Here follows a sermon delivered by John S. Thornton, former Episcopal Bishop of Idaho, to the congregation of St. Michael’s Cathedral (Boise, Idaho) on May 4, 2014.
It is one of fifteen sermons found in Bishop Thornton’s new book, The Backside of God.
“This is the first in a series of sermons on our Eucharistic liturgy. My task is to talk about the whole purpose of the liturgy. There will be others, on the Peace, the Offertory, the Fraction, and the Dismissal. As for the purpose of our liturgy, I’ll take a roundabout way; but we’ll get there. Bear with me.
I’ve read quite a few books on liturgy. In my opinion, the best book on liturgy isn’t on liturgy at all. It’s on baseball. The book is A. Bartlett (“Bart”) Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise.
I have a history with Take Time for Paradise.
Sometime back in the mid-1990s, I got a call from a chaplain at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. He asked me if I would give the benediction at their National Prayer Day Breakfast. I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to.” Then he told me that the speaker would be Tommy Lasorda, the Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (He was also featured in those SlimFast® ads.) “Wow,” I said, “I’d love to hear Tommy Lasorda speak.” I got the impression that it was a sure thing. However, the chaplain added a little caveat, with a voice so smooth that it screamed uncertainty. “If for some reason ‘Tommy’—as if the two of them were on a first-name basis—couldn’t make it, would you be the speaker?” Three months away from an event, you agree to almost anything. I did. Within minutes, I was in a panic about what I had agreed to. The chaplain promised to stay in touch. The days of unease went by.
A week before the National Prayer Day Breakfast, I called the chaplain. “Is Tommy Lasorda coming?” “He plans to, though he’s having a little trouble arranging transportation.” I accepted that as a “yes.” On Monday before the National Prayer Day Breakfast, I called the chaplain again. “Is Tommy Lasorda still planning to be there?” “He says so, but he still hasn’t worked out the transportation.” What? Is it really that hard to get from Los Angeles to Mountain Home? On the Wednesday before the National Prayer Day Breakfast, I called the chaplain again. “Is Tommy Lasorda going to make it?” “He’d like to, but he wants us to send an F-16 to pick him up. We can’t do that. It looks like you’re going to be the speaker.” Oh, God.
I could just see it. An officers’ club jam-packed with Air Force personnel and their spouses and their children, every one of them excited about seeing and hearing the legendary Tommy Lasorda. And what do they get? The Episcopal Bishop of Idaho. A preacher.
It was now the Thursday before the National Prayer Day Breakfast. Jan and I were in Buhl at the time, working with the church there. We got into our car and drove as fast as the law allowed – maybe a little faster – to the Barnes & Noble in Twin Falls. I needed some books on baseball, in an attempt not to disappoint people too much.
Barnes & Noble did have some books on baseball, mostly big picture books. I needed little word books. We picked two of them, David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49 and A. Bartlett (“Bart”) Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise. Back to Buhl we went, Jan driving, I scanning the two books. The Summer of ’49 was too fat; so I put it aside. Take Time for Paradise was a lot skinnier; so I started to read it cover to cover. It was so beautifully written that I didn’t notice how fast – or slow – Jan was driving.
Bart Giamatti was the Commissioner of Baseball from April 1, 1989 until September 1, 1989. He died of a heart attack after only five months in office. He had been the President of Yale University, but he resigned to take the job he had always wanted. He loved baseball and he understood its philosophy, its geometry, its numerology, its strategy and tactics and its rites and ceremonies. He made baseball’s hunger for homecoming as important as Homer’s The Odyssey.
By bedtime on Thursday, I had a speech, written on the back of seven envelopes. It was either going to work or be a colossal flop and the whole Episcopal Church in the United States of America would be humiliated. We slept well, but not long. By five in the morning, we were up, showered, dressed and on our way from Buhl to the Mountain Home Air Force Base.
