Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Yips and Fish

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.


I read an article on ESPN.com this week about a 37-year old pitcher attempting a remarkable comeback to Major League Baseball. His name is Luke Haggerty. He was drafted in the first round of the MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs in 2002; however, during his first spring training season he suffered an elbow injury and missed the next two seasons. Unfortunately, he was not able to recover his elite form. The problem wasn’t physical; it was mental.

There’s a term for the mental block that prevents athletes from remembering how to do the physical movements that should be second-nature…it’s called “the yips.”

Luke’s yips left him unable to throw a ball over home plate. After years of struggle – years of not being able to be the best version of himself – Luke met with a neuroscientist who specializes in athletes affected by the yips. She helped him understand that his negative thoughts and lack of courage were robbing him of the ability to be the person he was created to be.

It has been 12 years since Luke Haggerty has thrown a pitch in the major leagues. Long story short, he received some specialized training, did the hard emotional and physical work, and is once again throwing upwards of 99 mph fastballs. Now this 37-year old is returning to spring training with a new minor league contract signed with his old team the Chicago Cubs.

Many aspects of this story make it compelling; but it was not lost on me that much of the improbability of his successful return to the major leagues has as much to do with his age as his yips. There are not too many 37 year-old professional athletes in any sport. I realize this because I am 37 years old and I’ve been watching year after year as the athletes start looking younger and younger. I have watched my childhood athletic heroes retire; I have watched the people my own age retire; I have watched as people I consider kids have retired. God bless Adam Vinatieri, though; at least there’s one pro athlete that makes me feel young!

It feels like each passing day brings an attrition of opportunities. Recently I found out I’m officially too old to apply to be a special agent in the FBI or work in the CIA. Not that I was looking to switch careers, but it hit me hard to learn that my age automatically excludes me from being able to do things with my life.

Perhaps thoughts similar to these were running through the head of Simon (whom we know as Peter) as he was sitting in his boat on the lake of Gennesaret. Simon was a fisherman. There were no other possible directions his life could take. You see, the lives of Hebrew boys and girls were not replete with opportunity. Generally speaking the girls would grow up to be mothers and the boys would take up the trade of their fathers. There was one possibility, though, that was held out to every boy; it was a narrow path that few would be able to follow. A very select few could become disciples of a rabbi.

In Jesus’ day, Hebrew boys and girls ages 5-12 attended beit sefer – a school where they primarily learned how to read and understand scripture. In this school the girls studied the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy; while the boys studied the Torah (the first five books of scripture). At the conclusion of beit sefer the expectation was that male students had memorized the entire Torah. Every verse, every name, every detail was to be committed to memory. Suffice to say, not every student made it through the entire program.

At the age of twelve the girls would marry. The boys who had successfully committed the Torah to memory then entered beit midrash, where they had three years to study and commit the entire TaNaKh to memory (that’s the 24 books of scripture including the Torah, the “prophets,” and the “writings”).

Only a very select few out of hundreds of students who started school would complete the beit midrash and move on to the beit talmud, which involved committing one’s self to following a rabbi for a period of 15 years.

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In order to become a disciple, the student would seek out a rabbi. He would watch the rabbi from a distance for a while to make sure this was the kind of rabbi he wanted to become one day. Once the boy found a rabbi to whom he could aspire, he would approach the rabbi and ask “May I follow you?” This phrase really meant, “Do you think that I could be like you?” To be a disciple of a rabbi was to emulate the rabbi’s behavior, learn his prayers, and wrestle with the stories of scripture together. One day the boy would become a rabbi himself, with his own set of disciples to mentor and guide through life.

Simon was not cut out for the path of discipleship. We know this because he was fishing, not studying, when Jesus met him. Somewhere along the way, whether in beit sefer, beit midrash, or beit talmud, Simon didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t the best and brightest; so he returned to the fishing boats and to the craft that his father had taught him. It was honorable hard work; but he was certainly aware of all the things he would no longer be able to do, the person he would never be able to become; thinking about how he wasn’t smart enough, he was too old, and so on.

Then one day a rabbi boarded Simon’s boat and asked to be pushed out a ways from the shore in order to teach the crowds. Soon the fishermen returned to shore sinking under the weight of a miraculous catch of fish courtesy of the rabbi. These young men, most likely teenagers, all of whom had a proverbial door or two shut in their lifetimes, looked at Jesus and heard him say, “You can do what I do. Come and learn what it means to be a disciple.” They left everything and followed him.

