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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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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.

What the Cubs Taught Me About Blessing and Woe – Luke 6-17-31

Luke 6:17-31

[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.


This proved to be an interesting week to prepare a message. I want to honor our celebration of All Saints Day, along with its assigned lessons from Daniel about apocalyptic beasts as well as the Jesus’ words of blessing and woe known as the Beatitudes. But there are other things going on in our world worth exploring, including the absurdity of the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years, as well as the even more absurd imminent US Presidential election. On top of all that, before Pastor Mark left for vacation he let me know that a sermon on stewardship would be appreciated in light of next week’s designation as “Building Fund Commitment Sunday.”

That means I’m trying to tie up the topics of death, apocalyptic beasts, blessing and woe, politics, and giving money to the church. 

Just as I was starting to lose hope I would find a common thread, I was reminded once again of the work of Dr. Brené Brown. This is probably a familiar name to many of you, as her research on topics of vulnerability, imperfection, worthiness, and courage have impacted many arenas of our culture, including previous teachings here at Cross of Grace.

I’m particularly drawn to her work explaining the extent to which we try to avoid pain and suffering, which has the unintended consequence of shutting ourselves off from risks which otherwise would allow ourselves to experience joy and love. Her research has demonstrated that we close ourselves off from relationships, questions, and challenges because our self-esteem is so low that we feel unworthy of relationship, not smart enough to handle the questions, and too weak to endure the challenges. Brené Brown uses the language of “numbness” to describe this reality.

I’m drawn to, and convicted by, that idea because that’s largely the type of person I fear I have become. Numb. 

I have encountered enough negative life experiences to make me closed off to emotional and physical risk. On some core level of my being I convinced myself that the joys in life are not worth the pain in life. I so despise and want to avoid the low lows that I’ve experienced in my life that I try desperately to stay level, even knowing full well that staying level makes me numb and closes me off from potentially feeling much joy.

Here’s one basic example; I grew up a huge Chicago Cubs fan, due primarily to the gift I received as a little boy of a Cubs hat. My dad had brought it home for me from one his business trips. Once I had the hat, I was a fan. My sports acuity was forged during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Ryne Sandburg, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson, and Sammy Sosa wore the Cubs uniform. It also helped that one set of my grandparents lived in Mesa, Arizona, where the Cubs hold their Spring Training. I remember walking around the ballpark in Mesa, asking random cubs players to sign my baseball. My other grandfather even bought me my own Cubs jersey with my name stitched on the back.

I remember where I was on October 14, 2003 – the day the Cubs were five outs away from winning the National League pennant, before a fan interfered with a potential out (Steve Bartman) and the Cubs went off the rails. I was sitting in my apartment in Valparaiso, eating a Quiznos sub, when the infamous play happened. I was alone, so I didn’t feel too bad for the words that came out of my mouth that evening. I cried. I thought, “It’s not worth it.” All the hope and energy I had riding on the Cubs winning the pennant and making it to the World Series, it wasn’t worth the pain I felt at experiencing their loss. I moved back to Ohio the next month and put my Cubs jersey in a box of childhood mementos in my parents basement. 

I stopped caring about the Cubs. They weren’t worth the pain. 

I was aware of the hype surrounding the Cubs this year, but I didn’t watch a single Cubs game until the World Series. Even watching the games I really didn’t care who won. 

Some people would say that not letting one’s emotions get tied up in sports allegiances is actually very healthy; but what it meant for me was that when Anthony Rizzo caught that game-ending out and the team erupted onto the field with joy that had been pent up for 108 years, I barely managed a smile. It was a moment I had wanted since I was a little boy, but I had become so emotionally divested in the team that their historic victory barely registered for me. 

I dug out that personalized jersey on Thursday morning from that box of mementos which had made its way to my basement when my parents moved out of their Ohio home. It had been in that box for 13 years, almost to the day. 

I put it on in an attempt to rediscover some of the joy that I’d previously felt for the Cubs. It didn’t work. I felt like a hypocrite all day. I felt unworthy. In an attempt to protect myself from any further harm I had abandoned the Cubs when they let me down. I simply could not be a part of any of their joy.