We got to the gate of the Base at about 07:30. I pulled into the guardhouse parking lot and hurried in. An MP noticed my collar and asked, “Are you here for the National Prayer Day Breakfast?” “I am,” I said. “Follow me, sir!” Who was I to disobey orders? He ran to his patrol car, got in, started the engine, turned on the flashing lights and careened out of the parking lot. We followed right behind him. We’d never had that kind of treatment before. We felt like the President and the First Lady. When we got to the officers’ club, the MP skidded to a stop, jumped out and shouted, “Park here, sir!” It made no difference to him that it said “No Parking.” He was making lawbreaking so much fun.
There were a lot of people milling around in the entrance of the officers’ club, but the chaplain elbowed his way through and greeted us. I said, “Could you take me to a private room so that I can look over my speech? Let me know when it’s time for breakfast.” No problem. I looked over what I had written on the backs of the envelopes, scratched off some lines, scribbled some new ones. I was getting confident and panicky at the same time. Then the chaplain came and told me that it was time for breakfast. Jan and I were seated at the head table, on the dais. I sat on the chair that Tommy Lasorda was supposed to have sat on, and I felt people’s excitement dying down. No Tommy Lasorda. A guy with his collar on backwards. And we paid for this. We ate.
I was introduced by the chaplain. There was polite applause. I said, “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not Tommy Lasorda.” They roared. To them, that was funny. I thought, I think I’m going to like this audience. “You’ve come to hear Tommy Lasorda talk about baseball; so I’m going to talk about baseball. Well, you say, you don’t know anything about baseball. What difference does that make?” I said. “People talk about things they don’t know anything about all the time. If Tommy Lasorda were here and talked about Process Theology, you’d love it.” They roared. I was having fun. They were egging me on.
First, I talked about Jackie Robinson and baseball as meritocracy. It’s not whom you know, it’s what you can do that matters. You could see “yes” on every face. The audience was full of scrambled eggs and sausage patties and hash browns and alleluias.
Then I talked about baseball as a parable. Baseball is America’s parable. It’s a universal parable. It’s about coming home again and having a reunion with those who care most about you. It’s like the ancient myth of Odysseus, who risked whatever he had to risk and suffered whatever he had to suffer to get home again.
And on and on. When it was all over, I signed Tommy Lasorda baseball cards with my own name. One woman came up and told me, “Whenever I see those SlimFast® ads, I’ll think of you.” I’ve rarely had so much fun.
In baseball, there are four bases, but the fourth base isn’t called “fourth base.” It’s called “home.” The object of baseball is to get on base and around the bases and back home again. But once you get a hit or a walk – with the exception of a “home run,” for which you get safe passage around all the bases – you’re out there all alone in a dangerous world. Everybody out there is out there to make sure you’ll never get home again. They can make it “swift and savage.” If you take too long a lead off first, the pitcher can pick you off. If you try to steal second, the catcher can throw you out. If you take too big a lead off second and head for third, you can get trapped between the second and third basemen and get tagged out ingloriously. If a fielder has the “arm,” he can throw you out at second or third or home. Everybody out there is practiced and primed to make you fail. But when you do get home again, there’s a combustion of glee and a compaction of boyish physicality, high-fiving and back-slapping and hugs. The “family” is together again!
Even if you don’t play baseball or never have, that’s your story. The world isn’t always a safe place. It can be dangerous and often is. But the mature and healthy person doesn’t slink from it, loves the challenges, takes the risks, wins some, loses some. Nonetheless, we all get weary and need to go home again. “Ye, who are weary, come home.”
All the elements of our Eucharistic liturgy combine to make our worship an experience of coming home again. Here there is the sense of safety and security. Here there is “the freedom from wariness.” Here there is the coloration and “aroma of inclusiveness.” Here there is the atmosphere of absolution and embracement. Here there is the affirmation of individuality and autonomy. Here there is the celebration of the giftedness and goodness of each person. Here there is the pulsating and palpable presence of the mystical Christ. Here is “home,” a state of belonging to all whose hearts are in the heart of Christ. That’s where we are, home again, as we kneel and eat the sacred bread and drink the sacred wine. That’s how we ‘take time for paradise.’”