Mr. Ed Farrell – July 26, 2020
Good morning – and welcome [back] to the precincts of Christ Church Cathedral. It’s good to see you [be seen by you}, you scribes-in-training for the kingdom of God. Scribes-in-training – isn’t that what we are, what we are called to be? Aren’t we asked to listen for God’s word in the world, to write it on our hearts, to publish with our lives what is new and what is old about the work that our God proposes to accomplish in creation? And in the scriptures appointed for today we have some Good News and some hard news. And I’d like to talk about that, and also say a word or two about St. Paul and the Austin Lounge Lizards and about basketball, which in many years would be not be topical in July. But in this strange year it is, so let’s start there.
Here’s the truth: though I am tall, I was never a great basketball player. Maybe it was the thick glasses I wore as a kid or maybe it was the late growth spurt that affected my coordination, but I was just a terrible shot. One coach said, “Farrell, you couldn’t put the ball in the ocean if you were standing on the beach and the tide was coming in.” This was in central Illinois where there are no oceans and no beaches – but the point was clear. Nevertheless, I am tall so I did get picked for teams and I did learn to love the game. I played at one level or another into my early fifties when my knees began to let me know that they are not really a renewable resource. My job was always to get a few rebounds and to defend tenaciously inside, both of which I was pretty good at. If I was within five feet of the basket and wide open, I might put a shot up. Occasionally those went in but just as often they did not – so mostly I would pass the ball to someone with a better eye.
Once, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was playing in a rec lead with a bunch of guys who appreciated my particular skill set and had enough talent of their own to put points on the board. This was in the 70’s when the great Julius Erving, from UMass, was at the height of his professional career. Doctor J, the high flying scorer, and the only player to be named MVP in both the ABA and the NBA. With her considerable sense of irony, my wife, the not yet Rev. Barbara Thrall, made me a tee shirt for our shirts-and-skins games that just read ‘Dr E.’
My team loved it.
So in one game, wearing that shirt, I snagged a rebound, made a good outlet pass, and saw that we had a good chance for a three on two fast break because some of our opponents were slow getting back. I galloped up the floor on the right side while one of our shooters went up the left and another brought the ball up the middle. My job was just to be a diversion so that the two defenders would have to make a choice about who to guard but for whatever reason our guy lofted a pass to my side. And when I say lofted I mean it – it was high and in front of me and I had to make a leap just to get my hands on it as I was going out of bounds. I did manage to fling it in the general direction of the hoop before my feet got tangled up with a folding chair, and I knew that it was a laugher of a shot. But when I crashed down, no one was laughing. They were all cheering, even the other team, and yelling, “Dr. E! Dr E! Nothing but net!” The shot had swished in. I’m pretty sure you could find a video of it down the hill at the Hall of Fame. Nothing but net.
Now as far as we know St. Paul did not play basketball. He seems to have been a runner. And he was a hit or miss kind of theologian. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that. Once a woman in a church I was attending, a lay reader, got to the end of a reading from Ephesians, you know the one, “women be submissive to your husbands,” and instead of saying “the word of the Lord” as was the custom, just said with a smirk “the word of St. Paul.” Another time, when I was teaching Sunday school, we looked at that same passage and a nine year old girl said, “This guy doesn’t know much about women, does he?” In basketball terms, that part of Ephesians is a total air ball.
But today’s lesson from Roman’s is not like that. Today’s lesson is nothing but net. “For I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. A virus can’t separate us from God’s love. Racism can’t separate us from God’s love. Our own sins can’t do it, nor can the sins of others. Democrats in Congress can’t separate us from God’s love, nor can a Republican in the White House. Protestors in Portland can’t separate us from God’s love and neither can the agents who throw them into unmarked vans. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. THAT is the Good News. If we only understand this one passage out of all the scriptures, we would know the whole Gospel. It’s St. Paul’s buzzer-beating shot. It is the pearl of great worth. It’s the treasure hidden in the field. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
That is Good News indeed – but there’s some hard news in there, too, isn’t there? To help me see that, one of my favorite theologians, the aforementioned Barbara J. Thrall, once pointed me to a text from a somewhat obscure band of prophets called the Austin Lounge Lizards, to a song of theirs called ‘Jesus Loves Me (But He Can’t Stand You).’ I won’t read all of it, but this excerpt will give you a sense of it: “I just can’t abide a sinner like you. God can’t either, that’s why I know it’s true, that Jesus loves me but he can’t stand you.” It’s a satire, of course, and it points to the hard news in Paul’s message: Nothing can separate us from the love of God – but nothing can separate anyone else from it either. God can abide a sinner like me, but God can abide every other sinner as well. The Lord invites me, a sinner like Zacheus, to the banquet table – and he invites Judas and Pilate and Herod as well. God’s love is not exclusive. Jesus understood this. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this. Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero and Nelson Mandela understood this. Unless we can see both the oppressed and the oppressor as beloved children of God there is no possibility for reconciliation. Unless everyone is included, we cannot experience the fullness of God’s love that we call the Kingdom.
Many days I wish that this were not true. Many days I wish that those who would divide us – the racists, the sexists, the jihadists, the demagogues – many days I wish that they would simply disappear. But my kingdom heart knows that this is not to be. Slander, hatred, oppression, violence – all these will continue until they are overcome by love. But, as St. Paul tells us, in all these we are more than conquerors. We, scribes-in-training for the God’s kingdom, have been given a pearl of great worth. We have found treasure in the fields of our lives. We may often feel that we are off balance and out of bounds, but we are nevertheless called to fling love into the world. And if we do, after the buzzer sounds we will hear a voice call, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Nothing but net.” Amen.