Stepping Up to the Plate
October 11, 2020
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
In the last few months I’ve been called upon by numerous people and organizations to do things for them. Some requests are relatively small and manageable; others require considerable commitments of time and energy. Receiving such requests has always been a part of my life, as it surely has been of yours. What feels different now is the level of intensity. There is an urgency and at times even a desperation in the asking. I understand why--this is a stressful time. A lot is being asked of everyone. How tired we are when the request comes may not be the most important data point.
The best way I can describe how it feels when these requests come is with an expression from the great American pastime: stepping up to the plate.
Baseball players step up to home plate when it’s their turn at bat, unless the manager replaces them with someone else. How they feel about stepping up to the plate when it’s their turn is irrelevant. Stepping up to the plate is what baseball players do.
It’s a singular task. Yes, baseball is a team sport, but the team doesn’t go to bat all at once. When you’re up, for that excruciating and exhilarating moment, all eyes are on you. So it’s easy to understand how the phrase “stepping up to the plate” crossed over from baseball into other areas of life to describe those moments when someone acts alone in response to a crisis or an opportunity, when one person takes the initiative, accepts responsibility, and does what needs to be done.
As an aside, given that we are a bi-lingual diocese, I wondered how “stepping up to the plate” would translate in Spanish. It turns out that the exact translation “subir al plato,” isn’t an expression. The closest parallel I could find comes from the Castilian sport of bullfighting: coger el toro por los cuernos which crosses over smoothly as an expression in English: to take the bull by the horns. There’s another expression in Spanish that doesn’t cross over into English well, but made me smile: Ponerle el cascabel al gato, which literally means “to put a bell on a cat.” Its idiomatic translation: to have the courage to do what others dare not do.
Stepping up to the plate. Taking the bull by the horns. Putting a bell on a cat.
Drawing from Scripture and from life, I’m going to describe three ways we can experience this call to step up to the proverbial plate. My hope is that you’ll hear something that validates your experience and gives you a sense of how important you are when the call comes. I know it’s hard now. I know you’re tired. But who you are and what you’re being called upon to offer--small or large--matters more than you’ll ever know.
We’ve just heard a mushing together of two of Jesus’ most disturbing parables found in the last chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Context is important here: Jesus is near the end of his life. He’s in Jerusalem, with his back against the wall. In increasingly hostile debates, his adversaries are throwing at him everything they’ve got. He responds in the best way he knows how, by telling stories with exaggerated characters in extreme circumstances in order to convey a message for those with ears to hear.
The first parable is about a wedding banquet to which the invited guests couldn't be bothered to attend, so the king does away with them and orders the doors be opened for all to come. The second parable is about a man who shows up to a wedding banquet poorly dressed for the occasion. He, too, is thrown into outer darkness. Assuming the man had a garment but didn’t make the effort to put it on, both have something to say about the dangers of half-hearted responses to the great opportunities of life.
So here we go: stepping up to the plate in three ways:
The first is with clarity and confidence. This is when we feel we’re ready and well-equipped for whatever task is before us. It can be small or big; something we’re excited about or that we dread. Whatever the circumstance, we’re confident we can do whatever is being asked of us. In some instances--surely the most important--we have the sense that we must do them.
Two particularly clear moments in Jesus’ life come to mind here. The first is from the beginning of his public ministry, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, chapter four. The text tells us that Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth from his forty days of trial and testing in the wildness “filled with the power of the Spirit.” He goes to synagogue on the sabbath, as was his custom, and apparently it was his turn to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This was the appointed text:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus rolls up the scroll and sits down. The room grows quiet and all eyes are on him. Then Jesus says: “This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” by which he meant, “I am he of whom the text speaks. I have come to do these things.” He was clear. He was equipped. He stepped up to the plate.
