Recently I learned a valuable lesson or rather relearned through experience a valuable lesson that I was taught in homiletics class while at the seminary — a situation I’ve found myself in repeatedly throughout the first year of my parish ministry. I learned that even the sermon’s sandlot is important.
What’s the sermon’s sandlot? Good question. Here’s the long answer.
On the Fourth Sunday of Easter I preached on the Epistle lesson, 1 John 3:16-24, specifically verse 20: “for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart…”
In the sermon I speak about how sins people commit make them feel as if they’re beyond forgiveness, that our hearts use those sins to condemn us, but that God is greater than our heart. I felt that that section of the sermon was particularly heavy and it seemed appropriate to me to include a contextual relief valve, you know, to allow the congregation a chance to come up for air. The plot of the movie The Sandlot came to mind.
If you recall in the flick, the pickle that the kids find themselves in is the result of Scotty Smalls stealing his step-dad’s Babe Ruth signed baseball. Well, I inserted this sinful scenario of stealing your step-father’s baseball that was signed by the Great Bambino, playing with it, and hitting it over the fence into James Earl Jones’ backyard where it was destroyed by his beast of a dog. (It occurs around the 9 minute mark in the audio file above.)
The little leaguers in the pews started to pay attention, some people — parents who grew up in the 90s — immediately got the reference, smiling as they realized that I was making a joke. Others, those who weren’t as familiar with the movie, continued to listen, perhaps a little confused about the amount of detail revolving around this particular sin, and that it somehow involved Darth Vader. I didn’t leave my hearers bewildered but for a brief moment before revealing that my knowledge of our sinful reality and 1990’s movie trivia had “accidentally” become intermixed.
That’s what I consider a sermon’s sandlot. Something included in a sermon that relates to the theme and appropriately fits the context, but that ultimately is of little to no theological significance. I could have just as easily left the joke out and no one would have missed it, theologically speaking. It’s the side note, a topical anecdote, or mention of something superfluous.
But as I said above, even the sermon’s sandlot is important. And here’s your pudding’s proof. When I slid into this particular sandlot, I took a member of the congregation with me. While I didn’t anticipate touching anyone’s life with the plot of The Sandlot, that’s exactly what I did, and with a rush of childhood memories. A member of the church had an experience shockingly similar to Scotty Smalls’, minus a blind James Earl Jones and a mastiff, and save a couple key differences.
When he was a boy he went to a “Babe Ruth” All-Stars World Series game. Having caught a foul ball and after discovering that Mrs. Ruth, Babe’s widow, was in the stands, he asked her to sign his trophy. She did and he took home a unique piece of sport’s memorabilia. As he explained to me in the days following my sermon, one afternoon when he couldn’t find a ball to play with, he took the Mrs. Babe Ruth ball, and with his dad’s permission and help he taped over the signature, enabling him to use it like any other ball. While he wasn’t familiar with The Sandlot, he relived that part of his childhood in the moments that followed my inclusion of the joke in the sermon. It was a moment that made the sermon real. It was also a moment of distraction. If the most pivotal Gospel moment of my sermon would’ve been directly after the sandlot he would’ve missed it!
Even the sermon’s sandlot is important. It’s a real life place of memories and connections, a place of communication and comprehension, at times trivial and lighthearted, but nevertheless important in the proclamation of God’s Word, which demands attention and caution. The sandlot may actually wind up being the place where the greatest homiletical gems of theological truth are caught by the listener or, to the preacher’s chagrin, where they’re hit over the fence unable to be retrieved.