Self-Discovery and the World Series

This evening, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers will square off in the first game of the World Series.

As a longtime Red Sox fan, I am excited that my boys have the chance to win the franchise’s fourth championship since their curse-ending victory in 2004. As a baseball fan in general, however, I am especially excited that these two storied franchises are competing for baseball’s highest honor. Both teams have long histories: the Dodgers played their first game in Brooklyn in 1883, just seven years after the National League was established; the Red Sox were founding members of the American League in 1901.

Despite their shared longevity, each of these teams represents a distinct perspective on the game. Indeed, one could argue that the Dodgers and the Red Sox represent two competing baseball philosophies. Though an older franchise, the Dodgers have long been innovators. When they moved from Ebbets Field to Dodgers Stadium, they became the first team to play on the West Coast. When they put Jackie Robinson at first base in 1947, they became the first Major League team to integrate their roster.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, are among baseball’s most flamboyant traditionalists. They have played at Fenway since the Taft Administration, squeezing uncomfortable seats into every available corner of the ballpark. While Dodgers fans can proudly claim that their team helped break baseball’s color barrier, devotees of the Red Sox must reckon with the shame of knowing that Boston was the very last team to field non-white players, owing to the intransigence of Tom Yawkey, the club’s reactionary and recalcitrant owner.

Lest we think that these differences are purely historical, they seem to play out on the field as well. During the 2018 postseason, the Dodgers have played 2018 baseball: eschewing “small ball” tactics in favor of leveraging high-percentage matchups. Meanwhile, the Red Sox seem to have lost their sabermetrics memo; they spent the league championship series simply putting the ball in play and trying to get guys on base.

This evening, in other words, we will see a fascinating clash between two distinct baseball philosophies, between those who look to the future and those who look to the past. This tension tells us something about ourselves. There is a part of each of us that looks to the horizon with a sense of hope about who we might yet become. There is also a part of each of us that looks wistfully to where we have come from, knowing that we can’t go back, but trusting that we will not forget who we have been. In baseball, there is room for innovation and tradition. In fact, baseball invites us to acknowledge that neither approach is complete: one cannot look forward without also knowing where one has come from; one cannot look back without recognizing that time continually marches on. Tonight we will witness more than two teams playing a game; we will witness a meditation on the ambivalence of knowing that our lives are shaped by who we have been and who we will be.

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Winners and Losers

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite my deep love of baseball, I have never been any good at it. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that when I was a little leaguer, I had the ignominious distinction of striking out in T-Ball. Just to be clear, I had three opportunities to hit a stationary ball off a tee, and I missed every time. Needless to say, no one was particularly surprised when I abandoned the baseball diamond for the choir stall. Before hanging up my cleats, I attended our team’s end-of-season awards banquet at a local Italian restaurant. Even though I was objectively the worst player on the team, I received a trophy. In fact, everybody received a trophy at that banquet. Even if we rode the bench the entire season, missed every game, or struck out for every at bat, each of us would receive a gilded plastic baseball player mounted on a scrap of marble.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but those trophies were part of a larger conversation about how we as a society encourage our children. As early as 1992, Newsweek ran an article lamenting the hypocrisy of what the author described as “trophy syndrome.” If anything, this conversation has become more contentious over the last decades. Advocates for rewarding participation claim that the practice encourages cooperation, builds self esteem, and fosters psychological health.Screen-Shot-2015-10-12-at-11.57.58-AM Meanwhile, opponents argue that the participation trophy discourages competition and fails to prepare people for the realities of the world. One recent article casually notes that “inflated self-esteem has been found in criminals, junkies, and bullies,” apparently implying that giving a child a participation trophy will lead her to a life of crime. Other commentators are more measured, but no less insistent: “We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner,” writes one critic. “It just isn’t true.” Ultimately, this is what the critique of participation trophy syndrome boils down to: if there are to be winners, there must in turn be losers. To put it another way: if everyone is special, then no one is.

This morning’s gospel reading makes an important contribution to this conversation. Though this passage seems pretty simple at first, a closer look reveals that this moment in Luke’s gospel is anything but straightforward. In particular, the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue speaks to the very heart of our faith. The controversy begins when Jesus heals on the sabbath. As we know, the Jewish Law prohibits performing any kind of work on the seventh day of the week. Jesus violates this injunction when he heals a woman of her infirmity. The leader of the synagogue’s indignance is palpable: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he charges, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” While this might seem unnecessarily callous and finicky, his point is actually motivated by a combination of compassion and respect for tradition. The leader of the synagogue certainly wants this woman to be healed, but he also wants his people to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The sabbath is one of the ways that the Jewish people know who they are; they are the people who stop every six days and recognize that they are not the masters of the universe. They are a people who have a healthy understanding of their place in creation. Jesus seems to be disregarding this beautiful tradition for the sake of a fleeting gesture.

