Dale Murphy & The Bread Of Life – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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Good morning!

 

Jesus commends:  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…

 

While away from the office last week, my fourteen-year-old son, Michael, sent me an ESPN article entitled, “Where Have You Gone, Dale Murphy?” an homage, of course, to Paul Simon’s query as to the whereabouts of Joe DiMaggio and his boyhood wonder, and a reflection on my favorite baseball player and childhood hero, #3 in centerfield for the Atlanta Braves – Dale Bryan Murphy.  See, from the days of my earliest recollection, every spring, summer, and early-fall morning, I would wake up and retrieve the newspaper from our driveway.  On the walk back to the house, I would either shake it out of its plastic bag or roll away its rubberband and then tousle loose the Sports Section (Section C, in The Shreveport Times, if memory serves).  Once back inside the kitchen, I would collect the gallon of milk from the fridge and a cereal box from the pantry; one of the big bowls with the blue roosters from the cabinet to the left of the sink and a spoon from the drawer at the end of the counter; and I would arrange everything on our kitchen table.  Taking my seat, I would set my cereal bowl atop the baseball box scores, and, shoveling my Alpha-Bits, I would look for the report of the Braves game from the night before.

 

In those years, the Braves were terrible, and when my finger would finally find the line for “D. Murphy,” a lot of them read, “4 1 1 1,” signifying that he went one-for-four, likely with a solo homerun in another Braves loss.  At the table, I kept a spiral-bound notebook with a running tally of his statistics, and every Sunday I would check my math against the year-to-date totals The Times would publish in its weekly, special edition.  When one summer my dad took me to a baseball card show in Dallas, I remember noticing the Morning News sports section included a fifth column in their baseball box scores with running counts of up-to-date Batting Averages – long before the internet’s easy-access statistics, I thought to myself, “This is what it’s like in The Big City: everyone knows every player’s Average everyday … Amazing.”

 

Every night that I could, I watched Dale Murphy and his Atlanta Braves – the lineup I remember best boasted Bruce Benedict[i] behind the plate; Chris Chambliss at First Base; Glenn Hubbard at Second; Rafael Ramirez at Shortstop; Bob Horner (when he was healthy) at Third; Terry Harper in Left Field; Murphy in Center; Claudell Washington in Right[ii] – on “The Superstation,” Turner Broadcasting Systems out of Atlanta, channel 8 on my set.

 

            Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…

 

In the travelogue of John’s Gospel, this morning we meet Jesus following the feeding of the five thousand and his walk across the Sea of Galilee.  Despite his retreat from the crowds, they have followed him and they have found him, and Jesus complains they only want more food: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”[iii]

 

Notably, Jesus does not tell them he’s not going to feed them, and he does not criticize the crowd for having eaten their fill the day before.  Rather, he challenges them to eat with a different heart, to change their perspective of this gift they have received and, more importantly, to reorient themselves to the gifts they pursue: “This is the work of God,” he explains, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”[iv]

 

Of Jesus’ earlier miracles, Gail O’Day proposes, “The disciples saw the transformation of water into wine as a sign of Jesus’ glory; the royal official saw the healing of his son as a sign of Jesus’ ability to give life, and as a result they all believed in Jesus.  [However,] This crowd … can respond to the miracle only in terms of their full stomachs; they do not see it as a sign.”[v]  That is, this crowd does not yet “believe” in Jesus’ power to transform.  Instead, they only know him as someone who might feed them.

 

Even the continuing exchange regarding God’s historical provision of manna does not make clear that the crowd has reinterpreted their feeding as a sign of God’s glory.  Their response, “Sir, give us this bread always,” conveys assuredness, but rather than the confidence of faith, they only forthrightly announce the persistence of their hunger.  As with the Samaritan woman at the well,[vi] then, Jesus’ concluding reply – “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”[vii] – with these words Jesus makes clear that the gift he offers is not one meal, but nothing less than the abiding presence of God.  And, if the people will simply believe, then supper will be covered, too.

