“Like a good coach, Jesus not only tells us but shows us how to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, October 29, 2017, by Sally Howard.
Hello Dodger Blue! I didn’t grow up with this kind of passion for baseball, but I feel you, baseball fans. And your influence throws me back to the Hoosier state I came from, where our enthusiasm was for basketball. People went wild, and would drive through rain storms, snow storms, hail and ice, even tornado threats–weather that they wouldn’t drive in even to attend a best friend’s wedding or uncle’s funeral-but through the path of peril they’d go to see the home team play. We were a small town and rarely made it past the sectional playoffs. But one year, our team–the girl’s team to be exact–made it to the state finals and won! So many people drove to Indianapolis for that tournament, that a sign was painted on the road leading out of town that read, “Last person out of Warsaw, please turn out the lights.” It was a little like that here at All Saints on Tuesday and Thursday nights this week… I’m sure glad there isn’t a playoff game this morning!
Today we give thanks for athletic excellence and for human bodies; for recreation and for joy and entertainment. We celebrate them for their own sake–and for the ways that God’s presence can shimmer through them. We celebrate the role they play in renewing and refreshing us for this ongoing vocation of turning the human race into the human family. In preparation for preaching on Dodger Blue Sunday, I, of course googled baseball and God. Have you ever done that?
There’s a whole theological canon out there! One of my favorites, written by John Sexton, former president of NYU, is the book, “Baseball as a Road to God”. In it, Sexton traces his enduring devotion to baseball to his childhood in the 1950s. As a boy, he worshiped Jackie Robinson, the great player whose head graces the plaza across from city hall. Pasadena’s own Jackie Robinson, was the Dodgers infielder and the first black baseball player in the major leagues. Sexton even sports Robinson’s number, 42, on his academic gown.
Baseball, he wrote, is not the road to God for all, but it maybe for some. After all, it’s defined by moments of wonder and amazement in contrast to the ordinary; it’s got a hall of sinners and saints; and like a religion, it even has its own rituals like the 7th inning stretch. It contains both joy and heartbreak, and not matter how the season ends, there is hope and renewal every spring. Although baseball is a secular institution that sometimes displays elements of the classic religions, he – claims it is notjust because it attracts committed (even fanatic) fans the way religions attract ardent believers or because it builds ballparks as religions erect cathedrals. It is that baseball has the capacity to elevate and transform. It has a power to bring people together in expanding levels of relationship: parent and child, neighbor and friend, community and city, state and the nation. It has the power to unite us across differences that are so often used to divide. And on some majestic autumn days, the many who assemble are one. Lastly, baseball is about going home. It tells us how good home is, how hard it can be to get there, and how driven is our need.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus tells us how good home is, and he gives us instructions for our time on this field of life: how to find our way to peace and lives of meaning and joy. Like the most amazing coach, he not only tells us with his words, but he shows us how to do it. He’s willing to run the bases, take the hits, and endure all the injuries and failures. He never gives up hope in our potential. Jesus shows us how to love God and ourselves so that we can love others and use our power for and with others, so the whole team can make it home.
In this passage, Jesus is reaching across a divide to people who were playing by different rules. These men of relative privilege, the religious elite, were constantly seeking to test and trap him. They wanted him out of the game. They were· infused with a toxic masculinity that asserted authority comes through husbands and presidents and plantation overseers, who lord it over people arranged in the layers according to their worth at the bottom. They believed power and resources were scarce, and that vulnerability was best protected by hoarding the power you’ve got.
Jesus lived out all of his ministry in this context of intense socio-political and theological divide, and he was constantly seeking to liberate his adversaries from a notion of a punitive vengeful God who uses grace in a partisan way. At this moment in the gospel narrative, he is feeling the heat and danger of conflict between his faith in God’s upside down kindom of universal and unconditional grace and the authoritarian, patriarchal, and status-oriented interpretation of his adversaries. The religious elite throw him a curve ball, and his answer hits it right out of the park.
Jesus is very clear–love is the threshold for understanding all of life and all things about God. According to Jesus all scripture, all philosophies of life, all theology, and all political decision making, everything must be determined based on the greatest of all the commandments–love of God and love of neighbor. This is the whole game, according to Jesus-this is the whole playbook. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.
Jesus’ first instruction is to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. He starts here because we can’t really love ourselves or anybody else unless we are loved. But how do we feel love for God? We can’t make ourselves feel anything-feelings don’t work that way. We can perform actions such as coming to church and saying prayers. With persistent effort, we can divert our thoughts from negative to more positive ones. This is all good, but emotions spring from a source that is more deeply rooted in our being than any of these. Also, how do we love someone intangible and invisible? It seems easier to love those whom we can touch and see. The kind of love Jesus is referring to in this passage only comes from deeply knowing another person. God is beyond our comprehension, yet in order to love God, we must also know God.
