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Opening Day

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19

A Reading from the Book of Acts

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

I have a bone to pick with a man named Sam Holbrook. Now, Sam and I have never met. He wouldn’t know me from Adam. It’s entirely unfair of me to carry around this little bit of spite. And yet here we are, two weeks into the 2018 major league baseball season and I am still nursing a grudge from 2012, and it has more than just a bit to do with Sam Holbrook.

In 2012, my team, the Atlanta Braves, lost the first one-game playoff series in baseball history.  Thanks to this new experiment, the Braves’ promising season climaxed in a single game against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. In the eighth inning they were staring at a 6-3 deficit when Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons lofted a one-out fly ball into shallow left field with men already on first and second base. A confluence of Cardinals awaited the ball, as did left field umpire Sam Holbrook. Just as the ball landed squarely – and, one might argue, providentially – on the ground between two defenders, Holbrook signaled to invoke the Infield Fly Rule. Now, if you don’t know what the Infield Fly Rule is, don’t worry: you are in the company of many a professed fan of the game, and, as luck would have it, at least one of its umpires. Suffice to say that a rule designed to protect the hitting team from defensive hijinks instead ended the Braves’ best hope for a rally and, by extension, their entire season. The next season, the Braves lost in their one postseason series, and in the years since then, they’ve been somewhere underneath irrelevant. So here we are, six years later. I’m still mad.

Of course I am sure that Sam is a lovely man who, were our paths to cross in any other circumstance, would deserve none of my antipathy; I am sure that the two of us could get along smashingly. Which is why it’s very important that we not actually meet: the part of me that nurses this grudge, the part of me that wears it proudly as a badge of fandom, the part of me that could just as easily show you the dozen other wounds that twenty-odd-years of Braves baseball have inflicted on me: that part of me, every now and then, needs a villain, and, until further notice, Sam Holbrook will do nicely. On the other hand, we are only a few weeks removed from Opening Day: when the entire league, for one brief moment, is tied for first place; when the smell of stadium hot dogs and possibility waft across the grandstand; when even that most perennial non-contender fixes its gaze upon a summertime of what might yet happen. Opening Day bursts with our most fervent hopefulness, and so this grudge I bear does seem contrary to the spirit of the season. It does seem woefully out of place, and so it is hard to avoid the suspicion that in having this grudge I am somehow doing it all wrong, that Opening Day has once again offered me the joyful gift of possibility and instead I’m still nursing my wounds.

Of course, Opening Day weekend was also Easter weekend, as it should be. The women came to the tomb, and the stone was rolled away, and in that triumph over death itself Jesus gave his disciples every cause for undying hope, every expectation of unyielding possibility. But Peter is also nursing his grudge. This morning’s reading finds us a few chapters into the Book of Acts, a few stories past Easter Sunday but still in a season ripe with miracles. Peter and the other disciples, fresh with the power of the Holy Spirit from Pentecost, are out in Jerusalem, and they heal a man waiting by the temple gate, and the crowd is astonished. They’re filled with wonder and amazement and they gather around Peter desperate for some exposition of this good news.  And Peter starts in with the sermon — “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this? The God of Abraham has glorified his servant Jesus; his name itself has made this man strong!” Surely this would be an occasion for rejoicing and jubilation! But Peter can’t quite fully find the spirit of the season. “God’s servant Jesus,” Peter says, “whom you handed over … and rejected … [and] killed …” The rest of this story has moved on. We’re way past Easter, we’re into Pentecost, the Apostles are acting up a storm. But Peter can’t let it go. It was you, you Israelites, it was you. All of you.

You killed the author of life. On one hand I want to argue back. I want to make a clear case for the record. I want to dispute Peter on the facts of the case. The Luke-Acts account of the Passion week has more than enough blame to go around: Jesus is tried before the Jewish council, yes, but also betrayed by Judas, and victimized by Pilate, and demonized by the crowd — not to mention denied by Peter himself. For him to now stand before the council with such an accusation on his lips – You killed the author of life! – would seem to demand not only daring but a certain amount of strategic amnesia. But then again, any fan knows never to let the facts get in the way of a good grudge. Every wound needs a villain, and by this point in Acts the Jewish crowd will do nicely. It’s convenient, of course, that by fixing blame Peter distracts attention from the collaborative and mercilessly bureaucratic Passion story that Luke tells: it’s convenient to name one villain when the alternative would be to name everybody, and Peter has no more interest in unpacking the complex web of cruciform responsibility than I do in sifting through the errors, miscues, and missed opportunities that left my Atlanta Braves pitting their miracle hopes on a routine fly ball. So we might dispute Peter on the facts. But doing so will get us nowhere near the heart of the matter.

No, the question instead is this: why can’t he move on? Easter is here, and the full force of the Gospel with it. Peter’s own words lay it out as clear as daylight: You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead. I mean, this story ends well. God raised Jesus from the dead; the old things have gone; everything has become new — except you guys, Peter says. You killed him, the author of life. Why can’t he move on? But then again, why can’t I? Opening Day is here, the young season alive with possibility, but mine is a hope tempered by age, wisdom, and the brokenhearted aftermath of the Infield Fly. What would it take for me to believe? Easter is here, the young season alive with possibility, but it’s not like I’ve really moved on either, it’s not like Easter really wiped it all away. Easter came and went and still death is so much with us. Easter came and went and still the bombs fall. Easter came and went and still the earth cries. Easter came and went and still the wounds of the past fester and burn. And then I read Peter castigating the crowd — you killed the author of life! — and through the pages of time I want to shout, “Peter, he rose from the dead! Why can’t you move on! Peter, he preached forgiveness! Why can’t you forgive?” But the true confession is, I can’t let go, either. I’ve read the news too many times, and I’ve got too many grudges. I’m still mad about the water in Flint. I’m still mad about the power in Puerto Rico. I’m still mad about the bodies at Stoneman Douglas. I’m even still mad about the Infield Fly Rule. Two weeks into Easter, and I haven’t moved on, either. Not one inch.