Characteristically, Jesus’ response to his opponents is both unapologetic and somewhat unexpected. He refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. But he also declines to make the case that the rules about sabbath are outmoded and irrelevant, as we might expect. Instead, Jesus notes that even the Law permits some work to be done on the sabbath: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Even under the most stringent sabbath regulations, this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, something this synagogue crowd would have understood. Jesus argues that the same logic applies to this “daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years.” Jesus insists that she shouldn’t have to suffer for even one more day. In some ways, this moment is merely an expression of one of Jesus’ more memorable aphorisms: the sabbath was made for people and not people for the sabbath.

Ultimately, however, this is not an argument about the finer points of sabbath observance. The leader of the synagogue is not primarily interested whether the healing of this woman qualifies as an exception to sabbath regulations; his primary concern is about dispensing with the commandments for the sake of just one person. healing_smJesus could have healed this woman any other day of the week; he could have remained in town another day or arrived early. Instead, Jesus heals this woman, this daughter of Abraham from this bondage on the sabbath. What made her so special? More to the point, what made Jesus so special that he could deliberately and provocatively undermine the fourth commandment? This moment in Luke’s gospel exposes one of the most challenging elements of the Christian faith, what some have called “scandal of particularity.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes the gospel known through particular people. He heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, and even raises the dead, but there plenty of sick, blind, and dead people who remain that way. Why does Jesus heal this person and not that person? Though some have attempted to offer explanations, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way Jesus chooses who will experience the healing power of God.

Paradoxically, this is good news. The religious authorities wanted to know what made this woman so special that she should be healed on the sabbath. By freeing her from her bondage, Jesus provides a stunning and resounding answer: nothing. There is nothing that made her worthy of being healed on the sabbath. It was God’s grace, made known through Jesus Christ, that freed her from bondage. The religious authorities saw the healing of this woman in terms of winning and losing. If she was a winner, did that make them losers? By healing this unworthy, un-special woman, Jesus makes an astonishing claim: we are all losers. We are all unworthy. There is nothing that makes us special. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And here’s the extraordinary thing: since none of us is special, since there is nothing we can do or have done to merit God’s grace, all of us are equally deserving of God’s grace. The critic who suggested we have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner had it exactly right, because none of us is winner. There can be no losers in the kingdom of God because we are all losers.

Our culture tends to make success a measure of our worth. Those who win, those who come in first, those who prove themselves to be special are accorded a superhuman status. Our fascination with elite Olympic athletes is proof enough of this phenomenon. But those who win are equally susceptible to failure. They are plagued by flaws and inadequacies, and a day will come when they will lose. The gospel refuses to equate success and worthiness. In fact, the gospel dispenses with the very concepts of success and worthiness. None of us is worthy of redemption; we are all equally dependent on the grace and mercy of God. In the end, all of the trophies we receive are meaningless; the only thing that truly matters is the extraordinary gift of God’s grace.

Reimagining our Roles

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Fifty five years ago this week, one of the great careers in major league baseball came to a memorable and poetic conclusion. On a damp and chilly day in Boston, the Red Sox were playing their final home game of the season. There would no October baseball in Boston that year; the Red Sox were the worst they had been in 27 seasons. Nevertheless, the Fenway crowd was electric as Boston’s 42 year old left fielder came to the plate in the eighth inning. In his long career with the Red Sox, Ted Williams had been one of the most enigmatic players in all of baseball. He was unquestionably a transcendent talent: he still holds the record for highest single season batting average. Yet, there was always a simmering resentment among the Fenway faithful when it came to their impressive left fielder. Williams never led his perennially frustrated team to a World Series victory. He was injury prone and plagued by a host of personal and family issues. He craved solitude and, as a result, expressed no interest in cultivating a relationship with press or the fans. But perhaps most galling to fans and baseball purists was his failure to honor the timeless baseball convention of tipping one’s cap to acknowledge the accolades of the crowd.

But none of that seemed to matter on that autumn day in 1960. When Ted emerged from the on deck circle for his final plate appearance at Fenway, the crowd stood and applauded in unison. This was not the primal, indistinct roar of a typical stadium crowd; it was, in the words of John Updike, a “somber and considered tumult.” Indeed, the ovation seemed to represent an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past, a collective desire to create a redemptive moment. On the third pitch of the at bat, Teddy Ballgame swung mightily and crushed the baseball into the Red Sox bullpen. ted-williamsx-largeThough it was his last major league home run, Williams rounded the bases as he always did: hurriedly, head down, like a commuter dashing through a sudden downpour. And in spite of the cheering crowd, the pleas of his teammates, and the even entreaties of the other team, Ted steadfastly refused to tip his cap. Many sportswriters complained that this was emblematic of the legend’s arrogance and contempt for the fans. Updike put it more poetically:“Gods do not answer letters.” But I wonder if Williams’ refusal to end his career by tipping his cap stemmed from a fundamental conviction that his relationship with Boston could not be changed in a single cathartic moment, that his purpose was not to play a mere role in the great narrative of baseball, that no matter how we may want our stories to play out, the people at the heart of them are more important.

