By Rev. Susan Sparks.
I am a big believer in shaking things up and approaching ideas through an unexpected perspective. Like the billboard I saw in Minnesota: It read, at the top, “Minnesota Cremation Society.” In the middle was a photo of a casket, and underneath, it read, “Think outside the box.” This year, let’s bring a fresh approach to Easter by using an unexpected perspective: Major League Baseball.
Baseball and Easter are a perfect match. This year, Opening Day falls just a week after Easter Sunday. But beyond the calendrical coincidence, many people have referred to baseball as a religion. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called baseball “the faith of fifty million people.” And who could forget Susan Sarandon’s opening lines in the movie Bull Durham? “I believe in the church of baseball . . . For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball.”
My personal favorite observation is the great wisdom from the comedian George Carlin. George talked about the spiritual side of baseball by comparing it to the war-like nature of football. “In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to … hit his receivers with deadly accuracy … With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory … In baseball, the object is to go home and to be safe.”
Baseball has much to teach us about Easter. For example, in baseball, and Easter, there is always a jeering crowd. We all know this from Good Friday. We also know it in our own lives. There will always be people in this world who prefer jealousy over joy, people who would rather tear us down than build us up, and people who would rather destroy than delight in something great. I’m reminded of the old saying, “Beware of the masses, for sometimes the ‘m’ falls off.”
What’s the lesson? Don’t let the crowd shake your confidence. Keep your eye on the ball. And as Jesus did on Good Friday, stay the course. The author Seth Godin explained it this way: “If you try to delight the undelightable, you’ve made yourself miserable for no reason.” There is another Easter lesson from baseball: we do not play alone. In baseball and in life, we are always surrounded by our team. “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). It’s just that, sometimes, we miss it.
There is a story about the Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. One day, his colleague looked at Phil’s scorecard in the booth and saw a notation, “WW,” which he didn’t recognize. He asked Phil, “What is this?” And Phil replied, “Oh, wasn’t watching.” Sometimes, we forget about the power of the team—the risen Christ who plays with us, around us, and for us.
Hollywood director Billy Wilder once said, “You’re as good as the best thing you’ve ever done.” I like that quote, but I think it should be tweaked: “You’re as good as the best thing your team has ever done.” Former New York University President John Sexton offers this insight from his book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. “The similarities between baseball and religion abound. The ballpark as cathedral; saints and sinners; the curses and blessings. But then what I’m arguing is beyond that surface level, there’s a fundamental similarity between baseball and religion which goes to the capacity of baseball to cause human beings, in a context they don’t think of as religious, to break the plane of ordinary existence into the plane of extraordinary existence.”
Amen to that. Being part of a team—a community—can elevate us to heights beyond our individual existence. It is, in short, transformational. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow … And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
A quote by my favorite author Anne Lamott inspires a third spiritual lesson from baseball: “Grace bats last.” In baseball, people would say, “Grace bats cleanup.” The cleanup batter is always the fourth one in the lineup. The aim is to get the first three batters on base; then, with the bases loaded, the strongest hitter steps up.
We all know that feeling where we have trained, fought, worked, and sweated, yet we reach the point where we can do no more. The crowd is jeering. We are being pitched nothing but curve balls and sliders. Nothing short of a miracle will do.
Late in his career, Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate in game three of the 1932 World Series. The Chicago crowd went crazy, yelling insults, and even throwing lemons onto the field. Everyone wanted to take him down.Standing in the batter’s box and taking the full force of the insults, Babe suddenly called time out. He stepped out of the box and pointed his bat toward center field as if he were calling his shot and saying to everyone there, “Nothing you can do can touch me.”
After a moment, he stepped back in the box, and the pitcher, Charles Root, wound up and flung his best curve ball at him. Babe connected with an earthquake-like crack, and the ball soared deep into center field, just where he had predicted. It was the longest home run in Wrigley Field history.
There has never been a time in our world where we have needed that miracle hitter more. Consider the current headlines: the global refugee crisis, flood and tornado victims, rampant gun violence, the widening gap between the haves and have nots, and the racist and religious hatred spewing from everyone, most notably some of our presidential candidates.
When we’re surrounded by doubters, the bases are loaded, and we find ourselves facing curve balls and sliders, know that we have a miracle hitter who will step in and brings us safely home. We have Jesus—who died, fought death, and emerged from that tomb bringing with him the miracle of life. Most of all, remember this: you are not alone, and the jeering crowd can’t touch you because you are part of a team where grace bats last.
Bible Study Questions:
- Where do you hear the jeering crowds?
- When do you feel most alone?
- What miracle do you await?
For Further Reading:
“Baseball and Religion.” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. 26 April 2013
Samuel G. Freedman. “Baseball Has Its Worshipers, and at NYU, You Get Credit.” New York Times. 21 April 2012
Daniel Burke. “Baseball Can Often Play Into Religious Teachings.” Chron.com. 15 April 2010.
A trial lawyer, turned standup comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit. Currently the Senior Pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City (and the first woman in its 165-year history), she is also a professional comedian touring nationally with a standup Rabbi and a Muslim comic in “Laugh in Peace.” Susan has been featured in the Oprah Magazine, the New York Times, USA Today, on CBS, CNN, and ABC. Her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, was named one of the best spiritual books of 2010 and has sold over 15,000 copies. More information can be found at www.SusanSparks.com.
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