Golf and the Kingdom

Matthew 14: 14-21

“Golf,” as Winston Churchill famously said, “is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

“Golf:” “flog” spelled backwards. “Golf is a good walk spoiled,” quipped Mark Twain.

Babe Ruth said, “It took me seventeen years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.” “These greens are so fast I have to hold my putter over the ball and hit it with the shadow,” said Sam Snead. “If you think it’s hard to meet new people, try picking up the wrong golf ball,” said Jack Lemmon. “If you’re caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron.” Lee Trevino said, but he is also quoted in The Golfer’s Tee Time Devotional that there are two times humanity bows its head, golf and prayer.

Could you feel the excitement as we cheered for Tom Watson recently? He almost achieved the goal of being the oldest man in the history of golf to win a Major Championship. Everyone seemed to be asking, “At 59 years old, would he repeat the British Open victory at that same Turnberry course when he beat Jack Nicolaus 32 years ago?” He managed to captivate golf fans everywhere as they prayed for him to repeat that famous win, recalling fond memories and loved ones from that time.

At the end of this recent loss Watson said to the media, “. . . you’re going to ask me, what do I take from this week. . . Well, I take from this week just a lot of warmth, a lot of spirituality in the sense that, you know, there was something out there. I still believe that. It helped me along. It’s Turnberry. Great memories here. This would have been a great memory.”

What was the spirituality that Watson referred to? What is spiritual about golf? You may be surprised to learn that there is almost a literary genre for golf’s spiritual, mystical nature. In 1972 Michael Murphy’s book Golf and the Kingdom was a best seller. Ten years ago Scott Peck wrote Golf and the Spirit: Lessons for the Journey, emphasizing the humility and the opportunities to put anger and selfishness aside during play. There is even a marital counseling book based on golf called The Front Nine. One of the chapters is titled, “Repair divots immediately” referring to the Ephesians 4:6 passage, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” referring to marital arguments.

Whether you appreciate the game of golf or not, most likely you would agree with the premise of these books: learning to focus on the golf ball can help focus life. Each spiritual golf book describes how a meditative approach of play leads beyond appreciating God’s creation on the golf course to a clearer understanding of the relationship between God, self, and others. Usually these books feature a Christlike teacher who uses mysterious sayings to help the golfer play anew. Maybe this golf spirituality will help us see today’s well known Scripture in a fresh way.

Today’s Scripture is the miracle of Jesus feeding thousands from a small amount of loaves and fishes. The story begins with a crowd following Jesus. The disciples see that they will need food. A very small supply is multiplied and becomes more than enough. It may have seemed insignificant, but put into the hands of Christ it became a miracle. In the same way, the church, the body of Christ, makes a small amount a miraculous blessing. This golf spirituality fits this Scripture. We see a crowd following a professional golfer around the course, glued to every shot, much like the crowd followed Jesus around the hillsides of Galilee.

It is a simple, yet powerful story. Harvard theologian Peter Gomes says that if we ask, “Is this story true?” we’re asking the wrong question. The better question to ask is “What does this story say?” It is a miracle, and a miracle is a message that God wants to communicate. A miracle is a sign— a sign of compassion for those who have hunger, both physical and spiritual hunger. (from Peter Gomes, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living).

From another Gospel we learn that a small boy brought the loaves and fishes. The disciples and the boy did not realize the power and potential in that small lunch. Throughout the New Testament Jesus uses images of small, seemingly insignificant things to demonstrate God’s kingdom. Remember when Jesus said we could move mountains if we only had the faith of a mustard seed?

Several years ago there was a story in Reader’s Digest about Gerda Weissmann Klein. She had spent six years in a Nazi death camp. Hollywood made a documentary film –– One Survivor Remembers –– of her experience.

Gerda recalled: “Most people think the Holocaust camps were like snake pits, that people stepped on each other for survival. It wasn’t like that at all. There was kindness, support, understanding. I often talk about a childhood friend of mine,  Ilse. She once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to a friend. Those are the moments I want to remember. People behaved nobly under unspeakable circumstances.”

What a poignant message! “One Survivor Remembers” won an Oscar for best documentary. I do not think that we are even able to imagine a world in which our only possession would be a raspberry. And even if we did decide to give it away, we would not have thought that it would be a source of inspiration to many through a documentary. Giving one raspberry! Having one mustard seed of faith! Sharing one small lunch of loaves and fishes… it is a miracle what God can do with the smallest things!

