Jesus’ Team

Jesus’ Team

“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. . . . [And] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:4-6, 16

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 5, 2018

One of the challenging realities of my childhood was the fact that my family moved a lot. After my father finished his tour of duty with the Air Force during the Korean War, he landed employment with a military contractor and was required to move from job site to job site, following the work wherever it went. And so, as a kid I went to a lot of different schools: fourteen different public schools by the time I graduated high school. Counting nursery school and kindergarten, that is exactly one school per grade on average. And that doesn’t include college, a year abroad at a Scottish university, graduate school, law school, seminary, or the six different schools I have served as chaplain.

Being the new kid in school was not easy. Let’s just say that children are sometimes not as welcoming to newcomers as they should be; and, as I discovered, their own insecurities can lead them to tease the new kid for being different, for not knowing the ropes, for being an outsider. And so I quickly figured out that if I wanted to belong, I needed to figure out a strategy for winning my peers’ respect and finding some common bond.

For me, that strategy was team sports. It is not that I’m a super athlete by any stretch; indeed, truth be told, and as I later discovered in college, I’m more of a nerd than a jock. But, at least among the kids with whom I grew up, being a nerd was not the way to endear yourself to the group, whereas finding the right niche within the world of sport and games certainly was.

My parents, I think, sensed this reality too, and so, from an early age they encouraged me to play different sports, to figure out what I was good at, and then to join a team every season wherever I lived. They knew, and I learned, that this was the surest way to make friends and find the community I longed for. And so it was football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball, my true love, in the spring and summer.

What I did not know then, but now appreciate, is the profound theological and moral virtue of team play. It is no exaggeration to say that most of the really important lessons I have learned in life were first introduced to me, not in the classroom, or in church, or even at home, but rather on the playing field.

If you have been a part of a successful and healthy team, you know these lessons, these deep truths of team play. On a team, you learn that it is not your interests that matter, but rather the greater good of the group. You are asked and expected to subordinate your own desires to those of the whole, knowing if the team flourishes, you will too. As the cliché goes, there is no “I” in “team.”

On a team, you also learn that not everyone plays the same role, but that there are a variety of gifts and skills, and that finding where you can contribute is the key to being a good teammate, as is supporting and encouraging others in their own distinctive roles. The whole of a team is greater than the sum of its parts.

You learn, too, that you answer to one coach who calls the shots, develops the game plan, and in whose judgment and care you learn to trust. Teams teach a healthy respect for authority, and how one generation can learn from the next.

Flourishing as a team requires hard work, the development of healthy habits, practice, and a range of other qualities such as perseverance, resilience, discipline, cooperation, and patience. You learn about forgiveness and redemption too: When a teammate makes a mistake, you don’t browbeat her, but you help her to learn from the experience, and then to put the past behind her and to move on to the next play stronger and better than she was before. And when a teammate makes a great play, you cheer her success, not so much because she is the star, but because the good of the team has been enlarged.

At their best, team sports also develop our appreciation for fairness and equity, as well as respect and affection for our adversary when the game is well-played. And at the end of the day, when your team loses, you grieve together and share the pain and burden of the loss. And, when your team wins, you celebrate the victory together and hold up for admiration each member’s contributions to the whole.

Another way of putting all this is that team sports promote human solidarity. It is ironic and just a little bit sad that Sunday morning in church remains one of the most segregated times and places in America; and yet when you go to the ballpark it is precisely the opposite. This point was driven home for me with the power of an epiphany on Sunday, October 22, 2007, when I had the great privilege of sitting in the centerfield bleachers at Fenway Park for Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the deciding game between the Sox and the Cleveland Indians.

The game itself was exciting enough, especially as the Sox clinched and went on to the World Series. But what I will always remember is not what happened on the field during Game 7, but in the stands. Fenway was filled with faces of every conceivable sort: Male faces, female faces, old faces, young faces, white faces, brown faces, gay faces, straight faces, bankers, plumbers, hairdressers, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and plenty of folk who had no idea what they believe.

And far from being segregated into discrete ethnic neighborhoods, or separated by social class or some other arbitrary marker, we were all there together in the rickety old stands of a historic ballpark singing and dancing and carrying on with each other for hours as if the Good Lord himself had just showed up. We were just a bunch of crazy Red Sox fans, overcome with a transcendent joy that, however fleetingly, completely obliterated the differences that had separated us just hours before game time.

How often do we feel that way in church? And yet if we listen carefully to Paul’s words from the letter to the Ephesians this morning, this is exactly what our life in Christ should be like. In Paul’s words: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In baptism, we are drafted on to God’s own team. He confers on each of us unique gifts, talents and skills, that are to be “joined and knit together,” so that each part may work properly and in tandem with all the others, promoting the body’s growth by building itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:4-6, 16. Our fundamental reality is not that of individual, isolated selves each pursuing our own agendas; rather our truest and deepest identity is in the mystical Body of Christ, of which each of us are distinct but interdependent members.

The bottom line is this: We are quite literally, by virtue of our baptism, all on the same team. Our gameplan is right there in the Bible. Our coach is Christ. Our plays are the sacraments and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The playing field is the world and all its needs. And each of us has our role to fulfill in meeting our overarching goal: the building up of God’s Kingdom.

There is a cute cartoon circulating on social media these days that shows two men talking at coffee hour after church. The one man says to his friend, who has an obviously bored look on his face: “you know, you really should try to look like you want to be here. Why don’t you try having as much enthusiasm for church on Sunday morning as you do for pro football on Sunday afternoon.” To which the friend replies: “I tried that at my last church, but they threw me out when I dumped a bucket of Gatorade over the preacher’s head after the sermon.”

It’s corny, yes, but there is a subtle truth lurking at the heart of the cartoon. For lots of people sports stirs up a passion and energy that we rarely see in the pews. And while I have no interest in becoming a charismatic church, or turning the sacred and beautiful mystery of our liturgy into a spectator sport, part of me does wish that the celebration of our Lord’s Supper on Sunday mornings in our churches would generate the same intense devotion as a Red Sox game.

My hope and prayer this morning, then, is that we might invite people back into the church by reminding them, and each other, that God’s plan for the renewal of the cosmos and the reconciliation of all humanity is every bit as important a goal as winning a pennant; and that working together toward the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth is a project as deserving of our individual and collective skills, cooperation, and disciplined effort as taking batting practice, fielding ground balls, and preparing for tonight’s big game against the Yankees.