Sermon for Sunday, March 23, 2014
The first professional baseball game I went to was a Red Sox game, back in 1975. I was just a kid, living in southeastern Wisconsin and rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers, the home team. My cousins had bought a block of tickets for “Helmet Day,” and they invited a bunch of the relatives to go as a group. I remember that it was a beautiful day in early August, warm but with a cooling breeze blowing in off Lake Michigan. We drove to County Stadium in our ’66 Oldsmobile, a pre-pollution control affair with an engine so powerful that the car dipped to the left during acceleration, and that had seat belt buckles big enough to chip a tooth on, if you weren’t careful. As we drew near to the stadium parking lot, I remember the smell of charcoal and sausages from the tailgaters, then the long walk across the parking lot, the long ticket line, the yeasty smell of stadium beer, and the long climb up to the second-highest row of seats deep along the right field line. The stadium was packed, and not just with Brewers’ fans. Even then the Red Sox faithful traveled to watch their team.
It was only much later, after I moved to Boston as a young man, that I realized what an extraordinary day that was. I got to see the ’75 Red Sox! There, right in front of my eyes, were names I had known only from baseball cards: Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans. There was Carlton Fisk, who looked big even from deep down the right field line. And, of course, there was famous number 8, Carl Yastremski, whose name we had no trouble pronouncing because we were from Milwaukee.
What a line-up! There was no stopping them that day. The Sox just kept hammering out hits, and they eventually wore the Brewers down, winning 5-2.
As I consider the series of readings that our lectionary gives us this Lent, I can’t help but think of the ’75 Sox. What a line-up! In past weeks we’ve heard the story of the fall in Genesis 2. We’ve heard God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12 to “Go from your country, your kindred, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” We’ve been hearing from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 4 and 5 and how “one man’s act of righteousness leads to… life for all.” And in the gospel, we are midway through a series of powerful readings from John’s Gospel. Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus; today, the story of the woman at the well. And in the coming weeks we’ll hear the story of Jesus healing the man born blind and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Taken together, these readings form a line-up, not intended to get runners across the plate, but intended to take us even deeper into relationship with Jesus Christ, in preparation for his Passion.
The line-up of readings we are hearing this Lent are the readings used in the early church for the final preparation of candidates for Baptism at the Easter Vigil. At this point in their preparation, candidates would have been in the catechumenate for two, maybe three years, and these readings offered the opportunity for them to reflect on their journey and the threshold they were about to cross:
- At the beginning of their journey, they were in the desert, being tempted and tossed about by the powers of this world. Yet Jesus was there, too, as the gospel from Lent 1 tells us.
- Then they came to Christ, but secretly, as it were, like Nicodemus under the cover of darkness. Like Nicodemus, they were full of questions, maybe doubts. Jesus spoke to their questions, one on one, there in the darkness.
- In today’s gospel, the candidates are like the woman at the well. It is noon, and they speak to Jesus openly. There is a lightness to their banter, even teasing. Others are present, too; it is not just the woman alone with Jesus. Jesus looks past the scandal of her relationships and speaks to her in such a way that she is moved to run and tell others about Jesus.
- Next week, the candidates can imagine Jesus touching them just as he touched the blind man and opened his eyes to see Jesus clearly.
- And finally, on the last Sunday before Holy Week, the candidates will share in Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. No matter how “dead” they may have been before – even if they have been “dead” so long that “there is a stench,” Jesus can give them new life; he will unbind them and let them go.
These Lenten readings, then, are a line-up as good as the ’75 Sox. And in them Jesus offers us an invitation – I hear Jesus inviting us to take the time to listen to these readings, to pray with them, to enter into them, so that we might see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly. These readings have the power, not to get us across home plate, but to liven our relationship with Jesus Christ, drawing us closer to him, helping us receive his love, helping us to wholeheartedly love him in return.
Why not, this week and in the coming weeks, take advantage of this extraordinary line-up of readings and set aside some time to spend with them, with him? Our time need not be long, but I find it helpful to make the time regular – say, maybe five or ten minutes each day. I like to find a place where I won’t be disturbed, a place and time where God and I can be alone. I’ll ask God for a grace, or gift, in the time, and then I’ll open the passage and read it through. Then, I’ll let my mind wander where it will in the passage, paying attention to what I find interesting, what I am drawn to. When I find a word or phrase, I’ll stay with it and chew on it for a while, paying attention to how it feels to stay there, wondering what Jesus may be wishing to tell me. When I’m finished, I’ll thank God for the time and for the grace, and I might make a note or two in my journal about what my prayer time was like. This time is often the most treasured time of my day.
In his latest “apostolic exhortation,” or letter to the faithful, Pope Francis encouraged all Christians everywhere to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and to renew this encounter unfailingly each day. “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk,” he says. “Whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”
I wonder what would happen if we took a step toward Jesus this Lent, maybe spending some time with him in these scriptures. I wonder if we would meet him in the darkness, like Nicodemus, or maybe in the light, like the woman at the well. I wonder if he would touch us and open our eyes to see him, like the man born blind. And I wonder if we might be opened to Jesus, no matter how long we may have been “dead,” like Lazarus raising us to new life.