Sermon preached October 27, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Luke 18:9-14
Baseball. It feels a little cold to be thinking about baseball, but we are in the middle of the World Series, “the fall classic.” Baseball is alive and well, and for those of us who have a certain love for the game, this is a wonderful time of year. In part in honor of the World Series, last Sunday night, for Faith and Film, we watched “42” the bio-pic about Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play major league baseball. He came into the major leagues in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the team president who brought Robinson to the Dodgers was a man named Wesley Branch Rickey, a Methodist.
I have long enjoyed baseball. As a boy I collected baseball cards and never thought putting them on the spokes of my bicycle made much sense, unless it was the check list cards. I organized my cards by teams, alphabetized them, wrote down rosters for the teams, and played games with my cards in the basement.
The American poet Walt Whitman once said about baseball (April 1889): It’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it; America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere. (Ward and Burns, Baseball, xvii). After the miracle Mets took the 1969 World Series in five games from the Baltimore Orioles, Orioles manager Earl Weaver was asked whether, had his team been able to hold on to their lead late in game 5, and brought the series back to Baltimore, they might not have won it. No, that’s what you can never do in baseball. You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the __________ plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all. (Roger Angell, Once More Around the Park, 23)
Baseball, the greatest game of them all. I guess it is biblical. It is the only game mentioned in the Bible and early on. “In the big inning……”
Notice Earl Weaver’s words – “the greatest game of them all.” To him, baseball is the best. It is a comparative statement, a competitive statement about a competitive game.
We like competition. We are enamored with it, and I am not immune. Last weekend Julie and I participated in a 5 K for her school. We had not been running much, so Julie suggested that we mostly walk. I said, “O.K., as long as we don’t finish last.” Earlier in our relationship, Julie and I discovered that it was better for that relationship if we did not play the game “Risk.”
We like competition. We love our sports. I think a strong case could be made that there is a significant religious dimension to our fascination with sports. Whereas once people may have identified themselves with particular religious organizations, people now often identify themselves by their teams. I once officiated at a funeral for a young man who was entirely decked out in Minnesota North Star regalia. People gather with the fervor of an old fashioned revival meeting at sporting events. Tailgating forms community.
If competitive sports have religious dimensions, they also provide some of the guiding metaphors for our national life. How often are sports metaphors used in other areas of life? Baseball metaphors have been used for sexual experiences. Our politics is often, too often, described in terms of competitive sports. What will the President’s policies do for his party, his team. Will the government shut down handicap (as in horse racing) the Republicans in the next election. At times it seems we have turned the whole of our politics into elections which are filtered in our imagination through the metaphors from competitive sports.
We love competition, so much so that we forget too easily that competition has its limits. We need to use our wisdom to decide where competition may be helpful and enjoyable, and where it may be unhelpful and perhaps even detrimental. The psychologist Abraham Maslow, who is often considered a person behind our culture’s focus on self-esteem, once wrote, “To be strong, a person must acquire frustration-tolerance” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 200). We need to learn to compete, to risk, and lose sometimes. Yet Maslow also warned of the dangers of being unimaginative in our description of the world. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” (paraphrase of The Psychology of Science, 15-16) If the only intellectual filter we have for our world is sports, we tend to see everything as a competition.
Here is where competition has no space – the spiritual life. In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells an example story, though Luke calls it a parable. Two men went up to the temple to pray. One of the men was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, that is one was traditionally religious and pious and the other among the despised. Imagine that, tax collectors not thought of warmly! The Pharisee looks at the tax collector and prays to God thanking God that his life is not like that tax collector’s life. Look at all the good things I do, God. On the other hand, the tax collector looks down and prays for mercy. Jesus likes the tax collector’s prayer better.
Here’s the wonderful irony in the story. Jesus is telling us that the spiritual life is not about competition, not about comparing your spirituality with the spirituality of others, yet he does this by comparing these two. There is a story about a group of monks together praying, and one monk seems to be praying with particular fervor – “O God, I am nothing. O God, I am nothing.” One monk nearby, pokes the monk next to him and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!” The spiritual life is not about competition with others.
Yet there is another parabolic twist to this story. While the tax collector “went down to his home justified,” neither man has it quite right.
For the Pharisee, that he prays, and fasts and gives – these are not bad things. Spiritual practices are important for the spiritual life. He misunderstood their place in the spiritual life. He sought security in the wrong things. He misunderstands God. You get the impression that his God is the God of the brownie points, the tally board, the God who keeps score – messed up here, did o.k. here. This God lurks around in the attics of many of our imaginations. God is keeping score and we need to have more points in the good column than in the bad column. Security in our relationship with God the score keeper only comes from racking up more points. But we are always anxious about that, so we try to relieve that anxiety by finding someone we are sure is doing worse. Of course we are ahead of this person. Comparison becomes complacency, and relieves our anxiety.
The tax collector looks within. That’s good. He is not interested in comparing himself to anyone else, though surely there are rogues, thieves and adulterers doing worse than he is. You wonder, though, will he ever raise his eyes to see God’s grace which accepts him as he is? Will he ever hear on his way home that indeed God loves him?
What God desires from us is to play ball, play ball in that sense of being engaged with someone. Have you ever played catch by yourself? It stays interesting only for awhile. It is much nicer to play catch with someone. But there is no keeping score in catch. It is about engagement. It is about enjoyment. It is about improving one’s skills – not to get better than your partner, but to get better than you are now. That’s the spiritual life. That’s our relationship with God.
God desires a dialogic relationship. We are honest with ourselves, and sometimes we need change, sometimes dramatic change. Yet we look up from our introspection to also see God, welcoming us as we are.
This week Parker Palmer posted this wonderful poem by the German poet Rilke on Facebook. The poem is entitled “Autumn.” In the poem the poet observes leaves falling, and notes that we all fall in our lives.
We are all falling. The hand is falling.
And look at the others; it’s inside them all.
And yet there’s one who with infinite
tenderness holds this falling in his hands.
That’s God, this one who with infinite tenderness holds us in God’s hands. That’s God’s grace, welcoming us as we are, holding us as we are. Self-righteousness has no place here because God isn’t keeping score. This isn’t a competition. The spiritual life is about engagement.
The spiritual life, our relationship with God begins where we are. We grow from there. It’s more like the game of catch, not a competitive contest. “Play Ball!”