Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Fish and Yips

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.

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