Baseball, Thomas, and Not Getting It, yet.
Easter 2 RCL-A, April 16, 2023
I once was a college baseball stadium sound volunteer. There were no other volunteers, the sound director made it up for this baseball-loving pastor. I got to park my car right by the staff entrance, go to all the games for free, bring in whatever food I , and sit in the climate-controlled production booth. Baseball princess life!! I did actually do some volunteer stuff, I learned how to run the soundboard - the silly sound effects you hear when a foul goes out of sight - smash, bloop; and the walk-up songs. But I only took care of that in emergencies. Mostly I did things like passing the mic through the netting to the national anthem singers, and I showed a lot of baseball scouts to their seats.
There is only one I really remember. I don’t recall his name, but I let’s call him Juan because our lesson is from the gospel of John. Juan was from the Caribbean, He had played in the show - the major leagues - for a few years before becoming a scout. Learning that I was actually a youth pastor, and I just did this for fun he asked - so you must really love baseball. He asked this with a tone of more incredulity than enthusiasm. I said - oh only since i was 3! He looked around at the rapidly filling large college baseball stadium, gazed at the beautiful green grass and players warming up, and after a while he said, you know, I have never understood why people love to watch this game. I enjoyed playing, I played well, so well it brought me here, and it takes good care of my family. But, I wouldn’t watch a game for fun. He was right in the center, and knew the game better than I ever will, Juan was surrounded by people who feel that a fine spring day at the game Is a taste of heaven And he just didn’t.
Thomas was in a similar spot. Surrounded by people who were filled with enthusiasm for something he didn’t experience or really get. I love Thomas for asking questions, for not going with the flow, and pretending he felt what he did not. I think doubts and questions and honesty are good things. When I was making my way into Christian practice for real I had met enough ‘no grey area’ people and heard enough bullhorns, that I was careful and cautious because this brain and heart are curious, and I like complications more than just the facts. I am grateful for the sermons that greeted me by proclaiming that there is no belief without doubt. That certainty in something as dynamic and mysterious and complex as faith, well, maybe that kind of certainty is closer to stubbornness than love or trust.
Thomas is an exemplar because he asked questions and he stuck in a situation that must have been awkward and lonely. He showed, and his friends showed, enormous mercy towards each other. Imagine the conflict and frustration that such a difference would have caused, especially for a group whose leader had just been executed and then was alive again! They did not walk away from each other, or shout and scream in a way that fractured the team. There must have been much apologizing and much acceptance of apologies. It is an example of reconciliation on the micro-scale, it is a witness to the mission of both each person who follows Jesus and the church that patterns their life together in his way of love.
I have known plenty of people who love religious practices but are not so sure about God. I have known plenty of people who love Jesus but are not so sure about liturgy or the church. I am amazed by persons who spend a lifetime in the journey and are open about their doubts, and I wonder about those who keep them close to the vest. For reasons we know and plenty we don’t, we come to the stadium, tune into the game, meet Jesus here. We have learned over nearly 2 millenia that we are at our best when we keep up the practice when it is a joy and when it is a bit dry, as well as forgiving ourselves and others when we need a time out. Some people fall in love all at once, sometimes at first glance, some over and over again, and others find the magic years after they were handed a bat and a ball.
I have ‘worked’ for the church for all but a few years of my adult life. I love religion and religiousness and the Bible and spirituality and history, and of course I love Jesus. But Juan was probably more similar to large part of the population. People who do their job well, maybe even major league well, but they neither love their industry nor hate it. Some of my astonishment with Juan’s words is that I certainly have religious-ish feelings and behaviors around baseball in particular. I know there are plenty of businesses where no one, not even the CEO, is particularly enthusiastic about their focus. But both sports and religious success Is rooted in feelings of community, commitment, and effervescence. Most people I met in baseball love baseball or sports in general. It makes me wonder if Juan was lonely in his baseball neutrality? What did he get besides financial security that kept him in the game? I wonder if you have been a Thomas, or a Juan? What keeps you seeking, praying, serving between unknowing and revelation? Will you do me a favor: can we strike out calling Thomas doubting like it is a naughty thing? From now on let's bring some compassion to this holy friend, let us call him ‘didn’t rush to certainty’ Thomas because it is a vital and life-giving way. He needed the video replay, And the crowd was forgiving and generous in the waiting for the final call.