Absolutes and Absolute Value
Robert McCartney, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 2nd, 2017
Joshua 24:1-15 John 14:15-21
I was a young boy growing up I would constantly find myself in the midst of adults they were carrying on conversations. Because I was just a young boy I was not required to join in with them. I remember when I was seven years old that I was in one of those situations. I was with my father; he was talking with two other men. I don’t know what prompted this or anything but all of a sudden one man said, well, there are only two absolutes in life. The absolutes in life are that if you live in this country you’re going to pay taxes and that eventually you will die. Now imagine some of you have already heard that. But being a impressionable young man — you know — it seemed really logical to me that that made sense and so I decided that I would adopt those two absolutes to my repertoire as I went through my life. And for the next few years I did that. Whenever there was an opportunity for frivolous conversation or dialogue I would bring up that there were only two absolutes in life that is: you’re going to pay taxes and you are going to die.
I went on that way for quite a while until I reached the age of thirty and when I reached the age of thirty I added a third absolute to my absolutes: you will pay taxes if you live in this country, that eventually you will die, and the third absolute that I added was that every spring Bill Whiskers Jacobson would pitch for St. Joe’s One. But now you might ask why did I add that one? When I was thirty I belong to a church and we going to United Methodist Church for about four years and in that area there was a fast pitch churches soft ball league. And we had participated in that league prior but since I joined the church they had not been actively participating in that but they had made the decision that they were going to rejoin the league. And some men of the church — even though they knew nothing about my athletic ability — decided that they would invite me to join the team and play with them. And since I played organized baseball since I was eight years old I jumped at the opportunity to do that; I accepted their invitation.
Now I have to tell you something. What I want to tell you is: I am not boasting, I’m a very humble individual, but I do need to tell you one thing or else the story will not mean nearly as much. And what I want to tell you is: I was a very good hitter. So I joined the team and after they got to know my abilities, I found myself batting third or fourth. That is usually where the best hitters on the team bat. I was off to a really good start. My first year in the league, the fifth game of the year, we are going to play a team by the name of team St. Joe’s One. St. Joe’s is an extremely large Catholic Church in the area. They were so large in fact that they did not only have one team, they had two teams in the league. We were set to play them.
And as were getting ready to play them, I’m watching to see who the pitcher for them is going to be and in the first inning I see this man walking out toward the mound and he was very small in stature about five foot six, 140 pounds and he walked with a slight limp. And he had this grizzled look like he hadn’t shaved for three or four days and he looked like he was about sixty years old. He stepped onto the mound and I realize that he is their pitcher and I am thinking I’m going to get to bat today four times; I’m going to have four hits, a really good game and our team is going to win. I had already decided that just based upon his appearance. So the first two batters stepped up but I forget what they did. I stepped up, it was my turn and I looked out there and I’m saying: I am going to hit the ball so hard that the covers are going to fly off the ball.
And then Whiskers – that’s his nickname — delivers the first pitch and it’s a fast ball straight down the middle of the plate and I watch it and I hear the umpire say strike one. That’s not real unusual; I usually don’t swing at the first pitch a lot because I didn’t care if I had one or two strikes on me, it helps me get my timing down. He throws the second pitch and it’s a fastball and its outside and the umpire says ball. And then it happened; something that would drastically alter the rest of my ball playing career. The third pitch comes in and I see that the pitch is spinning. So I know that the ball is going to change directions. And the ball is coming towards me, which means its inside, so I stepped out of the batter’s box at the last second; I see the pitch come in and it breaks away from me across the plate and the umpire yelled strike two. Now I have to tell you something – I don’t want to be real technical – but I bat left-handed, Whiskers threw right-handed so when a right-handed pitcher throws a baseball that is going to change directions to a left-handed batter that means the pitch should break towards me. This one did not; it broke away from me. Of all the thousands of pitchers that I’d seen in my lifetime, at that point, there had never been a right-handed pitcher that threw a pitch that broke away from me.
