Cricket and evil

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

A couple of months ago, I told the story from when I was being hired as Chaplain at Duke University, North Carolina. When I was in the search process and at my final interview, I was asked that dreaded question, “so, what’s your favorite sport?” Not only is this a minefield for me personally, since I am just about the least sport-literate person I know, but in the sporting context of North Carolina college athletics, I did know enough to know that I had to tread carefully with my answer. “So, what’s your favorite sport?” All eyes on me, awaiting the crucial answer. 

“Cricket.” I said. “The only sport where it’s in the rules that you have to break for afternoon tea. What’s not to like?”

When I eventually arrived at the Episcopal Center at Duke, after waiting eighteen months for my work visa, I discovered that the building I had inherited was in need of substantial renovation and, since I knew how to do renovations, we decided to start with the kitchen, me and some volunteers. Of these, Jim from St Luke’s in Durham was my most ardent of volunteers. Lunchtimes we’d dine in style at Subway and, on one occasion, he asked me to explain the rules of cricket. Now, it would be easier to explain the rules of thermodynamics. But, anyway, I had a go. I think he may have been even less clear after I’d finished than when I started.

So, for the record, here are the rules of cricket, as set out for a foreign audience.

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, then that’s the end of the game!

So far, so interesting. But this is meant to be a sermon, and does any of this actually have anything to do with today’s readings? 

I’d like to read you again part of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Perhaps it is just me that sees parallels between this and the rules of cricket for foreigners. I suspect not. Joking apart, what strikes me fairly forcefully about both of these confusing and ambiguous passages is that in order for them to make any sense at all, we need to be, as it were, the initiated. I totally understand that crazy cricket rules thing (and probably those others here this morning born and bred in England), because we have a prior, in-depth knowledge of cricket. It’s a bit like a cryptogram. You have to have the key in order for it to make sense. So, the rules of cricket thing makes perfect sense to me. Really.

St Paul by El Greco

For us to understand what Paul is saying, we have to have been there. What we have in this impassioned, very human, passage from one of his pieces of correspondence with one of his congregations (if only he’d known that we’d have immortalized it for eternity), is Paul struggling with the same stuff that each one of us struggle with day-in, day-out. For Paul, his daily existence seems to be framed by endless paradoxes. He knows he wants to do the right thing. He really does, but despite this, he endlessly fails to deliver, and instead ends up messing up. Again. And Again. The somewhat anguished tone of his letter – or perhaps it’s not anguished, but instructive and realistic – is that far from being a free ride, being a Christian is tougher than not. The paradox is that when we know what’s right, and what’s wrong, it seems to be far more difficult to do the right thing. Or perhaps it is because at last we have an appreciation of what goodness is that we become much more aware of, and sensitive to, when we fall short of it. It is no coincidence that in the account of creation, Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit opens his eyes to good and evil. It is only through our knowledge of evil that we can know good. Or, rather, we can only know good because we know both good and evil.

I know that this might sound bit odd; a bit counter-intuitive, but God’s infinite love for us is demonstrated by the fact that he has given us knowledge of both good and evil. It’s our choice. We can choose. Every day, at every moment, we face the choice between good and evil. Yet, as I say, it is in that ability to choose that God demonstrates his infinite love for us. After all, what kind of love would it be if we had no choice? God invites us to choose good, but he allows us, if we want – and it is our perfect right to – to choose evil. Choosing evil alienates us from God but, in his great love for us, he does not force us to love him, and to choose good. Otherwise, what kind of love would it be? 

St. Thomas Aquinus

St. Thomas Aquinus

Now, an important point I want to add at this stage is that you might well have made a distinction in your mind between that word that I have used: ‘evil’ and our ordinary, everyday bad choices and general naughtiness that goes on. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas published a treatise in around 1270 called ‘De Malo’, literally ‘On Evil’. The word ‘malus’ in Latin made no distinction between ‘evil’ and ‘bad’ – incidentally, it’s the root of many of our words, including ‘malady’. Appealing as it is to make reserve the word ‘evil’ for the most heinous stuff, murder, arson, watching anything with the Kardashians, the choice presented to us on a daily basis is between following God’s earnest hopes for us, or not.

Our eyes have been opened to good and ill. For Paul, the choice was simple, but putting it into action was not. It’s the same struggle for us. Let’s give thanks that Paul shared his anguish with us, that it may inspire us to choose good when we get to every crossroads and have that choice.

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