Another moment of confident stepping up comes at the end of Jesus’ life, as told in the Gospel of John, chapter eighteen, but with a decidedly different tone and outcome. Jesus has been arrested, and the religious authorities want him dead. As they don’t have the power to crucify him, they want Pilate, the puppet leader for Rome, to do it for them. Pilate doesn’t understand why Jesus’ own people want him dead. Finally he summons Jesus and asks, “Who are you? Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies: “My kingdom is not of this world. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus refuses to say anything more. He knew that his time had come. And he was ready.
That kind of clarity is, in my experience, relatively rare, but when it comes, you know it. As one person said to me in a way that I’ve never forgotten, “I have been preparing my whole life for this moment.”
Has there been or is there now a moment like that for you? Are you seeing that kind of clarity taking shape for someone else?
Five years ago, the bishops in the Episcopal Church elected Michael Curry as our Presiding Bishop. Prior to the election itself, when the final slate of four bishops had been announced, it was clear that Michael Curry knew that he was called to the position. You could tell by the way he handled himself, how he spoke directly, definitively and non-defensively to address the concerns some were raising about his leadership, the generosity with which he engaged the other candidates, his ability to draw upon the breadth of the church, and the clarity of his vision. As bishops, we all knew how the vote would go and yet we were all holding our breath. On the day of the election, as we bishops made our way to the church where we would cast our votes, I happened to walk alongside Bishop Curry. I said to him, “For a time such as this, Michael,” harkening back to the biblical heroine, Esther, at a definitive stepping up to the plate moment for her. He stopped, took my hand, and said, “Pray for me, sister. Pray that I never lose sight of Jesus.” He knew. And he was ready.
That’s one way we’re called to step up to the plate. When it happens to you, step up with confidence. The world needs you.
But another, far more common way, we’re called to step up is on the opposite end of the experience spectrum: when we feel anything but ready, when we know that we don’t have what is needed but feel called upon anyway.
The biblical examples of this experience are many, which is reassuring given how often we feel this way ourselves. A common response among the prophets, for example, those in ancient Israel whom God called for particular tasks at a particular time, was to politely point out to God why they were the wrong person for the job. Moses insisted that he couldn’t possibly be the one tell the ruler of Egypt to release the Israelites from slavery because he stuttered. Jeremiah told God that no one would listen to him because he was only a boy. Isaiah first responded to the call with a sense of shame. “Woe is me,” he said, “for I a man of unclean lips.” In each case, God responded by saying, in effect, “I know who you are. I know your shortcomings. Step up anyway.” There is a similar refrain among Jesus’ disciples, most notably with Simon Peter, who told Jesus when he called, “Stay away from me. I am a sinful man.” Jesus’ response (and I’m paraphrasing a bit): “Tell me something I don’t know. Now step out of your boat and up to the plate. I need you to help me fish for people.”
There’s a clear message throughout Scripture that whenever God calls or life itself summons, most people feel both unworthy and unprepared. The good news is that God makes possible what we cannot, so that it may be clear, as St. Paul writes of his own experience, “that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not belong to us.” I live my entire life inside the miracle of the loaves and fish, the story of how Jesus takes an insufficient offering of food and with it feeds a multitude. Its universal, timeless message is that when we offer what we have even when we know it’s not enough, God can work miracles.
So let me speak directly to all who feel stretched beyond your limits, who are doing all that you can and more to hold life together and it’s not enough: you are my heroes. You’re stepping up to a plate that you didn’t ask for; you are showing up where you are needed every day. I want you to know that God sees you. I see you. Part of the reason people like me are willingingly taking on more and more is we see what you’re doing, and what’s being asked of us pales in comparison to what’s being asked of you. I pray that you are given all the strength you need to keep going, because what you are doing is holding up the world. I pray that you’re given respite from time to time by others willing to step up so that you can get a break.
There is another side to the experience of inadequacy. Sometimes as a result of our ill-preparedness and incompetence, when we step up to the plate, we fail and God doesn’t fill in the gap.The consequences of our failure are real. It hurts. But when we accept failure as a part of growth; when we persevere and learn from our failures, we get stronger, and the next time it’s our turn, we’re better prepared. God sometimes invites us to step up the plate when we’re not ready so that we might learn and grow.
