Baseball and Faith

This was the sermon preached at our annual communion service for those who are often shut-in and cannot come to worship regularly.  The service was held August 11.

Paul sometimes used athletic images and metaphors to discuss the life of faith, the journey of faith. In I Corinthians, Paul uses images of a runner running for a prize or a boxer in the ring, not just shadowboxing, to talk about living the life of faith. These are images of engagement and endurance. He uses the runner and boxer images again in II Timothy 4, but this time to talk about how he feels like he has run the good race and fought the good fight. Paul is writing about the later innings of his life.

Later innings, there is another sports image – innings coming from what may be my favorite game, baseball. While Paul used images from running and boxing, I think baseball images also help us understand the life of faith, the journey of faith. I agree with the President of New York University, John Sexton, who writes, “Baseball evokes in the life of its faithful features we associate with the spiritual life…. For some, baseball really is a road to God.” (Baseball as a Road to God, 7)

So inspired by Paul’s use of sports images, I want to share with you how I think baseball speaks to us about our journey with Jesus, our relationship with God in Jesus.

Baseball, at its best, teaches us to, in the words of John Sexton, “live slow and notice” (217). Baseball is a slower game than basketball or football or hockey. When baseball was very young the poet Walt Whitman wrote about it: It’s our game… America’s game: has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere. Well, compared to these other games, baseball seems to have a lot less snap, go, and fling. It has lost popularity because it is not as action packed as some of these other games. Yet because of that, it can teach us something about going more slowly and paying attention. The pitcher needs to focus on where she or he will throw the ball. The batter must concentrate on the ball being thrown. Fielders must be thinking about what they will do if the ball comes to them. Those of us watching have time to think and ponder while the game is happening. We can let our minds wander a bit, yet also pay attention to what is happening. Baseball is one of the few team sports not controlled by a clock.

As followers of Jesus, we benefit from slowing down and noticing. Prayer is a form of slowing down. When we pay attention to the world around us, we cannot help but see some of its wonder and beauty, even if we also see some of its difficulties and tragedies.

Baseball teaches that it isn’t over until it’s over. Baseball is one of those games where there is no clock. The team that is behind still gets to bat through all nine innings and the game doesn’t end until the last out is made. Some of the most exciting baseball games are those games where the home team is behind in the ninth inning and during their last at bat, bring in enough runs to win the game. If you are a Minnesota Twins fan, that has not been happening enough for them lately.

It isn’t over until it’s over. Paul wanted to think about finishing his race, but he was also determined to keep on until the very end. It is hard sometimes, especially when we don’t feel as energetic as we once did, or when some of our capacities are not what they once were. God always has something for us to do – pray, give a kind word, talk to a friend in need. Some of us may be in the later innings of life, but it isn’t over until it’s over.

In baseball, we have to get used to some disappointment. The season is long, and there will be hitting slumps and losing streaks. The best hitters in baseball get a hit about once every three times at bat. Sometimes life disappoints us, too, but with the Spirit of God and the love of Jesus, we can come back. We can get a hit the next time.

In baseball, sacrificing for the team matters. Sometimes the job of the hitter is to get an out that advances the base runner into scoring position. It doesn’t do the hitter’s batting average much good, but it helps the team. Sometimes life asks of us some sacrifice, a willingness to give for others. Jesus is the prime example, the giving of a life so others could live differently. Thankfully few of us are called to sacrifice our very lives, but there can be a richness to life when we know a measure of giving of ourselves for others.

Baseball does a good job of helping us see that even with faith in Jesus, life has tragic moments. We will all know loss of different kinds if we live long enough. One of the things I really like about baseball is how much wonderful writing has been done about the game. Here is one of my favorite passages, words that speak about tragic moments in life, too.

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. (A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind”)

As followers of Jesus, we know that we never face the fall alone, but we also know that being a follower of Jesus does not make us immune to tragedy. It just helps us keep it in some perspective, and gives us the courage to live on. Fall leads into winter, but winter into spring again – a new season.

Finally, baseball is about home. In the companion book to the PBS television series on baseball, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns write: It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope – and coming home.

            Our faith is about home, about the kind of place we can make together as followers of Jesus in the church, about the kind of welcome we can give others in the name and spirit of Jesus, and finally about finding our home in God in this life and in the life to come.

Thanks for letting me share my faith and my love of baseball with you. I am so glad you are here, that you are home. We are together part of the home team here at First United Methodist Church. Thanks be to God.