Lessons of Summer
There’s No Place Like Home Click here for audio
I Corinthians 12:4-7, 14-26
Pastor Marty Raths
This summer we have been preaching on the theme Lessons of Summer, gleaning life and faith lessons from common summer activities. And a couple of weeks ago I preached about golf, and I found golf to be a game rich in lessons, and I also found out that I was not alone in this. Afterwards, several of you shared with me your own lessons learned from the game of golf.
In preparing for this sermon I found baseball to be just as rich a metaphor for life and faith, and one that I suspect speaks to others of us as well. I remember several years ago visiting with Elton, one of the retired pastors from the Northfield Church. Elton was in hospice at the time, and whenever we visited, we would talk far and wide about all sorts of things. And this time I happened to mention baseball, and his face light up.
“Are you a baseball fan?” I asked. “Yes,” Elton said, “for many years.” And then he quoted from one of the characters in the movie Bull Durham. “Baseball is a very simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” There is more than enough for a sermon in that statement alone.
I also remember someone else in the Northfield Church telling me once, “You know there is a reference to baseball in the Bible.” “Really,” I said. “Yeah,” he went on, “At the very beginning, where it says in Genesis, “In the big inning . . .” It is hard to imagine a better way to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. The big inning. That is as big as it gets.
Now the games of golf and baseball certainly have some lessons in common. But I am most struck by their contrasts. Hank Aaron, one of baseball’s greatest hitters, once remarked. “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball. But I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”
There is also the contrast between golf as an individual sport, and baseball as a team sport, though baseball is really a bit of a hybrid. You have the individual drama that gets acted out with every play, the drama between pitcher and batter. But still the pitcher needs a team of fielders behind him, and there are nine hitters who are all working together to get each other around the bases.
Paul’s analogy of the church as the Body of Christ is suggestive here. There are many members of the church, Paul says, but one body; many parts to the church, but one whole. In the same way there are many players, but one team. And just as it is wrong for the foot to say, “I am not a hand so I am not a part of the body,” it is wrong for the shortstop to say, “I am not a catcher, so I am not a part of the team.” And just as everyone being an eye would not make for a body, everyone being the pitcher would not make for a team. No, each part is essential to the whole, hand and foot, eye and ear; shortstop and catcher, pitcher and outfielder.
And the spirit of the whole is what matters. If one suffers, all suffer; if one rejoices, all rejoice. If one excels, it benefits all; if one struggles, it affects all. What we do, we do together. Together we win. Together we lose. There is no such thing as a body of one, and no such thing as a team of one, just as there is no such thing as a church of one. We are all one body, or no body. We are all one team, or no team. We are all one church, or no church.
And just as in our faith, there is even the notion of “sacrifice” in baseball, the sacrifice bunt or fly, the giving of ourselves and our own individual statistics for the sake of the team. In the passage from Corinth, Paul goes on to call this the “more excellent way,” the way of love, the way of Christ, the way that considers the larger needs of the whole, or the greater good of the team, or the family, or the church, or the community.
There are other lessons to be learned from baseball. This is from one of the greatest hitters of all time, Ted Williams. “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” What Williams was saying, theologically speaking, is that there is a lot of grace in baseball. We can get out 7 out of 10 times and still be considered a great hitter. I hear in this the echo of another conversation about grace, one between Jesus and his disciples. How many times should we forgive, Jesus? As many as seven times? No, not seven times, but seventy times seven. And this one from long time coach Tommy Lasorda, “There are three types of baseball players: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happens.” That is certainly true for a lot of areas of life, far beyond the baseball field./
And speaking of the ball field, in writing this sermon, I could not help but be reminded of my favorite baseball movie, Field of Dreams. In this movie a man named Ray Kinsella builds a baseball field out in his cornfield in the hopes that in so doing he will come, though he is not quite sure who “he” is. And as the movie unfolds, a number of people who have different connections to the game of baseball have some life dream fulfilled.
And in many ways baseball is a field of dreams. There are the obvious dreams of achievement, of individual and team accomplishments. But there are other dreams too, some just as important, if not more so. And I am extending the metaphor of field here, to include other sports, as a way to include girls as well as boys. But how many children, and I surely count myself among them, have dreamed of accomplishments on the field, and how much better are we for that. Dreams are a part of what make us human. Dreams stretch us. They help us to imagine something more, to imagine our becoming something more in life, and for many of us no place creates dreams more than the ball field.
At times the baseball field can be even more than just a place of individual or team dreams. It can field the dreams of a nation. Yankee great Lou Gehrig anticipated this dream when he once said, “There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all.” But for decades that national dream went unfulfilled, until the spring of 1947, when Jackie Robinson stepped out onto old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. It was only a first step in the long march to overcoming the prejudices of a segregated America, but it is hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of that day in our national dream of an America offering “liberty and justice for all.”
