February 16, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE THEOLOGY OF BASEBALL
I intentionally scheduled this particular sermon for this particular Sunday. Because this is the week when I always listen for those four magical words that give me hope after a long, hard winter. “Pitchers and catchers report.” That means it’s time for Spring Training. So it must be almost Spring. The pitchers and the catchers need a little more time than the other players to get ready so they report a few days early, but soon the actual exhibition games will begin and in just about six weeks it will be opening day.
Ernie Harwell died in 2010. He announced baseball games for 55 years, 42 of them with the Detroit Tigers. On opening day he could always be counted on to begin his broadcast by quoting from the Bible.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land
(Song of Solomon 2:11-12).
I love baseball. I love baseball season. And I was just hoping you might tolerate a little about baseball in this morning’s sermon.
But first, some theology. We need to get God in here somewhere. Every time I teach the five-week series I call the “Pastor’s Class”, I spend some time talking about justification by faith. I’ve always felt if new believers grasp just one concept that will open the door to everything else Christians believe, this is it. That God loves us through sheer grace, not because we’ve done anything to earn that love. The classic expression of this in the Bible is found in Ephesians. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith –and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (2:8-9). We are justified, that is to say, we are made right, we are brought into a right relationship with God, because of what God has done for us, not because of what we have done for God. It’s a gift. We don’t deserve it. But God gives us the gift anyway.
Some of the great Christians down through the ages have learned the hard way about God’s grace. We start with Paul. He was a Jew who was very careful to follow all the Jewish rules. He was taught that is how you please God. If you live by the rules, you will be rewarded. That had been drilled into his head from childhood.
But Paul discovered what all rule followers eventually discover. We can never follow the rules perfectly. So we always end up feeling like failures. We always say, “I could have done better.” We second guess ourselves, “Why didn’t I do it this way?” And we end up saying, “Next time, maybe if I just try a little harder . . . ” That’s called “works righteousness”. It’s a dead end. Because no matter how hard we try, we will never be good enough.
Then Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and he learned about grace. God loves us without our having to earn that love. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Justification by faith. It changed Paul’s life.
Fifteen hundred years later it was Martin Luther. He was a lot like Paul. He was trying to please God by following the rules. Only for him, it wasn’t the Jewish law, it was a monastic rule. The harder he tried, the more he felt like a failure. Then one day as he was reading from the Bible what Paul had to say about grace, he experienced that grace in his own life. It felt like he was set free. He went on to lead what we call the Protestant Reformation, which held justification by faith as one of its central tenets.
Fast forward two hundred more years and we come to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He was trying hard to be righteous. He wasn’t following the Jewish law or a monastic rule but a strict moralism that he got from his mother. Some of us can relate to that. His mother taught him discipline. Certain things you must do. Certain other things you must not do. He wanted to please his mother, he wanted to please God, and his mother had taught him this was how it was done. John Wesley lived as strict and as disciplined a life as you can imagine, but it didn’t cause him to feel God’s love. It just turned him into the kind of person that others couldn’t stand and many days he couldn’t even stand himself.
Then one night he went to a meeting of Moravians on Aldersgate Street in London. There he heard someone reading from Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Martin Luther was talking about justification by faith. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our works. Wesley wrote in his journal that night, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Justification by faith. What an influence this has had on Christians down through the ages! These three, Paul, Luther, and Wesley, and so many others whose lives have been redeemed and renewed. And it occurred to me that maybe Abner Doubleday was influenced as well. Back in 1839 Abner Doubleday invented a game. We call that game baseball. Baseball is a game of rules and a game of grace. I’ll try to explain.
In baseball, no matter how well you follow the rules, no matter how good you get, you will always fall short. In fact, baseball is the most obsessive of all sports when it comes to keeping track of statistics. Everything is measured. Batting average, runs batted in, earned run average, fielding percentage. You need a degree in mathematics to keep track of all this. And what the numbers always prove is that you always fall short. But at least you always know where you stand.
Your batting average, taken out to three decimal points, is tracked and recorded. If you are over .300, you are considered pretty good. High .200’s is still good. Low .200’s, not so great. And once you dip below .200, say .185, you qualify for the standard insult: “He is batting a buck eighty-five.”
They keep track of everything. How you do against various pitchers, or against right-handed pitchers, or against left-handed pitchers, or whether it’s home or away, or a day game or a night game. Nothing is overlooked. You can’t fake it in baseball. Your performance is held up against a standard of perfection and recorded forever in some record book.
The amazing thing is that no one does very well. The best hitters average a base hit one out of every three times they try. Two out of three times, they fail. How long would you keep your job if two out of every three times you fail? My favorite baseball player is Jacoby Ellsbury. He’s from my home town, Madras, Oregon. He used to play for my favorite team, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Now he plays for my least favorite time, the New York Yankees. I’m still trying to get my head around that. His lifetime batting average is .297. And the Yankees just signed him for $153 million dollars. I don’t think there’s another job in the world where you can fail seven out of ten times and get paid $153 million dollars to do it.
