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Suffering, Glory, and Ichiro Suzuki – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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As the story goes, Mike Sweeney – a five-time Major League Baseball All-Star and just a couple of years older than I am – was walking through Central Park with his wife.  As they strolled on this rare day off during the grind of a season, they approached a sandlot field and old backstop, where they could see in the distance a “guy playing long-toss [a stretching exercise].  [Sweeney] did the quick math and figured the stranger was throwing 300 feet on the fly[, that’s roughly the distance from an outfield foul pole to home plate, a rare achievement for a layman.]  Curious, he [and his wife] walked closer.  [As they approached the field, t]he guy [started to hit] balls into the backstop, [with] the powerful shotgun blast of real contact[, a sound] familiar to any serious ballplayer.  [More] impressed[ now, Sweeney] got even closer, close enough to see.  [He and his wife were surprised – and not so surprised – to realize that t]he man working out alone in Central Park was Ichiro [Suzuki, Sweeney’s teammate with the Seattle Mariners].”[i]

Suzuki arrived to the United States to play baseball in 2001 when he was twenty-seven-years-old, having already collected 1,278 hits across nine seasons with the Orix Buffaloes of the Japanese professional league.  In his rookie MLB season, Suzuki batted .350, stole 56 bases, and won both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, only the second player to win both honors in the same season [Quiz the congregation: Does anybody know the first player?][ii].  Three years later, Ichiro would bat .372 – the seventh highest average since 1941 – .372 on 262 hits, the single-season record.  In the field Suzuki won ten consecutive Gold Gloves, covering ground in right with the anticipation of a Jedi knight, and with an impossible combination of grace, strength, and precision, shouldering a laser cannon as a right arm.[iii]

Even off the field, I have always found Ichiro easy to admire: he seems to maintain a measure of humility in his stardom, boasting a playful smile that I have taken to witness exuberance and gratitude.  He will turn 45 this October, and though Spring Training started without him, he just signed a contract with the same Mariners club that first wooed him here eighteen years ago.

In this morning’s Gospel appointment, Jesus declares, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”[iv]  Sandra Schneiders, Professor Emerita at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California and a sister of The Immaculate Heart of Mary, proposes that the “glory” of Jesus in the Gospel of John refers specifically to his Passion and not his Resurrection… specifically to his Passion, and not his Resurrection.  She explains: “The resurrection, in [Matthew, Mark, and Luke], is Jesus’ vindication by God, the divine reversal of…death by crucifixion.  In John, [however,] Jesus’ death is never presented as [abasement, and, therefore, requires no reversal.]  Rather, Jesus is glorified in and by his death.  His lifting up on the cross is his exaltation.”[v]

Rereading today’s lesson with this idea, then, Jesus – in the midst of the Passover festival’s celebrations – announces that the time has come for him to suffer – not to rise, but to suffer, and his glory is in his suffering.  Jesus explains, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[vi]

Hear, then, two ideas:

1) those who love their life lose it; and,

2) those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I invite you to hold those ideas for a moment – to put a finger on the line in your worship booklet – and to remember that a couple of weeks ago on the Second Sunday of Lent, we read from the Gospel of Mark when Jesus says to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”[vii]

To Schneiders’ point regarding Mark deploying Jesus’ resurrection as vindication, customarily we understand Jesus’ direction to “carry our cross” and the paradoxical twists of “losing” and “saving” our lives, as calls for us to remain faithful even in the midst of hardship, for, in the end, God will redeem our struggle with the reward of eternal life.

Returning now to John’s passage, we may, likewise, prefer to muddle this morning’s teaching with those same paradoxical twists and hear “loving” and “hating” as the usual commission to take up our cross and await our prize.  However, that tidy flip does not work here.  In John, Jesus may well mean just exactly what he says, offering these words not as encouragement, but as warning: “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  That is, if to love our life is to seed God’s hopes and not our own – indeed, to make God’s dreams our dreams – then to store up treasures for ourselves on earth is to hate our life…to hoard is to hate, and to love is to give it away, and Jesus’ warns that seeking our own ends we will become captive to our selfishness forever.