 

            Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…

 

Of my baseball-loving childhood, I recall having to spend one night with my cablevision-less maternal grandmother, and I remember crying and crying and crying – long after such tears were age-appropriate, if they ever were – crying because I would have to miss the Braves playing the first-place Cincinnati Reds with no one less than César Cedeño batting cleanup, César Cedeño, for whom I told my mother I planned to name my first child because of the way it rolled off the tongue: César Cedeño … Allen.

 

When I read that ESPN article one afternoon last week, man, I cried again – cried and cried as I had the night of that Reds game those years ago – for the author, Wright Thompson, explained to me that I had not been alone, and, in fact, “any kid born between 1972 and 1978 anywhere within the reach of the TBS satellite” could be marked as part of “Generation Murph,” as he called us.  “[B]orn during the presidency of Gerald Ford … we fell in love with baseball watching the Braves on the Superstation.  We [slept beneath] posters of [this] lanky center fielder in loopy midswing … We read the stories about Murphy’s kindness and charity, how he didn’t drink or smoke or curse and how he signed every autograph [… and we wanted to grow up to be just like him.]”[viii]

As we members of Generation Murph have now “grown into middle age … Dale [and his wife, Nancy,] live on a manicured corner,” in what Thompson describes as, “a Rockwell American town … Their house is nice, but not extravagant[, and…] The only clue that a former ballplayer lives [t]here is a photo of Dale at spring training holding two of his grandsons, all of them wearing matching No. 3s.  His two MVP trophies are in a closet upstairs.[ix]

 

“Together, they’re hilarious,” Thompson observes, “with Nancy alpha-momming and Dale shrugging and laughing and raising his arms to the sky.  The kids compare them to the couple from Modern Family.  ‘They all say Dale and I are like [Claire and Phil Dunphy, Nancy explains … I’m] a little high-strung, he’s a little forgetful.’”[x]

 

Thompson continues, painting this rich portrait of a man with dual identities – one as a baseball All-Star, and one as a dad – and then tracing his excellence in both pursuits: his Hall of Fame credentials on the one hand, and his humility and graciousness on the other.

 

Noting that Murphy finished his career with 398 homeruns – and at the time of his retirement, I believe only Darrell Evans had hit more than 400 and not been inducted into Cooperstown[xi] – Thompson makes the case that Murphy had different priorities.  “Injuries and a staph infection [had] left him hobbled, a shell of his former self.  Halfway through the season and just [those two homers shy of likely immortality], he couldn’t do it anymore.  [Surely most guys would have stayed to hit the milestone], but he missed his family.  He called Nancy and told her he couldn’t even run.  “I’m coming home,” he said [into the receiver].  Thompson writes, “Now, 25 years later, [Nancy’s] voice cracks telling that story.  She was pregnant then with Madi, their youngest.  ‘I can’t even explain it,’ she says.  ‘There are no words.’

 

“‘When we both turned 60, it really hit me,’ [she continues], ‘and I talked to Dale about it.  You look back and you say, ‘OK, oh, I get it!’  Like, everything we did was putting a brick into building this world … this life for ourselves.  You know?  We build this life together.  And we have these amazing kids and this beautiful family.  I was telling one of my kids, when you stay up late at night talking a child through a problem, you might feel like that time was wasted.  It’s not.  It’s one of those bricks that you’re putting in your life.  And you get to 60, it’s so satisfying to look back and say, ‘We built this together.’”[xii]

 

            Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…

 

In Jesus’ confrontation with the crowds, he challenges his followers to reprioritize – to reorient themselves – to hunger for a provision greater than bread alone.  By his challenge of them, so, too, Jesus challenges us: our priorities, whatever our context or setting might be.  How easily we fall into the trap of working – working hard! – but for all the wrong goals.  How easily we fall into the trap of wanting – desiring desperately! – but for all the wrong things.  At the cost of community and mercy and acceptance, we pursue status and positions and possessions, all no more fulfilling than a crumb of bread, underestimating not only the power of God in Christ to transform, but underestimating our call and capacity to better ourselves and this world in which we live.

