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Again, the strange world of the Bible beckons us. St. Luke, you see, stands every day, every Sunday, before us, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel. Here is Jesus in all his Dominical Authority. Here too is Luke. The Scripture—mighty, ancient, holy—calls to us, today out of Gospel According to Luke.
One day you awake, early, and are able to recall the contours of dream. Strange. One day, walking, your mind and memory are visited by a feeling gone fore years. One day, frightful this, news comes of a loved one’s death. One day you come to worship to worship. Behold the numinous, the uncanny, the mysterious, the strange, here, now, the strange world of the Bible.
Today–Luke. (He is east of, stage left of Jesus. Matthew and Mark are west of, to the stage right of Jesus. Luke and John are to the stage left of Jesus. And you can hear that truth in more than one way (☺)).
Those at the dawn of life…in the twilight of life…in the shadows of life…You too were strangers in the land of Egypt…as you have done it to the littlest of these you have done it also to me…
Our Holy Scripture today places us, at first, in a thicket of problems and questions:
The Scripture is fulfilled in its hearing. A prophet is not honored at home. Elijah and Elisha go to Sidon and Syria. The crowd is outraged and poises to attack. Jesus eases on down the road.
What is going on here, in this strange world of the Bible, which beckons to us to leave behind our mercantile mediocrity?
The Scripture is fulfilled, not in a perfectly just world, in a perfected justice, like that, frankly acclaimed in Isaiah, but in the Reader and the Voice. Isaiah’s literal prophecy was not fulfilled, and to date has yet been fulfilled. Another fulfillment Jesus acclaims:
The resurrection is the preaching of the gospel. The gospel is more than justice. Now real religion, for sure, is never very far from justice. But justice, alone, the prophetic, alone, is not the gospel, some of the last fifty years of quasi-theological education to the contrary not with-standing. The gospel is bigger, truer, deeper–and more personal than that. Heaven does not touch earth only or fully with the passage of a perfect national health care bill, as good as that would be. The life, death and destiny of Jesus Christ are not summarized in a global tax on capital, as laudable as that might be. Your ticket through the pearly gates is not the resuscitation of American socialism, as healthy as that might be. No. The prophetic is a part but not the heart of the gospel. The prophetic tradition is a just part but not the full heart of the gospel. We can be happy to be known as ‘the school of the prophets’. Would that we were known too as ‘the school of the preachers’.
That is, Elijah and Elisha here are remembered for a very particular reason, one at odds with justice. They have gone outside of Israel, outside of the community of faith, outside of the expected audience, and outside of their own prophetic tradition. With Israel hungry in famine, the chosen people awaiting rain water, Elijah comforts them not, not at all, but goes instead to a foreign land, that of Tyre and Sidon, to alone woman, a lone widow, a lone gentile. With Israel halt and lame and leprous, in need of healing and health care, Elisha comforts them not, and goes away into a foreign land and heals a Syrian, a lone gentile. Jesus’ sermon at home, where, as with every prophet, he faces a tough home crowd, explodes the minor, limited appeal of justice…to universalize, to preach, the gospel. The gospel is not justice…but love. No wonder the crowd is so angry. The gospel moves away from the interior to the exterior, from the expected to the unexpected, from the just to the loving, from the familiar…to the strange.
In our passage, Luke has given us the whole of his mysterious gospel in miniature. He has given us a prototypical text: Isaiah, 61, with its theme of deliverance to those who are hurting. He has given us, next, a reminder that God works in God’s own ways, as he did in the days of Elijah and Elisha, when those outside of the faith community were helped first. He has given us a warning, through the threat of the crowd to throw Jesus to death, of what awaits Him at the end of the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem. He has further given us a fragrant scent of promise, as Jesus escapes, the same sense we are given at Easter—death cannot hold him, even death cannot hold him, not even death can hold him. He is the Lily of the Valley…
God is at work, at work in the world, at work in the world to make and keep human life human, often to the consternation and surprise of God’s very own people. (If you go into the ministry, don’t go in needing to be liked. You may like to be liked without needing to be liked. If you need to be liked you will not be able to say what needs saying, when people don’t like it, to do what needs doing, when people don’t like it, to preach what needs preaching, when people don’t like it. Strive to be, in the words of a one time presidential candidate, criticizing his opponent, ‘likeable enough’ (☺). Some of that is underneath Luke 4. )
Strange, uncanny things occur.
Here is a baseball story.
It seemed fitting in Boston not to talk about football this Sunday, so the historical narrative comes rather from the national pastime, invented, as you well remember, in Cooperstown NY, by Abner Doubleday, more than 150 years ago. It is a great sport, in which you can strike out 7/10 times and be a superstar. Failure never felt so good.
Besides, football has its own problems, hard as it is for those of us who are avid fans to see. We love the game. Yet the spectacle of football, weekend by weekend, is at worst a cultural apotheosis of what one writer harshly called ‘violence, greed, racism and homophobia’ (NYRB 1/16). As our Boston University researchers, Robert Stern and Ann McKee continue to highlight, football, in Vince Lombardi’s words, ‘is not a contact sport but a collision sport’. 30% of professional football players suffer dementia. So maybe it will be all right to leave behind our beloved gridiron, at least for a while, and tell a story about a kinder, gentler sport.
Look back nearly a century. Enter, by imagination, the main street of a small, poor southern town. The town is Cairo, Georgia. On one street there is a family with five children. The year is 1919.
