Stealing Home

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
Easter Day + April 9, 2023

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  (John 20:17) 

Not long ago Stacie and I went to a wedding reception at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  To get there we decided to take the subway.  We had our directions: take the Q to the Prospect Park station, walk through the park, turn right, and there it will be.  Coincidentally, I had recently watched a clip on YouTube in which the late radio broadcaster, Larry King, was talking about his growing up years in Brooklyn.  He described identical directions: take the train to the Prospect Park station, walk through the park, make that right turn, and there it was.  There what was?  Larry King wasn’t talking about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  He was talking about Ebbets Field, the home of Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957. 

Ebbets Field fit snugly into one, irregularly shaped city block in Flatbush.  As far as Major League stadiums go, it was tiny.  It was a jewel box.  Those who remember it grope for the words to describe the experience of being there.  One of our parishioners, Charles McClean, recalls, as an eight-year old, holding his father’s hand and coming through the dark tunnel to their section of seats.  The first glimpse of the emerald green grass, he says, “was like moving from a black-and-white world to technicolor.”  It never disappointed.  He marvels at how close the players were to every fan.  For the residents of Brooklyn, Ebbets Field was a small piece of paradise.  It was emblematic of an innocent age.  It was a home away from home until it was stolen from under them.  Still today, 63 years after its demolition, Ebbets Field evokes more ongoing nostalgia than any other lost building in New York City, with the possible exception of Penn Station.  Frank Sinatra sang about it.  Architects of new stadiums pay homage to it.  Urban planners study its intimate connection with the neighborhood.  Authors write about it as the greatest ballpark ever. 

So it was, while walking to the wedding reception, I looked and saw not Ebbets Field, but the Ebbets Field apartments, the fine example of postwar Soviet bloc architecture that replaced it.  I vowed that I would return and walk the block to see if any vestige remained.  Just a few days later, that’s exactly what I did with my longsuffering wife, who with an app on her phone even located a plaque exactly where home plate used to be.  Of course, I took my place in the batter’s box, exactly where such greats as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella had stood.  Was I caught up in the nostalgia?  Oh yes.  I found myself remembering a place that I had never known.  I was missing something that had ceased to exist before I was born.  What a strange experience it was. 

At this point it’s fair to guess that you are asking why: Why on Easter Day, why on this Day of all days in the Christian year am I talking about a defunct old baseball stadium?  I do so because of today’s reading from the Gospel of John.  The four Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all have different ways of describing what happened on the first Easter Day.  Only John sets the narrative in a garden.  Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried the body of Jesus in a new tomb in a nearby garden. 

A. Bartlett Giamatti was a Renaissance scholar and in 1989, briefly the Commissioner of Baseball before his untimely death from a heart attack. He enjoyed reminding anyone who would listen that the word “paradise” shares a similar etymology with an ancient Persian word denoting a green enclosed place or garden. He went on: “Ballparks exist because there is in humanity a vestigial memory of an enclosed green space as a place of freedom or play.”[1]  Giamatti was alluding to nothing less than the Biblical story of Eden, the legendary first home of humanity.  There in the garden the inhabitants lived in a perfect relationship with God, a perfect relationship with each other, and a perfect relationship with the earth.  John, also, was alluding to Eden, that place we remember, even though we have never been there.  Indeed, humanity is haunted by a memory of something we’ve never known.  We are nostalgic for paradise, for Home with a capital H. 

John describes how Mary Magdalene came to the garden to grieve the death of Jesus.  For Mary and the other disciples, Jesus had awakened their vestigial memory of paradise.  In his presence life had gone from black-and-white to technicolor, from scarcity to abundance.  He fed the hungry, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and made the lame to walk.  With authority he forgave sinners.  People rejoiced.  Here was a glimpse of how life was supposed to be.  But, as we’ve come to expect, nothing lasts forever.  The ruling powers who were threatened by Jesus aimed to bring him to a horrible, unjust end.  Start with deceit, add betrayal and desertion, and the whole thing would come crashing down.  The crucifixion was supposed to be the end of the story.  It was all a business decision, you see. 

I won’t pretend that you don’t know what comes next.  What you may not realize, however, is how firmly the basics of the Easter story are grounded in history.  Upon arriving in the garden Mary discovered that the tomb of Jesus was empty.  Then, within a short while, Mary met the risen Jesus, after first mistaking him for the gardener.  For John, the setting of the garden is key.  The garden is central to the point that he is trying to make: that in Jesus, paradise is restored.  The kingdom of God is at hand, even among us.  But where?  What are the directions?  How do we get back to what the British poet, A.E. Housman calls “the land of lost content?”[2]  No train will take you there.  Walk the block that used to be Ebbets Field.  It’s gone.  It is finished. 

What really happened on the first Easter Day?  In the land where Biblical scholars and theologians dwell, you can find two general camps of believers.  On one side of the tracks will be those of a modernist, enlightenment mindset.  Concerning the resurrection of Jesus, they warn against explanations that contradict the laws of nature and the scientific method.  Did Jesus rise from the dead?  Did he appear to various people after his death?  Yes, but it was in the hearts and minds of his close friends and followers.  It was a subjective thing.  It was a spiritual awakening in the grieving disciples that turned their sorrow into joy.  Stories of the empty tomb and bodily appearances were later legends created to help them tell the story. 

