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Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. Headshot

Moving the Chains: Mark 12:28-34

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In professional football, one "old school" device still settles arguments about the location of the ball.

This is the time of the year of preaching, that I usually am more cognizant of the time in the delivery of my homily. Chances are that as we preach the next couple of Sundays, in the thick of the football season, you'll see some parishioners glance nervously at their watches, hoping you'll be mercifully brief so they can get home in time for kickoff.

But in person, things are a little more "old school," particularly when it comes to one of the game's most important aspects: determining where exactly the ball is supposed to be located and how far the offense has to move it for a first down. The way that's done today is the way it's been done since 1906 -- the year the NCAA determined that a team needed 10 yards, not five, for a first down, and the year that the forward pass was legalized. Spalding's Official Foot Ball Guide of 1907 set down the rules that have lasted for more than 100 years: "To assist in measuring the progress of the ball, it is desirable to provide two light poles about six feet in length, connected at their lower ends with a stout cord or chain 10 yards in length." Thus, the "chain gang" was born.

Since then, at every football game from Pee Wees to pros, a group of officials stands about six feet off the sideline holding blaze-orange "poles" with a 10-yard length of chain stretched between them. One end is placed ostensibly at the football's original spot, lined up by the official's eyeballs with the nose of the ball (even though the ball itself may be more than 25 yards from the sideline). The other end marks the line to gain 10 yards away. When the play ends, an on-field official estimates the new spot of the ball, marking it with his foot and tossing the ball to another official to set for the next play. When the new spot is close to the first down end of the chain, that's when the "chain gang" trots out to "measure" whether or not the offense gets a new set of downs.

Often, this is one of the most dramatic and breathless moments in a football game. Sometimes the drive continues by an inch; sometimes it comes up just a chain link short.

Sure, a lot of tradition is associated with the chains. A measurement can swing momentum in a game as much as a pass or a handoff can. But because the chains are set purely based on the eyeballs of human officials, the margin for human error is still a big factor. "There must be a better way," says longtime NFL broadcaster and former player Pat Summerall. "Because games are decided, careers are decided, on those measurements."

Now, you'd think with technological advances such as GPS and lasers it would be a no-brainer to figure out just where, in a pile of large, sweaty humans, the ball actually was when the running back's knee hit the ground. Just put a computer chip in the ball or something. And if they can paint a virtual yellow line on the field to show the TV audience the yardage the offense has to gain for a first down, and then surely they can figure out a way to do that on the turf itself, right?

Well, no. At least not yet. For years, inventors and tech-obsessed fans have tried to come up with alternatives to the old chain gang.

How does Jesus measure forward progress?

Sometimes the "old school" way is the best way to measure, whether it's on the football field or in the game of life. Finding himself in an argument with some religious referees in his own day, Jesus is asked about the criteria for measuring the progress of a person's life. For his answer, he reaches back to an ancient rule book.

One of the "scribes" hears the argument going on there at the sidelines of the temple and sees that Jesus is holding his own against the verbal jousting of a self-appointed competition committee. Up to this point, all the bickering has been about some subtle interpretations of the rules -- rules such as paying taxes (Mark 12:13-17) and about who would be married to whom after the resurrection (v. 18-27). The religious leaders want Jesus to give them a favorable spot on the field of religiosity, but it becomes clear to them that he's playing by a different set of rules. So this scribe, perceiving that Jesus is an authority on the game, asks Jesus to name the number-one rule: "Which commandment is the first of all?" (v. 28).

In response, Jesus breaks out the old-school measuring sticks -- two of them. Reaching back to Deuteronomy 6:5, Jesus spots the first and greatest commandment: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind, and with all your strength" (v. 29-30). This text, also known as the Shema, was and still is foundational in Jewish tradition as the prayer that begins and ends each day. The starting point for everything, according to Jesus, is worship.

If we're made in God's image, as the old school, or Old Testament, tells us, then we will find our true position and purpose in life only when we learn to love and worship the One we were designed to reflect. On a football field, players must focus all their attention to the snap of the ball, all their minds on running the play correctly, all their strength in blocking and tackling, and all their hearts on winning -- on every play -- if they're going to move the chains. The same is true for us if we want to truly make progress in growing into the image of God individually. Then, as a team, we are to collectively participate with God in moving the world toward the ultimate "goal line" of God's kingdom. Worshiping God isn't just a head trip or about coming up with more technological gadgets for Sunday morning to put more people in the stands, or, pews. It's about putting our whole selves passionately in the game.

First down, first priority, first movement, is always focused on worship.

The scribe asked only about the first commandment, the marker of worship, but Jesus adds the other end of the measuring stick as the line to gain that helps move humanity forward toward God's kingdom. Jesus goes old school again when he quotes Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If we begin at first down with worship, loving God with our whole selves, then we'll also make progress, chain link by chain link, toward the next stick, which loves our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In the stadium, you know your team is doing well when it consistently moves the chains and drives forward toward the end zone. At the end of the day, the team that has the most first downs usually is the winner. If we're following Christ, our success is measured not only by how our love for God transforms us but by how that love finds its way through us to someone else. Time and again, Jesus coached his disciples by saying that their love for God would be measured by the love they showed to others, particularly people in need (see Matthew 25:31-46 or Luke 10:25-37 for just a couple of examples if you want to flesh this out).

The scribe understood the old-school wisdom that Jesus was teaching, and Jesus blessed him for it. "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly (νουνεχῶς), he said unto him, you are not far from the end zone, the place of victory. This scribe, notwithstanding the prejudices of his class, had reached the border-land of the kingdom. He had learned that the true way to the kingdom was by the love of God and of our neighbor. He was not far from the kingdom -- not far from "the Church militant here on earth," by which is the way to the Church triumphant in heaven. He was not far from the kingdom, but still he wanted that which is the true pathway to the kingdom -- faith in Christ as the Savior of the world.

Our churches and communities of faith must begin to write measurable visions that will guide the mission in moving the chains. We oftentimes get sidetracked with Pharisaic arguments that detract in meaningful progress from the kingdom. For the so called institutional church to survive and be a relevant light house of progression, we must focus on the end zone that will allow us to press toward the high calling which is through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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