Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Sermon from the Mound

Now I know that I’m in foreign territory up here with the Milwaukee Brewers being so close, and the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, if I can say that all in one breath.  I can’t claim loyalty to any of these teams.  Nor do I pledge my loyalty to the Boston Red Sox or the New York Mets or Yankees in the land where I’m now from.  And, I would not call myself a die-hard baseball fan except to say, I would call myself a very loyal fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, my hometown team. 
That’s because my dad took me to my first baseball game down in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. It was one of the 1964 World Series games where St. Louis beat the New York Yankees winning the Series.  My dad, a very patient and loving man answered my many questions from how do you keep score on the scorecard and what’s a wild pitch to what does the BB mean on the back of the bat boy’s jersey?  He even made me think I could be a bat boy when I grew up.

I was eleven that summer and three years later my dad passed away in 1967.  If you know your baseball stats that year also brought with it another World Series for the Cards, only at Busch Memorial Stadium, the new stadium.  Mom and I were fortunate to be invited to one of the games to watch the Cards beat the Boston Red Sox for the Series.  This was the second professional game that I had been to.  Dad also played softball for years for our church softball team so the hot, hazy, and humid days of summer don't come without me thinking about the game in some way.  

A sermon from the mound.  The mound of course is the center, more or less (there are regulations) of the field.  A Major League Baseball regulation mound is 18 feet in diameter and has ranged from a height of 20 inches, to 15 inches to the current 10 inch regulation. 

It seems to me that a lot happens on the mound; it's an important place.  Eager eyes are set upon the mound for the pitch.  It’s holy ground.  Why else would  Dallas Braden of the Oakland A’s get so incensed over a year ago last April when A Rod of the Yankees walked over the pitcher's mound in the middle of an inning shattering some unwritten rule?  It’s all in the mound folks, the mound.

Jesus knew that.  I think Jesus would have liked baseball.  After all we see him spitting in the mud (John 9:6), writing in the sand (John 8:6-8) talking about home, well ok, he meant eternal home, and even climbing up on the mount for a sermon such as we heard in our scripture today.  Although, Jesus didn’t get angry like Braden when people came up on the mount, quite the opposite.  He sat down on his mound and invited people of every persuasion to hear what he had to say.   He gives them a pep talk, puts on his game face.  He winds up and then throws out the pitch:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons (and daughters) of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Home runs on all accounts!

Ultimately, the pitch, his pitch, is about the benefits of living decently in life. For life is like a game, not always easy, not always fair.  It’s a balance of skill, luck and guesswork, blessed and enriched by God in so many ways.  I like one of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased Beatitudes, “You're blessed when you get your inside world - your mind and your heart - put right.  Then you can see God in the outside world."  Our hearts and minds need to be right so that we can envision and embody God’s love outside the ballpark.

I want to share a few stories about some baseball giants.  Not only because they were great ball players but because their mind and their hearts were in the right place. 

Stan the Man Musial, one of St. Louis' all time favorites is today in his 90's.  Recently an article from St. Louis Today read, "….He (Musial) never once got thrown out of a baseball game.  There was this game, in ‘52.....and the Musial’s Cardinals trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by two runs in the ninth. The bases were loaded. There were two outs. Musial faced pitcher Ben Wade. The two battled briefly, and then Musial connected – a long home run to right field. Grand slam. Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered wildly - what could be bigger, a grand slam in the ninth to beat the….Dodgers – and Musial started to run around the bases in his own inimitable way, not too fast, not too slow, all class. And it wasn’t until he rounded first and was closing in on second when everyone seemed to notice at once that the third base umpire was holding up his arms.

A ball had rolled on the field just before the pitch. The umpire had called timeout. Home plate umpire Tom Gorman realized he had no choice. He disallowed the home run. The stadium went black. The fans went mad. St. Louis manager Solly Hemus raced out the dugout, got into Gorman’s face and called him every name he could think of – finally Gorman had no choice and threw him out of the game. Peanuts Lowrey came in like a tag-team wrestler and picked up where Solly left off – Gorman tossed him too. Before it was done, Gorman threw out six Cardinals. He felt like a cowboy in one of those old Westerns clearing out the saloon…..And then Musial, who in the confusion had not been told anything, walked over to Gorman.

