Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Sermon. About Baseball.

Scripture Readings: Psalm 148 and Luke 2:41-52

For the record, the congregation joined me in an impromptu liturgical dance to the reading of Psalm 148. So, that happened.

Court Martial of Jackie Robinson
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Happy New Year! May God surprise you in 2013.

Sunday, December 30, 2012
by Katie Mulligan

It seems like Jesus was just born yesterday, doesn’t it? Six days ago we had our Christmas Eve services and the baby Jesus popped out into the manger in all our nativity scenes. Young men and women all over the world dressed in costumes to play Mary or Joseph or shepherds or angels. Much of what we call “regular life” shut down for a few days—perhaps you are still shut down until Tuesday with the New Year? The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing—and they sang of a birth: the birth of a child. A child who would change everything just by his existence, but a child nonetheless. A wee little baby, harmless and helpless in the way babies are.

And here we are a week later, and Jesus is already in trouble. Perhaps some of you have had children who seemed to be born teenagers, full of sass and stubbornness (which they clearly get from the other side of the family), determined to walk, to talk, to grasp after every inch of life. I’m not talking about my children, of course, but perhaps some of you have had children who seemed to be born teenagers.

We have so little to go on with Jesus, so very few details of his young life. This story is one of those details preserved—a story seeming to be of rebellion and teenage foolishness. Every year the family went to Jerusalem for the Passover. Every year they took Jesus for this religious festival. They traveled with family, with community, children running about the animals—not exactly unsupervised, but not watched closely either. And so when they turned to go home, Jesus had the perfect opportunity to get lost a bit. He stayed behind in the temple to study with the elders. His parents traveled a day towards home and then did not find him at evening roll call. They traveled back a day (and how worried they must have been!). Finally on the third day they found him in the temple where they’d left him, sitting with the teachers, the elders, discussing scripture and theology like he was born to it. And when his mother saw him, she came up on him and said, “Child, how could you DO this to us?”

And Jesus said, it’s your own fault if you were worried. Duh. I was at church.

Well, I don’t know what Joseph and Mary said to him, but after that scripture says that Jesus hauled back to Nazareth and toed the line. The next we hear from Jesus he is 30 years old, and while I know a lot of us parents have threatened to ground our children until they are 30, this is the only case I have ever heard of where the parent managed to make it stick.

I suspect Luke gives us this story as a deep insight into the character of Jesus. Mary, Luke says, treasured all these things in her heart. I think one of the things Mary must have treasured about her son was the wild streak that set him to run off to the temple for three days—not for the worry it caused his parents, but for the chord it struck in her own soul. Luke writes Mary’s name differently in the greek—he calls her Mariam. We like to keep our Gospels tidy, and so our translators have done us the favor of synchronizing the name of the mother of Jesus; from Mariam we get Mary, and therefore we lose the meaning of her name, which was Rebellion. Mary, wife of Joseph. Mariam, mother of Jesus. Miriam, sister and protector of Moses, leader of the Israelites with tambourines and dancing, instigator, calling out Moses for his foolishness. Rebellion. Strength. Noncomformity. A willingness, no a desire, to step outside the carefully scripted roles assigned. This was the legacy Mary had for her son, so that even in her distress she could look at her wayward son and say, “YES, this is my child.”

Once while traveling with our children we lost one of them in a hotel. We had just checked in to a cheap hotel with 4 stories in the middle of nowhere South Dakota. We had been on the road, moving to New Jersey, for four weeks or so now. The children were growing accustomed to strange places and apparently had lost their fear. We paid for the room, got the luggage in the door, started to unpack, and then realized that one of the boys was missing. He wasn’t in the bathroom, under the bed, on the balcony or back by the car. He wasn’t in the lobby, the elevator, the stairs, or by the vending machines. He was only 4 years old and I started to panic. I imagined the ugly face of the stranger who must have taken my child. I saw visions of his dying body. The next week of police investigations loomed large in my mind. Life as I knew it was over. I called the front desk and they sent forth minions to find this child. I think the next week of police investigations loomed large in their minds too. And then suddenly, 15 minutes later, my son walked off the elevator with a big smile on his face and two quarters in his hand. He had gone floor to floor and searched every vending machine and coin operated laundry to see if anybody had left their change, and he had found two quarters. He positively beamed. I collapsed with relief. I looked at him and smiled—this was indeed my son; that was totally something my sister would do.

