Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Gospel According to the Blue Jays

(So I wrote this sermon for fun, during the Blue Jays American League Pennant series with Kansas. I got the idea from John Van Sloten, who did the same in Calgary--thanks. Naturally, I wore a Blue Jays uniform to church that day. Several people requested that I post it. So here it is!)

I wrote this sermon on Thursday (October 22), as I almost always do. However, since the theme of the sermon was, “The Gospel According to the Blue Jays,” I was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed.
That Thursday, after all, the Blue Jays were merely behind in the series with Kansas, three games to two. I didn’t know—as I do now—whether they would win the last two games in Kansas City or lose one of them. I didn’t know, as I sat down to write, whether I would be writing about a World Series-bound team, or merely a runner-up for the American League pennant. (Of course, I know now.)

            As I was thinking about my conundrum, I came across a Facebook post that was all about Blue Jay faith. Listen:
I have seen a man come back from season ending injury to dominate in September. (Stroman)

I have seen a bringer of rain end a 22-year old playoff drought. (Anthopolous)

I have seen a .500 team fight back and win a championship. (The Jays)

I have seen two 11-game win streaks. (Jays again)

I have seen a 20-year-old rookie shut down some of the best. (Osuna)

I have seen two of baseball’s greatest talents pull on my jersey. (Price and Tulo)

I have seen the 7th inning of game 5. (Bautista, mostly)

I have seen the bat flip that electrified a country. (Bautista, totally—let’s take a look at that, in fact)

I have see a team come back from a 3-1 deficit. Kansas City did it to us 30 years ago. A little payback is in order.

I have seen an incredible team play an exciting season and I am grateful to have experienced the 2015 Blue Jays.

And it’s not done yet!


            So, as I sat there at my desk, on Thursday, I tried to believe. Bautista will come through again! Tulu shall keep hitting! I thought maybe I could make such belief the point of this sermon. Faith should be strong even when times are tough, you know? Believe enough in the Jays and that will make it so. The trouble was, I didn’t believe, whole-heartedly, at least. What if the Blue Jays didn’t win? What if I came to the pulpit with a sermon that insisted, “believe,” but that faith turned out to be totally misplaced? Does God award the pennant to whichever team has the most believing fans? Probably not.

            So as I sat at my desk I was a bit sad that I hadn’t chosen to write a sermon entitled, “The Gospel according to the Liberal Party of Canada.” By last Thursday I knew how that one turned out. I wouldn’t have needed any faith for a sermon on that theme.

            Anyway, this back and forth got me to thinking about being a sports fan—or, at least, what it is like for me.

            The truth is, I’m a bit of a fair-weather fan. Not because I don’t love baseball all the time, but because I can’t stand dramatic tension. Not in movies, not on TV, and certainly not in sports.

            So, for example, if there is a TV-show or movie where the guy is getting up the courage to kiss the girl, I have to leave the room. I can’t stand the tension of “maybe-yes,” and “maybe-no.” Or, if there is some dramatic irony that suggests the hero is going to do something stupid, like make his girl-friend mad, or miss meeting her for dinner—well then, I leave the room. I can’t stand the tension.

            Baseball is full of this sort of tension. I love watching a home run. I love watching the bust-out inning. I love a Tulowitzki-Goins-Smoak double-play. But I can’t stand to watch a game where Toronto is one run up and Osuna is pitching in the ninth. I turn it off. Too much tension.

            So when it comes to the Jays, I’m always on the knife-edge. I can’t stand it when they’re failing, or threaten to implode, so much so that I turn my back and try to ignore them.

            And living with this uncertainty, this ambiguity, this two-sidedness is really what faith is all about.

            Do you remember that Facebook post I read at the beginning of this sermon? It finished with one word, “believe.” It was almost as if the post was saying, “if you have enough faith, good things are going to happen. Just believe harder and the Jays will go all the way.” But that is exactly what faith isn’t. It isn’t a tool for getting what we want.

            Real belief, real faith recognizes that there are some things we cannot know with certainty. Faith recognizes that there are some umpires who will make lousy calls, that there are some days the bats will go cold, there are some days that pitching arms turn to rubber—and we can’t change that. Faith recognizes that life is lived on a knife-edge, where both good and bad things happen to people who may or may not deserve it.

            So faith—even large amounts of it—can’t make the Blue Jays winner, or Kansas City losers. But then, what’s the gospel according to the Blue Jays if it isn’t “have more faith if you want to win?”

