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.

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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.