I was shocked and amazed and I was out of the batter’s box and I’m thinking: what in the world is he going to throw me next? I’m trying to collect myself but it didn’t work because I stepped back into the batter’s box and Whiskers throws the next pitch. It is a fastball right down the middle of the plate; I should have crushed it but all I could do was put a weak swing on it and I hit a lazy pop up to the second baseman and he caught it and I was out. I batted three more times that game and at the end of that game I had zero hits. I was oh for four and it was on. I said: well maybe that was just a fluke; I have a bad game. We played Whiskers two more times that year. I batted eight more times against him, and at the end of the year I had zero hits against him.
So preparing for my second season, I said: well Whiskers had me last year but he’s not going to get me this year and with eight teams in the league we played the other seven teams three times. So I faced him three more games the following year. And I batted against him thirteen times and at the end of that season I had zero hits.
The third season rolls around and to make matters worse, we decided they no longer wanted to participate in the league but I had made some friends in the league and they invited me to play on their team and the name of the team that I want to play for was St. Joe’s Two, the other team from the St. Joe’s church, a team that even though they belong to the same church; there was a really intense rivalry and they always wanted to beat St. Joe’s One.
The third season we got to play against St. Joe’s One and Whiskers four times because we were in the playoffs. I batted against Whiskers fifteen times and I had zero hits. The fourth season rolls along, we play them three more times, Whiskers pitched all three games. At the end of those three games against Whiskers Jacobson I had zero hits. Did I tell you that I was a really good hitter? The fifth season rolls around and it’s the night before we play St. Joe’s One and I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning – okay — I am drenched in sweat and I realized that I had been dreaming about having to face Bill Whiskers Jacobson the next night. I am really messed up! The sixth season rolls along and I decide that I’ve had about enough of this. And so the day we played St. Joe’s One I go to my manager and tell him: drop me down in the lineup, I’m hurting the team. He looks at me and he says: I’m not going to drop you down the lineup; just get a hit. In that year we played St. Joe’s One three more times and at the end of the season I had zero hits against Whiskers Jacobson,
The seventh season rolls around and things are so bad now that on the day of the game against St. Joe’s One I go to the manager and I say: take me out of the lineup, I’m not hitting Whiskers and he starts laughing his head off. It was kind of stupid; I had to tell him I wasn’t hitting Whiskers? He knew I wasn’t hitting Whiskers. Everybody on my team knew I wasn’t hitting Whiskers. Whiskers knew I wasn’t hitting Whiskers. His team knew I wasn’t hitting him. In fact, I think that probably the entire English-speaking world knew that I could not get a hit against Bill Whiskers Jacobson. And that year we played St. Joe’s two more times after that, 15 more at-bats, zero hits. I have now faced with Bill Whiskers Jacobson eighty times and had never been successful; had never gotten a hit off of him. That number was too much for me to handle. I could not handle over eighty so whatever the conversation came up — and it came up a lot — I would just tell people that against Whiskers, I was oh for seven years.
During that winter I was watching a baseball movie. The name of the movie was called Bull Durham; many of you probably seen it; it was a pretty popular movie. In the movie Kevin Costner plays this character named “Crash” Davis who had been in the minor leagues forever and he hit a lot of home runs, a really good hitter and he had made it to the major leagues. It was the best twenty-one days of his life. He had trouble hitting breaking balls and because of that he was sent back down the minors and never got a chance to go back up to the major leagues again. There is a sequence of the movie where he is going to face a pitcher that throws a lot of breaking balls and curveballs and he is there talking to himself and he says: throw me that garbage; you are not going to get anything past me. I said: you know something I’m going to try that against Whiskers next year. I had to clean it up a lot because Kevin Costner uses a lot more colorful metaphors than I’m willing to – okay — so I had to change the words a little bit. So the eighth season rolls around and we are set played St. Joe’s One. Of course, Whiskers Jacobson is pitching and it is my turn to bat and I am standing there telling myself: throw me whatever you got; I am going to hit you. I had already decided that I was not going to take a pitch. If this pitch was anywhere near the plate — his first pitch was anywhere near the plate — I was going to jump on it.