A few years ago I came across a short essay written by Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of the popular radio show and podcast, This American Life. Addressing an audience of young artists, he speaks directly to this process of getting better through failure:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it's like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't good. What you're making is a disappointment to you.
A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through years when they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that. And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal.
The most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.. . . It is only by going through a volume of work that you're going to catch up and close that gap so that work you make will be as good as your ambitions.1
Stepping up to the plate when you aren’t ready is the price of beginning. It’s what you have to do, time and again, when moving toward something important, becoming the person who is able to do or accomplish what is now beyond your ability. You show up, take your place in the line up, and step up the plate, swing and miss, and miss, and miss, until one day you make contact.
Where in your life might you be in the long arc of hard work, failure, and getting ready for a future call?
Now for the third, and for today the last, way we’re called to step up to the plate. For this I harken back to a sermon preached here on September 27 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Archbishop Welby told the story of biblical patriarch Jacob, whom he portrayed in deservedly harsh terms: “a lonely victim of self-imposed family trauma,” and “a narcissistic con man.” This is a man who has cheated both his father and his brother, yet, God’s grace and love were greater than his sins and failing.
Here’s the sentence that has stayed with me since I heard the Archbishop preach: “Jacob’s complexity of action and motivation is met in God, not by simplifying or condensing, but by calling.” God doesn’t excuse, condone, or seem to be bothered by the long history of Jacob’s sin. God picks him up out of his morass and sets him on a different path, giving him something worthy to do.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been rescued from the downward spiral of my thoughts, anxieties, or foolish actions by the call to step up to something else. The call doesn’t take away or solve the ambiguities and contradictions of my life, but for a time I’m lifted out of them, free to think about something else, or better yet, to do something good for someone else. I think this is what St. Paul is getting at with the words we heard read this morning from the letter to the Philippians: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. When you’re stuck in the ruts of your life, God will set your sights higher.
This past Labor Day weekend, feelings of sadness were washing over me. We had said goodbye to our adult children and sweet toddler grandson, not knowing when we’ll be able to see them again. It was clear then that we would be in pandemic mode for the foreseeable future. I had a lot of work to do and didn’t feel like doing any of it. It was as pure a depressive state as I’ve been in for awhile, and I was perfectly content to sink further down.
Then I remembered that a neighbor was organizing what she called a Yard Give Away to help immigrant families. Feeling as poorly as I did, I almost blew it off, but then thought better of it. So I packed up our car with stuff we had to give away--extra dishes, pots and pans, blankets, clothes, some furniture we didn’t need. The next day I drove to the site of the giveaway--a basketball court near an apartment complex where you could smell poverty in the air. A dozen people were organizing the donations into what looked like the first floor of a department store, while a line of people stood outside waiting for the gate to open. For about two hours, it felt like Christmas morning. I know that what I gave away helped some people, but being there, stepping up to a different plate, lifted me out of my crippling sadness into a space of gratitude. I was, and still am, the same person with the same struggles. But stepping up to something else allowed me, if only for a time, to break free and serve a higher good.
Let me close as I began, acknowledging that a lot is being asked of all of us right now, and of some more than others. We’d be made of stone if we didn’t want to walk away from it all, to stop the world and get off, to step away from the hard things. Every word I’ve offered here is meant as encouragement. If you are in any way feeling called to step up, trust that there’s more at play and more at stake than how you feel. What’s more--there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that comes when we take our turn at the braver, necessary things, when we fulfill the deeper purposes of our lives, and when we feel ourselves accepted even in our brokenness and called to do something big for something good. Don’t miss it.
If it’s your turn, step up to the plate. Take the bull by the horns. Put a bell on that cat. At that moment, you may feel alone, but you’re not. The communion of saints is behind you. The people who love you are with you. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you because God has anointed you, chosen you, for this.
Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, October 11, 2020.