Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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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.

The Divine Possibility of Today

Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."


Today’s account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue comes on the heels of Jesus’ post-baptismal experience in the wilderness, where he was tempted with food, power, and security. To each temptation, Jesus steadfastly refused the false promises, privileges and powers of this world. This allowed Jesus to maintain an authentic communing relationship with God the Father. This relationship filled and sustained Jesus with the power of the Spirit. And so, having rejected worldly temptations and being filled with the Spirit, Jesus travelled to synagogues throughout the land to teach people what it meant to have a relationship with God.


Without much detail, scripture tells us that reports about Jesus spread throughout the land and he was praised by everyone. We can only assume that Jesus had been going from synagogue to synagogue with a message similar to the one revealed in today’s gospel, in which Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah, who bore God’s promise of good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As was the custom, after reading the scripture Jesus sat down to teach. He began with a promise: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s all we are given in today’s gospel text and it doesn’t sound like very much to go on. Was that it? Was he just going from one synagogue to another, from one town to another, with the same message that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”?

Yes; and what a radical and beautiful truth that is!

Today is the day the impoverished receive good news.

Today is the day the captives are released.

Today is the day the blind will see.

Today is the day the bonds of oppression loosen.

Today is the day in which everything in existence is infused with the Lord’s favor.

This is a powerful statement by Jesus because it completely shifts the timeline of spiritual expectation. Prior to Jesus’ radical declaration concerning the nowness of God’s promises, people located God’s promises in the past, in how they celebrated festivals dedicated to the stories of their previous deliverance by the Lord; or the located God’s promises in the future, as in someday the poor will receive good news, someday the captives will be released, someday the blind will see, someday the oppressed will be free, and someday will be the year of the Lord’s favor. They attended synagogue in anticipation of that day; they burnt offerings to bring about that day; they followed religious rules and customs in order to be ready for that day.

Remembering God’s active presence in your past is a vital component of spirituality. The hope that someday things will get better is a hope worth holding onto. But these pale in comparison to the hope that today is the day everything changes – the trust that God’s healing and redemptive power is here now.

Pastor Mark recently preached a sermon in which he referenced the “It gets better” campaign aimed at LGBTQ youth. There is beauty in holding out the promise that one day such people will experience the same rights, privileges, and respect that others enjoy. But the promise becomes even more powerful for LGBTQ youth who are treated with the same rights, privileges, and respect that others enjoy today.

Why put off until tomorrow what can be done today? Speaking as a diehard procrastinator who typically suffers an allergic reaction to this motto, it’s hard to deny its importance when it is referencing peoples’ wellbeing. God does not taunt us by dangling promises before us that remain inches beyond our grasp. God’s promises are meant to be realized today.

Jesus read the prophetic promises given to Isaiah by God and had the audacity to demand that their truth be manifest then and there, “in [their] hearing.” No more waiting for God’s promises to come true someday.

Here I’ll pause and give you permission to let that thought in; you know, the one lingering in the back of your mind. That little voice is saying, “Obviously not. Obviously there are poor people who still desperately need to hear good news. The captive, the blind, the oppressed are still here, seemingly everywhere we look. The world has been full of suffering people who were present before, during, and after Jesus walked this earth. Look around, is this really what it looks like to participate in the year of the Lord’s favor?”

If you’re thinking that, you’re not alone, and I respect that you have not buried your head in the sand regarding the reality of our world. Yes, there are people who suffered yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, and they’re still suffering today. But that does not negate the truth that good news, freedom, clarity of vision, and the Lord’s favor are present, active, and accessible today. It simply means that we have some work to do to be the hands and feet of this good news.

In studying today’s text I was reminded by Lutheran professor and pastor David Lose to look to the original Greek language of the text. He says, “as it turns out, the [verb] tense of Jesus’ declaration that ‘the Scripture has been fulfilled’ isn’t the once and done present tense or the singular past tense but rather the ongoing, even repetitive, and definitely re-occurring perfect tense. So Jesus is kind of saying, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled and will keep being fulfilled and therefore will keep needing to be fulfilled in your presence.’”*

Later in the gospel of Luke Jesus will say, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28). When you look around and rightly recognize the injustice and suffering, the next step is to take God’s promise seriously and get to work on others’ behalf…today!

We are rooted in the soil of God’s promises. That daily reality is the good soil from which we grow and produce the fruits of righteousness. The good news is that we are blessed to participate in the reality of God’s promises that enable us to be good news for the poor, to release the captives, to help the blind see, to break the bonds of oppression, and to share the unconditional promise and reality of the Lord’s favor.

This idea is beautifully captured in the poem, “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman. I say Amen and encourage you to read and reflect on this poem in a period of silence before we continue or worship with singing.

“The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

* http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/epiphany-3-c-declaration-promise-and-invitation/

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