Monday, June 29, 2020

Whose Team Are You Playing For?

June 28, 2020 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio for this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 21:15.)

The news that the baseball season is only a few weeks away is a reason for everyone to rejoice. Those of us who love baseball are relieved to know that there actually will be a season this year, and those of you who hate baseball can celebrate that the abbreviated season will be only a third as long as usual. I have not read all of the rule changes associated with the sixty-game season, but I suspect that there will be lots of nuanced differences that will make this season especially strange. Given the coronavirus, one of the bits that I am particularly curious about is the way that Major League Baseball will handle trades.

One of the great baseball traditions is assessing how serious your team is about winning as they approach the trade deadline. In late July, if your club thinks that it can make a run deep into the playoffs, it will often trade away several young, upcoming stars to secure one or two veteran players that can bolster the team’s chances this season. On the other hand, if your team is struggling to keep up and management thinks that there is no way they can win it all, they will often give up the big-name players that cost them a lot of money in exchange for several potential stars that still need a few more years to develop. I don’t know how that will work during a shortened season, but I hope that at least one trade will involve a player walking from one side of the stadium to the other, as he finds himself switching sides only an hour or two before the first pitch of a game.

I love it when that happens—when a player shows up to work in one clubhouse but discovers that he has been traded to the team that he thought he was going to be playing against that night. In those cases, instead of boarding an airplane to catch up with his new team, all the player has to do is walk down the concourse and check in with the new equipment manager, who probably already has a uniform waiting for him. When a player switches sides, the whole team has to make lots of little adjustments. They have to change up their signs and adjust the batting order and make space in the clubhouse for the new guy. But, in addition to all of that macro-level stuff, I wonder what it feels like to show up and find yourself playing against the guys that you’d been playing with only the day before. How do you change loyalties that fast? How long does it take before the new team feels like your team?

I don’t like to use sports images in sermons. As a life-long sports fan, they come pretty easy for me, but I recognize that not everyone—even in a college town—likes sports. Perhaps I can take comfort in knowing that Paul liked to use sports metaphors in his own writing—like the image of running a race and attaining the prize to describe the Christian life. But, in today’s reading from Romans, Paul used a different metaphor—that of slavery instead of athletics—to make his point. I don’t think that human bondage is a rhetorical device that preachers can use as if it does not also come with horrendous consequences, and, in this case, I think that the image of being drafted by or traded to a sports team is a fair way to understand what Paul meant.

In today’s reading, Paul asks us whose team we are really on and where our true allegiances lie. Are we going to play for the new team that has claimed us for its starting lineup—the team that has a jersey with our name on it hanging in its clubhouse—or are we going to drag our feet and mope about because we’d rather keep playing for the old team that we used to belong to—the one that we’re familiar with, on which we know the role that we are supposed to play?

For Paul and the Romans, becoming a Christian meant leaving behind their old identity and claiming something new. When this letter was written, Christianity had only been around for about twenty years. Everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, had their spiritual origins in another tradition, and being brought into the Christian faith was as dramatic a change as switching teams in the middle of a homestand. Most of us, on the other hand, not only grew up in the church but belong to families that have been Christians for centuries. Even if we spent most of our lives rejecting the faith of our parents and grandparents, whenever we came to the church, we did so not as if we were entering foreign territory but as if we were coming back to an ancestral home.

It is hard for us, therefore, to know how strange or difficult it must have been for the early Christians to have to put down their pagan practices and celebrations or their Jewish customs and rituals in order to embrace their new Christian identity. But we do know how strange and difficult it is to belong to one team while being surrounded by the fans of another. We might belong to God, and our eternal home may not be in doubt, but, for now, we live on this earth and in this life, where the fulfillment of God’s promises is not yet complete. A part of us already belongs with God in heaven, but the other part is stuck here in a world where sin and evil still reign. Much like the early Christians, the challenge for us is living as if we fully belong to God even though we live in a world that clearly doesn’t.

Paul knew how hard that was, and the church in Rome knew it, too, and I bet you experience that challenge on a daily basis. How do we embrace the way of humility, poverty, and meekness when power, wealth, and greed are what get things done? How do we stick up for the marginalized in our society when it requires us to turn our backs on those we love? How do we live into the fulfillment of God’s promises—how do we pray “thy kingdom come” and mean it—when that kingdom is so, so far away?

The solution that Paul proposed was to invite the Roman Christians to reexamine which team they were willing to play for: “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but…present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The word that is translated for us as “present” is a word that also means “make yourself available to.” So, when Paul told the Romans to “present [themselves] to God as those who have been brought from death to life,” he was telling them to make themselves available to play on the team that had already claimed them—God’s team. Because of their faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, they had already been brought over from their old allegiance to sin to a new allegiance to God and God’s ways. They had already been claimed by God’s team, but now it was time for them to suit up and get ready to go into the game, even if it meant going up against their former team. 

But one problem with belonging to Team Jesus is that very few of us wake up each day and put on a uniform that reminds us what team we belong to. Instead, we have to take our place and do our part in a world where the distinguishing and defining characteristics of our allegiance are more subtle and more significant than the cross around our necks or the window decal on our cars. Yes, we can say our prayers and read the Bible and go to church, but belonging to God is more than all of that. That’s like hitting, throwing, and catching—you can do those things no matter what team you belong to. Being a part of God’s work in the world means taking our place in opposition to the forces that work against righteousness. It means doing battle with evil. It means working to end oppression. It means giving up our wealth in order to end poverty. It means sacrificing our comfort for the sake of those who have no peace. It means making ourselves available for all of those uncomfortable things that Jesus told his followers to do because doing them is what it means to belong to Jesus. Living like that, even when we live in this world, is what it means to be on God’s team.

If you are a Christian, you already belong to Jesus. If you are a Christian, you already know what side you are on. You are on the same team as Jesus. You belong to the one who died for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. You belong to the one who was executed by the power and wealth and domination of this world and whose victory over death shattered their grip on reality. That’s where you belong. That’s your true identity. It’s time to stop hiding it. It’s time to stop ignoring it. It’s time to stop being silent. It’s time to stop living as if part of you still belong to the other team—the other side. You can’t be with Jesus if you’re still making yourself available to the work of the devil—the work of greed, of violence, of racism. You belong to Jesus. It’s time for you to show up. It’s time for you to take your place beside him. It’s time for you to play for the team that has chosen you—the team where you belong.

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