"Audience Participation"

Sunday sermon from January 12, 2014
Text: Matthew 3: 13-17
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

It feels like we are now properly in the dead of winter and so as antidote I propose instead that we talk about baseball. So here’s your baseball news of the week: this week the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the results of its annual election for the next class of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now, the Hall of Fame itself is a private institution that celebrates the wide history of the sport, but for a player to be named to the Hall is a particular kind of honor, bestowed this year on dominant pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, along with legendary slugger Frank Thomas. And nobody in their right mind would raise much of an objection to any of those three being included. But of course every year we nonetheless have some controversy along the way; last year it was about players with obvious Hall of Fame credentials not making it through because of their association with steroids, but this year’s controversy was about the voting system itself.

Here’s how it normally works: the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is a by-invitation-only independent guild, largely composed of team beat writers and former beat writers. The balloting process for the Hall of Fame happens largely in secret, as opposed to the mechanism for selecting the midseason All-Stars, which include rampant fan balloting, write-in campaigns, internet voting and constantly updated vote totals; so, the Hall of Fame process feels like something that happens in a secret bunker with the curtains drawn and cigar smoke seeping out from underneath the door jam. But this year something broke down the door. Several months ago a website called Deadspin — a site that gets millions of daily visitors but isn’t exactly a hallmark of old media and let’s just say their invitation to the Baseball Writers Association might have gotten lost in the mail – Deadspin announced that they had gotten access to a Hall of Fame ballot and would poll their readers to determine how they should fill it out.

This sent shockwaves through the Writers Association, because "This vote is a sacred honor" and "Who better to handle it than the journalists who follow the game day in and day out?" and "Why would you trust fans with this kind of decision?" and of course the only way that Deadspin could have access to a ballot in the first place would be that some Association member had agreed to fill it out in accordance with their wishes. Which was exactly the case. This week, after the results went public, and long after Deadspin had revealed the very reasonable outcome of its own poll, this anonymous journalist revealed himself to be Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald — a fairly well-known figure in sports media who was trying to make a statement about the absurdity of the voting process and who instead was stripped permanently of voting credentials and then pilloried throughout the sports media landscape.

Now, of course the Writers’ Association has a valid argument: that selection to the Hall of Fame ought to be done by the people who know these players the best, and beat writers, by the nature of their jobs, know these players better than anyone. But it’s hard to take this argument very seriously when you consider the the vast pool of baseball knowledge that doesn’t get to be part of the writer’s association, be they legendary broadcasters or former players or writers working outside of the daily newspaper trade. Frankly, any pool of baseball knowledge that fails to include Bob Costas seems fundamentally broken. No, it seems more than likely that the real issue at stake here is the determination of who gets to be part of the story. As a fan, you turn on the TV or go to the park, you get some snacks and you sit back and you watch and, barring some errant foul ball, you’re not really part of the action. Beat writers live and breathe these teams for 162 games a year; they’re on the field after the game; they’re in the locker room; they’re on the team bus and the chartered jet. You can see how they might begin to think that they were part of the show itself. You can see how they might begin to think that they had parts to play that were necessary for the perpetuation of the entire enterprise, like there’s this wall between the people who make it happen and the people who watch and the Writers’ Association knows which side of the wall it’s on and which side we’re on and they’re going to keep it that way.

Now, I could talk about baseball all day, but instead… let me suggest that the controversy in our text for this morning, Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism by John, is in its own way a controversy about who gets to be part of the story and who’s just in the audience. At first it seems like this is John the Baptist’s show – after all, he is the one that everyone in Jerusalem and Judea is coming out to see; Matthew spends a long chunk of time prior to our story today establishing John’s ministry and the apocalyptic tone of his preaching; even the Pharisees and Sadducees come to be baptized and they hear “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But even then it’s clear that John is really just a bit character; he preaches that “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…,” which would be no surprise even to novice readers of this Gospel given that the first two full chapters were about establishing the singular historical, narrative, and theological importance of Jesus Christ. This whole Gospel is the Jesus show, and John knows it; he knows he’s just a bit player in somebody else’s script; he’s seen the name on the marquee; he’s seen the movie posters with “Jesus Christ” in big, George Clooney-sized font; heck, he might as well be in the audience. And then in our text today Jesus shows up and says “I’m here for you to baptize me.”

And I think we need to sit for a minute in the imaginary stream of John’s consciousness, like You’re here for me to baptize you? But you’re the story! You’re what this whole production is about! I am on my best day an extra walking down the sidewalk in the background of a shot which may or may not make it into the final edit of the movie called "Jesus Christ," starring Jesus Christ, executive produced by Jesus Christ, you get it. I mean, _me_ baptize _you_? Don’t get me wrong – I’m on board with everything you’re doing – I’m a big fan. But I’m really just a fan. And who am I to be a part of this story? Just some blabbering guy in the wilderness living on roots and berries! I wouldn’t know where to start, and I really don’t want that kind of responsibility; frankly, it’s so much easier just being a fan. What if I mess it up? What if I do it wrong? Would you want to be responsible for taking the Messiah and holding him underwater? Would you want even for a moment to know that the history of salvation, the history of God, the history of God’s people was resting on you not accidentally drowning the Lord of Creation? Wouldn’t you rather just get some snacks and a drink and watch from the upper deck?

