Epiphany II - January 14, 2024
St.Mark's Episcopal Church
It was 1925 and Yankee first
baseman Wally Pipp had a headache. He decided to sit out the game and lost his
position to Lou Gehrig, who would go on to play every game for the Yankees
until his retirement in 1939.
That was a total of 2,164 games – or 2,130 consecutive games – a record that stood for 56 years, until broken by Orioles hitter Cal Ripken, Jr., in 1995.
Henry Louis Gehrig played first base and was a batter for the Yankees and, during his 17 seasons, the Yankees won seven pennants and six World Series. Gehrig's World Series contributions include a .361 batting average, 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 34 games.
Gehrig played his last game for the Yankees on April 30, 1939. Gehrig's consecutive games streak came to an end on May 2, 1939, when he removed himself from the lineup after a dismal start caused by a mysterious neuromuscular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS – later known as “Lou Gehrig's Disease.” Gehrig was the Yankee captain from 1935 until his death in 1941. He was 38 years old.
On July 4, 1939, Gehrig stood on the field that he loved and gave a speech that stunned everyone. My father said he listened to it on the radio and he remembered it more than any speech given by any politician, or sermon preached by preachers like Billy Graham, or even any passage from scripture, except, maybe, when Jesus said, “Love one another.”
Lou Gehrig - a man who had just been told that he had a rare neurological disorder that would gradually rob him of his ability to walk, use his arms and hands, or speak, and would die – sooner rather than later – of respiratory failure - that same man stood on that field and said to the crowd, “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Some people said he was trying to make people feel better. Others said it was because he was proud and didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him or have anyone’s pity. Daddy said that only great men can make a speech like that, men who know they are called to the job and give it their all. He said only great men know and are so thankful that they were given certain gifts by God that they use those gifts to the best of their ability.
My father said that when you know those things – that you have been gifted by God, no matter what those gifts are, and that you use those gifts to the best of your ability, and you have met all the challenges behind you – you know that God will give you the strength you need to face all of the challenges before you.
He said, “The power you have before you is even greater than the power that has been behind you.”
All our lessons today – well, except for what St. Paul is saying to the church in Corinth, God only knows why he was going on and on about sex or why the people who put the lectionary together thought Paul’s words had a place in all of this (because, you know, they really deserve to be taken seriously and talked about by serious Christians) – but all the OTHER lessons in today’s lectionary are about vocation.
Vocation. From the Latin “Vocare” meaning “to call”. It’s a word most
people think applies only to ordained ministry, to bishops, priests and
deacons. But, our catechism is clear. We have four orders of ministry – laity,
deacons, priests and bishops – and those four orders are equal. The
institutional church is a hierarchy and it is the hierarchy that ascribes to
those orders increasing or decreasing value. But, in our baptism, all four
orders are equal in call, equal vocations.
Now, I admit that I had never considered baseball a calling but my daddy sure did. He might miss mass on Sunday, but he would never miss a ballgame. Baseball, he said, was like life. “You know, we’re all just trying to get home,” he said, pointing up. “Sometimes in life, we’re just trying to get a base hit. Sometimes, we just try to pitch one over the plate. Sometimes we hit a pop fly. Sometimes, it’s a swing and a miss. Sometimes, we steal bases - you know, for the good of the team.”
“And sometimes, sometimes, you hit a homerun and, if you’re really lucky, you hit a home run when the bases are loaded. That’s the best,” he said, “because not only do you get home, but you bring three others with you.”
“Even so,” daddy said, whether it’s a strike or a hit, we all get our time up at bat and we all get three balls and we all get three strikes. And, nine innings, with the possibility of overtime.”
For my dad, Gehrig was one of several players who were uniquely gifted. How could I forget their names? Babe Ruth, the Bambino. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper. And, of course, Hungry Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse.
Understand, please, that these three men were all Yankees – well, daddy said never forget that Ruth was “stolen” from The Boston Red Sox – and Boston Red Sox fans are the natural born enemies of the Yankees. And, vise versa.
In fact, my dad used to always say that he had two favorite teams: The Boston Red Sox and any team who beat the Yankees. (I think I’m pretty safe in here because I’m willing to bet that, come Spring, most everyone in here will be rooting for either the O’s or the Phillies.)
