This sermon was delivered at Custer Road today as part of the "At the Movies" series. Many thanks to Paige Christian for preaching at Lectio and to Rev Sharon O'Connor for serving as liturgist and communion celebrant. I'll be back in the Chapel next Sunday at 9:00.
Field of Dreams came out about a month before I graduated from high school, in 1989. It’s not the greatest baseball movie; in fact it’s not even my favorite baseball movie starring Kevin Costner (hello, Bull Durham). But it’s a movie close to my heart because it evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for the game. If you haven’t seen the movie, or you’ve forgotten it, here’s a quick summary. Ray Kinsella is a corn farmer in Iowa. One night he hears a mysterious voice in his cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Who will come? If you build what? No response. After some discernment Ray figures out the puzzle: If he builds it—a baseball diamond in his cornfield—he—Shoeless Joe Jackson—will come.
He has a love/hate relationship with baseball—mostly on the negative side. His father was a baseball player, a catcher in the minors, and he died at a very young age, so Ray sort of blames baseball for the lousy state of his relationship with Dad. Shoeless Joe Jackson was Ray’s father’s favorite player. Jackson was a member of the 1919 White Sox, infamous for taking money from gamblers and throwing the World Series. Ray thinks it typical his dad’s favorite player was banned for life for cheating.
Still, he builds the ballfield, and sure enough, Shoeless Joe Jackson appears, along with many other players. Then the voice comes to Ray again: “Ease his pain.” Ease whose pain? No answer. Ray figures it refers, not to Shoeless Joe, but a famous writer from the 1960s, Terrance Mann. Ray goes to visit him in Boston, takes him to a Red Sox game, where both men hear the voice again: “Go the distance.” To where? Minnesota. OK. There they pick up young ballplayer and return to Iowa. This clip takes place toward the end of the movie. You hear Terrance Mann give a glorious speech about baseball, interrupted occasionally by Ray’s brother-in-law, trying to convince Ray to take bailout funds from investors, or face foreclosure.
As a baseball fan I get goosebumps everytime I hear that speech. I love baseball, but the truth is the game is facing some major difficulties. Now, at the Major League level baseball is doing very well. Every team is making money, attendance has increased every year for many years, and the revenue stream is very healthy. When the average player earns more than $3 million/year, you know the superstars and owners are doing well too. Baseball’s challenges are not in the executive offices; the problems are found on fields across America and in baseball’s viewership numbers. Listen to a couple of stats: in 1978 the World Series had 44 million TV viewers. Last year’s Series numbered just over 12 million. According to ESPN, the average age of its baseball audience is 55, up from 46 in 2004 (compare those numbers to the NBA: according to ESPN their NBA audience’s average age, in both 2004 and 2014, was 37). It’s not just the age of TV viewers that is a concern—Little League participation is dropping rapidly. In the 1990s three million kids played baseball. In 2013 the number was 2.2 million. The average length of an MLB game in 1981 was 2 ½ hours; today it is 3+.
The clip from Field of Dreams is fairly typical of how most folk speak about baseball—dripping with nostalgia. When faced with challenges throughout the years, baseball has looked to the past for inspiration, rarely the future or the present. Baseball has always been more interested in promoting its dead or long-retired legends of the game, rather than its current stars. Just think of many of its newer ballparks—they are designed to evoke the ballparks of the 30s and 40s.
I was not always a baseball fan. I used to hate watching baseball on TV—it was so slow and boring, unlike football and basketball. My interest in the game consisted of going to a game every now and then in Houston at the Astrodome. But everything began to change for me in 1986. My Astros fought, and ultimately lost to, the New York Mets in the League Championship Series. Then the Mets played the Red Sox in the World Series, and the Sox pitchers were led by Roger Clemens, who previously pitched at The University of Texas, where I would attend following graduation. The Sox lost the series, but I was hooked on the game. Another step forward for me was learning to keep a score, a sort of short-hand way to reconstruct the game as it unfolds. It’s an interactive way for viewers to become participants. In other words, the more I engaged with the game—keeping score, learning the players’ stats and tendencies—the more the game became real for me.
When I hear James Earl Jones’ speech (by the way, in researching Field of Dreams I learned JEJ actually hates baseball in real life—a little part of me dies inside now when I hear the speech) I cannot help but draw a parallel with the situation the Church finds itself in today. Like baseball our “fanbase” is aging. Like baseball, the Church tends to look back at its glory days, maybe the 50s or 60s, to address current realities. Recently the Church has tried several different ways to redefine itself to meet the needs of a new generation: this especially happened during the 1990s, commonly referred to as the “Church Growth Movement.” Many churches relocated out of their vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows for storefront or auditorium like spaces. Some changed the worship style, music, wardrobe for leaders and congregation. Those changes can serve a purpose, but my biggest concern during the church growth movement, and even in many churches today, was that we watered down the gospel .Jesus said being his follower would be very difficult but would fill us with joy; many churches stopped asking their congregants to do anything and focused on self-help topics.