Wright Thompson[viii] writes long-form sports articles for ESPN The Magazine, and his recent piece about Ichiro Suzuki – from which I drew that Sweeney story – focuses not on Ichiro’s stardom, but on the star’s suffering: “Ichiro hates not playing baseball, but he might hate playing poorly even more.  When he’s slumping, his wife has said, she will wake up and find him crying in his sleep.  The first time he went on the disabled list as a major leaguer was because of a bleeding…ulcer.  That year, he’d led Japan to a victory in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, winning the final game with a base hit in extra innings[, but t]he stress ate a hole in his stomach.  Weeks later, a…team doctor told [Ichiro he] couldn’t play on Opening Day.  [He] refused to listen…Before the [Mariners] ultimately forced him [out of the lineup], the doctor [again] tried to explain [his peril] that…[his] condition could actually kill him.  Ichiro listened, unmoved.  “I’ll take my chances,” he said.[ix]

Last month, Thompson followed Ichiro’s off-season routine to the Hotel Okura lobby, where on Friday, February 2, at exactly 11:46 A.M. – the same minute as the day before, the same minute as the day after – Ichiro walked through the lobby of the “35-story waterfront tower…where the ballplayer always stays [this time of year].”  A waterfall in front of the hotel [had] frozen mid-cascade as Ichiro “climb[ed] inside his green Mercedes G-Class SUV to drive over the mountains to the ballpark he rents for his workouts…On the drive to that [ballpark] – literally, an entire stadium – [snow began to fall.  Once a]t the field, [Suzuki] chang[ed] into shorts, [while a] hard wind [blew].”

Thompson suggests, “Ichiro isn’t here in spite of the brutal cold, but because of it…influenced by remnants of bushido, the code of honor and ethics governing the samurai warrior class, [which believes that s]uffering reveals the way to greatness.  When [Japan] opened up to the Western world in 1868, the language didn’t even have a word to call games played for fun.  [Therefore, b]aseball got filtered through the prism of martial arts, and it remains a crucible rather than an escape.  Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh wrote in his memoir, ‘Baseball in American is a game that is born in spring and dies in autumn.  In Japan it is bound to winter as the heart is to the body’…

“[In winter, a] group of people always [work] out with Ichiro.  [On this February day] there are 11 of them, not one a serious athlete.  One is the [hotel] chef.  One is a white guy who runs like a wounded animal.  All of them wear long pants because only a maniac would dress for this weather in shorts.

“Every day, the workout is the same.  They stretch and jog.  Ichiro runs the bases and the rest follow him around the path.  Suzuki takes 50 soft-toss swings, hitting the ball into a net[, and] then he stretches again and steps into the batting cage.  Five people stand around the outfield with yellow crates and gloves…Ichiro cracks line drives around the field…[In t]he final group of pitches…a ball [comes at Suzuki] every 10 seconds.  [He hits t]he last ball high into the air[, arcing it, miraculously, into] one of the yellow crates.  His friends go nuts…[and h]e walks off the field…

“The temperature continues to fall…[And u]p close,” Thompson observes, “[Ichiro Suzuki] looks like a prisoner.”[x]

Consider that even as we gather just ahead of Palm Sunday and can anticipate our annual reading of Jesus’ Passion a week from now, Jesus anticipates his death and admits ambivalence about its inevitability.  With his rhetorical question – “should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? – and his answer – “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  ‘Father, glorify your name.’” – Jesus seems to talk himself out of his “troubled soul” as much as he seeks to convince his followers of his Passion’s complicated meaning, this idea that somehow his death will be his glory. [xi]

Perhaps forestalling his death, “[Ichiro] still organizes his life in five-minute blocks[, and d]eviations can untether him.  Retirement remains the biggest [and most foreboding] deviation of all.  Last year, a Miami newspaperman asked what he planned on doing after baseball.  ‘I think I’ll just die,’ Ichiro said.”[xii]

