August 26, 2018
Jacob Wetterling loved sports. He was a goalie in hockey. He wanted to be a football player when he grew up. And his Dad coached him in soccer. His uniform number was no. 11 and that is the inspiration for Jacob's 11, the list of traits we are basing the current sermon series on. Jacob's 11 is a way to honor the memory of Jacob and his family's way of promoting a culture of compassion and kindness.
And so today's topic hits pretty close to home, for the inspiration of this memorial to Jacob, and to me, and those of you like me who are interested in sports. Like I did last week, I will divide the sermon into two parts; this idea of good sportsmanship but then look at today's Ephesians reading and compare the armor of God with the equipment we use in sports.
There has been a story around for years from Terre Haute, Indiana. Donald Jensen was umpiring a Little League game and was hit in the head by a carelessly thrown bat. He was brought to the hospital after the game for observation. He wrote down some
observations as he lay in his bed.
“The purpose of Little League is to teach baseball skills to young men. Obviously, a team which does not play well in a given game, yet is given the opportunity to blame that loss on an umpire for one call or two, is being given the chance to take all respon-sibility for the loss from their shoulders. A parent or adult leader who permits the younger player to blame his failures on an umpire, regardless of the quality of that umpire, is doing the worst kind of injustice to that youngster. Rather than learning responsibility, such an attitude is fostering an improper outlook toward the ideals of the game itself. This irresponsibility is bound to carry over to future years.”
Being a good sport means taking responsibility for yourselves and your teams performance. It means not blaming others. It means winning gracefully and losing gracefully. It means finding the joy in the contest, in matching talents in competition. Jacob's list including being a good sport covers athletic competition, but also covers life as well. How we react to others, how we handle losing or winning in the things of life, if we can find joy in our journey and share that joy; that is what being a good sport in life is about.
I just got home from my vacation with 6 sisters. We talked some about this sermon; about being good sports. We also demonstrated what it may—or may not look like. There was some gloating by winners—“I won again!”--not being good sports. There was some whining when a lose came. There was some helping when people got stuck in Sextuplet Solitaire. That was also an example of not being a good sport because the rule was no helping. We played lots of games and had lots of laughter. I survived my 55 hour exile. It began with my being reassigned a different bedroom 3 times. It continued into the land of endless discussions about where to eat, how to make monkey bread and birthing stories. There were so many stories I threatened to share today, but I will just say that we were all still friends when we headed home. Because, in the final analysis, we were all good sports even when things didn't go our way.
Now for a dramatic turn, to the scripture. Our reading from Ephesians deals with the armor of God. These Days devotional this week said this about this passage, “The militaristic trappings captured in this passage make me uncomfortable, given the history of our faith as one that has sometimes misused military power against those of other faiths.” I can't argue with that and in light of our sporting trait, I am going to suggest ways that the militaristic illustration can be replaced by baseball equipment. It can still be used to illustrate what we need in order to face the struggles of living in a fallen world.
There are 6 items listed by Paul in the armor of God. I will look at each in more detail, but I will transfer the simile from battle armor to baseball gear—something I am much more familiar with. I am using a different order than Paul, but here is the “baseball armor of God”.
First, the shoes of the gospel. Baseball players wear spikes in order to have the best traction possible, both for running the bases and for fielding. The shoes of the gospel; knowing God's word for us, allows us to follow Christ where he leads us. Here are some verses that give us a picture of following Jesus, “He who says he abides in [Jesus] ought also to walk just as [Jesus] walked” (1 John 2:6). Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, . . . and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Any of you who have been involved in sports, whether running, biking, team sports, tennis etc know how important it is to have good shoes. The shoes of the gospel, the power of God's good news allows us to follow where Christ leads.
Second, the helmet of Salvation. The purpose of the helmet in baseball, and in football for that matter, is pretty clear. It protects our head. The head is not created to be pounded on by opposing linemen or to take the impact of a 90 mph pitch. The helmet protects our brain. And we use our brain to understand the promise of salvation. When we understand that God has pledged salvation to those who believe, we are empowered to face the trials and tribulations of this life under God's protection. Not that we don't face troubles, but God walks through them with us. Paul wrote, “and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 3: 15
Third, the shield of faith. Catchers and umpires wear face masks to ward off wild pitches and foul balls. Fast-pitch softball players wear them in the field to protect their faces from a bad hop or line drive. We will be faced with troubles and trials in life that could bring us doubts and worries and fears; the foul balls and bad hops of life. The shield of faith allows us to ward off those blows. The shield of faith allows us to keep our eyes on Jesus when temptations come. We don't fight those temptations in our own strength, but in the strength Jesus gives us. 1 Corinthians 10: 12-13 “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Fourth, the sword of the spirit. I'm going to say the sword for our sports analogy is the bat. In baseball, the bat is the only offensive weapon either team has. If you aren't successful at the bat, you will not win. The bible, scripture, is the weapon we have in our battle with evil. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” Jesus used scriptures when the devil tempted him in the wilderness. Jesus attacked head on with the word of God...”it is written, it is written...” A home run is the fastest way to score runs in baseball; and there are no home runs without the swinging of the bat. It is important to know God's word well enough so that the Holy Spirit brings it to mind whenever temptation puts us on the defensive. Hebrews 4:12 (CEB) “God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.”
