Baseball in Zion

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.

What can break Americans’ hearts like baseball can?  The wounds of war are deeper, to be sure, but the betrayals of baseball sting with a certain sharpness.  The release of the report on the use of performance enhancing drugs in major league baseball shows us how the boys of summer can strike us a blow even as winter sets in.

It has, of course, been dawning on us that the heroes of the great American pastime are not what they used to be.  And those who think back to the Black Sox scandal of 1919 realize that they probably never were.  Still, it stings to find that our dreams have been misplaced; that the icon for all that is good and pure in America is more or less a sham; that like everything else, baseball is a business; and its players are often not worthy of the adoration we would heap on them.  And there is no point in pretending – let alone hoping - that it ain’t so.

What did we expect?  Did we expect that because a man could swing a bat in a certain arc, with a certain force, that made him good?  Did we expect that a stolen base was an accomplishment of justice?  Did we expect that pitching a no-hitter was actually a virtue, pointing toward the possibility of Truth and Goodness in the world?  Did we really think that a home run could really heal a sick child, listening to the World Series on the radio?  And did we expect that in a society that happily uses Botox, liposuction, and all manner of nips and tucks to re-engineer our bodies (not to mention all the chemistry we use daily to re-engineer our moods), that somehow it would never occur to athletes to give steroids a whirl?

We are learning, in America, to be disappointed.  We are learning how to be let down by our government, our schools, our churches, and even baseball.  We often have to learn how to be disappointed by our parents, our children, our neighbors, our friends, as well.  This is what it is to be human.

So it is no surprise that John the Baptist is wondering, when we catch up with him in today’s Gospel reading, about Jesus.  “Are you he who is to come?  Or shall we look for another?”   Growing up, as he did, listening to the story of how he leapt in his mother’s womb when her cousin came to visit, and with the outlandish tale that his father was told what to name him by an angel, wasn’t John set up for disappointment from his earliest days?  But his question today, is full of guarded hope.  “Are you he who is to come? Or shall we look for another?”

The people who had listened to John’s somewhat fantastic preaching, they, too, are poised for disappointment.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand!?  What are the chances this is so?  The possibility of disappointment hangs heavy in the air.  John the Baptist may yet turn out to be John, the crazy guy in a camel’s hair shirt.  

And Jesus…  well, who’s to say that he isn’t less than he appears to be, that he isn’t pocketing the money from his collections, and fooling around with the emotionally needy women who are drawn to him while their own husbands (if they have one) are away all day doing men’s work?

Perhaps, John the Baptist is not what he appears to be.  Perhaps Jesus isn’t what he appears to be either.  It wouldn’t be the first time we were disappointed, and it won’t be the last.  This is what it is to be human.

It is the voice of the prophet that prepares us not to be disappointed: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…”

The prophet knows what it is to be human.  He knows that we would sell out, and that we have been sold.  He could be counted on even to see baseball for what it is.  He speaks to people whose hearts have been broken.    And he has nothing more than his poetry and his voice to break through the veil of spin and repression, and chemistry that we have used to manage our disappointment: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, fear not!  Behold, your God… will come and save you.’”  He knows that we need to be saved, because he sees how we have been banished to disappointment, and sometimes even to despair.

And if baseball has broken our hearts, yet again, just imagine what our government has done to us over the decades; just imagine what the church has done to us these past years, let alone throughout the rest of history.  Just imagine how shattered we are.  It’s just that we can admit our disappointment in baseball and its players.  Do we dare to admit (even to ourselves) how badly our hearts have been broken by all the rest?  And do we dare to admit that we fear God will break our hearts, too?  What do we expect?

Do we really expect that there is a Son of God whose gentle touch is a sign that he is good?  Do we really expect that the invisible spirit of that Son can bring justice into this unjust world of ours?  Do we really expect that the story of a man who was killed on a cross, so many thousands of years ago, has the power to point to the possibility of Truth and Goodness in the world – let alone something beyond this world!?  Do we really expect there is someone who can give the blind their sight, make the lame to walk, the lepers whole, and the deaf to hear?  Do we really expect the dead to be raised up?  Do we expect the poor to receive good news – in this city?!

Of course not!  We expect our hearts to be broken – even baseball teaches us this now!  We expect to be cheated, lied to, left behind, to have to fend for ourselves, and to survive only if we prove to be the fittest.  We expect market forces to determine the measure of comfort we will enjoy in retirement.  We expect to be sold, one way or another, just like the mortgages on our homes, to the highest bidder.  Most of the time we cannot admit any of this – and so we let our hearts be broken by baseball, because at least we believe that is a heartbreak that will mend.

But God knows that real heartbreak lurks around many corners.  God knows how we flirt with disaster in this militarized nuclear age.  God knows that a city where 25% of the people live in poverty (but that still claims to be a city of brotherly love) is a catastrophe that has already happened.  God knows that even in a city with five medical schools hearts are broken around sickbeds every day.  God knows that a church whose leaders can’t speak to one another without lawyers is in some trouble.  God knows that we have had to learn to expect to be disappointed.

To his prophet he gave only a voice and a poem.  But to his Son he gave real power: power to save everything that would be lost or stolen or cheated away, or withered, or held for ransom.  God knows how low our expectations are, and he knows that we are often no more certain about Jesus than his cousin John was in those first days.  Is this he who is to come?  Or shall we wait for another?

If you think that there are precious few miracles, these days, to point to the hope that comes from Jesus, come and see what happens – in this hopeless world – when you put your disappointed heart in his hands.  Come and see what happens when you give your illness and your injury to him.  Come and see if the dead have no hope.  Come and see if the poor are to be banished for ever to disappointment.  Come and see what happens when we put our trust in God!

Come and see what it means to set our sights on a promised land – on Zion, that holy mountain where God prepares a feast for us and where the cups are overflowing.  Come and see what it means to be free: ransomed from the power of disappointing heartbreak by the promise of hope!  Come and see!

How is it that we live in a society that will give up on God before it gives up on baseball?

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  You and I – and anyone we can bring with us – are the ransomed of the Lord.  We have been wandering in a wilderness of disappointment.  But Zion lies ahead of us, and there is no other to wait for: the One who could unlock the gate has already gone ahead of us.

And all we have to do is try to decide if we will put our trust in him, and go wherever he calls us to go.   Or would we could wait patiently through the winter for another baseball season to begin, and see if we aren’t disappointed.

The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing…  And is this Jesus the One who is to come, or shall we wait for another?

Come.  And see!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 December 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 16, 2007 .