So I stand in the batter’s box and I looked and there is this little gleam in Whiskers’ face. He knows he owns me so why wouldn’t he have a gleam on his face. He gets ready and he delivers the first pitch and I see that the ball is rotating and spinning, it is coming inside, and I know it is the screwball. It is going to break away from me and I wait and I wait I wait for the break and I keep my hip down and I swing as hard as I can and the ball rockets off the bat straight back toward the mound about six feet off the ground and Whiskers has to fall to the ground in the clump of dust and dirt to keep from getting his head knocked off. As I run down to first base I see the ball landing in centerfield. I round first base, the center fielder picks it up and throws it back into the infield and I retreat to first base.
My teammates on the sidelines are going crazy just like we had won the World Series. I am exploding on the inside. And if I jumped I knew I could go ten feet high in the air, but it decided that I probably needed to act professionally so I just calmly stood on base. I couldn’t help but take a look over to Whiskers. As he was dusting himself off our eyes locked and a smile came across his face and he tipped his cap to me and I nodded my acceptance. The curse of Whiskers was over. Now the fairy-book ending would be is that the rest of my career I hit Whiskers really hard and that would be true. I hit Whiskers just as hard as I hit everybody else in the league. The nice thing about it was it only took me seven years to do it.
I learned a valuable lesson that day and the lesson that I learned from that experience was this: that sometimes we go through life and we have these very small issues or problems in our life that for some reason or other we make in the gigantic problems. And that the only way that we can overcome them is that we sometimes have to do something ourselves and the good news is that sometimes help comes from an unexpected source when you least expect it. I endured those seven years and the problem was not that I couldn’t hit; the problem was: why did I let Whiskers get into my head? So it made me think that when it comes to learning or education, we are a product of a system that might be slightly flawed.
The reason I say that is this: the process for formal education goes something like this. For the first five or six years of our life that responsibility mainly falls on our parents. They are responsible for the care and nurturing and educational development of us. When we are five or six the decision is made that they might need some help. And so what we do we ship children in an awful place called school and we banish them there for the next twelve years so that they can get a formal education and everything that they need. Now there is a lot that happens to students during the course of those twelve years but there is one overriding element that happens during that educational process. Our children, our students, are presented material or data. They are expected to gain an understanding of it. And in order to see if they understand or comprehend it they are given an evaluation. Most of you know that as a test. Materials are presented; they are to look at it; they are supposed to comprehend it and we check and see if they comprehended it by giving them a test. Evaluation of the test is usually always the same. The students are given questions or prompts and the students are supposed to do is provide answers to those questions or prompts and the expectation is that there is always a correct answer.
Now I was a high school teacher for ten years and I’m not saying that that is wrong and I’m also definitely saying that it is not right. Why would I say that? The reason I would say that is that for thirty-six years I have also had the privilege of being able to teach Sunday school classes. For the first nineteen years I taught senior high student classes for the last seventeen years I’ve been asked to lead adult classes. I am slightly puzzled why so many adults displayed little interest about learning more and becoming more educated about their faith and their religion. For Christians, the major text or the source of our beliefs comes from this, the Holy Bible. For many people the Holy Bible is something that they want to avoid. I’ve heard many reasons why people don’t study the Bible and here are some of them:
- There is so much violence in the Bible; I just can’t handle that.
- The Bible contradicts itself in so many places: it says one thing here and another thing someplace else.
- The Bible is not historically accurate. Now I don’t know why they would say that because it is. There is just a couple places where there might have a question.
- The fourth reason I hear is: the Bible was written two thousand years ago; it’s not applicable today; the circumstances are much different.
