Job 5.6-16

Revelation 21.1-5a

The Sermon on the Mound

Second Sunday of Eastertide

            I want to begin with a personal disclaimer this morning. Ever since 1967, the year of “The Impossible Dream” when they improbably clinched the pennant on the last day of the season, I have been a fan of the Boston Red Sox. Now I am acutely aware that you and I sit this morning but a stone’s throw from the imaginary dividing line between Red Sox Nation and Yankee territory, which is to say the Connecticut River. I say imaginary because there are of course plenty of Boston fans on the west side of the river and New York fans on the east; still, this morning’s sermon is an attempt to straddle that fine line, and I do so with a quick story. When I was six years old, my Dad took me to Yankee Stadium to watch them play the Red Sox on the last day of the season. And so it was that I was present to witness Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the season against Boston pitcher Tracey Stallard to break Babe Ruth’s previous record of 60. And commissioner or no commissioner, I have always refused to respect the asterisk that went along with Maris’ number 61.

            Let us pray.

            One of the reasons I will always be a New Englander through and through is the change of seasons that takes place this time of year. I’m not talking about winter into spring, since by the looks of things, that isn’t happening this year. No, I’m talking about the transition that took place just this past week, which not only marked the last day of the NCAA basketball tournament – I love the NCAA tournament, both men’s and women’s; the only think wrong with it is that it always takes place during Lent, which means I can’t just take four days off in a row to watch the first two rounds, much as I’d like to. But this time of year also marks the beginning of baseball season. It is a time of year that for fans of every team is fraught with promise, a time when, at least in theory, any team can win the pennant; when the possibilities for redemption are abundant, and when baseball fans everywhere are convinced that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year. Forty years ago A. Bartlett Giamatti, who served as President of Yale and later Commissioner of Baseball, wrote an essay titled, “The Green Fields of the Mind,” and in it he says, “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings...” It is this sense of freshness and renewal, that put me in mind of the words of Revelation, “Then I saw a new heaven, and a new earth… [and] behold, I make all things new,” and it suggested to me there are more than a few similarities between baseball and our faith. Add to the fact that the start of the season nearly always coincides with Easter’s resurrection, and we begin to understand why, for some, baseball is a religious experience.

            Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once famously said that to commit yourself to new life in Christ requires nothing less than a “leap of faith.” As we heard from Hebrews last week, faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and what could better fit that description than the faith of the baseball fan? Several years ago I was introduced to this book, The Faith of 50 Million, a collection of essays by religious scholars who just happen to be baseball fans as well. It is a delightful book and anyone who would like to borrow it is more than welcome to. It was part of a seminar I was taking at Harvard Divinity School which examined the commitment the typical fan makes to the local team, and compared it to the conversion experience a person of faith undergoes in giving one’s life to God. Both, in their best expression, are all-consuming passions, each possesses a trove of stories, lore and legend, both are rife with rite and ritual. If you’ve ever watched a player getting ready to bat, fussing endlessly with his batting gloves, scuffling lines in the batter’s box, often making the sign of the cross or pointing to the sky, in exactly the same manner with each at bat, you begin to appreciate the sense of ritual that goes along with the game. I’ve seen priests make fewer gestures at the eucharist! For many people, and in many different ways, baseball is a religion whose adherents swell or swoon with each day’s box scores.

            There is also the sense of community that spans both worlds. You and I come into church Sunday morning, and the first thing we do is look for a familiar face to say good morning. At the ballpark, the face next to you is familiar whether it is or not; how many times have you struck up a conversation at the ballpark with somebody you’ve never met, but who shares the same language and metaphor, who can tell you Giancarlo Stanton’s batting average and Chris Sale’s ERA the same way others can quote John 3.16? And instead of the Call to Worship, you hear the Star Spangled Banner, and the whole stadium becomes focused because you know this means the main event is about to begin. As Roger Angell, writer and editor for The New Yorker magazine, says, “It’s like joining an enormous family with ancestors and forbears and famous stories.” The baseball family celebrates its ancestry from Judge [Kennesaw Mountain] Landis to Aaron Judge, from the Babe to Big Papi, and the stories range from the New York Knickerbockers to the Black Sox Scandal to the Shot Heard ’Round the World to Kirk Gibson to the 2004 Red Sox reversing the curse. And don’t we do the same thing here at the United Church, when we say that coming here is like joining one great big family, and we can trace our common history of two congregations coming together, not out of rivalry but because of our common interests, joining with one another not only physically, but spiritually as well? There is truly something about both experiences that brings us together in our own expression of faith.

            Consider some of the fundamentals of baseball and faith. What are the very first words we find in our holy scriptures but those words every baseball fan lives to hear, “In the big inning…” Baseball says “3 strikes and you’re out,” and the church says “On the 3rd day he rose again.” What the church calls a deathbed conversion baseball calls the bottom of the ninth with two outs and nobody on. Baseball has a diamond, we have a cross. Each world claims a Holy Land for itself, Jerusalem and Cooperstown. Baseball has the seventh-inning stretch, we have the Offertory Anthem. We both talk about the importance of sacrifice, whether it’s giving up chocolate for Lent or laying a bunt down the third base line. The players on both teams are required to relinquish ultimate authority to the umpires, though oftentimes rather grudgingly, and we grant the same authority and infallibility to our ministers – right? The church has borrowed the language of sport – we talk about being team players – and sport has borrowed the language of faith – the temple of the Fens. But at the same time each also employs a language unique unto itself. Where your average shortstop may not understand the subtle difference between “debts” and “trespasses,” I wonder how many of us can explain a 6-3-4 double play, or the finer points of the double switch. And have you ever noticed the eerie similarity between the sign of the cross and the sign for the hit-and-run?

            Now somebody who has spent a lifetime, if you could call it that, at the intersection of baseball and theology, is good old Charlie Brown. Robert Short, the author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, once observed that Charlie Brown’s pitcher’s mound bears an uncanny literary resemblance to the ash heap from which Job launched his lament toward the Almighty. And Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz, took that idea and ran with it in the comic we have in our bulletins this morning. We find Schroeder quoting the scripture of this morning’s Old Testament lesson, Linus offering the biblical commentary, Lucy taking the pragmatist’s point of view and Shermie playing the philosopher. And the long and the short of it is that, as baseball engenders certain theological implications, so is the gospel able to insinuate itself onto the playing field.

            You might remember Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the movie “Bull Durham,” offering this version of her own religious experience in the film’s opening soliloquy:

“I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic’s rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball. And it’s never boring... It’s a long season and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball.”

Well now, I enjoy an afternoon at the ballpark as much as anybody, but I wouldn’t go quite so far as Annie Savoy. But at this time of year when Christ is risen and everything is refreshed again, when the potential for new life within and without is found in every bud and flower, when the standings are still so inchoate that the team with the better record can be a half game behind the division leader, and when the central mythic heroes of our two traditions were once known as a babe, let’s remember that with God all things are possible; that even though, as Job and Schroeder both remind us, “humanity is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,” Job also reminds us that God “gives rain upon the earth and sends waters upon the fields… sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety.” And as we reflect on the glory of this Easter season, I want to close with the words of the great American poet Walt Whitman, who once wrote, “In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing “base,” a certain game of ‘ball’... Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms....the game of ball is glorious.”

            Let us pray.

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