He calmly asked, “What happened Tom? It didn’t count, huh?” Gorman nodded sadly and said the third base umpire had called timeout. “Well, Tom,” Musial said, “There’s nothing you can do about it.” Stan Musial stepped back in the box while fists shook and boos and threats echoed around him. He promptly tripled off the top of the center field wall to score three runs and give the Cardinals the victory anyway.  “Stan,” Tom Gorman said after the game ended, “is in a class by himself.”[i] 

Stan the Man that day embodied strength of character and had his inside world just right.  Sometimes acceptance of our reality ultimately works for the good.  Blessed are those who accept what happens to them in life, for they will see God’s hand and the ways in which God was ever so present in the fabric of life.

Lou Gehrig knew all too well of acceptance.  Lou played for the NY Yankees.  On July 4, 1939 he gave a farewell speech to his fans as he left baseball in his prime.  He had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis now known as Lou Gehrig Disease, a rare disease that causes spinal paralysis.  Two years later Lou passed away but not without acknowledging the goodness of his life and indeed for life itself. 

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career to associate with them for even one day?

Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert - also the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow - to have spent the next nine years with that wonderful little fellow Miller Huggins - then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology - the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy!

Sure, I'm lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that's something! When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles against her own daughter, that's something. When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing! When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I might have had a tough break - but I have an awful lot to live for!”[ii] 

Most people may have given up.  But not Lou, his mind and his heart were in the right place.  He loved baseball but he loved his family even more. Blessed are they who love deeply the people who matter most, they will never be alone for those long extra innings.

And finally, I’ll share a story about the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser from Christianity Today Magazine.

 After the final game of the 1988 World Series against the Oakland A's, Bob Costas of NBC interviewed me (says Hershiser) in the locker room. He asked what I was doing between innings when the cameras had caught me in the dugout with my head back, "eyes closed, almost meditating."  "I was singing hymns to myself to relax and keep my adrenalin down, because every time I thought about being ahead, I got too excited to pitch."

The next night I was a guest on "The Tonight Show." Johnny Carson also asked about that. "Do you just hum, or what?"

"I sing." The audience clapped and cheered. I hadn't meant that! "I'm not gonna sing!" They roared.
"Oh, yes you are!" Carson said. I shook my head, panicking. I'd never sung alone in public in my life. "This could be a first," he pressed. "Just a couple of bars."

"Well, the one I remember singing the most was a praise hymn." (Suddenly it was deathly silent.) "As I sat on the bench I'd sing: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen."[iii]

Hershiser went back to what centered him the most during pressure and stress - God, his creator, redeemer and sustainer.  And who says God is not a baseball fan?  God’s in the dugout of life.  Blessed are they who can sing God’s praises at all times of their lives, for there will be nothing to great that they can’t accomplish. 
So what do we learn from Musial, Gehrig and Hershiser?  What lessons do we take with us from the mound?  How has Christ prepared us for life and for death through his sermon on the mount?  Here’s what we learn. 

When things don’t go our way, or they turn out different than we expect, it’s not a cause to act out our anger but a time for reflection, adjustment and new found dreams.  When your dreams go up in smoke, build new dreams….for you are blessed.

We learn that no matter how much we achieve in life we have not achieved it on our own, we have achieved it by the grace and goodness of God first, by our hard work and by the people who surround us with love and support… are blessed.

And finally we learn that when we are in danger of losing our way to the stress of life, go back to the center of our being.  Because it is in this center where we find God’s calming peace.  With each breath we take we breathe in the decency, forgiveness, love and the kindness of all creation.  You are blessed.

Play Ball!

preached at Norman B. Barr Camp
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

[i], unknown author, 2010
[iii], from ‘Out of the Blue’ by Orel Hershiser

1 comment:


Yeah. That'a one of your better ones. Love it.