Cal Ripken Lights Up a Text
One of my favorite recreational places in Wichita is the University’s beautiful baseball stadium, and part of the fun is knowing I am likely to see fellow baseball fans like Charley Russell or Dave Bowersock and that rain or shine, hot or cold, I am certain to see Margaret Vanderlip in her perennial box seat smack dab behind home plate. I’m sure those three, and many of you, were as disgusted by the baseball strike as I was, but it was easy to forget all that ego and greed last week when baseball fans around the country paid tribute to Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles who broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played — in Cal’s case for starting every single game for 13 years. Some of that was pure luck, of course, and a lot more of it had to do with an old-fashioned work ethic, but what really warmed our hearts was the man’s simple modesty. When Ricky Henderson broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record he shouted “I am the greatest!” In all the hoopla about breaking Gehrig’s record, Cal Ripken said, “I’m just another baseball player.”
Were you listening to the Scripture text read a few minutes ago? — how when Jesus noticed the guests at a meal scrambling for the best seats he remarked that pushy people, one way or another, will be embarrassed, while those who are quietly modest will sooner or later be recognized? That must have been an interesting evening! You have this radical young Jewish prophet sitting in the house of a prominent religious leader, watching — I would guess — with wry amusement as other invited guests maneuver to get the most prestigious places in the room. It was risky enough for him to be there at all, given his reputation for breaking the rules, but he had to get himself into even more trouble by opening his mouth about how silly the push for privilege looked. I like to think he was smiling when he said, “Listen, folks. When you get invited to a banquet, don’t grab the place of honor, in case someone higher up the ladder than you are has been invited and your host has to come to you and say, ‘Sorry, but this place is reserved for Mr. Isaacs,’ and in disgrace you have to find a folding chair in the corner.” In modern speech it would go like this: “Don’t look for the spotlights. Don’t be pushy. Just do your work quietly and well, and in one way or another your moment will come.” The question is, does anyone believe it? What is there, after all, if we’ve made it as a great athlete or a scholar, an author or a president, to make us humble?
Humility is not false modesty. You can be honest about your gifts and still be modest if you remember that no one comes into this world debt-free. Trace the ingredients of your success back to their source, and invariably you find gifts that came to you from someone else, moments of grace that were beyond your power to command. Do you have a high energy level that lets you work harder, want to work harder, than someone else, and not get tired? Have you kidded yourself into thinking that this is only a matter of will, that anyone could work that hard if only he or she were willing? Well, look back to your genetic endowment somewhere, and discover the truth. And if your looks have helped lubricate the machinery of success weren’t they mostly a matter of inheritance? Every thoughtful person asks, How much of my success is good luck?
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to raise this issue. He comes right back with another. As if to make sure not a single feather is left unruffled, he launches an attack on the whole social patronage system. “When you throw one of these dinners, don’t invite just family or the friends as rich as you in intellect or money, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid.” Nice touch, to say “in case you may get paid back, when he knew — and they knew — that the whole point of the social game was to set up exactly that kind of connection. Jesus teases them with an extraordinary challenge: “Try something else. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind….and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” Marvelous irony, but irony is often dangerous among literal-minded and self-important people because they miss the real point. And you can get that by this time most of the guests are whispering to one another, “I’ve heard this guy is crazy. I see what they mean!”
I visited a huge megachurch one Sunday while I was away from you in August, and I couldn’t help smiling as we all sang a hymn with these giant words projected on a wall: “Oh how I love Jesus!” Not many of us would love him if he stepped out of the safety of a book and rubbed elbows with us at our work and our play and our parties. He would read my thoughts as I sat in a luxurious booth at a football game, unable to keep from feeling deliciously privileged to be out of the sun and heat, and true to form he would say, “Be careful, Bob! Enjoy your moment of luck, if you like, but don’t let it lead you into thinking you are better, somehow, than commoners on the hard wooden seats who don’t know your influential friends.” And I would say to him, as those people surely did at the Pharisee’s big dinner, “You never know when to quit, do you?”
I’m doing this sermon because this is the church year when I respond to your requests, and one of you wanted to know how Jesus would define a successful life. You can be sure his notion of success would be different from ours. We’re successful when we sit at the head table, served first. We’re successful when the parking space has our name on it, when we get that back-stage pass at the concert — the one that really separates the movers and shakers from the wanna-be’s. The media convinces us that success equates with having our names in print, our faces on-camera. Who cares much about what we are? Who has time to find out much about the inner life of mind and spirit. What counts is notoriety. Bill Moyers hit the bullseye when he defined most celebrities as “people who are well-known for being well-known.” But we’re confronted this morning by a story from Scripture that defines success differently, that says instead of seeking the limelight and cozying up to those who can repay our favors God seems to want to know about the things we do expecting nothing in return.
For the most part, this is not how we run our lives, and I feel a little guilty to spoil such a glorious cool Sunday by reminding you of how radical Jesus was about such things. In one of my all-time favorite Charlie Brown comic strips, Lucy and her brother Linus have just finished a chicken dinner, and Lucy is explaining to Linus how to make a wish on the wishbone. “This is a wishbone, Linus. We both make our wishes and then we pull it apart. Whoever breaks off the biggest part gets his wish.” Lucy begins the wishing: ‘Let’s see now. I wish for a new doll, a new bicycle, four new sweaters, some new saddle shoes, a wristwatch and about one hundred dollars.’ Then Linus gets his turn: ‘I wish for long life for all my friends. I wish for peace in the world. I wish for great advancements in the fields of science and medicine, and….’ But by this time Lucy is throwing away the unbroken wishbone in disgust. ‘Linus, you seem to have a knack for spoiling everything.’”