Near the end of the movie Field of Dreams one last person has his dream fulfilled, the builder of the field, Ray Kinsella himself. Earlier in the movie Ray had revealed that when he was 14 his father had asked him if he wanted to play catch, and he had refused, and we are left with the impression that this was one of those thoughtless adolescent acts that we come to regret, especially when it dawns upon us that the chance to do that will never come again.
But the last person Ray meets on this strange field of dreams is his own father as a young man, and after a brief conversation, his father turns and starts walking away towards the cornfield. But not wanting to waste this last chance again, Ray calls after him. “Dad,” he says, “do you want to have a catch?” “I’d like that,” his father answers. And the two of them play a little catch.
Now I confess to being a bit overly sentimental about this scene, but I find it to one of the most moving scenes in film of reconciliation between a father and son, and it made a real impression upon me when I first saw it. The movie came out in 1989, and our son was one at the time. And inspired in part by that scene, but even more so by the loving example of my own father, I vowed that if my son ever came to me and asked, “Hey, dad, you want to play catch, or you want to shoot some hoops, or whatever,” I would never, if at all possible, turn him down because I knew then that there would come a time when that would no longer be possible.
He is a young man now, living half way around the world, and there is a part of me that would give most anything to have Nate come up to me again as a seven-year-old boy and have him ask, “Hey, dad, you want to play catch?” But that time has come and gone forever, but I have never regretted that I tried to make the most of those chances when I had them. There is not much in this life that I know with absolute certainty, but this one is about as close as it comes, and at the risk of sounding preachy I am going say it. Parents, and I am using this as a metaphor for life here so it means more than just baseball, so use your imagination, but parents, if at all possible, never miss a chance to play catch with your son or daughter because there will come a time when you run out of such chances.
I am indebted to the comedian George Carlin for this last lesson from the game of baseball. He has a wonderful routine in which he compares football to baseball, and he ends by comparing the differing objectives of the two sports. He describes the objective of football using a long list of military images, with the offensive team marching down the field, under the leadership of the field general the quarterback, using a ground attack and an aerial assault, throwing short bullet passes and long bombs, as they enter into enemy territory . . . But the objective in baseball, he says, is very different. The objective in baseball is to get safely home.
Now that has a deep, even spiritual, resonance to it, doesn’t it, getting safely home. But ironically, and this is true of life as well as baseball, though the objective is to get safely home, we actually start from there, from home. But we have to venture out first, if we are ever going to have a chance to score, or to become who God is calling us to be. The base path is sort of like the path of life, and it is risky out there, and circumstances abound where we can get tagged or forced out, or caught stealing, or stranded on third . . .
But there are also lessons to be learned out there, essential lessons, and that is why we have to venture out. Otherwise we will never really grow up, never really become mature in life or faith. I had never made this connection before, but I think that it is there, between the baseball objective of getting home safely and the parable of the prodigal son. In the parable the son starts out at home, but he cannot stay there, not if he is going to learn some of those essential lessons of life. He has to step up to the plate, take a swing, and venture out into the world. And he has a rough time trying to get around the bases, and some of the lessons he learns he has to learn the hard way. But sometimes that is the only way we learn them.
But eventually he does make it back home safely, and he is a different person for it, more mature, more compassionate, more understanding. He comes home the same person, but different, because of all the experiences that he has had out there in the world. Home was the same for him but different too, again because of the experiences that he has had. This is that time of the year when children go off to college, and that is one of those venturing out experiences in life. Now they will come home, and they will be both the same but different, and home will be that way for them. And there are many, many such experiences in life, which makes it one of the richest metaphors we have, this metaphor of leaving home and returning the same but different, and returning as well with a deeper appreciation for home.
And speaking of this appreciation for home, my sermon title alludes to a cultural reference that is familiar to most of us. In the movie The Wizard of Oz Dorothy too takes that long path away from home, saying at one point, “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore,” only to return home to Kansas again the same but different. And it may well be that the only way we can say, whether we are Dorothy, or the prodigal son, or anyone who has risked making their way around the bases, in baseball or in life and faith, it may well be that only when we have done that can we say and really mean “there is no place like home.”
We thank you, God, for the gift of home, for those places in life where we have been received, welcomed, accepted, nurtured, blessed. And we ask that your blessings would rest upon all of our homes, especially homes where there is conflict and misunderstanding. May your Spirit make room in all our hearts and homes for forgiveness and reconciliation and peace.
Let love abide in our homes, God, a love that reaches out and embraces and a love that lets go when the time comes. Bless all of our comings and goings. Bless our leave takings, bless us on the paths we go, and bless us that in your good time we may come safely home, in this life and in the life to come, where in your love we will be home at last.
In the name of the one who made your kingdom his home, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.