Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Baseball and Church?

Safe in the Dust of History

A sermon by The Rev. Chris Johnson


A little boy was overheard talking to himself as he strutted through the backyard, wearing his baseball cap and toting a ball and bat: "I’m the greatest hitter in the world," he announced.

Then, he tossed the ball into the air, swung at it, and missed. "Strike One!" he yelled. Undaunted, he picked up the ball and said again, "I’m the greatest hitter in the world!"

He tossed the ball into the air. When it came down he swung again and missed. "Strike Two!" he cried.

The boy then paused a moment to examine his bat and ball carefully. He spit on his hands and rubbed them together. He straightened his cap and said once more, "I’m the greatest hitter in the world!"

Again he tossed the ball up in the air and swung at it. He missed. "Strike Three!"

"Wow!" he exclaimed. "I’m the greatest pitcher in the world.

I am sure there have been plenty of little boys who at one time dreamed of becoming a great hitter or pitcher in the world of baseball. Why not? It’s been said that life is made of dreams.

If you don’t have any dreams or goals in life, you may not get very far. To keep your dreams and goals it takes endurance, perseverance, determination and discipline.  All traits we also need to travel the base path that Christ has put before us.  This is why the author of Hebrews said:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that [distracts] and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Life is a learning process and believe it or not, we can learn some things from the game of baseball. Tommy Lasorda, the long time Dodger manager, once said: "There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens." And I would say that’s true of most things in life.  God calls us, the church, to make it happen. God calls us to be the change we want to see in the world.  Too often lately the church is too timid to get involved and instead watches it happen, leaving us the individuals wonder what is happening to the world.

Casey Stengel the great manager from the 30’s through the 60’s was famous for saying "Most ballgames are lost, not won." How are they lost? By a lack of genuine effort. Many things in life are lost just because we don’t do anything about them.  The game of baseball, just like our Christian journey, takes fixing our eye’s on the goal and pressing on.  We cannot allow our eyes to move from that goal or it may easily slip away.  We have to keep our head in the game and our eye on the ball.

This brings to mind what was happening in the Mariners organization this past week.  At the beginning of the week there were rumors flying all over the Puget Sound that Richie Sexson was going to be released (personally I think this might help).  All the media was bombarding the players with questions by Monday afternoon General Manager Bill Bavasi was clearing out his desk.  As this did not get the hopeful reaction from the media John McLaren the skipper was sent packing just a few days later.  Finally, success achieved, just read Art Thiels column in the Thursday Seattle P-I, Bavasi and McLaren were dead in his sights and the only player discussion was how effective this change would be on their play.  Honestly the release of a manager from a major league ball club seldom has to do with the mangers performance.  The hopeful outcome is that without the media distracting the players they can focus again on the job at hand, playing baseball and hopefully winning. (the teams at .500 as of Saturday night!)

Baseball is also an endurance sport.  Now I know my son prefers it over soccer because he does not have to run around the whole time, but after a 17 game t-ball season I am more convinced than ever that baseball is an endurance sport.  17 games and I don’t know if a single player made it to every game.   I can even imagine playing 160 games in the regular season, not to mention the playoffs!  But if you want to be successful in baseball you have to have endurance.

I remember when Cal Ripken Jr. was going for the consecutive game record back in 1998.  He played in his 2131st game and went on to never miss a day in 2632 games.  That’s 16 of the 21 years he played in every game of every season that the Baltimore Oriels played.  What kind of endurance does it take to complete this kind of accomplishment?  I mean I can seldom go for a single year without taking a sick day.  However, most fans and Minor League players dream of getting any opportunity to play in the big leagues. Cal Ripken had that same dream, combined it with his sheer desire to play along with incredible endurance and stuck through it.

Perseverance is another important trait talked about in Hebrews and seen in baseball.  When we talk about perseverance I think of the 2001 Mariners.  Now for you non-Mariner fans this is the season they won 116 regular season games setting a new American League record.  We all expected this was finally our year!  We were not only going to the World Series, we were gonna win!   I was already trying to figure out if I would get tickets to all the games or just a couple!  But instead when the playoffs started the magic had seemed to disappear from the team.  They barely scrapped by the Indians in the division series and went on to lose 4 games to 1 against the New York Yankees It was almost like the Mariners began to coast.  Were they out of gas?  Did they become distracted?  Whatever it was those 116 games came down to another season that Mariner fans would not see a World Series in Seattle.  Somehow they were not able to persevere.  And so a record that stood for 100 years passed before our eyes.