I grounded him until he is 30. He has a few more years left on his sentence.

I think Mary, Mariam, Ms. Rebellion herself, looked at her child and thought, “Yes! This IS my son.” And she treasured all these things in her heart—she, Mary, this woman who crept outside of carefully scripted roles and bore a child out of wedlock while engaged to this other man Joseph and then dared to call it good and claim it as the will of God. This IS my son. From where did Jesus get his stubborn habits of moving unexpectedly, caring outside of the lines, healing brokenness thought unreedemable? You might say, “Oh that is a holy quality of God.” But I say he gets that from his mother.

I’ve been playing with the image of stealing home with this passage. This is a difficult metaphor for me to work with as I know nothing about baseball except what wikipedia provides and the occasional glances at a ball game I have been forced to watch by fanatical viewers of said game. You know, how you go to someone’s house and the game is on and they say, “Come watch, I’ll explain it all to you—you’ll love it.” And you don’t really love it, and they DO explain it all to you. But the one piece that intrigues me—the single delight I have in baseball is the practice of stealing bases. Here is what I know of the practice: a runner on base might steal 2nd or 3rd base while the pitcher is distracted with the next person up to bat. If they manage to get to the next base without getting tagged or if there isn’t a fly ball caught or if any other number of conditions are met, then the runner keeps the base. If not, they have to try to get back to the original base or they’re out. It’s very complicated, actually, and I don’t understand the rules. But I love to watch the mischevious look on a player’s face as they set about to frustrate the pitcher and the basemen. I love the laughter of the crowd as they watch what is happening behind the pitcher’s back. According to wikipedia, stealing home is the hardest, because the pitcher almost always gets the ball home before the runner gets there. But it happens.

Also according to wikipedia, you’re not supposed to steal first base either—but sometimes on a third out and the ball doesn’t get caught, a runner gets to first base without being tagged. But they don’t call it stealing first; they call it a “strikeout plus a wild pitch.” And, according to wikipedia: “Former Pittsburgh Pirate manager Lloyd McClendon is jokingly referred to as having ‘stolen first’ in a June 26, 2001 game – after disputing a call at first base, he yanked the base out of the ground and left the field with it, delaying the game.” I don’t know who this guy is, but I kinda like him.

This is what I love about baseball, that sometimes outside of the regular game a runner might steal a base or get home when they weren’t supposed to. I love that there’s a way to circumvent the usual rules of the game and move on closer to home without explicit permission. Of course, it’s baseball, so we have created extensive rules about stealing bases and formalized how stealing is recorded. But still, I have watched the faces of players stealing a base, and they are laughing with wild glee—I love that.

And I imagine there was something of that wild glee in Jesus as he stole away to the temple for three days—the same look in his eyes my son had when he stepped off the elevator with his two quarters. Didn’t you know I would search every vending machine? Didn’t you know I would be at my father’s house? Didn’t you know I would steal that base when you weren’t looking? Didn’t you know I would say yes to God?

God is constantly stealing home with us, isn’t He? When we aren’t looking, when we have all our rules in place, our ducks in a row, God looks, pauses, waits, creeps, shuffles a couple of steps off base, goes back, grins, maybe spits, feints left, feints right, and then when you weren’t quite ready, God does it—the Spirit darts forward and steals home right before your very eyes and before you can even tag Her with the ball She slides homes and calls SAFE!

I know, I don’t know much about baseball. You can tell me all the rules over coffee hour and speak to me of who has the best career statistics for stealing bases, if you must. I am going to need coffee for that. But I know God, and I know I’ve watched God steal home more times than I can count. It’s always startling. And it’s always delightful.

A few years ago when I worked at Bellevue hospital as a chaplain, I was assigned to the prison floor. I met a man who had done horrible things and therefore serving a few years sentence. He was utterly unrepentant. I could barely meet with him. He spoke of getting out of jail and doing these horrible things again. He was not my favorite patient to visit—I dreaded him, in fact. He had absolutely no awareness of the horror of what he had done. When I finished visiting a patient, I usually prayed with them. And I usually asked what they wanted me to pray for. I was tempted with this man to pray that he changed. To pray that he understand what he had done. To pray that nobody every let him out of prison again. I did not have a single charitable thought for this man. I asked him what to pray for. He said, “My children—“ and he started to say more, but I cut him off. “Excellent!” I said. “I will pray for your children.” That I could do. I could not pray for this man, but I could pray for his children. That, I could do. The Spirit stole a base in there—showing up for a brief moment in a place that I could not imagine God would be. I could pray for his children.