Being a Christian means sharing. It means having a generous heart. It involves tangible and intangible things. The tangible would be finances, time, energy. So many of you participated in our rummage sale yesterday. You dropped off items these past weeks. So much arrived here at the church. It was unbelievable to seehow generous you were. Then these items had to be sorted and divided into departments. The volunteers that managed this process, even the ones who sold food, greeted at the door, made signs, prayed, were God’s miracle unfolding inour midst. As I walked to church on Saturday morning, the sidewalk on Kenilworth Avenue was filled with people leaving the church on their way to the train station. Each had at least one huge garbage bag of clothing and items, and each person had a big smile. It made me so proud to be a part of Kenilworth Union Church.

An intangible gift that we can give as Christians is the gift of fellowship. Fellowship is more than meeting together. It is showing interest and love, kindness and encouragement. When we encourage one another we build up the body of Christ. Sometimes a word of encouragement seems as insignificant as a small lunch. How can it really help and make a difference? Let us not underestimate the power of Christian fellowship.

Several years ago I met golf professional Bernhard Langer. He considered himself a nominal Christian. At his lowest point he was saved from discouragement when a fellow Christian reached out to him with a small word of encouragement. Langer grew up in a little town in Germany about thirty miles from Munich. His family was very poor. He began work as a golf caddy at 8 years of age. It took him four years to save enough money to buy his first set of clubs. At age 17 he was the youngest winner of the National German Golf Championship. He developed a medical condition that affected his putting, and he joined the air force, where he hurt his back, adding another medical challenge. He returned to golf and won the World Championship under 25 years of age by a record seventeen strokes, a record that still stands in the Guinness Book. Three years later in 1985 he won the Masters in Augusta and the Heritage Classic in Hilton Head Island and several other major tournaments. He also got married. Yet at the height of his career and life, he felt the lowest of his life. His lifestyle was consumed with golf. He was completely focused on his world ranking, cars, houses- basically he was totally focused on himself. He attended a golf Bible study where he learned John 3:5, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born of the water and the spirit he can not enter into the kingdom of God.” He had never thought that being a Christian had that component of fellowship that Christians share. Christians are born into a spiritual body of Christ. They are a family of believers who share world responsibility and the responsibility to look out for those who are less fortunate, and to look out for one another. What really struck him was that Jesus promised an abundant life, and Langer’s life did not feel abundant!

His new approach to living in the spirit burst into life when he was hospitalized for  five months in 1988. A fellow Christian visited him and encouraged him not to quit golf, stating that God would help him persevere and keep going. He does not even remember exactly what the Christian said, but he felt that strong message of faith and it inspired him to continue.

He returned to golf and won the Masters again in 1993. It was his most memorable win because it was Easter Sunday, the day of Christ ‘s resurrection.

That small moment of encouragement meant the world to Bernhard Langer’s life. He realized that his life was going fast like a race car with no end in sight. He realized his despair was the result of having no spiritual goals and his life took on new meaning.

When he realized he was going nowhere fast, he stopped his race and began to follow the footsteps of Jesus on the road to heaven. He said, “The most important things in this world are my relationship with God and my relationship with other believers. These are the relationships that will last forever. I hope and pray that all of you will experience the same joy and peace that I now know. By the way, I will give free golf lessons in heaven.”

One conversation turned his life around. Sometimes we wonder if it is worth it to  encourage others in the faith. It is worth it! One boy who gave his lunch to Jesus and he may have thought it would not make a difference. We wonder whether our gift makes a difference. Once it is in the hands of Christ, it is multiplied and blessed. It is worth it! One raspberry wrapped in a leaf is given. It is worth it to share. Whether you find your focus in life on the golf course or some other place, may that focus direct your life again toward spiritual, meaningful goals.

If you think you are too old to really contribute to God’s kingdom, remember Tom Watson’s great comeback and near win. If you think you are too young to make a difference in God’ kingdom, remember that little boy’s lunch and the feeding of the thousands. If you don’t think you have what it takes, remember the gift of that small raspberry. If you feel as if you are not living the abundant life, take a lesson from Bernhard Langer and look for new spiritual goals. Amen.