1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
So, here we are in another weekend of snow. I don’t know about you, but I need springtime, and I need it badly. And thankfully, Major League Baseball is here to help us out.
Spring training began this week, finally. Pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday, and full-squad workouts for the Royals start tomorrow. Then, spring-training games begin this Saturday; and even though those games won’t count at all, I’ll be happy for every victory. It’s great to see them win, even in Arizona.
But the point of spring training, actually, isn’t to win. The point is to get ready to win. And to do that, sometimes you have to make it through some rough innings in the moment, as you get your team ready for 162 games that do count, leading (you hope) to baseball heaven, the postseason.
For each of us, in our own lives – what part of the season are we playing? I think many of us live as though we were always in the late innings of the seventh game of the World Series, as if every move might make the difference between championship or failure. I know I do that. I get frustrated when I can’t get just that much more done in a given week, or when I miss something I should have gotten right, or when my effort just isn’t where I’d hope it would be. It seems like I’m always in the late innings; and if I let up, the other team will win.
Now, because of the pastoral nature of baseball, I like to think that Jesus is a fan. Much as I enjoy watching the Chiefs (especially this season), I do have to say there may be a little more divinity in “coming in safe at home” rather than blitzes and sacks and long bombs. So, if Jesus is a baseball fan, he’d probably point out that, when I live this life as if the Series were on the line, I’m missing the elegant beauty of what comes first: spring training. Because I think Jesus might argue that spring training is exactly where we are in this life – all of us.
Like spring training, the point of our earthly life, oddly enough, isn’t winning today’s or tomorrow’s game. The point is preparation. The point is practicing the fundamentals. You and I are just getting started as we play through a season longer than we can imagine. Life in the here and now, Jesus might say, is just a warm-up for what’s coming.
Listen again to the point the apostle Paul is making in that First Letter to the Corinthians. It’s not exactly Paul’s best prose; I think he needed some editing of the redundancies in that paragraph. But still, his repetition ensures we don’t miss the point: The resurrection of the dead is the good news on which Christian faith rests. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then we certainly won’t be, and all this “heaven” stuff is just a pipe dream after all. But – Jesus was raised from the dead, “the first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of God’s offering of eternal life to all who follow Jesus’ way of love.
So – if eternal life is real, that means, in the here and now, that we’re just getting started on a life of love that has no end. We’re just beginning to learn how to play this elegantly beautiful game. Just as the pitchers and catchers are loosening stiff joints and remembering their signs, just as the full squad tomorrow will start scooping up grounders and putting bats to balls, so each of us is at the very beginning of a very long haul.
But still, like I said, we have trouble remembering where we stand in this long season of eternal life. Many of us wake up and charge into each day imagining the championship is on the line. Others of us maybe find the long season something of a bore, and we want to fast-forward to the joy and excitement of the postseason without putting in all the work it takes to get there.
And that brings us to today’s Gospel reading. Now, this may seem like a stretch, but hang with me for a minute. This is a pretty familiar reading, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. And honestly, it’s a little hard for me to hear. Now, Matthew’s version is a little less intense. In Matthew, Jesus says, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the pure in heart. OK, maybe I can get Matthew’s version: Pious people are blessed, and the rest of us have some work to do. End of sermon.
But Luke is a little more “in your face” in the contrast Jesus draws about the life of worldly success versus the life of God’s reign and rule of love. “Blessed are you who are poor…. Blessed are you who are hungry now…. Blessed are you who weep now…. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you…. Rejoice and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” (Luke 6:20-23)
Just that’s hard enough to wrap our hearts and minds around, but then comes the gut punch: “Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says, “for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26)
It’s tempting to twist ourselves up in some real Scriptural gymnastics to explain that one away. I mean, let’s be real: Aspiring to be rich, to be well-fed, to enjoy life, to be well-regarded by our peers … that kind of sounds like the American dream, right? Who wants to be poor, and hungry, and weeping, and reviled?
Well, as we pursue the good life, I think Jesus is asking us to look hard at what the good life is. It’s not about working like demons for our own affluence and satisfaction and status in this microscopic chapter of eternal life. Instead, look at the reading again, and see what Jesus offers to those who’ve chosen to follow him, those whom he calls “blessed” or “happy” in their poverty and hunger and weeping and exclusion. Look back at what happened in today’s reading just before Jesus speaks those hard words. “A great crowd of his disciples” and “a great multitude of people” who’d learned about Jesus “came to hear him and be healed of their diseases…. And … power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Luke 6:17-19) They may be poor, and hungry, and weeping, and excluded … but they’re also healed, on every level you can imagine.
It is interesting that the word “salvation” looks an awful lot like the word “salve,” as in an ointment we apply to heal a wound. Christ’s healing is what saves us for the long season of eternal life. And to find that healing, to find that salvation, I think Jesus is calling us to focus on the proper work of spring training: the fundamentals.
As that great baseball movie Bull Durham puts it, this game is pretty simple. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. All the excitement – the double plays, the home runs, the plays at the plate – all the beauty and all the championships come from getting the fundamentals right.
I believe the same is true about eternal life. It’s practicing the fundamentals that make us part of the kingdom of God. The game is pretty simple, too. You love God. You love neighbor. You love one another. You choose the path of sacrifice when the world says to take what you can get. You limit the time you spend on what you could have and help someone else get more. You give money even though you can’t be guaranteed of the outcome. You make time for a conversation when you don’t have time to spare. You speak for justice and dignity when you see people suffering. You ask the name of the person who’s cleaning the halls of the church for you, and you listen to her critique of the times when you’ve passed others by without even so much as an introduction, as she looks you in the eye and says, “It’s good to be seen and not observed.”
Practicing these fundamentals will not leave us as rich, or as full, or as merry, or as renowned as we might have been. But they condition us for the long season ahead. Because our life here is just spring training. This is less the time to be swinging for the fences, Jesus says, and more the time to focus on getting the fundamentals right.