Luke 9:18-27: Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Something that jumps out in our Gospel reading for me today is that word “forfeit.” Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a modest part of my life either helping with or watching youth baseball and softball, and the first thing that pops in my head when I hear the word “forfeit” is “the ten run rule.” I’ve also heard it called “the mercy rule.”
Now, the ten run rule is not an official rule. It’s an agreement that’s more or less made in local youth baseball/softball leagues designed to ostensibly prevent kids from being humiliated too badly. After a certain number of innings have been played (i.e. probably every kid has gotten to bat at least once,) if one team is ten runs ahead at the end of that designated number of innings, the game is forfeited. Everyone figures that the odds of them overcoming a ten run deficit is pretty infinitesimal and no one wants to see a bunch of 8 or 9 year olds get blown out 27-0.
I once helped coach a bunch of boys that age that the challenge was getting them to lose a game outright, rather than simply have to forfeit on account of the ten run rule. It was a hard road for those little guys that summer. For starters, the team was more or less an “add-on” because an unusually large number turned out, and there were too many boys for the usual number of teams, along with a number of returnees to the existing teams–so there were not a lot of slots for new kids.
Suffice it to say that this team was made up of several boys who had not played organized baseball for various reasons. We had kids who picked dandelions in the outfield, kids who ducked at the plate when I literally lobbed the ball in to them, and kids who would forget which way to run around the bases. Add to that the fact I was the only female coach in the league, so not only were these little guys having to endure the mean comments people made about their own prowess, they were having to hear the crap that people were yelling about their coach. I was only in my late 20’s myself, and was used to people cheering me on a ball diamond, so it was a real exercise in humility for me, too.
It didn’t take long before I realized that I had to give up any grandiose ideas of winning, and instead, simply concentrate on teaching them the fundamentals and feeling good about their own ability to improve. So I cut them a deal. We normally took them for ice cream after the game, and everyone got a small cone. I announced that any time their efforts resulted in anything beyond a ten run rule forfeit, it would be sundaes instead of cones. They were shocked that they did not have to win to earn the sundaes.
“Look,” I replied. “Here’s the real truth, guys. It is highly unlikely that anyone in this entire league will ever go on to play major league baseball. Really, this whole summer baseball thing is about you getting lots of exercise and learning a few skills while at the same time, learning good lessons about life and sportsmanship. Well, one of the lessons all of us have to learn sometime is that we always have to try to do our best, even when we’re not so good at something. We learn we can always get a little better and a little wiser. We learn that not everyone is going to like us or believe in us. What you guys are teaching me is that there is always something to celebrate in life even when things don’t go our way, and by golly, we’re gonna celebrate somehow!”
When it was all said and done, I think we actually won a couple of games, and we had a few more where we were beaten by only a few runs. I have a particular memory of one after-game “it wasn’t a forfeit” celebration where we had lost by three or four runs, but to the casual observer, if you’d seen us in the Dairy Queen, you’d have thought we were league champions.
Those boys lost plenty of ball games, but in the end, they never lost or forfeited themselves. Shades of our Gospel reading today. So many times in life, the answer to “Who do the crowds say we are?” is that we are losers or misfits. Sometimes the crowds have labeled us some sort of “ic”–alcoholic, workoholic, foodaholic, spendaholic. Addict. Compulsive gambler/shopper/hoarder. Unemployed. Homeless. Sinner.
Sometimes the crowds simply don’t like us because of who we are–we’re just too black/brown/tan/queer to suit them, or we just don’t have the right chromosomal makeup to please their judgmental notions of how the world works.
Yet in the topsy-turvy world of the Gospel, it’s rejection that punches the biggest holes in the veil between heaven and earth. Jesus calls us in this passage to take up his instrument of rejection and embrace those whom the crowd has also rejected. When we are feeling the weight of rejection ourselves, we are only asked to take heart and not reject ourselves.
You see, there’s no ten run rule with God. Nothing is so awful in God’s good creation that there is never any chance that the tide can’t eventually be turned to a greater good, and God never thinks we’re so hopeless that we should just throw in the towel and be done with it. It’s just that it might take more than four innings, and the score might look pretty lopsided for a while. I like to think that, even in the face of these painful and vitriolic times in which we live, when we inch forward even a tiny bit in things that respect the dignity of every human being, it results in a round of sundaes for all the company of heaven.
What can you discover this week as a cause for celebration in this lopsidedly painful world?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid