Audio length: 24:28 minutes
Transcript published: March 16, 2012
We imagine that life is like football or basketball. You play until the clock runs out. But life is not like that at all. There is no set time for the clock to run out that you know about.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. If the Apostle Paul, my brothers and sisters, could quote a Greek poet on in his sermon on the Areopagus, I suppose I have enough warrant to quote an American philosopher at the beginning of this sermon. The philosopher said, “It’s not over, ‘til it’s over.” That of course was the most famous of American philosophers, Yogi Berra. Now he was giving expression to baseball philosophy, which is the highest kind.
I attended many baseball games as I was playing in scrap matches as a boy, and my daddy taught me the rules of baseball; the rules, first of all, for attending a game. And those are the most important rules. When you’ve been playing for a few weeks, they teach you the infield fly ball rule, but I found that hardly any of my companions knew about that.
The first rule is that you do not leave the game until it’s over, that is if you want to see it all. You see, you can leave a basketball game within a certain timeframe, i.e., when one team is up 35 points and there’s a minute and a half left. You can even walk out on a football game, because if there’s a minute left, and they’re down three touchdowns, it doesn’t look good.
But I’ve attended baseball games, in this city, in which it was the bottom of the 9th; there were two outs and two strikes on the batter, and the home team was down by four, and saw the White Sox pull it off. See, I’m enough of an American pragmatist, I hold to this, “if your, philosophy doesn’t work, it’s not a good philosophy.” At that much I agree with William James that far, “truth should have some cash value.” It should work. You never leave a baseball game until it’s over.
We imagine that life is like football or basketball. You play until the clock runs out. But life is not like that at all. There is no set time for the clock to run out that you know about. And I’ve seen many people make the mistake of calling the game, because they thought the clock had run out. I’ve gotten into some very severe arguments about that, usually in barbershops. I could tell you some stories, but I have so many stories I want to tell you this morning that I’m going to leave those out.
See, life is not like football or basketball. Life is much more like baseball and golf, not entirely like golf. But life is like baseball; the game is not over until everything happens that can happen or supposed to happen. I can easily see some people going to Calvary that day, when Jesus was crucified between two thieves, and leaving early before the thief on His one side repented. And that’s usually the burden of my arguments in the barbershop.
That is to say, eschatology is not about chronos; eschatology is about kairos. The important thing is not the time but what happens in time. I want to make three points with you this morning. First, be prepared to go the distance. Second, the fix is not in. And third, when you’re knocked down, it’s not the end.
Point One: Be prepared to go the distance. I return this morning, in memory, to Monday May 31, 1993, about 5:00 or 5:30 in the afternoon, something like that. It was Memorial Day. My memory goes back to sitting in the car, in front of a funeral home in Pittsburgh and seeing all the people come out from visiting hour. And they all came out, and I saw the mortician come to the door and lock the door.
I waited fifteen minutes, and I walked up to the door and rang the bell. And I knew what happened. The mortician opened the door and says, “Oh Father, come in.” I was dressed the way that would get me into a funeral home in off-hours, because I didn’t want to be in there with all those other people. I didn’t want to be in there with everybody else.
I came to pay my respects to one of my childhood heroes, a man who had died two days before in Pittsburgh on May 29, 1993. I walked in; I was the only one there. I wanted to be the only one there with him. He lay there with a Rosary in his hand, hands sort of folded but gripping a Rosary.
And I stood there and quietly prayed for him and rubbed his knuckles, just rubbed his knuckles. I rubbed his knuckles, and I remembered these knuckles had been patted very firmly on the chins and in the guts of some of the strongest men alive. The man lying in state there was William David Conn. He was the sort of man who made me proud to be an Irishman. Heaven knows, there are very few reasons for that.
Billy Conn began in 1934, 17 years old, had just passed from middleweight to light heavyweight. Age 17, that’s about the time you’re going to do it, if you do it. He quickly became known as the Pittsburgh kid. Five years later at age 22, he became the light heavyweight champion. In May of 1941, at age 24, Conn gave up the championship and went on to do something very foolish in order to challenge the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis. You’ve got to be out of your mind, just out of your mind.
Their famous fight was fought on June 18, 1941. Louis outweighed Conn by more than twenty pounds. He had never been defeated as champion. During the previous two years, Louis had fought roughly one boxing match a month. Most of them, he knocked them dead. In fact, that group was called bum of the month club, which when I think of the people he fought, the people whom Louis had put away, like Schmelling, but that’s another story. I have to get back to the thought.
When Louis and Conn came out for the 13th Round, for all practical purposes Conn was heavyweight champion of the world. He had the fight on points on all three cards. All he had to do was stay on his feet for three more three minute rounds. That’s all he had to do. He was ahead. Billy Conn however was young, and he was cocky.
As he came out into the ring for the 13th Round, he made the mistake that he regretted for the rest of his life. He came out with the idea of knocking out Joe Louis. He could dance all over that ring with a very quick left hand, hitting Louis at will, but in order to knock him out, he had to plant his feet. Big mistake. The split second he planted his feet, Louis unloaded on him and down went Billy Conn.
Ten minutes after the fight was over, Billy Conn gave an interview to the sports reporters who covered the fight. Famous words, “I lost my head and a million bucks.” When asked why he thought he could knock out Joe Louis, he responded, “What’s the use of being Irish if you can’t do stupid things?” In December of that year, and I remember the day very well, the Japanese navy bombed Pearl Harbor, and the next day Joe Louis and Billy Conn went down and joined the army.
Now why am I telling you this story? It’s not over ‘til it’s over. Later on, as they were good friends, Conn told Louis, “Least you could have done was let me have the championship for a year or so.” And Joe Louis responded, “You had it for twelve rounds.” It’s not over ‘til it’s over. You can be a saint your whole life long, but it’s not over ‘til it’s over.
You’re still in the ring, and the fight is still going on, and you may have your opponent on points, but he’s a lot smarter than you and a lot stronger than you are. Be prepared to go the distance. You are not going to knock out your opponent. Let me tell you that, because I have the strong impression that a few people have the fixed idea that they’re going to take care of it once and for all.
If we win this fight, it will be by a decision when the fight is over. Meanwhile, do not look for progress. One of the last books I would ever give a new person coming into the Orthodox Church is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, because they’re going through it and trying to find themselves. They’re usually not even on Step One yet.
I remember getting very serious about God when I was a teenager and reading all these books and trying to find out where I was. It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy. Don’t look for progress. The search for signs of spiritual progress is an illusion. It’s a distraction. For all you know, your opponent may be doing what Muhammad Ali did in a famous fight, which is play the rope-a-dope, and then take him out. Your opponent may be playing the rope-a-dope.
And don’t worry about what the scorecards say, because if your opponent lands a heavy one upside your head, it won’t make any difference what the scorecards say. Keep your attention on the fight. Never forget you are in a fight, and it’s a fight where somebody intends to take you out.
Every athlete I’ve ever spoken to, and they number quite a number, has said that the major thing, whatever the sport, was concentration. Keep the thinking straight. Whether a pitcher or a batter or anybody else, think! Somebody is going against you. That is true of the life in Christ. Think! All the time! Somebody is trying to deprive you of the Holy Spirit.
And your enemy has been fighting a lot longer than we have. He’s been around for the whole history of the human race. We are fighting the force that brought down King Saul. Our combat is against the intellect who deceived Judas Iscariot. None of is as sharp or as strong as the opponent, who’s determined to bring us down. Think about one thing all the time – the fight, the combat. Please, do not look for signs of progress. They are inevitably and infallibly deceptive. Almost any progress we would make has been given to us by the demon, in order to make us proud of the progress. Please understand that.
Point Two: The fix is not in. We don’t win the fight by signing up for the match. The match at any point can be lost. Because repentance is a full decision of man as well as the free gift of God, the grace of repentance, unless it is guarded carefully, can be lost.
The heresies of the Early Church were ultimately soteriological, but they were proximately Christological. The heresies of the past half millennium have been directly soteriological, and the most pernicious of these is the one that affirms, “once saved always saved.” In other words, you signed up for the match, and the fix was in.
You see, the battlefields of the world are strewn with the bones of indestructible armies. Those who fight best are invariably those who are aware they can lose. As soon as an army or general forgets that, everything is in peril. It is important to not only fight hard but to fight smart. Don’t adopt any wrong or misguided theory about the nature of the fight. At no point in your life are you completely secure. It’s important to remind you of that at Lent.
One can go back and read the words of St. Paul the Apostle who asked, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” And he runs through a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from the love of Christ – a marvelous text in the Epistle to the Romans. It’d be so easy if that were the only thing he ever wrote. He wrote about other things.
In Philippians, he wrote about working out our salvation in fear and trembling. In 1 Corinthians 9 he speaks about the discipline we must have. In 1 Corinthians 10, “Therefore let him who stands take heed, lest he fall.” We must be extremely serious about this, because at every point in life it is serious.
Point Three: When you’re knocked down it’s not the end. If repentance is a sustained constant in the life of grace, it is also repetitive. I’ve had visitors ask me, “How is it you sing Lord have mercy, so many times? Did you think the Lord didn’t hear you the first time?” My answer is, “Between the first time and the last time, I’ve already been distracted.”
This repetition of repentance is both possible and required, not only for the daily shortcomings that befall all of us, but also for those most serious infidelities that may, in a given life, constitute apostasy. Another recent theory, interpreting the adjective impossible, in Hebrews 6:4, taking an excessively literal sense, has imagined that there’s no return for a believer who has deliberately fallen from grace.
I’ve heard that a number of times in a source of immense, immense distress to people. They remember being saved, and then they fell. Now they think there’s no possible repentance. This mischievous theory however is dashed to pieces by the examples given us in the Bible. God had already chosen David, out of grace, and yet at a certain point in his life, he lost focus. He took a pair of binoculars on top of the castle roof, and then one thing led to another. He lost focus, and he fell.
Now humanly speaking, which is the only way I know how, if Nathan had not been sent to him to preach repentance, David’s picture would not be up on that icon back in the apse now. David repented.
Another is Peter the Apostle, who denied the Lord three times. It was not a slip. The Evangelists, especially Mark and John are very clear. They spread those denials out. Mark spread them over several hours by having the cock crow twice. There are three cock crows through the course of the night. This was not a momentary slip. This was deliberate. He had time to think it out. He had time to get away, but he stayed right there over several hours and he fell. It was quite deliberate. He repented, and the Lord took him back. The Lord takes all of us back.