May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor: The Gospel and the Hunger Games

I preached this sermon a few weeks ago. In it I reference briefly the family in our church who have had not one, but two boys with ALD, adrenoleukodystrophy. Between this sermon and now, we lost sweet Jacob, who fought hard but has now joined his older brother Eric in the life to come.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted...


MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church August 19, 2012 Parables and Pop Culture: The Gospel and The Hunger Games Matthew 5:1-12

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

It’s appropriate that last week we looked at reality TV in our series, because Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy is in some ways an example of reality TV taken to its absurd conclusion.

By way of summary: The Hunger Games is a yearly contest in which 24 young people are chosen randomly, a boy and a girl from each of 12 districts, and put in an arena and made to fight one another until there is only one victor left standing.

That is horrific enough, but the Hunger Games are actually a means of social control. The Capitol, which is the city that oversees the games, stages this event as a way of reminding the districts who is in charge. Some time in the past there was an uprising against the Capitol. The people were unsuccessful in the end, and in order to keep the people down, the leadership in the Capitol makes them offer up their children for this event, and then make them watch it. It’s the elites’ way of saying, Don’t you dare forget that we are the powerful ones and you are so weak and expendable. Many of these districts already suffer from poverty and starvation; the Hunger Games are just the final blow against any hope they might have of bettering their situation.

By the way, you may know that crucifixion served a similar function. It was reserved for low-status defendants, not for Roman citizens and members of the elite. It made an example of those who threatened the Roman social order: runaway slaves, those who attacked the property of the powerful rich, those who committed treason by claiming power and rule not authorized by Rome. Jesus’ crucifixion indicates that he is perceived by the ruling elite to pose a threat to the status quo. That’s exactly the dynamic that’s going on here. Terrorism, by the powerful toward the powerless.

The competitors, called tributes, are chosen in each district during a ceremony called the reaping. The residents are made to get dressed up and act as if this macabre scene is some kind of festive celebration. And the Capitol’s representative in district 12 always says the same thing prior to the selection of tributes: “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

It’s one of the more haunting refrains in the book because it is so hollow, so insincere. For the Hunger Games to happen, the odds can’t be in everyone’s favor. A boy will be chosen as tribute. A girl will be chosen as tribute. And only one person will prevail in the arena, and 23 others will lose… and lose their lives. The whole rotten system depends on the odds being in some people’s favor and not others.

Now, each young person’s name is entered into the reaping once a year, but some children’s names are listed multiple times. Because conditions are so dire in some of the districts, families can buy additional rations of food, but these rations come at a price: they must enter their children’s names another time into the reaping bowl. It’s a gamble, because the more times a name is entered, the greater that person’s chances of being selected as a tribute to fight in the games. But at the brink of starvation, it’s a gamble many feel trapped into making.

The story opens with our hero, Katniss Everdeen, preparing to go to the reaping ceremony. It is also her younger sister’s first year, since she is now 12 years old, the minimum age for the games. Katniss isn’t even thinking about her sister, since her name is only entered once, and there are so many names, some of which have been entered dozens of times. Of all the thousands of slips of paper, what are the chances that Primrose would be chosen?

But the unthinkable happens, and she is chosen, little Prim, who is so small and young, who has no skills in fighting.

The odds are not in her favor.

I think a lot about the odds. I’ve shared with you before that if I ever have the chance to ask God a question, it would be this: I understand that there is suffering in the world. I understand that we live in a “fallen creation.” But why can’t the suffering at least be evenly distributed? Why do certain people seem to have more than their share of hardship?

Close to home, many of us have wondered why ALD has hit such a wonderful family in our church, and not once but twice? Why do some people struggle so?

We know there are neighborhoods in our city where young people are more likely to go to jail than to college. Where double digit unemployment is not just a function of the recession, but a constant state of being. Yes, with enough luck and talent and resiliency, folks can succeed. But it would be naïve to suggest that the odds are as much in their favor as they are for children of the people in this room.

I think we all know people who seem to have more than their share of hardship. The person with the mental illness that they’ve struggled with for years.  The person who has been looking for a job for such a long time. When we look at these cases we often use the phrase, “They were just dealt a bad hand.” That’s not too far away from saying that the odds were not in their favor.

It’s not fair. It’s not just.

This yearning for justice has echoed through the centuries and millenia of human history. Jesus’ followers, living under empire, struggled with the same questions. It’s not fair that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s not just to have a system in which some people are seen as valuable and some people are expendable.