In the passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus is once again squaring off against the Pharisees. And once again, the subject of their dispute is the nature of God’s Law. As always, the Pharisees approach Jesus with a fairly straightforward question designed to test his familiarity with the Law in order to examine his claims of rabbinical authority. So, when Jesus responds by asking, “What did Moses command you?” the Pharisees must think they’ve finally won: “Some rabbi he is!” they might have thought. “He doesn’t even know the rule about divorce!” You can almost hear their smugness as they refer their opponent to Deuteronomy 24: “Well Jesus…Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her; surely everyone knows that.” But Jesus, who is playing a very different game than the Pharisees, accuses them of being hard-hearted, an epithet that recalls Pharaoh’s steadfast refusal to let God’s people go in the story of the Exodus. In other words, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to think beyond what they believe the Law says and consider instead the ways it affects God’s people.

If we look at the portion of Deuteronomy the Pharisees refer to, it’s pretty clear that they are missing the point. The passage describes a hypothetical situation in which a man divorces his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce, putting it in her hand, and sending her out of his house. It goes on to explain that if she marries another and loses that husband through death or divorce, her first husband “is not permitted to take her again to be his wife…for that would be abhorrent to the Lord.” While this language doesn’t exactly empower women, its purpose is not to explain how a man goes about divorcing his wife. Rather, it articulates that a woman is not subject to the arbitrary whims of her first husband, that she cannot be treated as a commodity, that she has intrinsic value. The religious authorities, however, were reading this text not as an affirmation of human dignity, but as a prescription: “how to divorce your wife in three easy steps.” The Pharisees believed that if their wives did not fit neatly into their life plan for whatever reason, they could be removed from the equation with no more than a the stroke of a pen. They were so concerned with maintaining absolute control that they were willing to disregard the humanity of their wives. Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a surprising way. He doesn’t suggest that his opponents misunderstood the Law; he doesn’t even offer his own unique interpretation of the Law. imgresInstead, Jesus takes us back to the Garden of Eden, back before there was a Law, back to the moment when humanity came into being. He does this to remind his audience that we are all created by God. With this reminder, Jesus affirms that no one is disposable, that everyone has value, that no one’s purpose in this life is merely to play a role in someone else’s story. Jesus, in other words, frames the issue of divorce not in terms of whether it’s allowed or not, but rather in terms of how it affects the people involved.

It’s important for us to recognize that Jesus is not simply replacing one rule with another. By framing divorce within the context of creation, Jesus invites us to think about the issue, as he invites us to think about everything, in terms of what God has done and is doing rather than how we behave. At the same time, we can say with confidence that God is not in favor of divorce, not because it violates some abstract rule, but because of what it does to God’s people. Those of you who have experienced divorce know how painful it is, how dehumanizing it can feel, how it can eat you alive. But even in the midst of that pain, we are called to remember that we are created by God. Even as we bear witness to the migrant crisis in Europe, we are called to remember that those escaping from conflict are not statistics, they are people created by God. Even as we express our grief and outrage over the massacre in Oregon, we are called to remember the God-given humanity of everyone involved: the victims, the survivors, even the shooter. So often the sheer magnitude of the issues facing our broken world leads us to forget about the people at the heart of those stories of anguish and hope. Jesus calls us to remember their humanity, to remember that each and every one of them, and each and every one of us, was created and is beloved by God.

Lament at Camden Yards

I am a baseball fan. I love almost everything about the game: the way that it puts me in touch with my childhood, the way that it juxtaposes the urban and the pastoral, the way that it creates its own sense of time in an overly-scheduled world. I find, however that the most compelling thing about baseball is the way that it lends itself to story and narrative. The great Bart Giamatti, baseball’s resident philosopher during his brief tenure as its commissioner, noted that the game can be divided into three acts (3 x 3 innings) that enact a fundamental human drama: the journey of life that takes us through perils and challenges as we strive to make our way home.

Unlike the dramas of stage and screen, baseball encourages and requires the participation of the audience. Those assembled in the stands of the ballpark function much like a Greek chorus, punctuating and narrating the events unfolding before them with cheers, jeers, groans, and applause. The practiced ear can tell what is happening on the diamond just by listening to the sounds of the crowd: from the steady escalation of enthusiasm as a double play is turned to the collective sigh of disappointment as a 3-2 count results in a walk to the unbridled ecstasy of a well-hit home run ball. The sounds of baseball are crucial because they remind us that the game is not played in a vacuum, that it is meant to be a shared experience. The sounds of baseball testify to the fact that the story baseball enacts is our story, the story of a people trying to find their way home.

