Part 2 of the series “What Christians Have to Learn…”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 22, 2013
Isaiah 40:29-31; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Isaiah 40:28–31 • Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.
1 Corinthians 9:24–27 • Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win. Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies. So now this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. I fight like a boxer in the ring, not like someone who is shadowboxing. Rather, I’m landing punches on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others.
A few weeks ago, we screened for our Monthly Movie with the Methodists the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball as the first black player in the major leagues. At one point in the story, as the Dodgers are traveling to Philadelphia to play the Phillies, they learn that the Phillies may not take the field if Robinson plays, preferring to take a forfeit against the Dodgers rather than play on the same field as a black player. Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Dodgers calls the General Manager of the Phillies and asks him, “You think God likes baseball, Herb?”
The Philadelphia GM is somewhat taken aback. “What? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Rickey responds: “It means someday you’re gonna meet God, and when he inquires as to why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it’s because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”
That’s probably my favorite line in the whole movie—and there are a lot of them—including the line where Rickey says of Robinson: “He’s a Methodist; I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist… we can’t go wrong.” But I will admit that that line betrays the usual way we think about religion and sports, if we think about it at all.
That is, we often think of Christianity as a way to shape how we play sports. Branch Rickey is taking his Social Gospel Methodism and applying it to racial segregation in Major League Baseball in the 1940’s. And in one way or another, this is the model most of us are used to. And there are groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that seek to use sports as a means to convey Christian values through coaching and through Bible studies for players and other programs.
II. GOD ROOTS FOR MY TEAM
Of course, the application of Christian faith to sports isn’t always productive. Sometimes it appears that Christianity is another ornament or talisman in the athlete’s arsenal of good luck charms. Baseball players will point to the sky after touching home plate after a home run. Football players will take a knee after a touchdown and adopt a prayerful pose. In post-game interviews, players will often give credit to God or Jesus for giving them the strength to succeed. It’s all very well meaning, but somewhat theologically problematic. If God helped one athlete to win but not another, has God chosen sides in the contest? What do the faithful Christians on the other team think when the victor claims that God helped him to hit home runs or score touchdowns? Why didn’t God help them? Does God have money on the game? Is this another wager except instead of God and Satan wagering over whether Job will remain faithful, God’s got the Packers by three points?
This idea was brilliantly skewed by Satuday Night Live some years ago when they interviewed participants in some sporting event (I want to say it was something out of the ordinary like lumberjacking). The winner gave a lot of praise to Jesus for his win. The runner up claimed that he would have done better but the winner was “hogging all the Jesus.” All the other contestants claimed that there just wasn’t enough Jesus to go around.
One curious note about all this is that no one ever says, “Well, I guess it just wasn’t God’s will that I catch that pass,” or “I would have scored that touchdown if God hadn’t made me fumble.” It seems to me that if you’re going to say that God was behind you placing the bat squarely on the ball, then God’s gotta be responsible for the pitcher who threw you the pitch to hit, too. If God helped you catch that pass for a touchdown, then God must also have prevented the defender from reaching you in time. You can’t really have it both ways.
We tread dangerous theological ground when we reduce God to a talisman to assure us of victory or when we imply that God has a rooting interest in one team or another.
Now, I say this all as a life-long Red Sox fan, who, when that team finally won a World Series after an 86-year drought, noted that the team’s rallying cry was to “Keep the faith”and that the lectionary texts for the week that they won it all (the Sunday between October 23 and 29 Inclusive, Year C) included not only the passage from 2 Timothy where it is written: “I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith,” but also the passage from Joel where “the moon [shall be turned] to blood” as a red moon rose over Busch Stadium in St. Louis at the conclusion of the Series. I could have had a field day with that but managed to resist preaching an entire sermon series on the Red Sox victory and Christian eschatology.
Branch Rickey may be right: God likes baseball; but I don’t think God roots for particular teams. Besides, we all know that at this point God would have to be rooting for the Cubs, if anyone.
III. THE TEXTS
But the texts we have for us today are not quite how Christians are used to engaging in sports: by vesting them with Christian morality or implying God’s usefulness in sporting victory. No, in the scripture lessons for tonight sports are used as an instructive metaphor for faith. Paul uses examples from running and boxing as reminders about endurance and seeking the
Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win. Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies. So now this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. I fight like a boxer in the ring, not like someone who is shadowboxing. Rather, I’m landing punches on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others.
Paul refers to the training, the discipline, the goal-mindedness of the athlete as an example for the same mindset among the faithful.
It’s curious because for so long Christians were suspicious of sports. In the ancient Church, sports were viewed with some suspicion because of their lack of modesty—a lot of competition took place in the nude—and because of their ties to pagan religions. The Roman Emperor Theodosius I was the first to declare Christianity the state religion of the Empire and proceeded to tear down pagan temples and shrines. And he disbanded the Olympic Games after over a thousand years in practice.
Christians remained suspicious of sports for a while. The Puritans, shaped by their Calvinist roots, saw sport and leisure as unproductive and wasteful. While they did support the idea of bodily health, the primary outlet for this was manual labor rather than organized games.
Even the early Methodists were not on board with sports. Wesley wrote a lot about issues of health—in fact, he was more widely known for those articles than for his preaching at the time—but would tell the Methodists never to “trifle away time”. Wesley’s understanding of productivity was not unlike that of the Calvinists and it is hard to imagine John and his brother Charles enjoying a nice round of golf.
