Friday, December 24, 2010

Baseball Theology: At Play on a Field of Dreams

11 April 2010
The First Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School

Today’s Gospel is one of the most famous resurrection appearances, the story of doubting Thomas which is found only in John’s Gospel.  It is a story about the difference between secondhand experience and the firsthand threshold of the Easter miracle.  Though Jesus has appeared to some of his disciples, he has not appeared to Thomas.  Until Thomas meets the Risen Lord personally, he refuses to believe in the resurrection.  There is a little of Thomas in all of us, and that’s alright, the doubt can draw us in deeper.  Until the Easter story meets you personally, until it calls you by name, it remains someone else’s story.
            In the words of Thomas: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
            Thomas gets to do all of these things, and his confession of faith in meeting the Risen Jesus is the strongest affirmation of any disciple: “My Lord and my God!”
            As much as I am, each year, surprised by the daily struggle of winter at Kent, both mental and physical, I am just as unprepared for the beauty of spring that is now here on the Housatonic.  It’s hard to believe we’re in the same place.  It’s hard to believe we’re the same people.  I don’t think we are.  Beauty is unfolding everywhere, and we can feel the difference in our bodies.  Like Thomas, we have to see it to believe that everything is really changing.  We’re all just starting to see it.  The animals too know that something is happening; that things which had grown old are being made new.  With a hovering languor, both mysterious and obvious, love is in the air.  New life is indeed upon us.

Baseball season is also here in April; hope is reborn.  With spring comes baseball; they are inexorable partners in glory.  So, not only are we going to the ballpark, on this second Sunday of Easter, we’re also going to the movies.  One of my favorite movies, which I happened to find on TV this past Friday night, when I was searching, desperately, for sermon material, is Field of Dreams.  No matter what I’m doing, or how busy I am, I always stop and watch it to the end.  The other two movies that do this to me are Wedding Crashers and Top Gun.  I like everything about Top Gun, even the inexplicable volleyball scene, and I have all of the cheesy dialogue memorized.  You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”  I have a need for speed.”  But back to Field of Dreams.  It is not just a great baseball movie, it’s a great movie about life, one that is absolutely rich in theological content.  It is a movie with a profound Easter message, especially for the doubting Thomases out there. 
The movie begins with a command from God, or nature, or both.  It comes to Ray Kinsella, a UC Berkeley graduate who is making his living as an unlikely farmer in Iowa.
            “If you build it, he will come.”
            The life of faith can sometimes make you do strange things. 
Obeying the command of the voice, Ray Kinsella plows under a large swath of his corn field: to build a baseball field.  He has determined that Shoeless Joe Jackson, a dead baseball player banned from the major leagues during his lifetime for his alleged role in throwing the 1919 World Series, will come to the field of dreams.  If you build the field, Joe Jackson will come to Iowa.  Everyone, except for his wife and daughter, thinks Ray has lost his mind.     
            Shoeless Joe Jackson was Ray Kinsella’s father’s favorite player.  The last thing that Ray said to his father before leaving for Berkeley: that he could never respect a man whose hero was a crook.  John Kinsella died before the son could take it back.  The father and son never reconciled.  In this lifetime. 

            Growing up, I was always painfully aware of the age of my father.  He was 46 when I was born, and he was much older than all of my friends’ fathers.  And he was even old for his age, an old soul.  I actually played catch more with my mother than my father; I’m still working this out in therapy.  But I’m ok.  So much of my father’s life was behind him when I finally got to know him.  He was a World War II veteran, even a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
            After the war, my father became a Roman Catholic monk, and even studied for the Catholic priesthood.  If he had been better at the holiness expected of him, I wouldn’t be here.  Fortunately for me, and my brothers, he wasn’t.  He became a history teacher after leaving his monastic order, teaching the history he had actually seen firsthand.  But he remained a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, and a genuine theological conservative.  Throughout my childhood, we debated, and argued, about religion and theology, especially the Protestant Reformation, not about my too loud music or about politics.  I always stood my ground theologically, and he certainly stood his.  He thought I was crazy, I think.  One theological argument ended with him shouting at me: “You just want people to think for themselves!”  My instinct was to disagree with him, in the heat of the argument, but he was right.  Yes, I am for critical thinking.  I want people to learn to think for themselves.        
I keep one picture of my father, and it is the face of the man I never knew: the young man, with his whole life ahead of him.  He is in his Navy uniform, receiving a medal from Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Chief of Naval Operations during World War II on whose staff my father served.   I look at the picture every day.  I am fascinated by the fact that I am older now than he was then, by quite a long shot actually; and I am now a father myself.  With daughters, not sons. 
            And so, back at the movies, dead ballplayers gather on a field of dreams, looking for lost innocence, and the blessing of life that is stronger than death, and stronger than the scandal in their lifetime.  Along with Shoeless Joe Jackson, the other banned Chicago Black Sox are reconciled, forgiven through the wordless language of the game that they loved, and lost.
            Is this heaven?  The players ask Ray Kinsella in turn.
            Is this heaven?
No, it’s Iowa.