It’s not right that the odds seem to be so heavily in some people’s favor.

And right in the midst of these questions and struggles, Jesus speaks:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falselyon my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The word of the Lord.

*          *          *

A few things occur to me as I consider these words of Jesus.

One is that they come at the beginning of his so-called Sermon on the Mount. Before he says anything about how to pray or how to spend money or how to love or forgive or treat our neighbor, he begins with these words. This is the starting point. Jesus steps up before the crowd, clears his throat and the first word out of his mouth is Blessed. Blessed.

And the word is (to get a little grammatical here) indicative. It’s not a command—go and be blessed—and it’s not conditional—if you do this, then you will be blessed.  It describes something that is already so.

Blessed is Jesus’ very first word in his very first teaching, and the message could not be clearer: that there is a grace that exists in the world, it’s loose in the world, running amok, rewriting the rules about who is beloved and who is not, who is favored and who is not, whose “odds” really matter. That grace is simply this: if God is for us, who can be against us? The blessing is that if you are in mourning, or if you are poor in spirit, if you are at the end of your own resources, if you are feeling persecuted, if the odds are never ever ever in your favor… you are blessed of God.

Notice whom Jesus blesses: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. That’s who showed up that day, right? Needing to experience the power of the living God? The people who feel like the odds are never in their favor... that’s who he’s talking to, that’s who the message is for. For people like Katniss Everdeen and the people of District 12. For people on the negative side of world’s ledger. Those are Jesus’ people.

That’s good news no matter who you are. If you consider yourself down and out, inhale and exhale and trust that you have been called blessed, that suffering is not God's desire for you, that God can and does work out God's shalom which is so much deeper than evening up the odds.

And if you are not poor in spirit, if you are not mourning, if you are not persecuted, well congratulations, you get to be the mechanism through which God can shower blessing upon those who are.

I read an article this week about a man named Zach Balle:

Zach Balle had a successful real estate career in Phoenix, which earned him an impressive paycheck but left him unfulfilled.

After a colleague offered some unorthodox advice—“Book a flight to a country you’ve never been to”—Balle found himself in a small Guatemalan community where many children received their lessons outdoors. “If it rained, they didn’t have class that day,” says Balle, now 28. “I decided I wanted to build them a school—which was totally unrealistic.”

Armed with newfound inspiration, Balle quit his job and started researching his plan. He was dismayed to discover that even a simple structure would cost nearly $15,000 for supplies and labor. When he explained his dilemma to a contact in the Peace Corps, she told him about a method of construction she was using that transforms trash into building material. Balle decided to help her build a school in the Guatemalan community of Granados.

After local children collected empty soda bottles and stuffed them full of chip bags and candy wrappers, the resulting “ecobricks” were placed between chicken wire panels and covered with cement to create the walls of the structure.Their two-room schoolhouse, completed in October 2009, used more than 5,000 plastic bottles and 2,053 pounds of trash, cost less than $6,000 to build, and now serves roughly 300 of Granados’s students. (Source)

That is the kind of blessing that God makes possible. Where the world sees refuse and hopelessness and very long odds, God sees an opportunity for blessing. A way where there seems to be no way. Trash into treasure.

That’s the kind of blessing that we are invited to participate in.

I said earlier that during the reaping in District 12, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’s younger sister, is chosen as tribute. Folks who’ve read the books know what happens, and others can guess: The guards come to take Prim away, and everyone sees and feels how young she is, how wrong this is, and before she can stop herself her big sister Katniss yells out, “I volunteer!”

“I volunteer as tribute.”

There has not been a volunteer in District 12 in a long, long time. Nobody knows what to do. How does this work? And while the powers consult the book of rules, the people assembled there, the poor in spirit and the mourners, the meek and hungry, stand in silence, and they offer her the traditional salute that is reserved for moments of great thanksgiving and reverence.

They know that they have seen something beautiful. They have seen something transcendent. They have seen a moment soaked in blessing. And that doesn’t make everything OK, because the Capitol still oppresses the people and keeps them under the thumb. Blessing doesn’t suddenly put the odds in our favor. But a blessing inaugurates something. It changes the calculus. Katniss’s sacrifice sets something in motion that cannot be stopped. We’ll talk about that some next week. But for the moment, all the people can do is watch—in silence, in reverence—this blessing that somehow happened against all odds.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are you who hunger and thirst.

Blessed are you.