The Power of Sandy Koufax’s Witness

The Power of Sandy Koufax’s Witness

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 26:18-20

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Trinity Sunday – June 11, 2017

1965 was a momentous year for our family. It was in the spring of that year that my mother and father picked up their two little boys and moved us all to Southern California. Mom and Dad had lived most of their lives in small towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Now, though, they were eager for a new start. Like the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, my parents were lured by the promise of this new Paradise called California, where the sun always shines and everyone has a smile on her face.

For a six-year old boy like me, though, the only thing I cared about was that the fair weather of California meant I could play baseball all year round. Such is the wonderfully simple life of a six-year old, when baseball is all that matters.

Moving to Southern California, of course, was moving to Dodger country. The Dodgers had just invested in a brand, spanking-new ballpark, nestled in the foothills of the Elysian Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and I couldn’t wait to go see it. My first trip there with my dad and little brother was to celebrate my seventh birthday and it was a memorable one indeed. April 29, 1965. A classic pitchers’ duel between the Dodgers Don Drysdale and the Giants Juan Marichal, won by the Dodgers, 2-1.

And that game was a mere hint of what was to come, for the National League pennant race that unfolded in the summer of 1965 was a thriller. Six teams were tightly bunched heading into September, when the Giants went on a 14-game winning streak to take a commanding lead with two weeks to play. But then the Dodgers exploded, winning 14 of their last 15 games to edge out the Giants, and clinch the pennant. The stage was now set for a World Series matchup between the Dodgers and Harmon Killebrew’s Minnesota Twins.

But in the days leading up to the Series, something truly remarkable happens. The Game 1 pitching matchup everyone expected was the Twins fierce, fireballer Mudcat Grant against the amazing Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax. But at the last minute, Koufax announces he is not going to pitch.

Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, as it happened, fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. And, as one of the few Jewish players in major league baseball at the time, Koufax said he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, pitch on a day of sacred obligation.

For those of you who are not baseball fans, let me explain that for a team’s ace pitcher not to pitch Game 1 of a World Series is a very big deal. Every manager wants the advantage of having his ace pitch three of the seven potential World Series games, which you can only do if he pitches Game 1, so that, rested, he can go on to pitch games 4 and then 7, if necessary. So, for Koufax to pass on Game 1, meant that the Dodgers were potentially giving up a decisive advantage – their ace would only be available to pitch two games of the series.

My seven-year old brain couldn’t fathom how or why Koufax could do such a thing. Winning the World Series was surely the most important thing in life!

It was only much later that I came to learn what a courageous and faithful decision this was. At the pinnacle of his career, and on the world’s biggest stage, Sandy Koufax demonstrated to everyone in a profoundly simple way that his love for God was dearer to him than anything else.

There were a few secular critics at the time who second-guessed Koufax’s decision, especially after the Dodgers went on to lose Game 1 to the Twins. But there were far more people who appreciated the integrity of Koufax’s faithfulness.

One rabbi, Moshe Feller, was so moved by Koufax’s decision, that on the very next day he travelled to St. Paul to the hotel where the Dodgers were staying, and went up to Koufax’s room, to present him with a tefillin, a prayer shawl, in tribute to his piety. “What you did was remarkable,” Rabbi Feller told Koufax, “putting God before your career. More Jewish people,” he quipped, “now know who you are than Abraham, Isaac or Jacob!”

Famously private, Koufax never publicly talked about his decision much, and certainly never touted it, saying only that it was the right thing to do. He knew that he had to stand up for his faith.

In today’s gospel text from Matthew, Jesus invites those who wish to follow him to do just this – to stand up for their faith. Our text, often called “the Great Commission,” comes at the very end of Matthew’s gospel, and is the very last thing Jesus says to his disciples. If you believe, as I do, that endings matter, then we can assume these last words of Jesus to his disciples hold special importance.

Listen to what Jesus says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Go. Baptize. Teach. Go out into the world. Share the good news. Tell others who you are, Jesus says, so that they too may know my truth.

Our primary mission as Jesus’ followers, you see, is not just to quietly go to Church and stay there, but rather to go into the world, sharing the good news with others. Go. Baptize. Teach. To be sure, we should gather each Sunday in church for worship – to hear God’s word, sing his praises, and share the sacred meal with one another – but not as an end in itself. Rather, we find our truest identities as Christians by going out into the world and learning how to communicate our faith palpably, authentically, and persuasively to others.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons the Church is in decline in America is because many of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers have lost the zeal to proclaim in word and deed what we believe. The contemporary church’s great sin is not heresy; it is, rather, complacency. We have forgotten how to give witness to Christ’s love for the world.

Just ponder some very simple strategies of sharing the good news: When was the last time you talked about your faith over lunch with a friend? When was the last time you mentioned Jesus in a conversation with your children or grandchildren? Do you say grace over meals, even, say, in a restaurant? What about inviting a friend – or even a stranger – to church?

Evangelism, in many quarters, is a dirty word, and Episcopalians, God help us, are especially uncomfortable with public expressions of piety. It seems so forward, so in your face. In part, of course, “evangelism” has been given a bad name by obnoxious, overbearing street corner preachers, and smarmy tele-evangelists; but these bad examples of Christian witness don’t relieve us of the obligation of finding subtler, more authentic ways of communicating Christ’s truth.

Indeed, Christian witness needn’t involve words at all. Preach the gospel at all times, St. Francis says, use words if you must. We evangelize every time we welcome another, give aid to the stranger, help the weak, visit the sick, stand up for the victim. The aim of healthy Christian witness is not to twist anyone’s arm, or to pepper them with sanctimonious talk, or to argue them into believing; it is, rather, to embody Christ in all that we do and say.

I’ve spent a lot of time around skeptical university students these past few years, and most of the young people I know are much more moved – and ultimately persuaded – by genuine expressions of Christian love, mercy, forgiveness, care, and the like, than they are by church talk or theological arguments. It’s not more arguments that the Church needs, but more compelling examples of faithful people whose lives give quiet witness to the power of God in Christ.

People like Sandy Koufax, who, though a Jew, loved his God and knew how to communicate that love. His example challenges us as Christians to find clear and creative ways of giving witness to Christ in our lives, so that we might share this good news with others, as Jesus himself has commissioned us to do.

Oh, and by the way, the Dodgers went on to win the 1965 World Series. And, though he didn’t pitch the first game, Sandy Koufax pitched games 2 and 5 . . . and then, on only two days rest, came back to pitch and win the deciding Game 7, striking out ten and shutting out the Twins, 2-0, in one of the greatest pitching performances in World Series history. So much for the secular critics who second-guessed his faithful decision.

Now, I’m not saying that God had a hand in the Dodgers’ win, because I believe that God has much more important things to do than intervene in our little sporting games. But I will say that it is possible that Koufax’s faithfulness gave him an inner strength, and a sacred sense of purpose, that allowed him to be his very best self in that final, deciding game of the Series.

And, I’m quite sure, too, that you and I can be our best selves if we put Jesus first, and go out into the world proclaiming the good news of God in Christ in all that we do and in all that we say. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.