            A second command comes to Ray Kinsella:
            “Ease his pain.”
            My father was never prouder of me than when I accepted an appointment to West Point.  It was like we were talking about one thing, the Military Academy, but feeling something else that didn’t have words.  It was a powerful food between us, one that made sense of our confusing relationship.  And my father was never more disappointed than when I decided to leave, when I resigned as a cadet.  My father and I never got over the West Point fiasco.  For seniors struggling with college admissions, here’s a new twist in the college journey, one you maybe haven’t heard: the worst thing that happened to me was getting into my first choice college.  Except for my tendency to question everything (critical thinking tripping me up again!), my iconoclastic resentment of regimentation and conformity, and my inability to follow orders, not to mention being unable to take screaming upperclassmen very seriously—except for these little problems, I loved it at West Point.  Go Army!  Beat Navy!  I actually root for Navy too.  Very confusing.     
            My father died in my second year of seminary.  He never saw me ordained to the priesthood, nor did he meet my wife or his grandchildren; he never saw me put the pieces of my life together, into a whole that was truly mine.  And he died before we could find the right words of reconciliation, love, and forgiveness.  The reconciliation you can’t imagine, God can.  In the Gospel reading, Thomas is made whole; he goes the distance with Jesus.  His pain is eased by the firsthand knowledge of the Risen Lord. 
All of the gathered disciples receive the gift of God’s forgiveness in the gospel today.  And they are planning to bring it to everyone in the world, one person at a time.
            The last command in Field of Dreams:
            “Go the distance.”
            After one of the magical baseball games in Iowa, games that not everyone can see, Ray Kinsella recognizes the catcher as he takes off his gear behind the plate.  It’s his father; who had been a minor league catcher in the lifetime before Ray was born.  He is the young man Ray never knew; with hope in his eye, and his whole life ahead of him, before he was beaten down by work and life’s disappointments.  At the end of the movie, which never fails to make me cry (I just blame it on allergies in spring), Ray and his father John play catch on a field of dreams.  They are both boys and both grown men in a way, at the same time; what is dead has become fully alive.  Easter.  The beautiful depths of love are brought to the surface in the sweetness of a spring evening, the bright colors unfolding all around, the beckoning of earth as our faithful bride who returns again. 
John meets Ray’s wife Annie, and he meets his granddaughter Karin. 
Everyone goes the distance in the Easter message of forgiveness.
            The father and son are perfectly at peace in their closing game of catch.  Back and forth, their playing at love is a miracle communion on a baseball field among the waving corn.  And even then, as the sun goes down, the lights of the baseball field are turned on for the magic catch, by Annie the understanding wife.  Sometimes the simplest objects and activities can be the most poetic; they catch us up in the sweet sway of timeless beauty.  From the smell of the glove to the smell of the grass…everything is perfect. 
The sun is setting in Iowa, and God is walking in the garden, looking for his beloved child, looking for each of us in the Easter miracle.  The doubting disciple meets his Risen Lord for the first time.  And all of the characters, from the Iowa ballplayers to Thomas the now inspired apostle, to all of us who have been given the gift of new life, have but a simple question.
            Is this heaven? 
No, it’s just spring at Kent School.

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