Baseball is like life, daddy said, and in his world, you were as called to the mound as a priest is to the altar. He also felt that way about his factory work. He felt he was called to it. As an immigrant, lucky to have the job. Blessed to be part of a union that guaranteed his wages and the safety of his work conditions and helped to provide health insurance for his wife and children.
It was hard work, dirty work, but it gave him dignity because it gave him purpose and it gave him the means to support his family – a home run, rounding the bases and bringing others home with him. “What a great country,” he’d say.
How many of you feel that way. – or, felt that way – about the work you did? Maybe you didn’t feel called to it because the institutional church can be pretty stingy with the words it uses – words like vocation and blessings and sacramental.
Take old Eli in the first scripture lesson from the First Book of Samuel. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Eli’s eyes, we are told, have grown dim, but it is not difficult for the reader to see that far more than Eli’s eyes are in trouble.
In the previous two chapters, we learn that his sons are out of control. They’ve been outrageous and irresponsible with the spiritual authority they’ve been granted. Furthermore, we read that Eli’s spiritual perception is weak; he has mistaken Hannah’s fervent prayer for drunkenness, and now, in this encounter, he is slow to realize that it is God who is calling Samuel.
Eli is the representation of
institutional religion of his day. And, he blew it. Several times. With his
sons, with Hannah and with Samuel.
But, when God creates us, when we are “knit together in our mother’s womb” as the Psalmist says, we are given certain gifts. We are called here to do something or some things no one else can do. We all have our time up at bat. We may strike out but there are nine innings in the game. There’s always another inning to give it our best.
And then, there’s Phillip, who followed Jesus and his eyes were opened to all the possibilities that were laid out before him. Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. He went and found his friend Nathanael to share the Good News (literally,) but it was Nathanael’s turn to be skeptical.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked.
“Come and see” said Phillip
When Jesus saw Nathanael, he
recognized instantly that this was an honest man. Nathanael, having been seen
for who he was, the gift of integrity he had, was able to see exactly what
Phillip and Andrew and Peter before him had seen: A man who was able to see
past the externals and into their soul, into their unique gifts and potential, and
call them to come and follow him, come and try out their gifts and put them to
use for others (for the team, as it were)
That’s what got people excited. Oh, the miracles were wonderful. The healings were incredible. His teaching was powerful. But, what got people excited, was the invitation.
“Come and see.”
Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, are three of the best hitters in baseball history. (Two of them – Ruth and Williams, my father would want me to say – were Boston Red Sox hitters.).
Even so, Lou Gehrig was up at bat 8,001 times. He had 1,888 runs, 1,995 Runs Batted In, and 493 home runs.
And, you would be pleased to pay attention, while he had 493 home runs, he struck out 790 times – almost twice as many times as he hit home runs.
But, he never missed a game. Unlike Wally Pipp, he didn’t sit one out because of a headache. He was always there. Always ready to use what God had given him to do the best he could with what he had been given. Always ready to accept the invitation to “Come and see.”
Which is why, even though he had been given a diagnosis of a terrible neurological disease that would slowly sap the life from his body and he would die a terrible death, he could face any challenge before him because the same God who had given him the strength he needed to face the challenges behind him would also give him the strength he needed to face the challenges that were ahead of him.
As my daddy said, “The power you have before you is even greater than the power that has been behind you.”
And, if God can do that for Lou Gehrig, God will do that for you, too. Because God has done that over and over again, with Eli and Samuel, Peter, Andrew, Phillip and Nathanael, and so many, many others whose sacred stories we read in holy scripture. We, too, can face any call, any vocation, any challenge, that lies ahead of us, look it straight in the eye and say, “I’m the luckiest person on the face of the earth.”
Don’t believe me?
Come and see.
NB: Thanks to Boyd Etter for the story of Lou Gehrig and to Bill Shatzabell for some of the information in this sermon. I especially love the story of Babe Ruth who had a tough childhood and was adopted. Some sports journalists used to complain that the Bambino was arrogant b/c he was often not at the press conferences before the game. Ruth was visiting children at orphanages, bringing them hope.