I grew up in the church, but not much further than the most basic level, attending worship. I rarely attended Sunday school or youth group. The difference in church for me came when I decided to participate more fully in the life of the church. I attended youth mission trips, summer camp as a counselor, joined Bible studies, etc. My level of engagement changed, and so did my life. Recently I read an article from Harvard Business Review about a church in San Francisco that re-thought how it measures how well the church is achieving its vision. Most churches, including Custer Road, use metrics of worship attendance or membership to analyze how well they are doing. Attendance is the baseline number—the most basic level of activity in the church. What this church in California learned is that those metrics can be very difficult to define. They decided to track engagement—after all the church’s mission is to lead individuals to change their lives so they will change the lives of others. Engagement is about changed lives.
So Jesus sent the disciples out in ministry at the beginning of Chapter 6 of Mark. He gave them authority to do the same things he had been doing: heal the sick, exorcise demons, teach. The disciples had the five previous chapters to listen to Jesus, take good notes, prepare themselves for ministry. Nobody expected it this early—Chapter 6! But here’s the thing: they went out and did it. The difference in their lives and lives of so many others is illustrated by Mark’s use of the term “apostles,” rather than “disciples” to refer to the Twelve (it won’t last). But for now they do amazing things. Their level of engagement changed:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56).
This morning you’ve heard from our leaders of our youth mission trips to New Orleans and Crossville, TN this past week, as well as from college students from Project Transformation spending their summers helping underserved youth better their reading skills. I know from experience: the best thing about returning from mission is the sharing of stories. And the disciples want this—they need it. Mark notes their hunger and tiredness. But their first impulse is to share how their lives were changed when they participated in the changing of another’s life. Engagement. I am sure just about every youth has a story or experience they want to share about this week. And we want to hear those stories! But let’s not forget that the ministry must continue. Let me offer a challenge to those returning from a mission opportunity: as full of as you are, do not fall back to your minimum baseline of worship attendance. Get your rest, share your stories, then get yourself right back out there to serve someone else.
One of Jesus’ most familiar, and least understood, teachings is “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7, John 12:8). Many individuals and churches interpret this saying to justify offering minimum-level help to others. Since we will always have the poor with us, it is Ok to participate with charity, rather than face down institutional poverty. Jesus never gave us opportunities to do enough to squeak by. Remember, discipleship is supposed to be hard, yet filled with joy from those who engage at a deeper level. “You will always have the poor” means the Church will never run out of opportunities to bless others with the love and compassion of Jesus.
In the Mark story, Jesus wants to take the disciples to a quiet, distant place so they can rest, get something to eat, and share stories. But the crowds figure out when they are going and beat them to the Retreat Center. The crowds’ needs are too great—you will always have the poor with you. Jesus looks upon the people with compassion: not guilt or shame. They are like sheep without a shepherd. Doomed and lost. He does not chastise the crowd for interfering the disciples’ rest. He loves them. And Mark tells us more people, bigger crowds, found Jesus by the seashore and he healed them. There is ample opportunity to spread God’s heart and love to a hurting community.
So we could just ask the mission trip and Project Transformation folk to step it up a notch for us, couldn’t we? But we know that will not work. They are tired and hungry, and like those returning disciples they too are anxious to sleep in their own beds. The rest of us must examine out own engagement level. Here’s an easy diagnostic:
- Are you being changed for the sake of the gospel?
- Are others’ lives being changed because of you?
When more people who say yes to those questions we’ll have a better idea of how successfully we are accomplishing our God-given mission. Here at Custer Road we have great missions opportunities: from serving lunch to hungry kids during the workweek at our Summer Lunch program to mentoring students at area public schools. Further engagement with the gospel will lead to transformation--for yourself and for the community.
At the end of the movie Ray is talking with Shoeless Joe and says, “You know, I’ve done all this stuff. What’s in it for me?” “Is that why you did it?” Joe asks. After an uncomfortable silence Joe says, “If you build it, he will come,” motioning to a catcher taking off his gear. It’s Ray’s dad. Ray goes over and asks, “Dad you want to have a catch?” And every father and son who has ever seen that moment bursts in tears:
(have the Kleenex ready.)
It kills me every time. But that’s the thing. What if people did come to our church—would they find that kind of love and compassion here? Every church that built a giant building in the 90s adapted the famous lines from Field of Dreams: “If we build it people will come.” But sometimes people came and they did not find the love and compassion of Jesus. They left empty, even as the buildings were full of people. When we speak of Church we do not mean buildings—we’re talking about people, the body of Christ. And when people hear that the love and compassion of Jesus Christ is available they will come. People will come!
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.