Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Whole New Ballgame

Sermon preached Easter Sunday March 31, 2013

Texts: Luke 24:1-12

Here it is. What we have been waiting for. Yes, today is the day just before the beginning of the baseball season.
I have a long-standing love affair with baseball. Except for a few years of faithless inattention on my part, I have enjoyed baseball since about age six. The start of the baseball season is always something to celebrate.
Roger Angell (The Summer Game, 3): Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the beginning of spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue.
Bart Giamatti, former Commissioner of Baseball, whose son, Paul is now a fairly well-known actor: It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. (Baseball: A Literary Anthology, 490). Yet every spring, Giamatti returned to the game. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun (492).
One of the reasons I enjoy baseball is because it has attracted some wonderful writers.
Baseball has roots in English folk games, among them something called stoolball, which scholars have found references to as early at the 14th century. For some reason stoolball has strong associations with Easter, adapting pagan springtime games. See, I have not forgotten that it is Easter, and I am getting back to it. But I want to get back to it through the Roman Empire.
Baseball has roots in English folk games which have roots that may even go back to the Roman Empire. Certainly Rome knew something of games. The later first century Roman poet Juvenal critically proclaimed that Rome often kept its empire intact through bread and circuses – by controlling and distributing food, and by offering entertaining distractions.
But Rome also held on to its rule through intimidation and violence. Political trouble makers were publically executed to remind others of the cost of organizing against Roman rule. The execution was known as crucifixion. It was brutal and it was very public. If bread and circuses were not enough to keep you in line, keep you numb, fear worked well.
Numb and fearful – that is one way of being in the world – numb and fearful and assiduously cautious. None of us is immune from these experiences. Maybe we go through some long periods where this is our way of being – numb, fearful, overly cautious, diminished. Yet at those times, on the edges of our minds, we know there is something different, something better, something more. There’s something about spring, even when it comes haltingly, with its melting snow, emerging green, a new season, the shout to “play ball,” that calls to us, that speaks to us about hope, about joy, about new beginnings, fresh starts, love.
If ever there was a spring-time life, it was the life of Jesus. He healed the broken, welcomed the excluded, told stories of joy, offered words of hope and expectation, loved, told people again and again – “do not be afraid.” So impossibly freeing was his presence and message in an empire that was suspicious of those who were not content to be numb, and fearful and cautious, that he was eventually seen as a threat – a threat to the Roman imperial theology and a threat to those Jewish leaders who had learned to accommodate comfortably to Roman rule. He was the kind of threat that needed to be made an example of. He was. He was arrested. He was scorned, mocked and humiliated. He was publically executed, crucified.
If Jesus lived a springtime kind of life, he also lived a God kind of life, and God was not through with Jesus, even if Rome wanted to be. On Easter, God said “no” and God said “yes.” God said “no” to a way of life based on fear and numbness, extreme caution and diminishment. God said “yes” to Jesus. God said this Jesus way is the way, this Jesus project is my project for the world, this Jesus life is abundant life.
Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus, and through Jesus to us – to our numb, fearful, diminished, cautious selves.
With Easter, it’s a whole new ballgame. Theologian Paul Tillich: Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was; nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before. Author Frederick Buechner: He got up. He said, “Don’t be afraid.” Love is the victor…. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream.
With Easter it’s a whole new ballgame for into a world that often encourages fear and numbness comes the power of hope, the power of joy, the power of new beginnings, the power of love.
With Easter it’s a whole new ballgame, and the question before us is always, “Will we say ‘yes’ to God’s ‘yes’ to us?” The late Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes preached that “the resurrection is God’s invitation to us to start over” (Strength for the Journey, 259). Will we say “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us, to God’s invitation to start over? Theologian John Caputo writes: When God holds sway, the past is dismissed. Where God rules, the past does not rule. If we are slaves to the past, we can expect the future to look like the past. (The Weakness of God, 169). Will we say “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us and not be trapped by our past? Theologian Peter Hodgson writes: In the midst of suffering, defeat, despair, discouragement, we somehow find the resources to go on, to confront the challenges of life anew, to become engaged in the process of creative transformation, which is the divine process. This is the mystery of the resurrection. (Winds of the Spirit, 267) Will we say “yes’ to God’s Easter “yes” to us and find resources for those difficult times in our lives, and risk engaging in the process of creative transformation?
We choose – new beginnings, freedom from the past, resourcefulness for life’s challenges, risking creative transformation or numbness, fear, narrow caution, diminishment.
What might saying “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us look like a little more concretely?
Writer Anne Lamott offers some testimony about this. We’re Easter people living in a Good Friday world…. In Jesus’ real life, the resurrection came two days later, but in our real lives, it can be weeks, years, and you never know for sure that it will come…. But I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’, and in ours…. It’s often hard [though] to find… dramatic evidence of rebirth and hope in our daily lives. (Plan B, 140, 141) Still she suggests small changes that Easter people can make in their lives: I am going to pray to forgive one person today…. You can always begin by lighting a candle…. I am going to send checks to people and organizations I trust…. I am going to walk to the library – In a library, you can find small miracles and truth…. I am going to try to pay attention to the spring…. (141ff). These are ways we can say “yes’ to the God who says an Easter “yes” to us, ways we can live beyond numbness, fear, narrow caution, diminishment.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who works with gang and former gang members in Los Angeles. He tells some wonderfully heart-warming, and terribly heart-rending, stories in his book Tatoos on the Heart. Scrappy was a tough gang member with whom Father Boyle had not had good experiences. They first met when Scrappy was 15, assigned to Boyle’s church by his probation officer. “The chip located on his shoulder was the size of a Pontiac.” Five years later, Scrappy got up and walked out on a funeral Father Boyle was officiating. Three years later, as Gregory Boyle was intervening in a fight, Scrappy pulled a gun on him. Scrappy then spends ten years in prison. Getting out, he seeks Father Boyle. “I’ve spent the last twenty years building a reputation for myself… and now… I regret… that I even have one.” Scrappy breaks down and cries. “Now what do I do? I know how to sell drugs. I know how to gangbang. I know how to shank fools in prison. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car. I know how to drive, but I don’t know how to park. And I don’t know how to wash my clothes except in the sink of a cell.” (34)
Father Boyle offers Scrappy a job with the company he started, Homeboy Industries. He reflects on this experience. Scrappy’s moment of truth was not in recognizing what a disappointment he’s been all these years. It came in realizing that God had been beholding him and smiling for all this time, unable to look anywhere else…. When the vastness of God meets the restriction of our own humanity, words can’t hold it. The best we can do is find the moments that rhyme with this expansive heart of God. (35) We say “yes” to God’s Easter “yes” to us when we try to live in such a way that our lives rhyme more and more with the expansive heart of God.
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet, winner of the Noble Prize in Literature. He was born in Northern Ireland, and witnessed the political turmoil there. Part of his response occurs in his writing, including a rewriting of a play by Sophocles to which Heaney adds a chorus that speaks of living beyond numbness and fear. (The Cure At Troy, 77)

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far-side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Hoping for a great sea-change, believing that a further shore is reachable, believing in miracles and cures and healing wells – these are ways of saying “yes” to the God who says an Easter “yes” to us.
Numbness, fear, assiduous narrow caution, diminishment – there is a great deal around us that would lead us to live this way, though it is not really life as it is meant to be lived. With the God of the risen Jesus, it’s a whole new ballgame. In Easter, God says “yes” to us. Are you ready to say “yes” in return? Do you want to play ball? Amen.

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