The Bottom of the Ninth


I will be at Mountainville United Methodist Church (Mountainville, NY) on Sunday, June 14th; the service starts at 10 and everyone is welcome.  I will also be there on June 28th.  The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, are 1 Samuel 15: 34 – 16: 13, 2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 10 (11 – 13), 14 – 17, and Mark 4: 26 – 34.

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There is probably no more dramatic scene in sports today than the manager of a baseball team striding to the pitcher’s mound in the bottom of ninth inning with the outcome of the game to be decided. I suppose that one might have the same feeling in a basketball game with the score tied and the outcome decided by the shooter standing at the free-throw line or during a football game with the kicker coming out to kick the winning field goal.

But those events don’t have the question of choice that seems to come in a baseball game. The manager must make a decision about who he will call and the other manager must also make a decision as to whether or not there must be a change in who will bat.

And I think that element of choice comes in handy when one is a lay speaker and the call is made at the last minute for someone to cover the pulpit at a church in a local district (which is why I am here today – I got the call about one hour before I was to leave for Annual Conference). The analogy also holds for the church in general as the church, in general, and the denomination as well are faced with questions of what will happen next.

The recent survey by the Barna Group brings into question the nature of the church in the coming years. While people who responded to this survey indicated that faith played an extremely important part of their life, the church did not. It isn’t how people worship but the message that the present church sends to the people in its particular area. And the message that many people today are receiving is not a good one; it speaks of hypocrisy and exclusion. The only biblical message that the modern church gives to the people today is that the church today is almost like the church that Jesus saw, monolithic, rigid in structure and fixed to the law rather than the spirit.

The question that we face today is very simple. Will the church remain as it is, monolithic, rigid, and more interested in adhering to the law rather than following the Spirit, or will it change to meet the needs of the people? I hope the answer to that question is the latter rather than the former but that will also require some major rethinking on the part of all involved.

There is also a question that is flirting around the cosmos about the nature of the world in which we live. There are those who are convinced, absolutely and without a doubt that we are in the End Times as described in the Book of Revelation. They are equally convinced that there must be a radical restructuring of the world and a return to “Christian” values if there is to be any hope for the world.

Now, it should be noted that in my notes I put the word “Christian” inside quotes because I am becoming more and more convinced that what people are pushing is not what the Gospel message is about nor is it what Jesus sought when he walked the roads and pathways of the Galilee.

The other day, there was letter to the editor in my local paper that took umbrage with something that President Obama said about this country and Christianity. The writer’s reply was that this was a Christian country, founded on Christian principles and that the founding fathers were devout Christians.

There is no doubt in my mind that our founding fathers and founding mothers believed in God but I also believed that it is more proper to say that most of them were deists. Their beliefs in the Creator of this universe came from rational thought and an outgrowth of the Enlightenment period. If truth were to be told, many of our Founding Fathers probably avoided church like the plague but belonged to the church because it was expected.

And while many fundamentalists will tell you of Thomas Jefferson being guided by God in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, they tend to avoid telling you about his Bible and the removal of anything that smacked of “magic or mysticism”. In Jefferson’s Bible, there is no mention of any of Jesus’ miracles because Jefferson didn’t believe in them. (From “Don’t Know Much About History”)

And every time that I hear that this is a Christian nation, I remember what it was like to grow up in the South, where segregation was the law and it was enforced because it was in the Bible that the races should be separated. How can we escape the label of hypocrisy when verses in the Bible are used to justify hatred, exclusion, and even war?

And as a chemist and a chemical educator, you can’t imagine the grief that I get for even thinking that I can walk in the fields of science and religion with ease and comfort. And amidst the fervor and tumult that comes with the debate on the inclusion of “intelligent design” in today’s science curriculum, I came across the following description of someone important to the nature of science today.

He saw no conflict between his Christian faith and his scientific activity. During his forty years as a canon, he faithfully served his church with extraordinary commitment and courage. At the same time, he studied the world “which has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.” He pursued his science with a sense of “loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.” He declared that although his views were “difficult, almost inconceivable, and quite contrary to the opinion of the multitude, nevertheless in what follows we will with God’s help make them clearer than day – at least for those who are not ignorant of the art of mathematics. (From The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)

The individual in this paragraph was Nikolai Copernicus. In reading the short biography that Charles Hummel put together in his book The Galileo Connection I also discovered that Johannes Kepler was also a devout Christian whose interests in science often ran counter to the beliefs of the community. Parenthetically, Kepler, whose work was central to Galileo’s work and the confirmation of the Copernican model of the universe, died without a church. He would not sign a statement affirming a creed in the Lutheran church and so the Lutheran church denied him communion and employment in Lutheran universities. And because he was a Lutheran, the Catholic Church denied him communion and employment. (from the Galileo Connection)

We live at a time when our faith is being questioned and we must decide how we shall respond to the challenge and question of faith in our time. It is not enough to say that we need to return to our Christian values because I am not totally sure that many people know what those values are. We are very much like Samuel in today’s Old Testament reading, looking at Jesse’s sons and seeking the one that will lead us out of oblivion and back into power and prominence.

I find a parallel between Samuel’s efforts to find a successor for Saul with our attempts to find an answer to the problems of the world. We look at the rich, the strong, the powerful but we never think of looking at the internal or interior qualities. Each time that Samuel saw something that he liked in one of Jesse’s sons, God showed him the internal fault that could cause problems later. And this caused confusion for Samuel because he knew that God had brought him to Jesse but could not see why he was brought there. And then God told him about the other son, the one that Jesse would call the “runt.” It was David who had the internal qualities that were necessary for leadership.

Now, I do not believe that we need to look for a leader like David, per se. First, that would keep us in the same loop that has brought us to this point today. Second, we know today that David, despite his anointing and blessing, will succumb to the temptations that often accompany one’s rise to power.

The problem is that we, ourselves, too often seek such a rise in power because we like the trappings that come with the power and, just like David did, feel that we can control the temptations. But just as the answer to Samuel’s search came in an unexpected manner, so too does the answer to our questions. It will not be found in raw power but in our own ability to use what we have been given, both in terms of faith and reason to find the answer.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians today speak of a confidence found through Christ. Our faith empowers us to go beyond what we might think we can do. Like the parable of the mustard see, great results can come from little results.

The challenge to our faith is not because we are no longer a Christian nation. The challenge arises because we do not know what our faith means. And because we do not know what our faith means, we do not know how to respond to the challenges, except in terms that we are familiar with – power and greed.

We seek to control our thoughts and our deeds, where we long for days past when everything was clear and well-defined. We seek a structure of sectarian and secular law. But those days were never as clear and as well-defined as we would have preferred. But what is missing is the message of love and hope that Christ first taught us.

It has lead to what one might call the bottom of the ninth and we are on the losing side of the baseball game. But it need not be the end of the game. Rather, when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, the game begins anew. When we let the Holy Spirit into our lives, we become empowered and able to make the changes in this world that will bring life to the sick and dying, hope for the downtrodden, and freedom to those who are oppressed.

The manager strides to the mound and calls upon the relief pitcher; his opposite number makes a decision about who should come to bat. And the game is decided on the decisions that are made at that time. You have the opportunity to make a decision that will change it from the end of the old game to the beginning of a new one; you have the opportunity to change the outcome, if you will but answer the call. What shall you do?

1 thought on “The Bottom of the Ninth

  1. Pingback: Friday at Annual Conference « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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