- And then I hear this one and this is my absolute favorite. The preacher knows it. It is his job to tell us; it is what he is paid to do. That’s why some people don’t look at the Bible.
- But the number one reason, the one that I hear more often – it is a legitimate reason — I don’t read or study the Bible because when I read it I don’t understand it. Or I cannot find the answer.
It could possibly be that the real issue is: understanding the Bible might not be consistent with a formal education process, a process where someone provides a question and we are to provide the answer. It doesn’t always work that way. There is a TV game show named Jeopardy and Jeopardy has lasted for over fifty years. When I was young in college we used to blow off classes to play Jeopardy; so Jeopardy has been around a long time. One of the reasons I believe it is lasted so long is because the contestants are given the answer; ll they have to do is come up with the question. So I believe that that could be really helpful to people trying to understand the Bible is that if they would focus on the question and not finding the answers. Focus on the question instead of solely focusing on the answer.
Let’s take a look at the Scriptures and see how that might work. Joshua is a fascinating character in the Old Testament. But what we read today is at the end of Joshua and has little or no value if we don’t know what happened prior to that. Prior to that, there’s a man named. God chose Moses to go down into Egypt and lead the Hebrew people — that were in captivity and slaves down there — out of Egypt and into the land that he called the Promise Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. That’s what Moses was asked to do. Moses leads the people out of Egypt and something happens along the way and Moses is not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land. And it’s not really important for today’s lesson what that was. If Moses was not to lead the people to the Promise Land, a successor had to be chosen. Hosea was chosen to do this. Hosea was chosen to lead the people in to the Promised Land. If that sounds unfamiliar to you, it is because God changed his name to Joshua. He was born Hosea, God changed his name to Joshua which is the Hebrew equivalent of a word that is translated into Jesus. That’s another sermon someday.
Joshua was chosen by God to succeed Moses. Now that’s the answer; Joshua was chosen to lead the people to the Promised Land. But the real importance is: why was Joshua chosen? To find that out, we need to go back to Numbers, the book of Numbers chapters 13 and 14 where we are given a hint. Moses was still in charge and he was thinking about the Promised Land, the land that God had said that this is where the Hebrew people will live. Moses decides he will sent out spies to check out this land; they’re going to go in and see what it’s all about and the people and take a look at that. Twelve men are selected to be spies, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel and they go out and spy out the land for forty days. They come back and they give a report to Moses. Ten of them report like this: we spied out the land, it is in fact filled with milk and honey and fruit. The people that live there are very strong; their cities are really well fortified and large. We are not able to go up against these people, for they are stronger than us and they look like Giants and we seem to be grasshoppers in their eyes.
The other two, Joshua and Caleb report this way: let us go up at once and occupy it, for we will be able to overcome them if God is pleased with us. He will give it to us, do not fear the people of this land, they are no more than bread to us. Two very different reports, two different points of view, why? That’s because the question for the ten was much different than the question for the two. The question for the ten was: what did I see? The question for Joshua and Caleb was: what does God want me to see? After the death of Moses, Joshua becomes a leader; he is the one that is chosen to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. The book of Joshua records the details of the events that transpired to bring that about successfully. Near the end after they are in the Promised Land and everybody is been defeated, Joshua calls for an assembly of the people.
He reminds them — from our reading today — of everything that God is done for them and wants them to answer one question before disbursing all the people out to the lands that they have been given. The question is: what God are you going to serve? He does not tell them the answer. He does not tell them to serve God. He wants them to choose. And verse 15 is the response of that. Now if you are willing to serve the Lord, choose this day who you will serve, whether: the gods of your ancestors that they served in that region beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
The question is: why did Joshua say this? Because Joshua — he probably had numerous absolutes in his life — but the number one absolute was clear; that Joshua was always going to serve the God whom he loved. If we go to the New Testament reading, we have to think about what transpired before the 14th chapter of John. Before this Jesus had informed his disciples that he would be betrayed and arrested and even informed them that Peter would deny him three times. Jesus was going away; he would no longer be with the disciples. But then Jesus says: I promise you this; I promise you that I will send you the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit thing, it causes a ton of issues and debates for Christians. All they want to do is talk about this Holy Spirit. Is it inside of us; is it outside of us; is it like an angel; does it speak to us; is it our conscience; does it protect us; does it guide us; does it speak to us? And we get caught up in trying to find out the answers — all the answers and all the details — and we miss the real importance.
