Saturday, August 17, 2013

Branch Rickey and Number 42

Reflections on the Readings

August 18, 2013 - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time- Year C

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

Branch Rickey and Number 42

"Do you think that I have come to give peace on the earth? No, I tell you but rather division." - Jesus 

Making a Dream Come True

Branch Rickey was named general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1942. His fame grew when he broke the unwritten color code in major league baseball by signing Jackie Robison in 1945. Robison first played in the minor league for the Montreal Royals before his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on opening day, April 15, 1947. The rest, as they say, is history. 

One of my favorite baseball movies is 42. It tells in dramatic detail Rickey's and Robinson's courage to challenge the color barrier in baseball. They did so at a time when our country more often judged people by the color of their skin. Signs stating 'White Only' kept our black brothers and sisters in the back of the bus and from pissing in the wrong toilet. The same mental disorder afflicted those who kept baseball segregated. It is this affliction of mind and soul that Branch Rickey saw clearly, and knew would keep the game of baseball from being a true field of dreams. 

What Robinson inspired cannot be over stated. It filled back yard sand lots all over America. Little white boys and little black boys imitated their icon, Jackie Robinson, and carried in their hearts an aspiration of becoming a major league baseball player too. 

But it would be several years before civil rights for everyone regardless of color prevailed. It would take a Baptist preacher and jail time, church bombings, blood shed, marches, and the nightmare of KKK cross burnings before Martin Luther King, Jr, would give the world his memorable "I Have a Dream" speech. On August 28, 1963, from the heart of Washington, DC, the most powerful place in the world, this inspired preacher opened his heart and God filled it with a dream. And through him the Spirit gave us a word of hope that one day all of God's children would sing, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Three Against Two and Staying True

Many saw Rickey, Robison, and Dr. King as dividers. Out of place and out of touch some would say. But they were men who endured the cross to achieve something great. They saw a joy beyond their sacrifices that the world cannot give and consequently cannot take away. Disregarding the hostility of their time they picked up their cross and followed Jesus. They pricked the conscience of the bus driver and the restaurant owner. The politician, the baseball owners, and church authorities didn't escape either. Maybe three against two ain't so bad after all!

I grew up Pentecostal and know a little bit about being on the outside looking in. I was called a holy roller and some thought we handled snakes, which we didn't. But in that little Pentecostal church I heard that Jesus loves me. They gave me a love for the scriptures and planted in me a desire to evangelize. We sang with our hearts and testified that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever! 

Back in those days we heard that various ecclesial communities were debating whether the Bible was true, and wondering out loud if God was dead, and questioning if it was relevant to keep singing about the blood of the Lamb. It mattered not to us because we knew better -  we farmers, janitors, truck drivers, factory workers, and all the rest - we kept singing, shouting, praying, and preaching about the love of God and his desire that none should perish! To some we didn't fit into mainline church life. Yet the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has brought about more unity and vitality to the body of Christ than the supposed division it caused. That's because, believe it or not, what we have in common is greater than what divides us. 

Itching Ears and Happy Talk

Jesus said that everyone speaks well of the false prophets. Their speech is flowery and cushy and gives the people what they want to hear. Jeremiah brought a message to Jerusalem that sounded like defeat to those drunk on the happy talk of the political and military leadership. He told his people that they better give it up to the Babylonian invaders because they would fare better capitulating rather than fighting back. It was not the message the princes appreciated. They told the king that Jeremiah was a greater threat to the peace and security of the city than the Chaldeans' threatening sword and the havoc and death it would leave behind. "Resist and die or surrender and live," Jeremiah warned. 

Jeremiah's message was not the happy talk the itching ears of Jerusalem wanted to hear. In the early years of the Christian era, St. Paul advised Timothy that some would not endure sound teaching. He described such folks as having itching ears who find teachers who suit their own liking. The result is incomprehension of the truth and enslavement to myths. 

In our day we see a similar reality. Those who hold to things that never change are labeled as divisive and out of step with the times. Not unlike a Branch Rickey or a Dr. King. Beliefs in the Sacrament of Marriage or the sanctity of life from conception to natural death is deemed short sighted and bigoted. But like Paul instructed Timothy, "Be steady, endure suffering, and do the work of an evangelist. Fulfill your ministry." (1 Timothy 4:3-5) In the strength of Jesus we can remain vigilant and persuasive for in the mighty name of Jesus we can do all things!

Perfecter of our Faith

People of Christian faith are called to make a difference in the world. Branch Rickey was such a person, a man of deep faith who dealt the color barrier in baseball a lethal blow. His mother made sure that her son knew the rules of heaven. Because of how he was raised, Branch wouldn't go to his own team's scheduled Sunday games. I suspect God used Rickey to cross the color barrier because he was credible. God made Rickey an evangelist for a social justice issue whose time had come. 

God is not willing that any should perish. Nor is he willing that we be weak and lackluster in our witness to the greatest love this world will ever know. Jesus endured the cross. He calls us to share in his work of redeeming the world. If daily we offer ourselves as instruments of grace God will use us where we are. He will perfect our faith making it strong and effective. And maybe, just maybe, because we have been found faithful, God will let all of us wear #42. Amen.

Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN.  Prior to uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. E-mail him at:   Visit him at:


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