That prison floor was temporary home to prisoners from Riker’s Island and The Tombs—the Tombs is a short-term jail in the city. And it was home to The Boat, which is a short-term prison barge in the harbor. Did you know there’s a prison boat in the harbor? In 2012? The men told me The Boat is very cold and windy at night. They sleep in the ballroom and the guards patrol from the balcony. It’s not a good place to be. I can’t think of much worse places to be, actually.

I met a man who had been on The Boat, and now he was at Riker’s Island. I wasn’t ever very clear on what he did to get into prison, but he was very sick and would probably never leave prison. People tell you all kinds of things about why they are in prison. I bet some of it was truthful and some of it wasn’t—just like people tell me all kinds of things about why they weren’t in church on Sunday. One guy told me that he was guilty only of wearing the same shirt as the guy who robbed the convenience store. One guy had been at Riker’s seven times. I said, “I guess you kinda like it here?” He said, “There’s worse places.” I guess that’s true.

But Mr. Smith mostly just smiled and said it was a long story. And since we only had a little while for visits, he didn’t feel like talking much about what had happened. He was more concerned with what was going to happen next.

We met one day off the prison floor when he was out and about for various treatments. He called me over, “Chaplain! Come over here! I have something to tell you!” I was easy to spot, I think, in my suit jacket with the terrified look on my face. We’d been given two days of “training” and then set loose on our floors to visit patients. For a person scared of rejection, chaplaincy is not an easy call. You get used to it after a while—the gruffness of people in pain, the constant worry that hovers in the halls. But those first few days are startling. Mr. Smith called me over with a big cheerful grin, flanked by officers, shackled to the gurney. He wanted me to know that he had a Bible upstairs, and that he’d welcome a visit. “We’re going to be friends,” he said.

He had hopes and dreams. He was going to get out of prison and turn his life around—in fact his life was ALREADY turned around. When he got out he was going to move his sister and his nieces and nephews to the suburbs and start over. He was going to get straight and get a job and take care of things like he felt he should have been. He missed his mother. I think he was sicker than the length of his prison sentence, but they sure were beautiful dreams. He had a smile for everyone and a quick joke. The prison guards even liked him—it takes something special for that. He almost died one day during surgery, and when he came back the floor nurses said, “Mr. Smith—you almost DIED. Don’t DO that.”

I read him a psalm, “I am weary with my moaning;
 every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 
My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.” I came back again, ready to read another psalm, and he said, “Chaplain—I have one for YOU.” And he read, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; 
my heart is like wax; 
it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
 and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
 you lay me in the dust of death.”

Back and forth we went with scripture over many visits until he was sent back to Riker’s. Sometimes I would visit the other man who beat his wife and children and he would say things like, “I’m thinking about killing myself. And I might take someone with me.” And he’d look at me sly-like. So I’d go see Mr. Smith who would read to me: “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 
The Lord has heard my supplication;
 the Lord accepts my prayer. 
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
 they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

One day Mr. Smith told me about his pigeons. His father had lived in a tall building in the city where he had access to the roof, so Mr. Smith kept pigeons. He kept them in a box in the dark for a long time until they knew for sure where home was. And then he would let them fly out of the box and wait for them all to come home. He would wait until the very last one came home—sometimes for hours. He said to me, “This is how God is with us—he keeps us until we know where home is, and then he waits until the last one comes home.” I suppose Mr. Smith would have told me even that guy who beat his wife. I wonder if God gets tired waiting on that rooftop, though—some of us stray pretty far. Mr. Smith asked me not to forget him—to tell people about his pigeons. So now maybe you won’t forget him either.

God shows up in the strangest places, I swear—a prison, even. And yet, when I meet Jesus there in those places, he just grins like he stole a base and says, didn’t you know this is exactly where I’d be?


  1. Exceptional! What a gift you have!

  2. I love this sermon! Rebellion is such a cool name.

  3. Thank you for this articulate, outside-the-box sermon. And you got the baseball images just right!

  4. Wonderful :-) Love the images. Very very refreshing.


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