The real question was: why does Jesus promise the Holy Spirit? That’s the really important thing: why does Jesus promise to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit? Jesus had lived on this earth for 30 plus years fully as a human being experiencing everything that you and I and every human being experiences. Jesus knew that he was leaving and he would not be here with these people much longer or the people in the future. He asked himself this question: what can I do to help God’s children after I’m gone? The answer to that question was: the Holy Spirit. It’s important. It’s important to not knowing all the answers or all the details; just that Jesus wanted to help us in our daily walk and provide us with the counselor and we should just accept it with all of its benefits.
Just one more thing; I want to do one thing real quickly for you because there’s something else that happens. Sometimes in our formal education we need to un-learning things before we can learn things in our faith. Here we go; I am a number line. I taught high school math, mostly algebra and geometry and there is a concept of a thing called absolute value which is the easiest thing in the world to understand until mathematicians do things that they should never do with it and make it really complicated for students. Here is absolute value; I am a number line, I am right in the middle of the number line; I am zero; I’m the origin. This is for your benefit; it would be backwards for me but is it right for you. If I go this way: 1 2 3, positive 1, positive 2, positive 3, that is where I end up. If I go back to the origin and if I go this way, this is -1 -2 -3, so that is all a number line is; over in this direction it’s positive members; over in this other direction it’s negative numbers. Right in the middle is the origin where things begin. Absolute value is this: if I move 1 2 3 4 5, I am at positive five. All absolute value is the distance I am from the origin. So I’m five units from the origin so my absolute value is five.
Back at the origin, if I move this way, -1 -2 -3 -4 -5, I’m at -5. I am five units from the origin; my absolute value is also five. So it makes no difference whether it’s positive or negative; all absolute value is distance from the origin; -5 is the same absolute value as +5. Absolute value says that you have a greater absolute value the further away you are from the origin. So if I’m at 2, my absolute value is 2. If I am at 14; my absolute value was 14. 14 is greater than 2 so you have a greater absolute value. It’s just the opposite in our faith.
We do not have greater absolute value the further away we get away from our origin or our beginning. Our greatest absolute value is when we are extremely close to the origin or our beginning; that’s when we have the greatest absolute value. This is totally opposite from our formal education. I still have three absolutes in my life. One is not paying taxes. I choose to earn wages; I choose to buy things; and I choose to own things. If I chose not to do that I would not have to pay taxes. One of my absolute is not dying because I know that I will live forever. I’m just not sure what form I’m going to be in, where it is going to be, or any of the details surrounding it. And one of them is not Whiskers pitching. He might be physically dead. He’s probably in his 80s by now and I’m sure he is not still playing softball.
My first absolute is this: there is a being so powerful and complex I can’t comprehend what he is like but I know he wants to be in relationship with me. My second absolute is: there is a human named Jesus who is fully in tuned to my God and he provides a perfect example of how I am supposed to live. And my third absolute is that I have a helper sent from God, at the request of Jesus, that we call the Holy Spirit to help make things easier for me in my daily walk in service to my God. I am not sure how many absolutes that each of you has. But I hope they are good ones and they are not paying taxes and dying. All of you are important and have value in God’s eyes. My wish is that each of you has the greatest absolute value possible. That you are so close to your God that you feel the warmth of his arms as he embraces you or that you are so close that you are sitting in his lap and you are feeling the warmth of his breath. And that’s comforting to you; may it be so.