 

As we welcome these newly baptized children – as we pledge our support to them and to their families – let us receive Jesus’ challenge to pursue together a fulfillment that will nourish us all the days of our lives: the daily paper and dew-wet feet, baseball statistics and bowls of sugary cereal, of course, but more than that, too – a “beautiful life,” one which we as the Body of Christ build day-by-day, brick-by-brick, home-by-home, and family-by-family.

 

Jesus commends, “I am the bread of life.”

 

Let us respond, “Sir, give us this bread, always.”[xiii]

 

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

Amen.[xiv]

 

 

 

[i] Though I had cheered him during my late adolescence (even if I preferred Biff Pocoroba on name alone), Bruce Benedict would become an SEC basketball official, and he called many games I attended during my college years at LSU.  In the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, my kind regards of him held no sway.

 

[ii] This represents the lineup of my idealized memory: I don’t know if this group ever actually played together.

[iii] John 6:26-27.

 

[iv] John 6:29.

 

[v] O’Day, Gail R. “John 6:25-34.” The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Abingdon, 1995, 599.  The italics are mine.

 

[vi] John 4:13-15: Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’”

 

[vii] John 6:35.

[viii] Thompson, Wright.  “Where Have You Gone, Dale Murphy.”  ESPN The Magazine.  July 27, 2018.  As noted in an earlier sermon, I have a conflicted experience of reading Thompson: his purple prose either wins me or makes me crazy.  Even so and as much as I enjoyed his piece about Ichiro, this article shared a special resonance with my own childhood.  Kudos to the Mississippi native.

 

[ix] Thompson.  I love this detail.  His two MVP trophies – that he won back-to-back, by the way, the first outfielder ever to do so – in a closet upstairs next to his old shoes and the Halloween decorations.  No big deal.

[x] Thompson.

[xi] Evans also played for the Braves, but before my time.  Unlike Murphy, whose peak was extraordinarily high, if short, Evans was good (and, occasionally, very good) for a very long time.  When considering Hall of Fame credentials, I don’t support the candidacy of guys like Evans (or Don Sutton, as the most egregious example) whose longevity is more impressive than their performance.

[xii] Thompson.

[xiii] John 6:34.

[xiv] I had worked a story about my son that I ultimately felt accomplished the same claim as Nancy Murphy’s “build this life together” reflection, so I omitted it.  However, it’s where this sermon started, a treasured memory, and I share it here: My son began collecting baseball cards several years ago, and he inherited the remnant of my collection to get him started.  While he never wedged his cards into the spokes of his bicycle as generations his senior may remember of their own childhood, when he began collecting he was entirely unconcerned about minding the cards’ condition.  He would sort them: first by team, and then by homeruns hit in a career, and then alphabetically by players’ names, and on and on and on, he would sort them.  Even now he has a folding table in his room with seven or eight sorted stacks of varying heights.

 

The corners of his cards – which by my teenage years I knew to keep sharp to preserve their value – the corners of his first cards are a mess, creased and fraying.  Michael would fall asleep with his cards in heaping piles on his bed.  He would fill grocery sacks with cards so he could bring them on trips to Louisiana and to the country.  No baseball card collector would buy my sweet son’s first cards.

 

When he began acquiring and accumulating these keepsakes, Michael was much less a collector than a lover of baseball cards.  In those days, his cards’ value was not in what someone might pay for them, but in what joy they brought to him.  While the better, holier portion of my heart would sing with joy when I would watch him love a 1983 Topps Rollie Fingers so fully and carefree, my worldliness winced when I saw him mangle a ’78 Lloyd Moseby or an ’82 Brett Butler.

 

When Michael was in fourth of fifth grade, he and I bought and split an unopened box of 1989 Bowman-brand cards.  We paid $8 for it.  As he tried to convince me to allow him to eat its quarter-century-old gum, he opened a pack that contained no one less than Dale Murphy.  We studied the prize together until he stuck it in his back pocket so that he would not lose track of it.  The day eventually gave way to bedtime, and after I tucked Michael under his covers, I climbed into my own.  There, on my pillow, I found that Michael had left the Dale Murphy card.  He had carefully encased the well-loved, fanny-smushed, and pocket-creased card in a plastic sleeve.