the game yesterday was the sort of game where you were really happy that neither team beat themselves. Sure they both made mistakes, but none they couldn’t overcome. It was a great game.
There was another rivalry game this weekend. Creston/Orient-Macksburg were on the road verses their conference opponent Harlan. This week, five Creston players were kicked off the team after posing in a KKK style image with hoods and a burning cross. The community, including their African-American quarterback, Kylan Smallwood was stunned… he thought of those kids as teammates and friends. One of the families issued a statement – “We sincerely apologize for the hurt and strive we have caused this community. We do not condone the behavior… Our family strongly believes that all individuals are created equally in God’s eyes.” 
The community is only beginning to respond in a way that allows for conversation and healing in the midst of the tension they expereince, although it is yet to be seen how that will play out. In some ways, Friday night’s football game was a chance to return to “normalcy” for a moment, but the real work is just beginning. It will take that whole community, standing up against racism, demonstrating repentance and forgiveness for healing to truly take place. But even a football game can show a glimpse of hope. In an act of solidarity, the Harlan marching band turned towards the Creston fans and played their opponents fight song. It was a reminder that whatever happened on the field Friday night was just a game and really, we are all supposed to be on the same team.
My friend, Laura, is a pastor in Ohio and she is a huge Buckeyes fan. After a frustrating loss last night, she posted on her facebook wall that her faith has given her a different set of lenses to view such heartache. Football is only football. “It is not oppressions, hunger, disease, poverty, devastation, or in this moment hurricane force winds. Keep perspective Buckeye nation.” 
Keep perspective, Immanuel.
Because Laura is right. Football is fun and exciting and we all enjoy giving one another a hard time, but we are here to play a different sort of game.
As we heard in our scripture reading this morning, we are called to follow Jesus and to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. As the Message Bible updates this passage in every day language:
“Start running – and never quit!… Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever… When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long list of hostility he plowed through. THAT will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
Here at Immanuel, we do believe that God has given us a race to run. For over five years now, that vision has been to “In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.”
Like tackling, passing, and running in football are the basic skills that players must learn and practice, in many ways, love, service, and prayer are the basic moves we utilize in our faith. In everything we do, they help us to run the race of faith.
But one of the things that we have been talking about for more than a year now as the leadership here at Immanuel is that they don’t paint a picture of where we are going. They don’t tell us what the finish line looks like.
How will this church, how will this community, how will this world be different because we have been loving and serving and praying?
So last fall, our Administrative Council began praying and brainstorming with one another. We took the values and priorities that you as a church named in last year’s CAT Survey. We looked at our community demographics. We explored this history of Immanuel and the vast resources that the vision team had put together five years ago.
And today, we want to put some meat on the bones of this vision. If you look at the half sheet, you’ll notice that is still our vision, but we have fleshed it out a little bit.
We believe God is calling us to personally engage in and partner with our community as we live out this life of love, service, and prayer, so that broken people and places might be healed by God’s grace.
If love, service, and prayer are the basic skills that we each will employ, the goal… the endzone if you will, is that this community and this world will experience God’s healing and wholeness.
As my friend, Laura said, there is a lot in this world that is broken.
Broken relationships can be seen all around us: in the partisan division, in racial tension, and in family strife.
Lots of people in this world also experience the pain of broken bodies – we are surviving and thriving in the midst of chronic disease, broken bones, addictions, and poor health.
And there are places that experience brokenness, too. This morning, we look out on the devastation caused by hurricanes and wildfires, but closer to home, we can see the impact of poverty and how our economic choices impact the environment around us.
We believe God has called us to love and serve and pray in each of these places.
We can help people heal relationships, reconcile, and learn to talk to one another again – like we did with our Cookouts and Conversations this summer and will do with the “My Neighbor is Muslim” study this fall.
We can be present with one another in the midst of pain and loneliness and isolation – like we will when we train folks from Immanuel to go out and visit our homebound seniors next week and like we do when we go out with Joppa to the check on the homeless.
And we can pool our resources to make a difference all across this world – whether it is through disaster relief and health kits, through donations to the food pantry, or through the Season of Creation organized by our Green Team.
God is calling you and me to love, serve, and pray… to practice those basic skills… so that God’s goals might be reached.
But basic skills alone will not help us get to the end zone.
In football, you put those things together in strategic plays. Those are the ministries of our church. Whether it is choir or children’s church, Ratatouille or Under the Bridge Casseroles, Re:Ignite or Men’s group… every activity we do, is aiming for that end zone and helping us to live out God’s mission in this church.
The other thing that I have learned after many disappointing seasons watching my favorite team is that in order to be successful and reach that end zone, every single player has to play every single quarter. And the coach needs a game plan that will help those players be successful.
If you flip to the back side of this sheet, you will find our game plan for ministry here at Immanuel. We can each practice our basic skills… but part of being on this journey together is that we should all be moving the same direction.
And as your pastors and your staff and your leadership, we think there are four different areas, four quarters of this game that we all have to play in if we are going to be successful.
- We need to worship together. If we don’t show up in this place to hear the story of God’s love and grace and to renew and strengthen each other, we will not reach the end zone.
- We need to connect with one another. We need to reach out in love and help one another out. We need to build relationship both inside and outside of this church.
- We all need to grow. Each one of us should be a part of a group that is helping us to grow in our faith and use our gifts and as we mature, we should be helping other people to grow in their faith as well.
- We need to go out into the world and serve. Through financial gifts, through hands-on mission, we can only help this world experience God’s grace if we get out of this building.
Friends, this is our game plan. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will live lives of love, service, and prayer and this world will experience God’s healing and wholeness.
And the best news is that we don’t have to do this alone.
There is this country gospel song called “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” by Bobby Bare and Paul Craft and it reminds me that God has our back in this work:
Make me, oh, make me, Lord, more than I am
Make me a piece in your master game plan
Free from the earthly temptations below
I’ve got the will, Lord, if you got the toe.
Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life
End over end, neither left nor the right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life