Catching Grace: A Meandering Sermon for the Plain

I spent Tuesday home sick by myself, laying on the couch, and watching all sorts television. Among the things that I watched, I caught a sports documentary called Catching Hell. It was about Steve Bartman. More than that, it was about curses, scapegoats, identity, the way that we turn on one another, and—to my eyes—an echo of grace and the biblical idea that there is nobody righteous, not even one. Spiritual and philosophical headiness aside, it’s an incredibly engaging documentary.

First, some backstory. The Chicago Cubs own the dubious distinction of having the longest championship drought in American professional sports. The last time the Cubs won the Fall Classic was 1908. In 2003, they were 5 outs away from advancing to their first World Series since 1945.

With Chicago up 3-0 in the Top of 8th, Florida Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo popped a foul ball down the left field line. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou charged towards the stands to make the catch. As the ball drifted towards the stands, multiple fans—as fans always do in these situations—reached out to catch the ball. Had no one been there, Alou likely would have made the catch and put the Cubs one out closer to the Fall Classic. But the ball deflected off of Steve Bartman’s hands. It was a costly mistake.

Castillo eventually walked on a wild pitch that allowed the runner on second base to advance to third. The next batter hit a single that drove in the runner making the score 3-1. The next batter after that hit the ball to Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez for what is typically seen as a routine double play ball that would have ended the inning. However, Gonzalez misfielded the ball and as a result the bases were loaded. The spiral had begun. By the end of the inning, the Marlins had scored eight runs and eventually won the game. The next night, Florida won Game 7 by a score of 9-6 and advanced to the World Series.

The documentary recounted in lurid detail the way in which Wrigley Field devolved into a terrifying scene that autumn night. The heartbreak, bitterness, and rage of a city that had an elusive trip to the Series snatched from them was aimed squarely at a single fan. The documentary continually showed the crowd chanting, “A———! A———!” and pointing towards Bartman’s direction. Profanities, beer, and stadium food were hurled at him. People were threatening to kill him. A video caught someone screaming that they should put a 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger.

Security had to rescue Steve Bartman from his seat. They escorted him up the stadium stairs as people hurled insults and objects at the man. After the game, they had to disguise him and escort him out of the stadium. In the ensuing days, months, and years, Bartman would go into hiding. He continues to seek anonymity, refusing interviews.

The thing that I couldn’t shake as I watched them show that infamous play again and again is how many people reached out for that foul ball. Steve Bartman was the fan off of which the ball bounced, but it could have been any number of people around him.

If you shuffled any baseball fan into those seats, I would bet that as many as 8 out of 10 would do the exact same thing that Steve Bartman did; if not more. Catching a foul ball is a dream for a baseball fan; especially if it’s a foul ball from a game in which your beloved team might clinch an elusive trip to the World Series. That ball would be something you would put up on your living room mantle and tell your grandkids stories about.

What I kept thinking was all those angry fans—the ones chunking beer at the guy, the ones threatening him with violence, the scores chanting “A———!” while pointing at him—likely would have done the exact same thing in his place. Sure, many of those people today would likely say that he or she would never have interfered with the play. But hindsight is 20/20. The truth is most would have likely done the same thing.

Yet they were hurling insults at Steve Bartman and mocking him. They were acting as if they were better than him. They were speaking to the fact that he was a colossal failure yet in that action were airing their own brutal failures. The scenes the documentary showed of Wrigley Field that night were like hell on earth.

Ecclesiastes 7:20 reads, “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” Or as Paul renders it in Romans 3:10-11, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.”

As far as goodness is concerned, we’re all on the bottom floor. No human being is looking down on us from a mountain of their own righteousness. The world is flat. We are all living in the plains. Sure, a person may screw up royally but we are never in any sort of position to look down on him or her. We are no better than they.

To put it another way, we all need God’s grace desperately. There’s a line in a U2 song that says, “I found grace inside a sound/I found grace, it’s all I found.” There are times in which all I can hold onto in the Christian faith is God’s mercy shown through Jesus. There are times when I feel like grace is all I found. Frankly, it helps me hold it together when a lot of stuff about Christianity seems to be tearing at the seams. And the thing about grace is that it is not something I have earned. It is not a prize that I get to hold above my head over others in the plain. It’s a gift.

Grace is a bit of a mystery. It can’t be solely pinned to a prayer or a walk down an aisle. One can’t put a formula on how grace will present itself to us. A murderer simply asked Jesus to remember him and Jesus told that man that he would join the Messiah in paradise. Saying that you have invited Jesus into your life isn’t a magic phrase that will cause grace to flow; in fact, it’s one that doesn’t appear in scripture at all.

I certainly believe that it is through Jesus that we are saved, but I also believe that God’s grace is God’s grace and not mine. So God may save a man wracked with guilt late in life who wants God but can’t quite find the words for it; who might not even believe he deserves it. And I have to admit that God may not save that man. I like to believe God would, but the fact is I don’t know. Of course, I don’t know that God will save me. I believe it, but I don’t know it. It is something that I have to take on faith. It is not something that God somehow owes me for doing Steps A, B, and C.

These are the thoughts that have gone through my head since viewing Catching Hell. The title refers to Steve Bartman catching hell in the minutes and years that followed that fateful night, but the fact is everyone at Wrigley Field for that game caught hell. Every person that lives pitches and catches hell in the ways in which we selfishly live for our own desires and neglect the truly important things. No one can avoid that. No one is righteous, not even one.

Yet here’s some good news and it is to what I must cling tightly. Because of Jesus, God rains down grace in a beautiful, unbelievable, and mysterious way. It can fall on any of us here in the plains. May as many of us catch grace as possible.

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