Dropping everything to follow Jesus was not an irresponsible decision on their part. Following Jesus was taking a step through an open door to a future that they thought had been sealed shut. Following Jesus meant that they could finally be the person they were created to be.

It would be like if LeBron James drove past my house, saw my son shooting hoops, and told him, “I can tell that you have what it takes to play in the NBA one day, so come and train with me for the next few years and we’ll make it happen.” Nolan would certainly run inside and tell us we have to move to Los Angeles.

Jesus turned the tables on the entire rabbinical system by going out and selecting his own disciples; not only that, but he selected them from among the multitude of people who weren’t enough, who didn’t have the “it” factor, the ones suffering from the yips that prevented them from being the people God had created them to be.

You have been called to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus looks at you and says, “You have what it takes. You can do what I do.”

The problem, of course, is that many of us have the yips. Our negative thoughts and lack of courage tell us it would be easier to stay discontent in our current lives than to put forth the effort to live a blessed life as a disciple of Jesus. Or, some of us are too content with our lives and see the invitation to discipleship as a threat to unravel everything we have created for ourselves so that we wouldn’t need to rely on God. On any given day I regularly oscillate between those two thoughts.

This much is true, though: The world needs more disciples. Not more people who go to church; more disciples – people who wake up every day and commit to seek out God in every aspect of daily life and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. And the truth is that each one of us has been created and equipped to live as authentic disciples, regardless of our yips, our age, our negative thoughts, or our complacency with the status quo. Discipleship is our destiny. In the coming week, consider the invitation to familiarize yourself with a story from one of the gospels. Pay attention to the good news that Jesus presents in his words and actions. And then visualize the face of Jesus looking at you and saying, “You can do what I do. Come and learn what it means to be a disciple.” Then drop your yips and follow him.

Amen.

Prophets and Powdered-Butt Syndrome

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.


Have you ever heard of something called “Powdered Butt Syndrome?” I know some of you have because you’ve been part of Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” class, which is where I first heard about it.

According to Dave Ramsey “Powdered Butt Syndrome” is an affliction that prevents someone – a parent or grandparent, especially – from accepting advice or learning a new thing from someone who’s butt they’ve once powdered, such as a child or grandchild.

Dave Ramsey refers to “Powdered Butt Syndrome” when he warns people against being too bold in suggesting their elders make changes to their financial plans, specifically where things like nursing home or extended care facility insurance are concerned. Presumably, parents and grandparents don’t want to be told – by the children or grandchildren who’s diapers they’ve changed and whose butts they’ve powdered – about what to do with their money, no matter how correct they might be or how good that advice is.

Well, I’m not sure Powdered Butt Syndrome (PBS) is limited to parents and their children, or grandparents and their grandchildren. And I’m not sure that it’s only about financial advice or nursing home insurance, either. It’s hard for most of us to take advice or to learn from others, sometimes, who we are supposed to know more or better than, isn’t it?

So I couldn’t help but wonder if Powdered Butt Syndrome didn’t have a little bit to do with what was going on with Jesus in this morning’s Gospel story.

“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”, the townspeople ask that day in the synagogue. Maybe his old babysitter was in the crowd. Maybe an old neighbor was there or Joseph’s old carpentry mentor. Maybe that older boy who picked on Jesus when they were kids was in the room. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” “The carpenter’s kid?”

And at first they’re impressed. Amazed – all of them – by the gracious words Jesus has spoken: “good news for the poor, release for the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favor,” remember? All good stuff.  All holy things. Surprising, inspiring words coming from the local boy, made good, if all the reports about what he’d been up to were true.

But then he gets a little big for his britches, that carpenter’s kid. Then he gets a little rich for his robe or cocky for his cassock or too tall for his tunic, however it was back in First Century Palestine. Because he kicks it all up a notch, doesn’t he?

Jesus tells his hometown friends, family and neighbors that, while they may want to see and hear some of the great things he’d been up to in the other places he’d been, that that’s not what he came home to do. See, that’s what that talk about Elijah and Elisha is all about.