How terrifying it is to realize that in the unfolding story of God we are not just the audience. How terrifying it is to realize that we, too, are onstage, with parts to play.

One time when I was about ten or eleven my parents and I had gone to some festival at which there was a magician working over a crowd of several hundred. I don’t remember anything about his act except that he was doing quite bit of escape work: you know, handcuffs, chains, that sort of thing, and then at one point he asked for a volunteer from the audience and lo and behold my father ended up on stage strapped into a straightjacket. Now, my father doesn’t seem like the sort of person who volunteers from the audience so perhaps the crowd was quiet and he was just plucked from the stage, I don’t remember, I was ten, don’t hold me too close to the facts. What I remember was that it was my father’s job first to demonstrate that it was impossible to remove himself from the straightjacket, and then to secure the magician into the straightjacket and tighten the straps and then stand there and watch as the magician made his amazing escape. But equally amazing to me was that my father had gone up there in the first place; I mean, so many things could have gone wrong. What if my father had been some amazing escape artist himself and had just slipped out of the straightjacket and embarrassed the magician there in front of everybody? Or what if, in tightening the straightjacket, he had accidentally undone whatever trick the magician had in place to guarantee his escape? What if the whole show had fallen apart because of some easy mistake?

And of course everyone in that crowd thought that my dad was a plant. I mean, that’s how these shows work, right? You put a friendly face in the crowd, and you make sure that he or she’s the one that comes on stage, and you have some corny dialog about how you two have never met each other before and have no knowledge of what’s about to happen and then magically it works anyway and I remember thinking “Well, my dad’s a lot of things, but he’s no plant! He’s the real deal! He was up there, untrained, unbriefed, and the whole thing was riding on him!” Which, admittedly, is a bit of a stretch; I mean, I’m sure the magician could have recovered even if Dad had gone off-script; it’s not like my dad was the one in charge of the whole act. But still. Who wants that kind of responsibility, especially when you’re totally unbriefed on what’s about to happen?

Still, John the Baptist consents, and baptizes Jesus Christ in the Jordan. And the clouds part and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and the voice of God is heard over the waters: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased,” and I am sure that the whole crowd gave John a hard stare and assumed he was a plant. I’m sure everybody there thought John had learned the whole act in advance — everybody except John himself, whose anxiety and incredulity – “you want me to baptize you?” – is the most human of responses to the scandalous thought that God’s plan for creation itself might require anything of us. That God is up to something not just for us but with us, something that involves us, something that gets us out of our seat and using our hands and joining into the act. But of course even though he doesn’t know it, of course John in this story actually is a plant. Even though he doesn’t know it, even though he doesn’t quite believe it, even though he finds it to be patently absurd that God’s story would have some requirement of him, still, God has put him in this moment; God has put the words on his tongue; God has put the skill in his hands; God has put the willingness in his heart for such a time as this. So that John might get out of his chair and walk down that long aisle towards the stage of creation itself, that he might walk onstage by faith and not by sight, that he might say to himself “I have some part in this story and God will help me do it.”

For us at least as much for John, it is a terrifying thought to consider that the story of God still continues, here in this day and time, here in this community, here in this congregation. The thought that God calls us not just for our own ends or for God’s own amusement but because God’s plan for the fullness of time runs through each of us. It's like this: I’m a big fan of Jesus; you may be a big fan of Jesus; you may like a lot of what the man has to say; but in this place we are something more than fans; these pews are not the safe vantage points from which we lazily observe the ongoings of the world. Last Sunday we were visiting with my parents at their new home in Waco, Texas, and on Sunday morning we went to the Presbyterian church with them and one of the pastors who knows what I normally do on Sundays said to me “I hope you enjoy the service! Enjoy not having to do anything!” And I know what she meant and it was nice just sitting in the pews but really this is not a stage and you are not the audience. I am not putting on a show and I hope you haven’t come to see one. Rather we are gathered in the collaborative effort of figuring out what part we will play in a show that is much larger than this sanctuary and bigger than any of us, and the real drama here is all around us; it is the unfolding story of creation in which God has given each of us a part to play.

And so our congregation moves into the new year together, a new year of dreaming together, a new year of doing together, a new year of listening together for God’s will for all of us. It will be, as it always has been, a very human process, full of mistake and misunderstanding and misapprehension. On our very best days we take two steps forward and just one step back. But still, I hope you will join us, and not just from the pews. I hope you will join us, and not just from the audience. I hope you will join us, because it is one thing to dream together and another to find the hands equipped to make those dreams reality. Serve on session. Help on a committee. Visit the sick and homebound. Engage with community missions throughout Amherst. Call an elder, call the church, come to my office and say “This is what I care about and this is what I’m going to do!” It doesn’t take skill. It doesn’t take training. You don’t need to know your lines in advance; there was no dress rehearsal. All it takes is the barest willingness in your heart and I can assure you that God has planted you here for just such a time as this. So I hope you will join us and say to yourself “I have some part in this story and God will help me do it” so that together we can help write the story of God for this place and time.