Five, the breastplate of righteousness. Back to umpires and catchers, they wear chest protectors, which, like the breastplate of the soldier, covers and protect the heart and other vital organs. John 16: 22 “Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.” Righteous-ness is only ours through Christ, and it is the faithfulness of Christ that allows us to live in joy. We should remember that it is not our righteousness that gives us the confidence of present and future joy, for our righteousness is a gift of grace from Jesus. It protects our souls from the slings and arrows of the evil one.
And finally, the Belt of truth. I saved the belt for last since it is what holds the armor of God in place. We have a hard time competing without the belt of truth...or the belt of your pants. I couldn't help but be reminded here of Tina's participation in the Special Olympics earlier this summer. She competed in two races, one an individual event, the other a relay. And I did clear sharing this story with Tina, but she wore pants that day without a belt and every few steps she had to slow down and pull up her pants. It did not work well to run the race without a belt. And we do well to run the race of life with the belt of truth, God's truth, holding the gifts of God together for us.
The belt of truth is the truth of God's word. Like the bat, we use God's word to live a positive life, living each day under the guidance we receive from the word of God. We learn of God's love, of salvation in Christ, of the life where there are no more tears and no more death, of grace, of God's presence with us. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8: 32). God word is truth.
The belt of truth is also about how we live committed to living a life that is honest and upright. As we have studied Jacob's 11 traits of living in hope and grace, we keep coming back to living a life of integrity. Truth is central to that life of integrity. Our Christian witness means that our word is our bond; our yes means yes and our no means no.
Being a good sport in athletics or games or life means learning how to accept failure, how to lose. For none of us can win all the time, we will have setbacks in life. And baseball works as a pretty good analogy here as well. Baseball is kind of unique in that the very best players fail more than they succeed. In all of the major leagues right now, there are two players with a batting average over .333. .333 means you are making an out 2 out of 3 times at bat. The highest lifetime batting average belongs to Ty Cobb and he made an out more than 6 times out of 10 at bats.
Sometimes when we consider how we are doing at living the Christian life, we can get discouraged. Doesn't it seem sometimes that we are failing more often than we succeed? But even the greatest Christians of all time felt that way. Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote, “ For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” Roman 7: 15 Martin Lloyd-Jones gives us advice about our failures, "To dwell on the past simply causes failure in the present. While you are sitting down and bemoaning the past and regretting all the things you have not done, you are crippling yourself and preventing yourself from working in the present. Is that Christianity? Of course it is not."
When we fail, as we will, Jesus is there for us. Perhaps we could say, Jesus pinch hits for us when we need him. See, Jesus bats 1.000. Jesus never fails, never makes an out, never is absent when we need him. He is there with the armor of God; he is there with grace and love. We can say with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
I conclude with a baseball poem. As I read it, put yourself in the place of the batter. You are at the plate in life. You are at a crossroads, or are facing temptation, or are lonely, in pain, suffering.
“Just a Little Boy”
He stands at the plate with his heart pounding fast.
The bases are loaded, the die has been cast.
Mom and Dad cannot help him, he stands all alone.
A hit at this moment would send the team home.
The ball nears the plate, he swings and he misses.
There’s a groan from the crowd, with some boos and some hisses.
The thoughtless voice cries, “Strike out the bum.”
Tears fill his eyes; the game’s no longer fun.
So open your heart and give him a break
For it’s moments like this a man you can make.
Keep this in mind when you hear someone forget:
He’s just a little boy, and not a man yet.
We are all on the journey of faith. We each are that little boy seeking perfection but not there yet. As good sports, we don't boo or hiss, we show love and patience. Ub this game of life, we are called by God to live by faith. And God equips us for the game. And God also calls us to support one another as good sports, we are all on this journey together. Give gift of grace has been lavished upon you. Give your life to Jesus as he has given his life for you. And put on the full armor of God that you may dwell in the shelter of God, safe and secure for eternity. Amen.
Hymn: On Eagle's Wings 110 P W