This is just one example of the countless times in my life when I’ve closed doors to entire parts of my life as a result of choosing numbness over the possibility of joy or pain. I do it with friendships, jobs, my relatives, and also the very way that I think of myself. I do it so often it’s second-nature. It sucks. I avoid caring in order to protect myself from harm, even if it means losing out on pure joy.

My wife knows this about me. She knows my history with depression. She understands that I’m so scared of pain that I’m prone to withdrawing completely, closing the familiar pain of loneliness over the stinging pain of disappointment. My wife knows this about me but she never stops challenging me to be vulnerable. 

And then there’s my kids, who have a profound way of tapping into my most extreme emotions. No one except my kids have ever been able to make me feel so scared, so angry, or so ecstatically joyful. No one except my kids have ever made me feel so vulnerable. 

If you’re anything like me, if you’re anything like the masses of people Brené Brown has researched and learned from, then you too might be uncomfortable with being vulnerable.

As hard as it is to live this out in my life, I’ve never doubted its truth. It is absolutely true that vulnerability is the path to authentic joy (and, yes, pain as well). God’s truth as revealed through Jesus Christ is only Good News to those who are vulnerable. Joy in Christ is worth the pain we endure when we take up his cross and follow him.

I added the three verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel text to show you who Jesus’ original audience was. They are people who suffer from disease and unclean spirits. They are completely vulnerable before Jesus; they are willing to bear their imperfections before Jesus; and they are healed by his power. 

It is in this context that Jesus directs his words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

Their vulnerability before God allows them to receive God’s blessing. So too, our vulnerability before God and others opens us up to blessings from God and from others. 

A vulnerable person exposes the other cheek after being struck.

A vulnerable person gives the shirt off his or her back after having their coat taken from them.

A vulnerable person is generous in sharing financial and emotional resources with someone in need.

A vulnerable person is completely dependent on God, and therefore in solidarity with those who are in need.

So too, a vulnerable person is able to look death in the face and declare the most audacious of claims, that the fate awaiting each and every one of us is not death, but eternal life.

And maybe that’s why this gospel text is assigned to All Saints Day. After all, what makes us feel more vulnerable than thinking about death?

We go to great lengths to try to avoid thinking about death because there is simply nothing so utterly low and meaningless and depressing as death. And yet, Jesus’ final beatitude (not spoken but symbolized on the cross and in the empty tomb) is the total depravity of his death juxtaposed with the resounding joy of resurrection three days later. Blessed are the dead, for they will inherit eternal life.

I can’t explain to you what all this should mean for your life. But for me it is a resounding call to live a life of honesty and openness to pain and joy. It is a call to put myself out there in the world where acts of irresponsible generosity, over-the-top compassion, raw honesty, and utter vulnerability open myself up to others and God.

It means investing in God’s work in this world, both within the walls of the church as well as within the interior emotional spaces of all God’s people, which can be some of the riskiest and most rewarding work I could ever hope to engage in.

At this time of year it also means taking my citizenship seriously not only by voting for the candidates who come the closest to lining up with Christ’s commands to turn the other cheek, give generously to those in need, and stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable and isolated people in our nation. It also means realizing that our citizenship is not only important in November. But every day for citizen of the United States and disciples of Jesus Christ is an opportunity to be advocate politically and personally for the poor, hungry, marginalized, mourning, unwanted, neglected; the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. 

But above all, it means…

  • trusting that God is more powerful than a political party or candidate; 
  • trusting that God is more powerful than the prophetic beasts that haunt our nation or our hearts, 
  • trusting that God is more powerful than the wealth in our bank accounts;
  • trusting that God is more powerful than a Dexter Fowler leadoff home run or an Aroldis Chapman 101 mph fastball; 
  • and trusting that God is more powerful than death itself.

And so, today and every day we give thanks that God promises to meet us in our most raw and honest vulnerability in order to lead us into relationships of blessing and abundance through Christ alone.

Amen

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