Bottom of the Ninth

Scripture: Exodus 17:11-13, Revelation 21:5
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
September 4, 2016

Labor Day weekend is often a time to fire up the grill and watch baseball.  Baseball may begin in the spring, but it blossoms in the summer.  Baseball is called America’s favorite past time.  A few weeks ago, our church went on an outing to the 66ers play – San Bernardino’s minor league team.  Our own Rhymes with Orange sang the National Anthem and hit it out of the ballpark.  Many joke and say that the last 2 words of the National Anthem are:  PLAY BALL”.   Americans love baseball.  Pete Rose once said, “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball” – – that’s vivid imagery.  Humphrey Bogart declared, “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz Carlton any day.”

I admit that my favorite part of a baseball game is the seventh inning stretch when we sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” which by the way is the second most well-known song after, “Happy Birthday”.  (Sing “Take Me Out To the Ballgame”). When we come to the words “home team”, shout out the name of your favorite team.

Take me out to the ball game,

Take me out with the crowd;

Just buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack

I don’t care if I never get back.

Let me root, root, root for the home team,

If they don’t win, it’s a shame.

For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,

At the old ball game.

Baseball is both an individual and a team sport. We bring our best to the team.  Then we encourage and cheer each other on as we bring out the best in one other.

Bobby knew that well.  It was the bottom of the ninth.  The home team was three runs behind.  There were two out.  No one was on base.  The team sat there in the dugout, kicking their cleats in the dirt, waiting for the inevitable end.  The championship that they had worked so hard for all season was slipping from their fingertips.  Even the people in the stands were packing up, getting ready to leave, gathering up their things to beat the rush.

The next batter hit a single and made it to first.  A little bit of excitement in the dugout, but not much in the stands — they were still packing.  The next batter had the good sense to stand there and do nothing.  He got a walk.  Now there were two men on base.  There was a little more excitement in the dugout.  Still, it was the bottom of the ninth, two out.  Mostly, the people in the stands were still packing.

The next player hit a blazing grounder to the shortstop, who kind-of bobbled the ball, and made a late throw to second.  Now, the bases were loaded!  Two outs, bottom of the ninth, three runs behind.  The excitement, the cheers, the hugging, the back-slapping, the shouting in the dugout was absolutely amazing.  The people in the stands decided that it was worth staying.  They were on their feet, cheering to the high heavens.  There was a chance, once again, to win the championship.

Amidst all of this carrying-on, Bobby — the batter on deck — went faithfully to the plate, to do his dead-level best for the team.  When the guys saw who was standing in the batter’s box with the championship now resting on the lines, the words they shared with the coach are words that can’t repeated here in our sanctuary.  Bobby had successfully struck out every time he went to bat that season.  Bobby, you see, was a sucker for high, outside pitches.  Everybody in the league knew it.  The best pitcher knew it, and you could see the gleam in his eye.  Bobby had done nothing all season.  Bobby would do nothing tonight.

The coach said to the team, “We’ve come through the season together as a team.  We will finish together as a team.  Bobby stays.”  The words that greeted that announcement are words that are probably best left unsaid in this sanctuary.  With Bobby at bat, they knew the championship was lost.

First pitch:  high outside, wild swing, strike one.  You could hear the groans in the dugout.  Second pitch:  high outside, wild swing, string two.  You could see the people in the stands again packing up.  Third pitch: high, outside, no swing.  Bobby was tired from the first two swings.  The bat stayed on his shoulder.  Ball one.  Fourth pitch:  high, outside, wild swing.

The best way to describe what happened is, the ball hit the bat!  With just enough force that, in a peculiar kind of blooper way, it sailed high enough over the first basemen outstretched glove so that he couldn’t reach it.  It hit fair.  The first baseman turns, hunting and searching for the ball, knowing the game is at hand.  

The guys are running.  Everyone except for Bobby, who had a dazed expression on his face.  His team encouraged him to run.  He finally ran with a dazed expression on his face.  Bobby had never been on first base before.

By the time, the first baseman found the ball, one run had been scored.  Another runner was rounding third base and headed home.  The first baseman hurried his throw, threw high and threw into the cage.  The second run was scored.

Meanwhile a third runner was headed to third base.  The catcher threw to the third baseman. But the ball went through the third baseman’s legs, out into left field.  

We’ve all seen this before.  When things start to go wrong, they begin to collapse all over the field — a third run was scored.