            Well, I think I’d put it this way. Baseball is a spectator sport, mostly. There are only 25 guys—they are all guys—on the Blue Jays playoff roster, but 49,000 fans in the stadium, and millions more in TV and Internet Land. It’s a spectator sport.

            And, we can actually learn good things from watching this sport. We learn about teamwork, as in a double play; about sacrifice, as in a sacrifice bunt or fly. We learn from watching baseball, about leadership, about taking hiring risks, and about what it takes to succeed at something we love.

            And while we watch, we have fun. We cheer and laugh and groan and do the wave and jump in our seats and shout while, hopefully, not throwing beer cans on the field.  But it’s a spectator sport. And there is nothing wrong with that.

            On the other hand, life itself, a life of faith, is not a spectator sport. It is, rather, a long race, one for which the Apostle Paul says we need to train to succeed. He uses very strong language to describe the race of life: “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disquailified.” Life is a race, full of any race’s uncertainties, something we train for, that we spend ourselves on, that we work hard at in order to win. Baseball is entertainment, but life is not a spectator sport.

            So what is it that we’re really training for? Well the Bible—and every religion, really—is absolutely clear on this. The game we play is love. The purpose of our lives is to love neighbours, fellow Jays fans, even Kansas city fans—but more to the point—the least, the last, the most needful in our society: our children and parents, our first nations and immigrants, our nannies and environment. Life is not a spectator sport—it consists of loving others whenever we can, whatever our job is. That’s real faith, lived on the knife-edge. We don’t know whether or not what we do for others will make them winners or not, but we do it because Jesus said this is what we do when we really live, rather than watch from the sielines.

            So the gospel according to this blue Jays fan, is this: believe, as the Jays poster says—but don’t believe by sitting in a recliner in order to be entertained. Believe to do, do the right thing, by way of your neighbours.  

            And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying so to take the fun out of life. You see, the secret of the gospel according to this blue Jays fan, is that if you live like Christ and for your neighbor—well, it’s an adventure. It’s a blast. There’s no life like it! Even given the uncertainty.

            I wrote this sermon on Thursday night. I didn’t know how the Jays series would turn out. But in a way, that’s how it is with life. We’re all in the middle of the series, and we don’t know how it is going to turn out, humanly speaking. But unlike fans of the Jays, who can really make very little difference in the outcome of the Kansas City Toronto plays by believing, we can all make a huge difference for how our lives—and the lives of our neighbours—turn out. Because when it comes to Biblical faith, we’re not spectators, we’re in the game, however it turns out. We’re lovers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Preacher Explains Who Not to Vote For in (Every) Election

            I’m going to tell my readers something you probably didn’t know about me. Forty years ago, in 1975, while taking a year off college, I got on my bike and rode it over to city hall, where I took out nomination papers to run as an independent candidate in that year’s provincial election. I was just nineteen and I was upset. You see none of the parties were willing to support choice in education. I thought I’d run on that one issue, because at that time I believed that Ontario should support private parochial schools, as in British Columbia and Alberta, and as John Tory would in his ill-fated run for Ontario’s premiership a few years ago.

            In any case, back in 1975, I never filled those nomination papers out. I was too busy earning money for college and playing baseball with my friends to get the 100 or so signatures I needed. But since I was a resident of Premier Bill Davis’s riding, in Brampton, Ontario, the press kept an eye on such things. So, the day after I took the nomination papers home, local papers reported it. Next, my phone started ringing—mostly friends, former teachers, and members of my church. I found I liked the attention. I didn’t have a campaign staff, didn’t have money, and didn’t have a prayer running against Bill Davis. But, a bit narcissistically, I basked in the limelight anyway.

The Prime Ministerial Candidates.
            That wasn’t the end of my political dabbling. In 2003, when I was a magazine editor in West Michigan, I wrote an article musing about a possible run for the United States Congress. I was pretty well known in my district because of the magazine. I could have been a credible candidate for the Democratic Party. A couple of people emailed me to say it would be a great idea. Again, I liked that. But the party establishment didn’t bite, and it is just as well, because Republicans had been elected out of that congressional district for about 100 years anyway.

            Now, looking back on those two times I dipped my toe in political waters, with the perspective of many years and hopefully, by now, a little wisdom, I can admit that one of the things that motivated me to even think about running for office—at least a little—was the glare of publicity. I enjoyed my fifteen minutes—or less—of being the centre of attention.