Admitting even Jesus’ ambivalence – of dread and of courage…of death and of glory – and acknowledging our own attendant to it – of pity and of admiration…of compassion and of veneration – let us neither demonize Ichiro Suzuki nor martyr him.  Rather, let us recognize and learn from his “troubled soul,” as Thompson’s article reveals of his life’s rigor, a rigor which, ultimately, imprisons the athlete.  Ichiro’s drive makes him captive to his own excellence, and despite the incredulity I can muster about his situation – after all, here’s a guy with hundreds of millions of dollars; who has been able to play the game he loves for longer than just about anyone else in history; and to play it at levels few, if any, have ever reached…can’t he just enjoy it? – even so, even I – without nearly the gifts of his resources or discipline or genius – I can see glimmers of my own, selfishly misordered priorities in his story…can you?

Can we recognize how hoarding our life – holding onto it for our own comfort and

gain – imprisons us in unrelenting unfulfillment?

Can we recognize how the costs of the standard of living to which we have made ourselves beholden can – literally – kill us: eating holes in our guts, lashing our livers, and diseasing our hearts?

Can we recognize how promises of fame and freedom leave us wearing short pants in a    Japanese snow fall, like a seed drying atop hard ground?

Man, I don’t want this life!  And I certainly don’t want it forever.

So what does God propose we do instead?  God proposes we give ourselves for the fruit of the Lord.  God encourages us to let loose of our selfish concerns and, by Jesus’ witness on the cross, to trust that in so doing, we will not be left abandoned, but will be drawn with all the world to the presence of the glorified Jesus.[xiii]  This is not a promise of fame or fortune, but a covenant of mercy and love.

This is a dangerous message, so be absolutely clear: God does not want our suffering, and God certainly does not want our death.  Rather, God longs for our faithfulness to the purposes of the creation.  And if we suffer in faithful pursuit of God’s hopes – which Jesus’ life and Passion declare as inevitable – then God will be with us in that struggle, thereby transforming our sufferings – indeed! – into glory.

Let us pray once more: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.[xiv]

Amen.

[i] Thompson, Wright. “When Winter Never Ends.”  ESPN The Magazine. April 2, 2018.
[ii] Fred Lynn, 1975.  Lynn should have won again in ’79: .333, 116, 39, 122, with a 1.059 OPS?!  Don Baylor (RIP, 2017) had a great season, too, but he received a gift from the writers.
[iii] I allow myself one baseball sermon per year, usually preached around this time, and I could go Full-Nerd in a discussion of Ichiro.  At the 10:30a I indulged my love of the game a little longer than best practices would allow, telling the story of my favorite Suzuki defensive play:  During that same rookie season – before opposing coaches and players fully realized his defensive powers – Terrence Long of the Oakland A’s attempted to move from First Base to Third Base on a single to Right Field, a routine run that one would not expect to be contested, much less halted.  On this particular play, Long runs five or six full-throttle steps past Second before Ichiro fields the ball and in one, seamless motion of running-scooping-throwing, rifles a bullet to David Bell at Third, perfectly delivering the ball to the four-inch pocket of his teammate’s glove hovering just above the ground and just in front of Long’s forwardmost cleat.  After recording the out, Bell looks around for a moment, even he not quite sure what to make of what had just happened.  No one else – not Mantle nor Mays, not Bo Jackson nor Vlad, not Cespedes nor Puig – could have made that throw.
[iv] John 12:23.
[v] Schneiders, Sandra M. Written That You May Believe. Herder & Herder, 2003. pp.56-58.
[vi] John 12:24-25.
[vii] Mark 8:34-36.
[viii] With – I admit – a mix of jealousy and regional disdain for my Louisiana home’s eastern neighbors, I generally find Thompson’s work as overwrought as the goofy hats he wears.  However, he hooked me here: “When Winter Never Ends” is a beautiful piece.  I believe they changed the title – when I first read it, I believe it was entitled “Ichiro Suzuki’s Lifetime Contract.”  I do like the obligation the first title implied.
[ix] Thompson.
[x] Thompson.
[xi] John 12:27-28.
[xii] Thompson.
[xiii] John 12:32.
[xiv] The collect appointed for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, from The Book of Common Prayer, p.219.