Everth CabreraYesterday, baseball was robbed of its power to tell this story. As a result of the recent unrest in Baltimore, the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. This game marked the first game that two teams have played without an audience of any kind. Naturally, it was a strange experience. Though the players pitched, fielded, and hit as usual, they gave the appearance that they had lost their reason for playing.

At first, I thought that closing Camden Yards to the public yesterday was a mistake, a missed opportunity. After all, sports have the almost unique ability to bring people together after terrible tragedies. The first Red Sox game after the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, was a cathartic and unifying experience for the people of that beleaguered city. Surely, an Orioles win at Camden Yards would have galvanized the people of Baltimore and helped them to move beyond the events of the past several days.

As I thought about it more, however, I realized that it is not time for the people of Baltimore or any of us to move beyond the events of the last week. In our culture, our first instinct is to paper over our grief and pretend that our pain has gone away. When we do this, however, we fail to allow our grief to be transformed and to transform us. The crowdless game at Camden Yards may have been painfully necessary because it exposed the depth of Baltimore’s grief. As I watched yesterday’s game, I had an unavoidable and overwhelming sense of emptiness. I think that it is important for us to feel that emptiness. It is important for us to recognize that there are people in this country who have felt that emptiness for too long. The empty silence at Camden Yards was important to experience because it gave an opportunity for lament: lament for Freddie Gray, lament for injustice, lament for victims of violence everywhere.

Lament is an important and misunderstood part of the Christian experience. Perhaps the most well-known lament from Scripture is Psalm 22, which begins with the plaintive question: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the psalm that Jesus quotes from the cross in the gospels according to Matthew and Mark. It is a psalm that explores feelings of abandonment, loss, and emptiness. At the same time, it is about far more than the psalmist’s pain; it is a psalm that affirms the faithfulness of God. After the psalmist has recited all of the ways that he has felt abandoned, he writes, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” In Scripture, lament is not about despair, it is about acknowledging our grief before the One whose faithfulness is beyond our capacity to imagine. As we lament for Baltimore and for all victims of injustice, we are called to trust that God will transform our grief into hope. Moreover, we are called to use that hope to empower the leaders of our communities recognize that we are all part of the same story.

There was one sound at yesterday’s game that was new to even the most experienced baseball fan. Though the stadium was closed to the public, a small group of Orioles faithful gathered outside of the stadium to cheer on their team from afar. Towards the end of the game, the faint chant of “Let’s Go Os” grew more and more distinct. In the silence of grief and lament, this chant was a still, small voice of hope, a small token of our shared story, a reminder that we are called to find our way home together.

Opening Day

Today is Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season.

imgresI have been at least a casual baseball fan for much of my life (and by “casual,” I mean that I’ve always been at least nominally a Red Sox fan), but I really fell in love with the game about ten years ago, when I moved to Boston.  There are a number of aspects of baseball that appeal to me.  I love the history of the game; it is humbling to know that some MLB franchises have been playing since the Gilded Age.  I love the liturgy of the game; there is something very comforting about the unnecessarily detailed rules that are a central part of the game, like this unnecessary and beautiful ritual: whenever a pitching change is made, the manager walks all the way out to the mound, takes the ball from the pitcher, and hands it to the reliever.  I love the pace of the game; baseball is the athletic equivalent of Sabbath: it encourages us to slow down in the midst of our busy lives and experience the wonder of life.

The main reason I love baseball as much as a I do, however, is how well the sport embraces failure.  There are 162 games in the Major League Baseball season.  The Boston Red Sox, who were the World Series champions last year, won 97 of these 162 regular season games.  In spite of the fact that they lost 65 games, they were crowned as the best team in baseball.  Even more dramatic is the fact that Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in history, had a single-season batting average of .406.  This means that in his best season, Teddy Ballgame himself was unsuccessful at the plate almost 60 percent of the time.  The best hitters playing today tend to have batting averages around .300, which means that they fail 70 percent of the time.  Baseball players and fans know how to deal with failure.  And this shapes the way that baseball fans look at the world, especially on Opening Day.  Every team begins the season with a mathematically equal chance of going to the playoffs, and even fans of historically bad teams hold on to this hope.  In spite of past failures, we always know that there is a possibility for redemption.  For baseball fans, the past does not dictate the future; instead, the future is shaped by boundless possibility.

I think the same can be said of the Christian life.  At its best, the Church is deeply aware of the reality of human failure, of the fact that sin is part of the human condition.  At the same time, the Christian community is also deeply aware that in spite of our human failings, there is always a possibility for transformation.  Paul tells us that Christ reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners.  God was aware of our human frailty, and held out the hope of redemption in spite of our inability to recognize God’s love.  We must remember that in the Church, the past does not dictate the future; instead, our future is shaped by the boundless possibilities available to us when we ground our life in God.