            Now, I can’t speak for politicians in general. Perhaps it isn’t ambition, or ego, or fame that motivates most politicians. Perhaps the politicians we love best are motivated by ideals, by a deep and abiding concern for the common good, and by a desire to serve rather than be served. Some undoubtedly are.

            But what I really hope--and this is the main point I want to make--is that the same holds true for us, the voters. Do we decide our vote on the basis of “me, myself, and I?” Do we vote on the basis of our needs, our wants, and our ambitions—or do we choose to vote on some other, more idealistic basis?

            I find it interesting that almost all the media attention, almost all party promises, almost all campaign ads are about what I will get out of this election—more security, maybe; a job, or day care, or cheaper tuition, or a faster commute, or income splitting, or whatever.

            This trend of focussing campaigns on the voters’ narrowest interests really came into focus during the 1980 Presidential campaign that pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan famously asked the electorate, “are you better off now than four years ago?” But it is much the same here. In fact, this past August the Toronto Star asked voters that exact question in a front-page poll.

            People seem to take it for granted that most politicians run for selfish reasons, and that most people vote for selfish reasons. But ultimately, I think a politics rooted in “me, myself, and I” first is going to leave a lot of important issues in the dust--especially for people who want to mirror Jesus' priorities.

            There is a recent trilogy of books and movies that are actually a parable about the “me first,” and “am I better off than four years ago,” style of politics. It’s called The Hunger Games. The movies starred everyone’s favourite Oscar stumbler, Jennifer Lawrence.

            The novels are not high literature, and the movies, though fun, are not classics. Both made a lot of money. The author, Suzanne Collins, pictures a North American country called Panem divided into twelve zones. One zone, the Capital, is home to a society much like ours. It is rich. Its citizens luxuriate in the latest trends, and especially coming up with new and bizarre fashions. The population of the capital is preoccupied with violent stadium games—Ultimate Fighting to the death. And they love gorging on the best food, parties, beautiful homes, and 7-24 entertainment.

            In contrast to Capital, the rest of the districts in Panem exist to support the Capital’s health and wealth. The districts mine minerals and manufacture, grow crops and provide human fodder for capital. And they are sinkholes of poverty. Until, finally, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Katniss, leads—not always willingly—the districts in an open revolt against the capital.

            The books and movies are an allegory.  Hunger Games is about how the few with power on earth tend to live for themselves, and how the many pay the price.
The Hunger Games says that when inequality and lack of fairness gets out of hand, whether within or between countries; when the accident of birth matters more than character or heart or hard work; when my games, pastimes, and entertainment mean more than the welfare of all—in such situations, there will eventually be hell to pay.

            In Psalm 85 the Psalmist—who is a refugee, in Babylon, because the Babylonians have destroyed Israel and sent its people to live in other parts of the empire—the Psalmist is dreaming of a new and better Israel. In his vision, he says that a perfect Israel—a perfect nation—would be a place where “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss each other”  (v. 10). An more colloquial  translation might put it that the best society is one where “justice and shalom embrace.”

            What would that look like? Well, in scripture, justice is always measured by how the alien—the foreigner, the refugee—how the alien within our gates or city is treated; by how the orphan and the widow—traditionally the poorest people in Israel—were cared for. And shalom was not only international peace, but a national culture where all debts were supposed to be forgiven every fifty years; where prosperity was not limited to a few; where the rich were required to leave enough in the fields after harvest to feed the poor.  In ancient Israel, justice and shalom embracing was a world where no one had to look out over his or her shoulder in fear, because everyone else was looking over their shoulder, for your best interests.

            Of course, as a parable, The Hunger Games is full of exaggeration to make its point. And unlike the world of Panem, we are also a democracy. And what it is going to take for us to steer clear of environmental apocalypse, even more minorities in jail than there are now, reconciliation between First Nations and the rest of us, between racial minorities and the rest of us; what it is going to take to avoid more terrorism and more military missions; what it is going to take beat climate change and beat poverty and homelessness . . . what it is going to take is citizens like us voting for the embrace of justice and shalom rather than just voting for the party that we think will leave us, personally, better off in four or five years.

            Look, I won’t want to tell anyone how to vote. God knows, all the parties think that it’s your pocket book that is most important to you. But we collectively have an ancient vision rooted in Psalm 85. When you vote, do so in the best interests of the neighbour that we are called by Jesus to love, rather than merely for your private interests. Don't Vote for yourself, but for your neighbor. It’s a radical idea at the root of almost every political ideology out there, from Marxism to Conservatism—and yet it is the one idea we hear far too little about in this election campaign.