The only person still running was Bobby.  One of the things Bobby knew how to do best was run.  Meek, quiet, shy Bobby.  He learned to run mostly through first and second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth grade and beyond, because the bullies in each class would try to pursue him.  So, over the years, Bobby had learned to run — mostly away from people who were chasing him.

Now Bobby was running for the team — it was a new experience for him!  He rounded third, he headed home!  The left fielder threw the ball in to the catcher.  It bounced in the dirt. Just as it was bouncing into the catcher’s outstretched glove, Bobby lunged with all his being, so that his hand would touch the plate before the catcher could get the ball.  He mustered everything he had inside him so he could do his overwhelming best for the team.  His hand reached the plate before the catcher had the ball.  Four runs to three!  Champions!

The team picked Bobby up, put him on their shoulders, and carried him all around the field.  He was the hero of the season.  Bobby had come of age.  He used the one strength, the one competency with which he was blessed.  He used the one talent and resource he had.  He used his ability to run — with all his being and will all his might — to do the best for the team (Story told by Ken Callahan).

Bobby claimed well the strength he had:  running. We do well when we claim our strengths. Baseball is always making room for all sorts of people.  If you can’t hit, maybe you can run.  If you can’t field, maybe you can hit.  If you can’t pitch, maybe you’re the best dang bat-boy baseball’s ever seen.  If you’re old, maybe you can run a team like nobody’s business.  If you’re young, maybe you’re your favorite team’s biggest fan.  Baseball is both an individual and team sport.  We bring our best to the team.  Then we encourage and cheer each other on as we bring out the best in one other.

We support each other.  Our scripture from today says, “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed.  But Moses’s hands grew weary and so Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side.  His hands were steady until sun set.  And Israel defeated Amalek and his people.”  This passage on a surface level is ridiculous.  Israel won the battle just because Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands.  But examined on a closer level, we see the significance of community.  Aaron and Hur could have stood around and yelled at Moses for not keeping his hands up, but instead they supported him.  God was not just calling Moses to step up to the plate; God was calling Aaron and Hur to step up to the plate as well.   Community’s rise and fall, depending on how members of the community serve and encourage one another.  This is a team effort.

Under threat, people wither.  With encouragement, people grow.  Sometimes we become preoccupied with complaining and nit-picking, but we live a life at our best when we offer encouragement. People benefit from tons of encouragement, bushels of confidence, and mountains of assurance. Encouragement sees the best in others.  Encouragement knows the words “well done”.

Jackie Robinson could tell you about the importance of encouragement.  He was the first African American to play baseball in the major league.  While playing one day in his home stadium in Brooklyn, he committed an error.  The fans began to jeer him.  He stood at second base, humiliated, while the crowd booed.  Then, without saying a word, shortstop Pee Wee Reese went over and stood next to Jackie.  He put his arm around him and faced the crowd.  Suddenly the fans grew quiet.  Robinson later said that that arm around his shoulder saved his career.

And where I attended many baseball games for 18 years in San Diego, Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre, could have told you about the importance of encouragement.  Tony is remembered for his batting as much as for his character.  Tony Gwynn was signing autographs one day. His agent said, “One signature per person.”  “Absolutely,” said Gwynn. Fans were lining up to get Gwynn’s autograph.  There was a little boy in line.  He brought 3 baseballs to be signed.  The agent said, “Sorry son, only one autograph per person.”  Tony looked at the little boy; he looked at his agent and then said, “Don’t listen to him.  He’s not in charge.  I will sign whatever you got.”

Ken Griffey, Jr. could tell you about the importance of encouragement.  He chose not to attend “The Player’s Choice Awards” to receive the “Player of the Decade” award.  Griffey beat out both Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux.  The award is a big deal.  He joins the ranks of baseball greats, Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Rose.  Why didn’t he go?  Trey, his 5 year old son had a baseball game that night — his first, and Junior didn’t want to miss it.

We are all part of some team.  If not a baseball team, maybe another recreational team or a music team or a staff team called a “faculty”, or a home team called a “family”, or this church team.  As we begin a new school year, may we bring our best to the game and then encourage one another to bring out the best in each other.

I would like to conclude the sermon with a video called “Homerun”.  (Play video “Homerun” by Geoff Moore and the Distance).  The words say “We are on the same team, though we are not all the same.  That’s why we’ve got to learn to play together.”  If we follow those words of wisdom,  Redlands United Church of Christ, we will hit a homerun!