A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 7 July 2019 [Proper 9]:
Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-20
Do no be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life.
John was a fourteen year old, black student at an overwhelmingly white boarding school in Connecticut. I was a young-turk member of the faculty: teaching; coaching; minding 56 teenage boys in a dorm; and one of the school’s chaplains. Our paths (John’s and mine) crossed on a number of occasions.
In the days before personal computers and the Internet, John gravitated toward what was then called the school’s “Audio-Visual” department, where he was fortunately and respectfully adopted by the two adult members of the A-V staff, a supportive, adult acceptance that changed John’s life. Before the terms were part of the common language, John was the embodiment of a “geek”. He was unapologetically an “A-V nerd”.
Especially for a young teenager, away from home – perhaps for the first time, plunged into a society of high energy and expectations, John was remarkably unpretentious. Granted his social demeanor was far from the “Joe-cool” that many of his fellow students clung to, but it was John’s courageous integrity that struck many of us, to the point that some of us on the faculty kept an eye out for him. We knew simply by his look that the chances were high that he could be easily devoured by the occasional cruel outbreaks of tribal adolescent life.
My most regular exposure to John was when as a first year student, he came out to play baseball. With his hat pulled down too tight over his head, the bill of his cap slightly off-center, John presented a figure of wonder, as in “I wonder what this kid is doing on a playing field”. I was the coach of the “Thirds team”. There was the Varsity and then the Junior Varsity and then the Thirds. Comprised mostly of first-year students (ninth graders), some of which had athletic talent, others did not – but Thirds teams were the entryway into interscholastic competition. For many members of the Thirds teams, it was the first time they wore real uniforms and took busses to travel to away games. Pretty cool, made more so for me personally when some of them moved up to the other teams in succeeding years.
I loved Thirds baseball. Not only did we get to teach the game’s basics and watch as the kids in their trusting eagerness continually developed into a skillful team, my job as coach also meant that I had to go outside every afternoon and play ball. It was fun, even if it rained or – worse – snowed. Play ball! It was good.
The year John came out to play baseball, two things were clear: On was that at best he would be the last man on the team; and the other was that without him our team would have been that much poorer. John was just so glad to be a part of what was going on. That he was allowed to be a member of the Thirds baseball team was a wonder to him – me, too! With all due respect to Mookie Betts, John was thee quintessential “right fielder” when it comes to beginning formalize baseball. Let him play and practice and gain some confidence by putting him in the safest place on the field. Not many balls were hit to right field; and when John patrolled the acreage in right, those balls that were hit in that direction came with a fervent prayer.
John reminded me of a neighborhood friend, with whom I played as an elementary school kid. Ricky’s dad plopped him onto our team, our local version of Little League play. I vividly remember to this day, almost 60 years ago, when Ricky was placed in right field, as a kind of safe house for his own good. Yet, there is a mystical law in baseball that the ball will seek out the misplaced player, as if sensing the most vulnerable link in the team’s chain. Sure enough, a toweringly high fly ball was hit to right field. Ricky immediately threw his glove up over his head, a sign either that he was tracking the fly ball or signaling surrender before its horrific decent. At any rate, Ricky circled the ball’s imminent landing zone with wobbly legs. Every one of us held our breaths, hoping against hope that the ball would simply land on the ground with an innocent thud.
But no! The ball landed squarely on Ricky’s mouth. While he had tracked the ball admirably (albeit with a scarcely contained panic), Ricky had forgotten to move his glove to that spot. The tragic result was a lot of blood. I can’t recall if Ricky ever played baseball again.
With Ricky’s image dancing in my head, I placed John in right field. I wanted to honor his commitment to the team beyond being the official team scorekeeper and batboy, albeit necessary tasks at which he diligently gave his all. But they were not the same as being on the field. So, hat screwed tightly on his head, bill pulled down to his eyebrows, John ran out to right field with great aplomb, yet still looking every inch the “A-V geek” his proudly was. “Lord, have mercy …”
And, yes, the nefarious baseball gods had their way. A fly ball soared into right field. Valiantly, John circled under the ball’s flight. His eyes locked onto its unrelenting decent, his glove gamely reaching upward to intercept its pathway. All of us held our breath. But John was unwavering, unflinching, even when the ball landed squarely on the top of his head and bounced toward the infield.
With a sense of the urgency of a first responder, John pounced on the ball and threw it to the second baseman, and then returned to his position in right field, rubbing his head only for a moment.
John went on to graduate and then went to Princeton for college. I went on my own way and lost track of this part of my life, but I wouldn’t be surprised if John now was in the midst of some significant technical career and that maybe he still rubs that bump on his head with a knowing and confident smile.
Whenever I feel uncertain or wobbly about being a priest, wondering to what extent I have actually made a difference, I go back to thinking about the time I coached those kids. By now, most of them have completed their emotional therapies and rehabilitated themselves back into society as contributing citizens. God is good. Yet, I still think about those afternoons, when all we had to do was show up, try to improve, and play together as a team.
I have long ago forgotten how many games we won or how the accolades of victory touched my need to succeed. What I remember now is the effort, just the experience of what a committed group can do, if there is trust and a desire to contribute something personal to something that is larger than ourselves. I hope those kids retained that sense of personal confidence and of making a special contribution to a team. I hope that they have remembered that no one can ever take that away from them.
In the portion of this morning’s epistle lesson from Galatians, St. Paul is coaching up his charges in the small Galatian church. As is the Apostle’s wont, Paul writes to these young, vulnerable members of Christ’s Body, reminding them of what the Christian life looks like, how it is played out and used for the common good. In a nutshell, Paul grounds his coaching in the summary of the Law: That we are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Specifically, Paul tells his Galician players that we are responsible for one another, that we are not meant to be alone in our life’s efforts. We bear one another’s burdens; we celebrate in one another’s triumphs. Most of all, we restore one another when we fall into the trap of “doing our own thing”, as if we were the sources of our own lives. Paul, in essence, says that we belong to God and to each other – no matter what.
Consequently, Paul writes about our accountability to one another. He writes not simply from a theological standpoint (that is, from a God-standpoint) but also from what you and I can easily recognize from biology or physics or baseball: namely, we are all connected; and, thereby, we need one another. The game is more than us, but it includes us – every one of us
As he frequently does, Paul uses phrases that we easily misinterpret: Phrases such as “flesh” and “spirit”. Where we have unfortunately learned to hear his admonitions against the “flesh” as being against the body and for a sense of the Spirit that is so abstractly pure that it can mean anything, Paul’s words are never that limited or off-base. When Paul speaks of the “flesh”, he refers to life that is a function of our own terms, of our own agendas, with us at the center. When he speaks of the “spirit”, this is life that is on God’s terms, with God at the center; and when we in our “fleshiness” connect and root ourselves in life as God knows and gives it, then there is life indeed—full life – eternal life. Play ball!
Is it easy to keep our life in Communion with God’s life? If it were, everyone would be doing it. No, it is hard to allow God to be God in our lives. We seem to be so easily swayed by the offer of shortcuts; but there are no shortcuts to real life. And this is the reason we need one another: To keep showing up and practicing what it takes for us to grow in faithful maturity and to contribute to the common good of Christ’s Body – our team.
The Apostle’s words speak directly to us individually and as St. Philip’s Church. Show up for practice; learn the skills of God’s Spirit; offer what you have so that others might benefit, as well. Be a team. Be Christ’s Body – even if the ball hits you in the head. Amen.