Sunday, September 25, 2011

“Jesus, Moneyball, and the Controversy of the New”

25 September 2011
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School

It’s hard to believe that we have only been here for just two weeks of classes.  I’m ready for the fall break; and we don’t have a fall break.  So much has changed since those precious, dwindling days at the end of August, and the beginning of September.  The reality of school is now the norm, from new classes and teachers, roommates, new clothes, new schedules, or simply figuring out the Kent schedule for the first time.  But in this, the last weekend of September, the year isn’t even new anymore; that’s the wrong word for it.  We’re really into this different reality, when what’s new becomes normal, like coming to chapel on Sunday morning.  Is it normal yet?       
It takes a leap of faith to begin the school year.  Because, even in a short amount of time, everything is changing.  We are going to change this year.  You already have.  This year is not last year; this week will be different from last week.  There is a radical sense of transformation that is at the heart of the educational experience, especially at a boarding school, in a place like this.  The constant arrival and input of new knowledge and information, new skills and ideas, and meeting people from all over the world can radically reshape the person you thought you were.  It should make you question who you are; and questioning who you are is a good thing.  Matthew’s gospel this morning presents a controversy of “the new” as the religious leaders and experts of the day question Jesus; they want to know just where Jesus gets his authority, where he gets his power and wisdom.  His ministry and teaching spring from a new source, and this strange teacher makes the distinction about things that come from human origin and things that come from God.  Jesus is doing a new thing, and his audience wants clarification about what they are really seeing, and where his authority comes from.  Or perhaps they are missing the new way of being entirely.  They are not really seeing what is happening in front of them; they have no way to understand or receive the new.      
With this gospel in mind, it seems right to question what we’re seeing right now, in front of us, right before our eyes.  At the start of the year, it is natural to ask yourself important questions.  What kind of person are you?  What kind of person do the people around you think you are?  Is there a difference between the two?  What labels do you wear?  What labels do others put on you?  What makes this year so fascinating is that you might answer these questions differently nine months from now.  You might answer them a little differently tomorrow.     
 Though many people view religion as a static and traditional force in the world, sometimes even a repressive one, for Jesus religion was just the opposite.  The experience of God and the gospel produced human transformation, a deep change of heart.  To encounter the living God was to be challenged, inspired, forgiven, and fundamentally changed as a person.  The word that is often used for this change is “conversion.”  Jesus shows his followers a different way of seeing themselves.  There is a new way of being in the world.     
How can you show who you really are to the people around you?  How can you show the world your very best as a human being?  Don’t let the easy labels define you—or the person next to you.  Try to see yourself and others as God might see you.  This is a really big step theologically: to try and imagine how God sees you and all of us as individuals.  What would happen if our identity really came from God and not the world? 

On Friday, I saw a movie on its opening night, which doesn’t happen to me very often.  I can’t even remember the last time I did that.  I might have been a teenager.  At any rate, my wife and I saw Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, as the general manager and assistant general manager of a professional baseball team that embraces a completely new philosophy.  Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis about the 2002 Oakland A’s, and the movie and the book are about their radical philosophy.  Despite being a small market team, with dramatically smaller revenue than teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Oakland A’s were consistently in the baseball playoffs when the book was written.  Michael Lewis also wrote about football in his book The Blind Side, which was also made into a successful movie, which many of you have seen. 
In Moneyball, Lewis explores the out of the box thinking of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s.  Brad Pitt portrays Beane as neurotic, tormented, and inspired, all at the same time.  So how did the A’s compete with a payroll that was generally one-third the size of large market teams?  Beane and his Ivy League assistant have a completely different approach, one that turns baseball orthodoxy upside down.  Their philosophy is a kind of baseball meets AP Statistics and Computer Science.  The first assumption of this unorthodox philosophy is that we really don’t know what we’re watching when we watch a baseball game.  One game is an insignificant statistical sample.  Our instincts and observations are actually wrong.  Beane puts into action a statistical model that highlights different statistics than the usual ones; Beane emphasizes on base percentage, slugging percentage, and especially walks; then he goes out to find the players who produce best in the new statistical vision.  Kevin Youkilis for the Red Sox fit the Moneyball philosophy perfectly.  At that time, Youkilis is playing for the Pawtucket minor league team, and the Red Sox become suspicious when the A’s are interested in their player.  So the A’s have to look for the hidden treasures, the players that other teams have overlooked or thrown away.  They can’t afford to go after the superstars and free agents; the sabermetrics, the new statistics, then point to the castoffs, misfits, or the people who have never been given a chance before.  The A’s front office compares themselves to card counters at a casino.  As they implement their new philosophy, the baseball establishment laughs at them.  But people are also very threatened by the new approach; they want it to fail.  It is amazing to watch the uproar when fearless non-conformists refuse to follow the pack.  It makes you question why we believe the pack, any pack, is heading the right direction in the first place. 
The new baseball philosophy also seems to be subtly changing the life philosophy of Billy Beane.  He realizes money is not the most important thing in his life.  As he looks for the unappreciated qualities in ballplayers, he embraces an unappreciated character in himself.  Moreover, he finds a deeper sense of his life values in the undervalued.  His daring and audacity become strangely mixed with humor and compassion, both for himself and others.  He is fighting a battle, successfully, where money, for the first time, doesn’t rule the world.  He wins on the cheap.  Beane is fighting the good fight.  At the end of the 2002 season, the Boston Red Sox want to steal him away from the Oakland A’s.  He is the hottest general manager in baseball.  The Red Sox offer him the richest contract for a General Manager in the history of all sports.  But he turns down the offer of $12,500,000 to stay with the little Oakland A’s, and to be near his daughter in California. 
The game, the life, that everyone else is watching may not be the true reality.  We need to go deeper.  When he was your age, Billy Beane was drafted in the first round by the New York Mets.  He was offered a large contract and signing bonus as a high school senior.  But he also had a full scholarship to Stanford University.  Everyone told him to go for the money; that’s the way the world works.  He has regretted the decision not to go to Stanford for all of his adult life.  Billy Beane made a promise to himself never to make a decision based on money ever again.  `   
In the new Moneyball philosophy this morning, what is the undervalued part of your character that needs to come out?  What is overvalued in how the world sees you? 
What is important to you about your own identity is not necessarily what is important to God.  God doesn’t care about the prep school or college sticker on your car (though he does root for Kent, and not Taft or Hotchkiss).  God doesn’t care about how much money you have.  The gods of wealth, success, and beauty that we chase every day will not only disappoint us when we attain them.  They also shape how we see, or fail to see, each other right now as true individuals, as children of God.  They shape how we judge the content of another person’s character: especially the one who is different from you in the area of race, class, religion, age, gender, or any other category or label that separates us.  And what you overcome is more important than what you achieve.    
I have asked you many questions this morning, maybe too many questions, to begin the new year.  You get to spend the rest of the year, and the rest of your life, finding your answers, seeing how you want to play this game called Moneyball.  You can play it by your own philosophy, not someone else’s.  To begin a new school year takes a leap of faith, into the great unknown.  Our human instinct will always tell us to land on the safe ground--the familiar landing of our own comfortable identity and habits, the quick labels of who we were in the past.  Don’t just be willing to land where you have been before.

Your leap of faith this fall may just begin the year when you finally learn to fly.
Have a wonderful year.     


  1. Very interesting articles and stellar writing. You always were/are brilliant.

  2. FYI---the post is from Barich: I teach a course on the philosophy of Existentialism ergo my blog name.

  3. Where you teaching, John? Are you and your family still living in Atlanta?