Get in the Game

Epiphany 4C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The year was 1971. I was nine years old, and my little league baseball team won the city championship. We were the ‘Skeltons,’ named after a local politician in Champaign, Illinois. If you played for the Skeltons, other kids assumed you must be a pretty good ball player. Truth is I didn’t swing my bat once that summer. My whole strategy was to stare at the pitcher hard enough they couldn’t throw strikes. (Sounds like an episode of the Wonder Years, doesn’t it?)

There were other kids like me on the team. We were kids lucky enough to play on a championship team because we were lucky enough to play on the same team as David. David was as quiet as he was big. That summer before fourth grade, David seemed as big as a man. He could hit the ball over the fence and into the parking lot. In fact, David could hit the ball over the fence and hit the sign next to the parking lot, six feet off the ground. He was a one-man team. Of course, we had other kids who made a difference—some that could pitch for example. But there was no doubt, David was our not-so-secret weapon. He was our ace in the hole.

In ancient times, whole cities were organized like little league baseball teams. They lived and died together. For better or worse, your place of birth was linked to your identity. It was even part of your name—as in ‘Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee.’ Jesus’ friends and neighbors must have hoped that finally, Nazareth would overcome its reputation as a backwater. They would be champions! Jesus was their king David. Expectations were high that day as Jesus entered the synagogue. Luke tells us the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him.

What did Jesus say that turned them from loving friends to murderous mob? Jesus refused to play ball. He was not theirs—but signed with another team that included their non-Jewish enemies—like the widow of Zarephath and the Naaman the Syrian. Jesus, their star player, wouldn’t play exclusively for them because God doesn’t play favorites. So, the good people of Nazareth drove Jesus out of town to throw him over a cliff.

Jesus offered the people of his hometown a new contract, a new covenant to live by. He invites us to live or die playing for a non-exclusive team. If you think it’s preposterous, you’re not alone. Most of God’s people have said the same thing. The prophet Jeremiah protested, “I’m only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). Moses argued, ‘I can’t stand up to Pharoah. I don’t even talk good’ (Exodus 3:11). Gideon scoffed saying, “I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15). King Saul told young David he didn’t stand a chance against Goliath. He was too small even wear battle armor or to pick up a heavy sword (1 Samuel 17: 32-40). Apparently, God likes to start small.
The gospel of Jesus is terrifying and outrageous. Terrifying because he calls us to step up to the plate. Outrageous because of who he calls us to go to bat for. The game’s on the line. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and who does Jesus call up to the plate? You and me. God calls me to swing the bat. Stop looking around for other people and get in the game. You don’t need special equipment. You already have everything you need. You are gifted beyond your imagining. As God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” We go to bat for those who suffer; for the excluded; for people of other religions; for strangers, and even our enemies.

Clearly Jesus plays by different rules. Different even from those of many religious people. Gone are all the purity codes and the reasons to exclude sinners. The gospel is a call to live differently. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). I Corinthians thirteen is read at eight of every ten weddings I attend. Yet the “love chapter” is not about weddings. It is about loving your worst enemy in the pew next to you, on the next pillow, or looking back at you in the mirror. Yet how can we be so loving? –and especially to everyone?

Here we are at the heart of the matter. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13. The more excellent way of the gospel is a way of generous forgiveness that hopes all things and forgives all things. It is a way that is against the grain of the world. It would be impossible for us but for Jesus, our champion, working in us and through us.

What Jesus calls for is not for us to be merely unselfish, but for us to be empty, to be needy, to be, in ourselves, impoverished. We are not the Good Samaritan but the one laying in the dich. Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan –whom we must ready ourselves to receive. We must give up trying to save ourselves through our wealth, reputation, and good works. Psychologically, we don’t like this: we want to be the strong, independent “givers” to others (out of our excess) rather than being needy, dependent “receivers” from both God and others. Yet ‘if you reject your need, you can neither give nor receive from one another, nor receive from God.’ (Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology, p. 86) “Real life, true life, is not the life we try to make ourselves, on our own terms, a narcissistic life; rather, true life is what we receive moment by moment from others” and from God. (Sallie Mcfague, A New Climate for Christology, p. 79)

It’s time to step up to the plate. It’s time to go to bat. It is time to preach good news to the poor, not because we must speak for or bring God to the poor, but because that is where we will find God. We must give our life to find it. We must be empty to receive and become empty again. Loving the neighbor is not just nice religious talk, but it is the way reality works. It is the way God works. God who is revealed to us as Trinity, the three-in-one. We can never hope to live “on our own” by our possessions (whether wealth, reputation, or power); rather, we must accept our poverty, our neediness, and allow others to feed us as we must feed others. In other words, we must accept universal adult reciprocal friendship –giving and receiving at deep, sacrificial levels. Jesus, our king David, has already won for us the victory.