at St. John's Presbyterian Church on April 27, 2008
The Apostle Paul was willing to do whatever it took, within reason, to convert Athenians to Christ. Like Paul, I want to be flexible in my approach today, so I will draw on the metaphor of baseball in this sermon. In particular, I will draw upon Don McKim's article in The Presbyterian Outlook called "The Spiritual Lessons of Baseball." The Apostle Paul teaches "Conversion 101" to extremely religious Athenians. Some of these same truths may be learned by us on a baseball field.
Baseball is a game of decisions. From the owner to the manager to the team on the field, decisions are made every moment. Victories are often won by the accumulation of small advantages -- good decisions made again and again . As New York Yankee Yogi Berra put it, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it.' He reminds us of he need to decide. We cannot escape making decisions about how we will play the game or live our lives. Paul challenges the Athenians to make a decision for Christ. Christianity in a nutshell is making a decision for Christ. We decide to follow Christ each moment of every day. Decisions must be made.
Let's imagine the Apostle Paul was up to bat against the Athenians. He had to decide on a strategy for his at bat. Paul begins with the recognition that all people order their lives according to some ultimate loyalty. That was true then and it is true today. Following Paul's pattern, the initial moment in conversion is a person's recognition that they order their lives according to some ultimate loyalty.
The next step is an admission that God is knowable. The ultimate Biblical argument about God is that God is transcendent yet personal. God is up there and God is down here. God is as light years away from us and God is closer to us that the blood that runs through our veins.
Paul concludes with a call to repent built on the meaning of Christ's resurrection. This belief is what singles Christians out from people of other religions. Most in Athens are unable to do this, and secular intellectuals today face a similar challenge when they encounter the gospel. They follow some form of ism: Liberalism, Conservatism, Feminism, Consumerism, Scientism , or some other kind of ism. They get so caught up in whatever movement catches their fancy that they lose sight of God. And sometimes we in the church get so caught up in on some "ism" that we lose sight of our call to make disciples and meet human needs.
There are two channels broadcasting at all times. One channel broadcasts negative thoughts and one channel broadcasts positive thoughts. Whichever of these channels we are tuned into will have a big influence on our attitude toward life. One of the great college coaches of all time, Skip Bertman at LSU, tells a story about one game they were playing on an incredibly hot day. It was so humid that it was hard to take your hat off your head, it felt stuck there. The players were not doing well and were complaining about the heat and humidity. Finally, the coach had enough and called the team together and said, "I'm tired of you making excuses about the weather. The other team has to play in the same weather as we do and I don't hear them complaining about it. The next person I hear complain about the weather I'm going to fine you $1000. That's it!" At the end of the next inning, the pitcher, who had a bad inning, came sulking into the dugout and yelled, "This heat is crazy! It's so hot I can't even think!" Suddenly his eyes met the eyes of the coach and he realized what he had said and quickly added, "And that's just the way I like it!" Coach Bertman knew if he could get his players thinking positive thoughts then positive things would happen on the field. But if they kept thinking negative thoughts then negative things would keep happening on the field. The same principle holds for us in the field of our lives. When we think positive thoughts positive things happen to us and when we think negative thoughts negative things happen to us.
Concentrate on the basics. That is the message Paul conveyed to the Athenians. The best baseball teams and players over the long haul are those who concentrate on and master the basics of he game -- hitting, fielding, base running. This focus on the key ingredients of play can eventually pay off. In the early 1960s when Yogi Berra was manager of the New York Mets , after a particularly dismal game, Yogi closed the clubhouse to reporters and said to his team: "You guys played lousy today. You were terrible. We're going to go back to basics: This is a ball. This is a bat!" Then from the corner up piped Jesse Gonder , a reserve catcher, who called out: "Slow down, Yogi; you're going to fast." Sometimes in life we go too fast and forget the basics, the things that make life count and worth living. We skip over love, forget to care, or take for granted our friends, family, or the needs of others in society. Religious faith can help us focus on these basics.
A man of faith had recently recommitted himself to God. This man had struggled all his life to get ahead and finally it had paid off. He had a beautiful family, a soaring career, an expensive car, and a sprawling house in California where he lived. He had recently reconnected to his faith and was looking forward to slowing down and enjoying being at home one evening. He and his wife were going to watch his favorite show, the Grammy Awards. All his life the Grammy Awards had been his favorite show of the year. He dreamed about the day he would write the story for the film of the year. So he and his wife ordered out pizza and sat back to enjoy the Grammies on their big screen TV. Then his little boy stomped into the room and wondered if anyone would throw the baseball with him outside. The man had mercy on his son, and being in the religious frame of mind, thought he would give his son some attention even though it meant missing some of the Grammy Awards show. They went outside and threw the ball some. The man asked his son if they were finished now and his son said, "No, I want you to play with me until bedtime." The man looked at his son, recalled the Grammy Awards he was missing, and something clicked inside him and he said, "OK. Let's play." The man played baseball with his son that night like there was no tomorrow. He really got into it. Suddenly the boy started crying. Tears were streaming down his face. The man asked his son what was wrong and the son said he was crying because he was so happy that his daddy was playing with him. And then it struck the man, all these years, he had spent so many hours at work, had been so consumed by his career and getting ahead financially. He had always told himself that he was doing this for his family. But now he realized that all these years he had been working for himself. His family didn't care if they lived in a great big house or drove a fancy new car. All they wanted was a father who would play with them. And at that moment this man repented and changed the direction in which he was looking for happiness. Baseball reminds us of the need for basics and so does Paul, who has just spoken God's word of conversion to us, stolen home, and scored a run for Christ's kingdom.
Conversion 101 is a course in possibilities. Paul faced a tough home town crowd in Athens and he started out behind in the game. Yet, he did not give up. Anyone who believes the story of Christ's resurrection knows that comebacks are possible. As long as there is an at-bat, a chance in the field, another inning, or another game -- comebacks are possible. The errors may stand on the record, or the string of losses, but redemption can happen. The player or team in a rut may put together a hitting streak or a winning street that can turn a season or a team around. In 1914, the Boston Braves were in last place on July 19. but remarkably, they won 60 of their last 76 games and ended up winning the pennant by 10 1/2 games over the New York Giants. The comeback was fantastic! In life too, "comebacks are possible." Religious faiths speak of 'redemption' or "salvation" in which life can become brand new. No matter how "far down" we are, we can be forgiven, restored. The last can "become first." Baseball reminds us of these possibilities and so does the Apostle Paul in his sermon to the Athenians on Conversion 101.