On the other side of the tracks will be those of a more traditionalist mindset.  Concerning the resurrection of Jesus, their contention is that asking what really happened isn’t the right question.  The real question is: what possibly could have caused the defeated followers of Jesus to regroup and proclaim him as the Messiah?  Their answer?  Only the basics of what the Gospels describe can explain the history that followed.  The empty tomb and the bodily appearances of Jesus had to be objective realities for any movement to gain traction.  Within a few short years the message that Jesus had risen from the dead had turned the known world upside down.  A private, subjective experience in the hearts and minds of a few biased people is not a sufficient explanation. 

So there you have the two camps of believers.  As you might well imagine, a good bit of shouting takes place across the divide.  For our purposes today, we don’t need to declare who is living on the right and wrong side of the tracks.  In good Episcopal fashion we can decide in favor of both.  The subjective theories explain how the risen Jesus comes to us today: in heart and mind.  But they simply cannot account for what happened in the garden on Easter.  Only the objective theories can explain the events of those first forty days.  St. Paul seems to be the figure with a foot on both sides of the tracks.  His encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road was an experience he groped for the words to describe.  Was it an objective reality or a subjective experience?  Was he in the body or out of the body?  He’d be the first to tell you, “I do not know (2 Cor. 12:2).”  Either way, when he wrote about it, he described it as an apocalypse, a revealing of God’s future.  The risen Jesus is the firstborn of what God has in store for all of creation.  Thus, Easter points us forward in hope and trust, not backwards in nostalgia.  Do not hold onto me, said the risen Jesus to Mary. 

When I was growing up, Easter morning always included a wicker basket full of candy, the centerpiece of which was a large, solid, chocolate bunny.  Trust me: one bite and the world went from black-and-white to technicolor.  My two brothers and I, being brothers, were quite competitive, so our bunnies had to be identical.  On day-one we’d eat the ears.  Day-two: the head.  By the third day we’d be gnawing our way down the neck.  But then the mindset of scarcity kicked in, and we realized that once the bunny was gone, that was it.  Your days of chocolate delight were done.  Thus the competition became who could make his bunny last the longest.  If I recall, about a month after Easter I’d still have a small piece of the base covered with teeth marks.  I didn’t want the experience to end.  I didn’t want to pronounce over it the words, “It is finished.”  Do not hold onto me, said Jesus to Mary. 

Do not hold onto me.  Easter points us forward into God’s future.  Easter is God’s promise that we have a destination.  Call it home, or heaven, or paradise.  Call it the Land of Lost Content or the Great Day of Chocolate Delight if you like.  Through the resurrection of Jesus, God’s promise is that we will arrive safely home.  It all points forward.  Home is ahead of us, not behind us.  I believe that this is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote the lines we heard in today’s letter of his to the Colossians (3:1-4): If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  The promise to God’s faithful people is always that are best days are ahead of us, not behind us. 

But what of the memory of paradise that haunts us?  What of the nostalgia for the people and places we have loved and lost?  My friends, the news gets even better.  Long before Easter, long before Jesus, God spoke the prophetic word to a grief-stricken, war-wearied, devastated people who had lost everything, including hearth and home.  God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah (31:1-6), promising a great day that would raise up all that had been cast down.  Again I will build you, and you shall be built.  Again you shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.  Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria.  Everything that was true, and lovely, and gracious comes along in the resurrection.  Nothing is lost.  Do not hold onto me. 

And so it was that last month I stood in the right hand batter’s box of what used to be Ebbets Field, remembering a place I had never known.  At my feet was a metal home plate embedded in the concrete.  The inscription on it reads, in part, At this location on April 15, 1947 Jack Roosevelt Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.  I thought to myself that had I been standing in that exact location at some earlier time, I might have been in danger of Jackie Robinson’s flying feet and flashing spikes.  You see, Jackie Robinson had a talent for stealing home.  Stealing home is one of the more difficult things to do in the world of sport.  Yes, it’s all about timing, but essentially, you have to outrun a 90+ mph fastball.  Jackie Robinson went down to the dust and did it 19 times in his Major League career.  Fun fact that you can share with your unsporty loved ones over Easter dinner today: eleven of those times were at Ebbets Field.  Stealing home was parabolic of everything Jackie Robinson had to do.  So many basic human rights had been stolen out from under him and his people that stealing them back on the base paths was poetic justice.  It was as if he were reclaiming something that was his all along: Home. 

What God says to the world through the resurrection is this: Jesus Christ has stolen home.  That which was ours, that which we remember, is ours again.  All we go down to the dust.  But even though we die, yet shall we live.  And even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia. 

[1] George F. Will, Men at Work.  Macmillan Publishing Co. 1990, p. 5

[2] The Rev. Richard Holloway, Suffering, Sex, and other Paradoxes.  Morehouse Barlow, 1984, p. 17.