Jesus responded to this dilemma by pointing to himself. If you want to know’ God, Jesus said, see me; look at who I am and how I live, because I know God.
If you know me, Jesus said, you know God. That means that God loves a party and a good feast, and wants everyone be at the table. God is deeply moved by endless compassion and God cares for all that ails us and causes us to suffer, or that encourages us to inflict suffering on others. God hears and amplifies the voices of those who are silenced and God makes a special place for those who feel they don’t belong.
Jesus told his friends, to abide in his love, as he dwelled in God’s love. As a Jewish mystic, through prayer and meditation, Jesus felt deeply connected to God’s loving presence–the Shechinah in Hebrew. There are many names for God in the Hebrew scriptures, and this one, Shechinah, translates as “She-who dwells within,” that is the presence of God that is manifest on earth. Shekhinah is often used to refer to birds’ nesting and nests. “She who dwells within” went with the Jewish people whenever and wherever they were exiled. She was the mighty God of liberation who led the people out from bondage through the darkness of night and through the expansive wilderness by day. It was Shekhinah that allowed the prophets to prophecy and proclaim justice rolling down like many waters and David to compose the Book of Psalms and dance before the alter in nothing but his loin cloth. Shechinah both embodies joy and compassion. She suffers with all the hurts of the world, and is revealed or felt in those moments when a person feels closest or most deeply connected to God.
Julian of Norwich called God’s loving presence, the Motherhood of grace. Christ she said, is our Mother. It is She that makes us to love. She that makes us to long and it is She who is the endless fulfilling of all desires. In language that points beyond gender binaries, Julian wrote, “It is our mother, He who lays us tenderly to breast, and feeds us with himself. It is I that you love, our Mother says. And all is one love.” Like all the people who know God well, Julian knew God as a lover, not a dictator.
What a difference that awareness would have made in our world! Still can make in our world! As the blogger Nora Samaran says: “The opposite of masculine rape culture is masculine nurturance culture: men increasing their capacity to nurture, and becoming whole.” Every time a person interrupts the culture of dominance–and treats both women and men as unique individuals who are valued for hearts, minds, and actions, rather than appearance or hierarchical standing–we are closer to being linked, not ranked (Gloria Steinem).
Many of us were taught that God was a big, patriarchal narcissist who needed a blood sacrifice to appease his rage–a God who could send you to eternal torture forever. That’s a God one could fear but never love. That idea of God creates whole cultures of shame and fear-psychosocial experiences that literally trigger the brain to run and hide or come out swinging (and I don’t mean at the ball).
That kind of idea about God can make you afraid to be vulnerable and dependent, and it contributes to demeaning one’s own vulnerability and abusing the vulnerability of others. It’s the kind of religion that allows governments, like our own, to justify cruel and oppressive behavior-such as the Border Patrol detaining \10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez from her hospital bed following an emergency surgery. It is used to justify and support our national sickness of racialized hatred in all its ugly manifestations.
We need God to cherish our vulnerability so we can cherish our own. We need God to welcome and value our dependency and our agency, so that we can value the vulnerability and strength of others. It is God’s joy to love us, where we stand with all our mistakes and imperfection. This messy, exquisite dust that we are, is God’s holy ground. God’s loyal love is the counterpoint to our vulnerability, and it heals us so that we can be loving and healing to others. As Christian Wiman writes, “All I know is that the more he loved me, the more I loved the world.”
Jesus made sure that this threshold concept of love, this opening to a new way of understanding God, was also about how to live with each other. Shekhinah also means “neighbor.” “We are to love God with all our being” says Jesus, and intertwined with that truth is a justice component–we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus wanted to make clear that those who experience and dwell and enjoy the reign of God are those people who love God and understand that loving God means serving the least of these–the most vulnerable and marginalized. Power comes when we come together and recognize that our faith is only powerful, in action that optimizes life for all people. God’s presence dwells in all human beings, and it is to God’s presence that we are always and everywhere to bow.
The other treasure I discovered while exploring the theological canons of God and baseball, was a gospel song, “Life Is a Ball Game”. It was first introduced in the early fifties by gospel legend, Sister Wynona Carr. In addition to performing and recording, Sister Carr directed the choir at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, preached. In this gospel classic, first base is temptation, second base is sin, and third is tribulation. But, of course, “Jesus is standing at the home plate, he’s waiting for you there.” The chorus ends with a rousing “Life is a ball game, but you’ve got to play it fair.”
Today we celebrate the joy of the game, the joy of life, and the way that celebrating with a bunch of your friends reinforces the awesomeness of both, whether it is in church or in the baseball stadium. Baseball, for many of us, may not be the road to God-indeed may not even be a road to God. But it is about going home, and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. And for some fans, (I’m talking to you, Susan Russell) these special moments touch the part of us where the mystics live. Here’s to our home team–go Dodgers!