In the late Nineteenth Century, however, a number of Christians began to worry that Christianity was making men soft and they sought to reclaim what they called a “Muscular Christianity.” This Muscular Christianity was another expression of a Victorian-era sense of vigor and vitality. Soon there was the establishment of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) promoting sport as healthy Christian activity. In fact it was at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College), that Dr. James Naismith invented the sport of basketball.
It is no coincidence that around this time, the Olympics would return as international competition, the first being held in 1896.
But the reality is that Christians were either suspicious of sports or saw the physical activity as an appropriate outlet for Christian vitality and vigor. But unlike St. Paul, have rarely looked to sports as a source of Christian insight.
IV. WHAT CHRISTIANS HAVE TO LEARN
But Christians do have something to learn from sports.
Faith is not easy. And it takes practice. No one would attempt to be a professional athlete without practice. It would be laughable were an athlete to say, “Just tell me when the games are and I’ll show up to play” without practice, training, or even knowing a lot about the sport. And yet, millions of Christians show up for the game on Sunday for about an hour without any practice at all. It requires study, discipline, and training to be a Christian. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of the “coaches” who don’t practice either.
In the early Methodist movement, Methodism was defined by things called “classes and bands”—small group meetings wherein Christians gathered for mutual support and for mutual accountability. They continue to exist in the form of Covenant Discipleship groups, but do not have quite the same presence in our churches that they once did. If sports has something to teach us here it’s that practice matters. Allen Iverson, a player for the Philadelphia 76’ers was famously quoted downplaying his being called out by his coach for having missed practice, but the reality is that practice matters. The best hitters in baseball are the ones who show up early at the ballpark, train, and take batting practice. There’s no reason we should expect Christian faith to work any differently.
It’s an old sports cliché that “There is no “I” in team”—a statement designed to highlight the collaborative nature of sports versus the individual. But Religion does have an “I” in it. And American Religion, which has both an “i” and a “me” in it, is doubly so.
Over the centuries, for a number of reasons that I won’t go into right now, Christianity has become a hyperspiritualized, overly individualistic version of its former self. And in America, this trend has tended to dominate.
But Church is collective. The Greek word ekklesia means an assembly, a gathering. A community. Paul talked about the church as a body, a collection of members, each with different gifts contributing to the whole. Basically, a team.
There are individual sports, like tennis and golf, but they are not the sports that people are most passionate about. Soccer, baseball, football, basketball—it’s the team sports that draw people in the most. And on teams, we are used to the idea that people have different roles to play. Some are good at running, some at throwing, some at catching, some at hitting. But together, they move the team on toward victory.
Modern Christianity has become more like golf or tennis, where it becomes all about individual achievement of the “When were you saved?” variety. But the team sports are truer to our origins: a long season of ups and downs, with lots of practice, and most of all, with the help of others.
C. Celebration of the Material
When I was in seminary, I had the chance to play on a softball team run by a friend of mine from law school. And a couple of years later, I joined a team in Arlington and played second base for that team for a number of years.
I learned a number of important things playing on those softball teams. The first thing I learned was that there is a huge difference between being 32 and being 22. Diving for those ground balls hit through the infield took a lot more out of me as a thirty-something than it used to. And the bruises seemed to last a lot longer, healing just in time for the next week’s game.
But the second thing I learned was how much I loved it, pain, bruises and all. Taking my cuts at those pitches, running the basepaths, diving in the dirt to try to get a grounder—even the time I collided with a player from the other team and went flying head over heels and slammed down on the ground and got the wind knocked out of me—all of those things, made me feel really alive.
We in the church often focus so much on our spiritual life that we neglect our physical lives. We imagine that spirituality is devoid of materiality but what I learned was that, for me, playing softball with a bunch of other guys for love of the game was a spiritual experience for me. And when the games were on Thursday evenings, I’d go play a couple of games and then come back for the healing service at 11pm. And more often than not, I was in need of healing.
Sports remind us of our material nature and are a celebration of our physicality. We do not exist as disembodied spirits without any sense of the material. We are profoundly material creatures and the story of salvation is also profoundly material: from the Creation of the world, to the Incarnation of the Word, to the institution of the Sacraments, the Resurrection of the Body, and New Creation, our story is grounded in the physical, the material, the real.
Sports serve as a reminder of our createdness, our materiality, our physicality. Which, in turn, reminds us of the physicality and materiality of others: the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the naked, the sick, the abused. The world is full of material need and we Christians sometimes get so spiritual that we forget that. But there’s nothing like diving onto the hard ground in pursuit of a ground ball to remind you that you’re a physical being, and that physicality matters.
So, yeah, in answer to Branch Rickey’s question: I do think God likes baseball. And football. And soccer, basketball, and hockey. I think God is fond of anything that helps us to develop our disciplines, that forms us into communities and teams working together, and that helps us to celebrate our wondrous physicality.
Life is not easy. No one ever promised that it would be. And faith is difficult, too. But that’s why we don’t have to go through either alone. It’s why we have people who train us. Who help us to practice. Communities and networks of support to guide us, help us, lament defeat and celebrate victory with us. It’s a long race, but when we take these lessons we will find will that the Lord will renew our strength; we will fly up on wings like eagles; we will run and not be tired; we will walk and not be weary.