I have great sympathy for Lucy. We are pressured on all sides to judge the successful life one way, and then along comes somebody who makes us fidget. I saw an ad for wedding rings that insisted true love means spending at least two month’s of your salary on them — otherwise, you look cheap. My Oklahoma City son told me yesterday that the woman who showed him and his wife the house they have now lived in for ten years said, “Of course you won’t want to be here long, but this makes a nice starter.” We thought it was a great phrase: “the starter house” — the first step in the long climb up the ladder to real achievement. Our friends Roy and Marty Craig are off this morning to their 50th high school reunion, bent on enjoying it despite deploring the fact that it will be a kind of social Judgment Day. You know exactly how it goes. Who drove up in the Lexus? Who came in that beat-up old Plymouth? I missed my own biggest high school reunion but I saw the program. Clyde, who became a banker; Joe, who became a doctor; Betty who became district judge….all picked to be at the head table because they stood for success, and all of them accepted in that spirit by some equally good people in the back tables of that room who cut hair and clean buildings for a living and cannot imagine that in the hierarchy of the kingdom of heaven, they might be at the head table themselves. A dear old friend of mine came back from that reunion to describe it, how some could hardly wait for someone to ask the all-important question, “What do you do?” and others, like himself, begging the Lord that no one would ask, knowing they had failed the crucial tests of wealth and power and prestige.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success strikes me as one Christ would approve. The truly successful life, he said, has three qualities: the ability to discern and appreciate beauty; the ability to see the best in other people; and a commitment to leaving the world a better place, either by doing one’s own work better or by making it easier for others to do theirs. A useful 3-point checklist — stick it on the door of the fridge. (Reeat the 3, above). I’m not foolish enough to think I can change the prevailing opinion about what it means to live a successful life. All I hope to do this morning is remind myself and all of you that we are meant to live, as people of faith, by a different set of rules. We need reminding, because the pressure is intense to be like the culture around us. We sell out, even in the church, to showtime and entertainment — success means an orchestra, a rhythm band, a l00-member choir, and 3000 people watching on Sundays. None of those things are inherently bad; I sat in one of them a few weeks ago and enjoyed most of it. But not for a single second did it occur to me that Jesus would measure success by such things, or that my life would be more successful if I were in that pulpit rather than in this one.
But being small is absolutely no guarantee that we escape the temptation to define success in the wrong way. Once in a while — not often, thank God — somebody notices a well-known or wealthy person and rushes up to me to say, “Did you see who’s here this morning?” which being interpreted means, “Pump that hand with some extra passion if you know what’s good for this church.” I hate that, and some of the people I’m being urged to show special consideration hate it, too, because they grow sick of being courted for what they have rather than for what they are. I’ve toured old churches in New England, some of them Congregational churches, where long ago they sold pews to the highest bidder and then put the family name on a brass plaque so nobody else would sit there. How strange to see that in a church dedicated to Jesus Christ, and with this very text staring them in the face. But then, it isn’t at all uncommon for us to praise the Bible and wave it more than we actually pay attention to its radical judgments.
I may not have the will to stand against the popular tide in my own life, but I do know the Christian definition of a successful life. However I may fail on some given day, I know how right that wise teacher was who passed out the trigonometry test and said to the kids: “I’m giving you two tests today, one in trig and one in honesty. I hope you pass both of them. But if you pass only one, be sure it;’s the test in honesty because there are a lot of good people who don’t know any trigonometry, but there are no good people who are not honest.” How about honesty as a mark of success? How about such quiet things as compassion and anonymous generosity and unconditional love for someone in desperate need of it? Someone asked Albert Schweitzer to name the greatest person alive in the world at that moment, probably thinking he had the good doctor on the spot since so many of us would have given him that honor. Schweitzer replied quietly, “The greatest person alive in the world at this moment is some unknown individual in some obscure place who at this hour has gone in love to be with another person in need.”
Which means that one of you, or somebody you will never know, may be the greatest success story in the Christian ledgerbooks. Whoever it was who sat by a bedside last night and held somebody’s hand. Whoever it was who drove to the nursing home and took Ada Clifton out to lunch on her 90-something birthday last Tuesday. Whoever it was who told the young black clerk at Dillon’s last week what a fine job he does. Whoever it is who hates homophobia in the name of One who dined with those whom others condemned. Whoever it is who hates discrimination against women in the name of a religion whose very birth on a long-ago Easter morning was first announced by three sisters of mercy.
But enough of abstractions. I’ll give you some names. Names that mean nothing at all to you, but I would guess are printed on place-cards at the head table in the Kingdom of Heaven. Four senior women of a Presbyterian church in New Jersey, killed the other day by a young drunk driver in the wrong lane of traffic. I know about them because a man I know attended the funeral and in a national magazine praised their unsensational but very successful lives. Evelyn Dotson, 80, who brought meat pies three times a week to a 97-year-old. Henrietta Latham, 73, who phoned a fellow churchmember daily after that person had five heart operations. Jeanne Sandford, 69, who helped a mentally ill former church member pay hs bills. And young Gwendolyn King, only 62, who made sloppy Joes for 50 children every Saturday in their troubled neighborhood. These four women were achievers on their own and as parents of corporate executies and publishers and designers. But the famous theologian who told about them felt they were heroes in the kingdom of God because of the meat pies and the phone calls and the sloppy Joes. “America likes megasuccess stories about mega-churches with megaprograms and megabudgets,” he writes, “but if we remembered what part the weak and old people, the overlooked and underfunded places like that church, played in the ecosystem of a modern city, we would make those women and their kind the big story.”
Unsung heroes. By God’s yardstick, the truly successful. I can’t imagine anything better than being around such people, or any higher ambition than wanting to be like them.
On every Sunday, gracious God, we sit for self-examination in
this room. Give us courage not to cheat when we judge ourselves
by His life in whose name we came this morning. Amen.