Subtraction and Multiplication
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Subtraction and Multiplication
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The English church leader John Henry Newman once said, “I read my Bible to know what people ought to do and my newspaper to know what they are doing.” What today’s newspaper says people are doing and what today’s Gospel says people ought to do: may we consider them both this morning. In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
News reports and columns and editorials have appeared from time to time about violence in youth sports. [See “Dads turn child’s play into blood sport,” USA Today, July 14, 2000. This article is the source for the following three paragraphs and the subsequent quotes from an editorial and two columnists.]
This is not violence committed by young athletes. The perpetrators are not children, but their parents.
And so we hear that the National Association of Sports Officials now offers assault insurance to youth league referees and umpires.
And so we hear that more than a dozen states have made it a crime to assault youth league coaches and officials, and that still more states may follow.
And so we hear that in Boston two fathers quarreled at a youth hockey game, ironically over whether the game had become too rough. Their quarrel in front of players and spectators turned into a fight, and one of these men, the single parent of four children, died later from his injuries.
In the face of this horror, we are left for a moment speechless. Then the newspapers that report the tragedy also supply words to shape our reaction.
“It’s too bad that so many adults have forgotten such an intrinsic fact about sports, something they certainly could learn from their children: it’s only a game.” So editorializes the Las Vegas Sun.
“Parents of children in youth sports should back off. They are taking out big-league frustrations on little-league children and officials.” So advises columnist Jan Jacobi in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“People who might previously have viewed sports as little more than extracurricular activities are buying into the more serious notion of sports as a metaphor for success.” So observes Bob Katz, a columnist in the New York Times.
Only a tiny fraction of parents engage in this behavior. Yet we cannot brush it off with remarks about percentages. The problem is not confined to a few deviants. This is a social issue, something in which all of us, even the most peaceful, somehow share. The Las Vegas Sun is correct in observing: “there has been a coarsening in our society, which includes how fans behave at all sporting events.”
A coarsening in our society. And as Katz, the New York Times columnist, notes, people are buying into the notion of sports as a metaphor for success. Or to put it differently, we are seeing the results of a spirituality of subtraction.
The problem is not really sports or players or parents. The problem appears when any of us extends the doctrine of sports beyond the make-believe world of the football field, the hockey rink, the basketball court, and applies it to real life. Then we may find ourselves trapped in a spirituality of subtraction.
In competitive sports, somebody wins and somebody loses. If I win, then you cannot, and vice versa. Thus a principle of subtraction is at work: one of us takes victory away from the other. Within the confines of the game this may be tolerable. After all, as we say, “It’s only a game.”
This may be tolerable, as I said, within the confines of the game. For the game is removed from real life. The rules of the sport are clear and we keep to them, thanks to umpires and referees. There’s a time limit on the contest, and afterward we all go back to the complexities of real life.
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Children recognize this fantasy for what it is. For them, someone who played on the opposing team just a moment ago is naturally accepted back to the real-life status of friend, and there are no hard feelings.
But what may happen with adults is that we see the activities of real life as though they were a game, a win-lose contest, where winning is not the most important thing, but the only thing.
So the problem is not simply a couple of brawling hockey dads in Boston who think that a game is real life. The problem includes lawyers and doctors and politicians and business people and spouses who think that real life is a game, and play ruthlessly to win. The problem is their firm belief that life is a win-lose proposition. They’re scared stiff of losing. Their inflated egos are on the line. They don’t want to be trounced.
But whether or not they are trounced, already they are trapped in a spirituality of subtraction. Life for them is a win-lose proposition, and they’ll do their darndest not to be left with the short end of the stick.
So much for the newspaper. Now to the Gospel. What’s Jesus up to this time?
Without selling tickets, he’s attracted a crowd big enough to fill a sports stadium. These people are getting hungry, and there’s not a restaurant in sight.
The disciples are not especially helpful. Jesus asks Philip how they are to buy enough bread for these people, and all Philip says is that even a worker’s wages for a year would not be enough to pay for such a picnic. Andrew does a little better. He brings forward a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, then dismisses this food as too little for too many.
Jesus refuses to be deterred. The crowd is told to sit down. Jesus takes the boy’s gift, gives thanks for it, and distributes it. Somehow it’s enough for everybody, and produces more leftovers than anyone wants to take home.
We speak of this as the multiplication of loaves and fishes. It’s more than a neat miracle. It’s a way of life. What happens on that hillside is an indication of how God wants the world to operate. Everybody wins. Nobody loses. Call it a win-win situation. Call it the best picnic ever. Call it a spirituality of multiplication. When we give away what we have, when we sacrifice even out of our scarcity, then God blesses our gifts and multiplies them, and there’s enough for everybody and even more.
A spirituality of subtraction leads to a bunch of ugly results. Not only a dead hockey dad, but corrupt politics, unscrupulous businesses, broken homes, and broken hearts. It’s a lie to say that life must be a win-lose game.
A spirituality of multiplication leads to very different results. The hungry are fed, relationships are restored, people feel good about themselves and their neighbors. Life’s not a battle. It’s a win-win game.
I call it a choice between a spirituality of subtraction and a spirituality of multiplication. A more traditional way to put it is that we can be citizens of a world organized against God or we can be citizens of God’s commonwealth.
We’re here this morning to practice and reinforce our participation in the commonwealth of God. In the midst of a world that’s going crazy and seeing everything as win-lose, subtraction spirituality, we’re here to sing songs and pray prayers that have everything to do with a win-win world, multiplication spirituality. For Christ comes among us today in his word, in our community life, and in Bread and Wine. Everybody who wants to can leave here with a blessing.
What we’re about this morning is another wilderness picnic! There will be more than enough Christ for everybody this morning. There will be plenty of Bread, plenty of Wine, enough to turn each of us into an agent of Christ, shining with the light of love wherever we happen to go this week.
I have spoken to you in the name of the God who feeds us still: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Copyright 2003, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.