Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
It was New Year’s Day, 1929. The University of California at Berkely Golden Bears played the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Rose Bowl. Halfway through the second quarter, Golden Bears defensive tackle, Roy Riegels, scooped up a fumble by Georgia Tech’s Jack “Stumpy” Thomason, 30 yards from the end-zone. The pivotal play changed outcome of the game. As Riegels later told the Associated Press, “I was running toward the sidelines when I picked up the ball. I started to turn to my left toward the goal. Somebody shoved me and I bounded [bounced] right off into a tackler. In pivoting to get away from him, I completely lost my bearings.” Riegels became disoriented. He spun around and ran 69 yards in the wrong direction. Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels blunder is often cited as the worst mistake by a single player in the history of college football.
Wrong Way Riegels, by all accounts, was a great football player. His story is a cautionary tale. Sometimes, even when we are very good at what we do, and are trying our very best, we are tragically unaware that we are going the wrong way. Those who sit in darkness cannot comprehend the darkness until they see the light. Our redemption begins with changing direction.
Like a lighthouse beside stormy seas Jesus shined a light revealing the outlines of a new and distant shore, a new kingdom, a new life, a new way of being, a new way of being together. Suddenly the disciples understood their life could go a different direction. Or, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, they could repent and follow Jesus.
Jesus’ first, one-sentence sermon is identical to the message of that wild man John Baptist (3:1). ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'” (4:17). It sounds to us like some fire and brimstone warning about the afterlife. Yet, we may be surprised to uncover here the core message of grace. To repent is not to feel bad, but to think differently. To repent doesn’t mean to grovel in self-hatred or pious sorrow. To repent is to turn around, to change direction, or make a radical rupture with the past.
The good news of Jesus shines into the hidden corners of the world to lead us out from the pain and suffering caused by hate, fear, or anything else that degrades and dehumanizes us. That’s where we find Jesus today. He is searching out fertile fishing grounds among those in need. Capernaum was in the back-water territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. It was the “wild west,” a rough, unruly place frequented by bandits and revolutionaries derided by religious know-it-alls in Jerusalem as uncivilized, semi-literate, and infected by paganism. It was a land familiar with brutality, poverty, and hunger, a land unaccustomed to hope.
You might think the disciples had a pretty good life. They fished every day. They lived beside the sea. They owned their own business. Maybe it had been that way once, but a process of brining and preserving fish had allowed fishing to become industrialized. In the first-century Roman Empire, fishing was a miserable job controlled by the Roman state — only profiting the elite.
“In the ancient Roman Empire, you didn’t work for yourself. You didn’t choose a job or a career. You worked for Caesar. Your entire family worked for Caesar. You, your parents and children, and your neighbors and friends were part of a massive political and economic hierarchy which took nearly all the work of your hands and gave it to the wealthiest people in the empire — and from which you, your relations, and your community received almost no benefit.” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 1/22/23). This is ‘the land of deep darkness’ into which Jesus journeyed—and doesn’t it sound familiar?
The land beside the sea was a fertile place to fish for human hearts and minds hungry for hope. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were ready to hear the gospel because they knew, deep in their bones, they were headed the wrong way. They were ready to become valuable, dignified citizens of the kingdom of heaven rather than continue being subjects of King Herod or living as cogs in the Imperial economic machine that was the Rome Empire.
I would like to think that today we are living in a similar time more open to receiving gospel. Afterall, haven’t we started to realize we are all going the wrong way? We cannot thrive while the natural world dies. Economic extraction, perpetual growth, and short-term profits will lead us, like lemmings, to our collective doom—not to mention the pound of flesh it demands of our health and well-being. Haven’t these past three years been an epiphany? We have seen how Christian church has become infected by nationalism, white supremacy, and a greedy media machine. We are startled to realize how fragile our democracy has become. We are going the wrong way.
Living and working in Nazi Germany, Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 40)
Could it be? The unfolding path behind Jesus will lead us, finally, in the right direction toward happier, more fulfilling lives, however much it may cost us in terms of worldly success. I recommend to you a little documentary now on Netflix featuring the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who share their deep friendship, much laughter, and their teachings on the wisdom of living a faith-centered life. It’s called Mission: Finding Joy in Troubled Times.
You don’t have to take their word for it. Acts of kindness toward others have a measurable, lasting effect on our own happiness, and immune system functioning. Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. What’s the key to human happiness, according to the longest study ever conducted on the subject? It’s friendship. More specifically, good listening, being trustworthy, curious about others, empathetic, generous, hospitable, and caring. We could just as easily list all these as fruits of our faith in Jesus. These are the spiritual gifts that bless our lives as we change direction and follow the way of Jesus and his cross.
Jesus went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” literally, the land of ‘those who are not us.’ We will see this word appear again, translated as “nations” in the Great Commission Jesus issues to the nascent Church at the end of Matthew’s gospel. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
No matter how far we have strayed, grace abounds for those who turn to follow the light. As Martin Luther wrote, “We are not now what we shall be but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal, but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” Hear the good news. Follow me.