Against all odds, I made the eighth grade basketball team. Just barely. Like all third stringers, I only played when the outcome of the game had already been determined and we were either way ahead or way behind. I do remember one occasion, however, when the game came down to the very last second and I was on the court. It shouldn’t have been that way. When I and the rest of the benchwarmers took the court my team enjoyed a substantial lead which we had subsequently squandered. I kept looking to the bench waiting for the coach to yank us and put the starters back in. I could see the starters, leaning forward in their seats ready to reenter the game. They were thinking the same thing. The coach? He kept looking back at us and yelling, “Come on, boys, play some defense.”
Admittedly, I thought the coach was crazy. “Play some defense” . . . we were playing defense, only, very poorly. As third stringers, we weren’t idiots, only incompetent. We knew defense was supposed to look differently, but if we knew how to put that into practice then we wouldn’t be third stringers. If the coach wanted something different he’d need to look elsewhere, but he didn’t. The lead slipped away with the seconds until there I was back peddling down the court as one of the opposing team’s players picked up a loose ball and began pressing down the court with just a few seconds to go and one point down. It happened in a moment. There was the planting of feet, a collision, two junior high boys crashing to the floor, and a whistle. My heart sank. I’d fouled him. A couple of seconds left and I’d fouled him. He’d make his free throws, win the game, and be the hero. I’d be the goat. Or so I thought. But that wasn’t the call. Offensive charging was. It was our ball. We’d won the game. Amazing. And yet, for all the excitement, I still thought the coach was crazy - he should have pulled me ages ago and we wouldn’t have had to face such a tense situation.
I sometimes think that same thing about the church. While I know that the church is supposed to be the place where we love one another like Christ loves us, where we give the world a glimpse of the life to come, where we help folks discover their place in the kingdom of God, I’m fully aware of how far short we come to living that calling out in a consistent way. Far from being a well oiled machine of God’s kingdom here on earth, the church is an inefficient, awkward, mess run by what appears to be a bunch of amateurs. And yet, for as much as we think God should abandon the church and move in a different direction, he doesn’t. He leaves the church right where he originally placed her as his method of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. We scratch our heads in disbelief. Then we remember God’s message of grace that even the worst of us can be a vital part of his team. And then it hits us, we’re still on the team because we’re the prime examples of God’s grace. If sinners like us can be a part of God’s team by his grace, then so can anyone else.
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.