Of course, there is a cost. Before I was mad at Sam Holbrook, I was mad at a ballplayer named Kent Hrbek. Kent Hrbek was the longtime first baseman for the Minnesota Twins; he played his entire career in Minnesota, a beloved local celebrity and a good major league ballplayer. He is, by any objective account, just the sort of person that you want to have on a baseball team, but I do not have an objective account. My account of Kent Hrbek is from game two of the 1991 World Series, Braves vs. Twins, both teams having spent the prior years in the basement of the league and then finding themselves unexpectedly battling out of the championship. We were living in Atlanta. I was 12. This was the year I fell in love with baseball. This was the year I fell in love with the Braves. And then, in game 2 of the series, Hrbek tried to tag out Braves outfielder Ron Gant after Gant had already safely made it to the base, and what is fairly clear on the video is that Hrbek wrestles Gant’s leg off of the base with the glove, which you’re not allowed to do, and then he gets the out, and then the Braves lose the game, and then the Braves lose the series, and somehow, out of a thousand other plays and a thousand other calls, somehow that’s the one that survives.

And not just for me. Almost immediately Kent Hrbek became a figure of local infamy, the scapegoat for all of our grief over the way the season ended, and over the way the next season ended, and the one after that, and the one after that. Never mind that 1991 began a run where the Braves would compete in the playoffs every year for the next fourteen years, somehow, it was never quite what it should have been, and ask any reasonably superstitious Braves fan what went wrong and with spite they’ll mutter Kent Hrbek’s name under their breath. We carry it around. Eleven years later, in the summer of 2002, I went to the one and only baseball game I ever went to at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the site of that infamous play, and I settled in for a totally pleasant midsummer game — the Braves were not on the field, I was just there for the sounds of summer — and then I noticed to my dismay that from my seat I had a crystal-clear view of Kent Hrbek’s retired jersey, hanging above the right field fence. And all of a sudden I was back. Never mind ten intervening years of good baseball. Never mind the playoff victories. Never mind an actual World Series championship. That grudge felt like yesterday. That anger felt alive. It was like we had never said good-bye.

Even now. Twenty-seven years after the fact. The Metrodome is a pile of rubble. Kent Hrbek is living a reasonably quietly retired life, but even now I suspect he doesn’t give his real name at the Atlanta airport. That anger is so tenacious, even when it’s righteous. Maybe especially when it’s righteous. Why is why I need Opening Day. Which is why I crave Opening Day. Soon enough, maybe already, depending on your team, soon enough for so many of us the season will slide into inevitability. Baseball is a lot of waiting for things to go wrong, and then a long off season of lamenting what briefly might have been. But Opening Day is possibility. Opening Day forces us, even with our bitterness, even with our cynicism, even with those old wounds just simmering under the surface, Opening Day forces us to believe, just for a moment. It doesn’t make the anger go away. It’s not supposed to. It just holds the world in tension. You can still be angry. The world is not favorably aligned, and nothing in the twenty-seven years since makes me think Kent Hrbek didn’t wrestle Ron Gant’s leg off the bag and nothing in the six years since makes me think that Sam Holbrook made the right Infield Fly call. I’m still mad. But also. With this Opening Day just past. With this season so fresh. Also, I believe. I believe maybe this time will be different.

Peter believes, too, despite himself. “You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead,” Peter says; he’s preaching the Gospel of resurrection even when he doesn’t want to, a reminder that the power of God on display this season is bigger, mightier, more intractable and more steadfast than any of the anger we carry or the grudges we bear. God’s authority is the first and last Word: God who came to earth, God who died on a cross, God who rolled the stone away, God who left the tomb open for the world to see. At Easter, God not only offers hope; God becomes hope; God is the living hope that vanquished death itself. So bear your anger as you may. The bombs are still falling and the earth is still crying and I am still angry and the wounds still burn. But they will not bind us! This is the world held in tension, this is the paradox of Eastertide, that our wounds are no match for God who vanquishes the grave itself! For even when we are bound to despair, God is hope! And even when we are bound to anger, God is forgiveness! And even when we are bound to disbelief, and even when we are bound to decay, and even when we are bound to death, God is alive! Christ is risen! The stone has been rolled away! Thank God for opening day!

I still have a bone to pick with Sam Holbrook, and I’m not the only one. Even now if you walk through the concourse at a Braves game you will find a few of the bitter faithful wearing “Infield Fly Rule” or “Worst Call Ever” t-shirts.  Of course part of the problem is that in the six years since that call the Braves have been going through a long rebuild that has left them functionally irrelevant; these have not been fun years to be a fan, and even now, even with the light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, even with some good young players on the field, we Braves fans are a cynical bunch. We’ve been hurt before. But. Maybe. That’s the miracle of opening day: even when no one believes, there’s still hope!

Maybe this year really will be different.