The race we are in with Christ requires perseverance.  It is not about getting our ticket and sitting in the stands, waiting for the end of the game.  Without perseverance we are likely to run out of gas, not press on, or just forget the goal of bringing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven and become complacent with a place in the bleachers.

Some of you may remember that baseball player Lou Gehrig is called the "iron man of baseball" for a very good reason. For 15 years in the 1920’s and 30’s he played first base for the New York Yankees. He played 2130 consecutive games, second only to Cal Ripken.  After he retired they X-rayed both of his hands and found that every finger had been broken at least one time, YET HE NEVER MISSED A GAME! He played even though he was hurt. He played because he had determination, not just to be famous but determination to continue the journey despite his injuries.

Obviously, we have to go on living the Christian life even though we’ve been hurt. And it’s a guaranteed thing we will be hurt in this life. We will experience hurt and pain in some form or another and for one reason or another: perhaps just because we live in an imperfect world where imperfect things happen all the time but it takes determination to keep on the journey.

Joe DiMaggio is remembered for many amazing feats in his 13 year major league career all with the Yankees.  But the one thing he is most remembered for is his 56 game hitting streak during the 1941 season.  The kind of discipline that must have taken for Joe to reach down and get that hit in each of those games is astounding to all who venture out onto the baseball field today.  I once stood in a batting cage against an 80 MPH pitch in 20 pitches the only time I even got the bat on the ball was when I held it out before the ball was shot at me, and it hurt my hands like crazy!

Of course you can’t talk about Joltin’ Joe and the 1941 season without remembering The Splendid Splinter.  In that same season Ted Williams became the last batter to end the season with a batting average over .400 (in a 160 game season).  I was once told the difference between batting .300 and batting .400 in a single season is one hit per week.  One hit in a week is all that makes the difference between Ted Williams and his .406 average and Joe DiMaggio with his 56 game hit streak and a .357 average (or even Ichiro’s .333 lifetime average).  This is the kind of accomplishment that demands discipline.

It is with discipline that we will push on in the ball game known as our Christian journey.  Through discipline we will find the desire needed to step up and say I want to serve the church.  It is with discipline we will be able to see that place Christ is already at work and jump in.  It is discipline we will need to reach out when we see a person in need.

But baseball has always been about yesterday or the last inning.  It has always spoken fondly about the cloud of dust raised by the players that have gone before.  They talked about the perseverance of these great players.  Players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron, the list goes on and on.  These are players who lasted sometimes 15 or 20 years.  In today’s major league era of salaries in the multi-million dollars per year it is still these great players that have come before that are spoken of daily.  It is in their witness that all other players strive to meet.  When a pitcher throws a great game or a batter gets an amazing hit, they are always compared to one of these great players from the past.  In fact all the greatest records are ones that take many years to accomplish.  Ken Griffey Jr. just recently hit his 600th homerun.  It took him 20 years to reach this accomplishment.  As Dizzy Dean one of my favorite old time players said upon his induction into the baseball hall of fame:

"I want you boys to realize what a great opportunity you have in baseball. I hope all of you make this Hall of Fame. You have to practice and work hard. Give everything you have." - Dizzy Dean (1953 Hall of Fame Induction Day Speech)

The fierce competition of the faithful against all that would defeat or distract us is inspired too by such a great cloud of witness of the countless former faith hero’s whose lives we read about throughout the Bible.  These previous generations laid everything on the line compelled by hope in God’s promise of salvation.  Back in the day their kind of determination was legendary even though they only glimpsed the reality of Jesus Christ.

Imagine the crowd of witness that surrounds you on your faith journey: 

Whose life witness gives you particular encouragement to carry on in the race?

Which poses the greatest threat to your endurance, internal distraction or external resistance?

What practical measures can you take to encourage someone in need of pushing on in the game?

The game leaves us all very tired and weighed down, but Jesus gives rest, release and reward. Believe in Him, trust Him, surrender to Him, obey Him. Comfort will come. Worries will cease. Joy will return. Life will never end. So Root, Root, Root, for the home team, and let Play Ball!