In the days of Elijah, there were plenty of widows the great prophet woulda, coulda, shoulda helped – right there in the homeland; from among his own kind – but instead, Jesus reminds them, Elijah was sent out to some widow from Zarapheth in Sidon. And the same thing happened with Elisha, another great prophet. There were plenty of lepers who could have used some healing from among the chosen ones of Israel. But for some reason, Elisha was sent to cleanse a leper named Naaman, out in the foreign territory of Syria.

So not only was Jesus – the hometown son of a carpenter – putting himself in league with the likes of some of the greatest prophets in all of Israel’s history, he was also neglecting, if not refusing, to share with his own people the kind of grace and good fortune they were hoping he’d been saving up, just for them. And on top of that, he had already and apparently planned, again, to share that kind of grace and good fortune with other people, in other places; with the outcast and the enemy, even – just like those prophets before him had done.

So, it seems like the symptoms of Powdered Butt Syndrome are intensified the harder the teaching and the more bitter the pill is for the sufferer to swallow.

In Jesus’ case – that day in the synagogue of his own hometown – there was an outbreak of Powdered Butt Syndrome that almost got him killed. All those people, once so enamored by his gracious, inspiring words, suddenly ran him out of town and nearly off the side of a cliff, once he started telling them things they didn’t want to hear – no matter how true it was.

And I can’t help but wonder what the symptoms of Powdered Butt Syndrome look like for you and me. What kind of news is hard for us to swallow? What kind of grace is difficult to share? What kind of good news is so good, so generous, so much like the Kingdom of God we sing and pray and worship around in church on Sunday morning, but don’t have the faith or courage or willingness to share out there in the world as we know it?

What kind of Gospel is so much Gospel… so much Truth… so much grace… requires so much humility and sacrifice and change of perspective on our part… that we would sooner shoot the messenger – or hurl him off a cliff – or hang him on a cross, as it were – than follow in his footsteps, than live like he lived, than do what he asks us to do?

I believe it happens whenever we feel like we’re not getting our due… not getting what belongs to us… not getting what we deserve. I believe it happens too, when we feel like someone else might be getting something they don’t deserve; that doesn’t belong to them; something they may not have earned. 

Whenever someone questions the work we do in Haiti – suggesting that there are plenty of hurting, hungry, homeless people right here in our backyard – I think about how Elijah left home and went to that widow in Zarapheth in Sidon.

Whenever I hear pride and nationalism and selfishness and fear disguised as patriotism, connected with the suggestion that “we” or “our own” are more important or more deserving or more of a priority than others – I’m reminded about how Elisha cared for Naaman, the Syrian – and about how God doesn’t play the same kind of politics we are tempted toward.

And the reason I’m as emboldened as I am nervous about saying some of this to some of you, is because I don’t know any other way to understand this Scripture, or these words from Jesus, or these examples of our ancestors in the faith.

But I’m emboldened, too, because there is good, gospel news, here. And that is that we don’t have to pick and choose. I don’t believe any of this is so black and white or cut and dried or all or nothing. I’m under the impression that there is enough of God’s grace and love and mercy and promise to go around. I’m under the impression that there are enough resources and opportunities to prove it, too, and that we are called to find out how to share them.

I think the world operates, too much of the time – like the hometown crowd in Nazareth that day – from a perspective of scarcity and mis-guided priorities. Like if Jesus – or Elijah or Elisha, for that matter – were to share God’s blessings and resources elsewhere that there wouldn’t be enough for them to enjoy.

But we worship a God of abundant faith, hope, and love, do we not?

We worship a God of love that is patient and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude – and who asks us to do and to be the same. We worship a God of love who does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, but rejoices in the truth – and who asks us to do the same. We worship a God of loving abundance who bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – and who invites us to love one another – and our enemies – the same way.

The love of our God never ends, we are told, and under the banner of that God, there was and is and there will be enough to go around. And we are always being invited to get on board with that kind of vision for the world. If we choose not to – like the people in Nazareth, way back when – I’m convinced the power of God will pass through the midst of us and go on its way.

But if we humble ourselves, if we sacrifice our pride, if we change our ways, if we open our hearts, if we love the enemy and the outsider and the other, we might just see and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises right where we live – today, this Scripture will be fulfilled in our hearing: the captive will be released, the blind will see, the oppressed will go free, and the favor of the Lord’s love and justice and peace and power will be poured out for whoever dares to share and to receive it.

Amen

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.