Strange, uncanny events take place. Now move west, out to Pasadena, a few years later. We think of Pasadena as the home of the Rose Bowl, that place where everyone is in shirt sleeves on New Year’s Day, while we shiver. Brrr…One of those children, one of the five, from Cairo, Georgia, has graduated from Pasadena College. He has four letters, four major sports, one of which, in some ways the least of which, is baseball. He hits, he fields, he runs, he scores. In Pasadena.
The ball player from Pasadena took a detour into the army, in the heart and heat of WWII. In 1945 though he signed up to play professional baseball with a team called the Monarchs, a team in Kansas City. Do you remember them? They were the longstanding team in the old Negro leagues. That was short-lived. He soon got a better offer to play in Montreal, for the Royals, which then was a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
You remember the Dodgers. ‘The Bums” they were called, if memory serves. That couldn’t win for losing, couldn’t organize a two- car funeral, couldn’t compete with another team from NYC, whose name escapes me right now, and us on a regular basis. He batted .330 in his first year, up in Montreal. Summer starts about July 1 in Montreal.
Our Cairo GA fellow, our Pasadena star, our war veteran ballplayer, batting .330—do you recognize him yet? Hold that thought.
That year, 1945, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, and its former baseball coach, now President of the Dodgers, edged his way toward making history. Now Ohio Wesleyan, as you well know, was founded in 1842, along with other freedom and abolition loving colleges in the buckeye state, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, born near the same time. Its graduates have included Tracey Jones, Norman Vincent Peale, Ralph Sockman, Ernest Fremont Tittle and Robert Allan Hill, and all his kids. Ohio Wesleyan is a small Methodist school located on the banks of the Olentangy River, in a town know for horse racing, Delaware, Ohio. An early Ohio Wesleyan President is with us today, in the balcony, well, actually, in the stained glass up there, Bishop James Bashford. The OWU football team is known as the Battling Bishops, a name that does not often strike terror into the hearts of the opposition, but oh well. The OWU baseball coach, now the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the one who made the Montreal arrangement, but with a bigger idea in mind. In 1947, there were no black players in major league baseball. But the Pasadena star and the Ohio Wesleyan coach were about to make history. Do you recognize them yet?
The coach is Branch Rickey, and the player is Jackie Robinson, number 42. Branch Rickey, for whom the Athletic Building and Fields at Ohio Wesleyan are now named, was making his move. Why? Many years earlier his team from Delaware had a fine black catcher. But when the team traveled to other states, or even into the Hawking Hills of southern Ohio, hotels would close their doors. One night Rickey solved the problem by having his catcher stay in his own room. He came in after a meeting to find the young man weeping and fiercely washing his arms, saying, ‘Can’t I change my color?’. Rickey vowed that sometime he would do something about segregated baseball. Rickey was not a saint. He was a businessman running a losing team nick-named ‘The Bums’. But he had his faith, his own experience, his sense of history, and his vow to live out. He needed just the right player. He recognized that player in Jackie Robinson.
Some idealized longing for justice, alone, would never have brought Branch Rickey to take the risk, to find the courage, to develop the imagination to integrate baseball. That took love. Love nurtured in a quiet home. Love taught in a simple church. Love preached, season in and out in a Methodist congregation. Love still in the water along the banks of the Olentangy, at Ohio Wesleyan. Then, in a descript hotel room, with two lodgers, one coach and one catcher, somehow arrived the explosion, the resurrection, the uncanny sense of consanguinity, like that in the time of Elisha and Elijah, like that Jesus preached in Nazareth, the realization that the gospel of love carries over the lines of faith, the plans of justice, the boundaries of religion.
Jackie Robinson ducked bean balls, suffered spikes, endured taunting, hazing, racist rhetoric, and died, by the way, in Connecticut in 1972, still a fairly young man. His courage, grace under pressure, had a physical cost in the long run. But on April 15, 1947, Robinson stood at the plate in Ebbets field, played alongside Pee Wee Reese, stole home 19 times in his career, led the ‘Bums’ to beat the Yankees in the World Series of 1955, served for two decades in leadership of the NAACP, (whose current President Cornell Brooks will be with us here at BU\SPH on Wednesday), became the highest paid athlete in the country by retirement, and founded his own bank. In Cooperstown, in 1962, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade before he died. His number, ‘42’, across the whole of Major League Baseball, now goes unused, in tribute to him.
And today is his birthday, January 31. 1/31 is the birthday of 42.
I heard William McClain, an African American preacher, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn. “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him. When he struck out we did too. When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered. When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants. When he stole a base, he stole for us. When he hit a home run, we were the victors. And he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south. He gave us hope. He gave us hope.”
Love outlasts death. Love nourishes a lasting hunger for justice, which hunger alone can never feed itself. Love inspires hope. Another day, we can honor those, a few, who took the example of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, and applied it to themselves. Strange, strange world…For example, who would have thought that the successor to the flawless personality of Jackie Robinson, would be eminently flawed character of Curt Flood? Yet it was Flood, almost alone, who took the baton from Robinson and ran the next lap. But that is another sermon, for another day. For example, the young leadership of our own home team, the Red Sox, last month made a startling, strong statement about race past and future in Boston. For example, Rickey’s own humble Methodist church now is moving toward a rendezvous with destiny, and truth, over the full humanity of gay people.
Love is stronger than death. Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Or, as Paul put it…
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;
but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
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