That’s the first thing to remember about baseball. The game is built around statistics — how well we do against a standard of perfection. And that even the best fall short. No one is perfect. Not one.
But the genius of the game is that it’s also about grace. Grace is built right into the structure of the game. It was the poet Ugo Betti who said, “To believe in God means that all the rules are fair and there will be wonderful surprises.” He could have been talking about baseball. The rules are fair. Everyone gets a chance. Everyone gets to bat.
The most gracious part of the game is that there is no clock. In football and basketball, you compete against your opponent and, when you fall behind, you also compete against the clock. Time runs out on you and the game is over. In baseball, time is on your side. Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” People laughed at that, as they laugh at pretty much everything Yogi Berra says, but in this case it’s a brilliant theological insight. “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” Grace is built right into the structure of the game.
In other sports, it’s often over before it’s over. This year’s Super Bowl, for example. Or it’s over before it should be over. For example, a team gets way behind but momentum has turned. They are now clearly the dominant team. But still they lose because time ran out on them. You might call that the tragic dimension of life. That’s true to life. Someone dying before their time. Or some dream that died before it could really be born because the time wasn’t right. Time is the ultimate judge over everything.
But not in baseball. There is no clock. The game goes on until everyone has a fair chance. You can be way behind with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, and you still have a chance. If it’s tied after nine, you keep playing. Seven hour games are not unheard of. It’s never over ’till it’s over. The rules are fair, and there are wonderful surprises.
Like the Boston Red Sox going from worst to first in one year. Like the Boston Red Sox in a must win game against the Detroit Tigers. Trailing 5-0 late in the game without a single base hit and they come back to win 6-5. Like Jacoby Ellsbury being traded to the Yankees. All surprises aren’t wonderful.
Grace means there will be surprises. You will get better than you deserve. You will have another chance. Your sins (in baseball we call them errors) are still there, but God cares more about your future than your past.
Which finally brings us to the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. I’ll bet you thought we’d never get there. It’s a story about justification by faith. It’s a story about grace.
Jesus asks her for a drink of water. They have this long conversation. In the course of the conversation, Jesus asks about her husband. She says, “I have no husband.” Jesus says, “I know. You have had five husbands and the man you are living with now is not your husband.”
In other words, this woman has not done a very good job keeping the rules. She is a sinner. Jews did not allow divorce. And she’s had five husbands. She has struck out five times. She’s about to strike out again.
But Jesus doesn’t condemn her. He doesn’t judge her. It’s a wonderful surprise to her that he doesn’t. And she runs home and tells her friends, “I’ve met a man who knows all there is to know about me. He knows all I’ve ever done. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about my past. He cares about my future. He knows me through and through and he loves me still and all. Could this be the Messiah?”
Nolan Ryan was in the news this week. He has accepted a position with the Houston Astros. Last fall he resigned as CEO of the Texas Rangers. But I remember Nolan Ryan not as a 67-year-old baseball executive. I remember him as young kid with a blazing fast ball that he couldn’t quite control. It makes me feel old, but Nolan Ryan was just getting started in the Major Leagues about the same time that I was just getting started in Little League.
He went on to become perhaps the greatest pitcher ever. You might get an argument about that, but no one can argue with his statistics. 5,714 strikeouts. No one else has over 5,000. Seven no hitters. No one else has more than four. He is a baseball legend.
But back to when I remember him, just getting started with the New York Mets. He was great then, too, but he was wild. He was walking more batters than he was striking out. Such great potential, but many had concluded he didn’t have a future in Major League Baseball.
Richard Reeves was covering the Mets for “The New York Times”. He wrote about Ryan’s final game with the Mets. He had been told that he had one more chance. If he couldn’t throw strikes and finish this game, they were going to trade him. He lasted four innings. They took him out of the game and traded him to the California Angels.
After the game Reeves and the other reporters went down to the locker room. They found Ryan getting dressed. He was trying to put on his tie, but he was having trouble with it. Then Reeves saw why. He was crying. Tears were filling his eyes. He couldn’t see. Reeves wrote, “I felt terrible for him. He was just a kid and he had failed.”
But it wasn’t over. He got another chance. He showed the New York Mets that you can be wild when you’re young. You can fail. And then you can mature and you can win. You can make errors. You can make four errors in one game and win the game with a home run. You can strike out four times in a row and save the game with a spectacular play in the field. You can walk the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and then strike out the side. It’s a wonderful game.
Thank you God for your grace. We all need it. None of us deserve it. But God, thank you that you accept us just as we are, you forgive us, you love us, and you believe in us. Often more than we believe in ourselves, you believe in us. So help us to stop dwelling on the past and to start living in the present, filled with hope for the future, because like that woman at the well we too have met the Messiah. In his name we pray, Amen.