You all know very well that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Nebraska Cornhusker. Being a Husker at heart, I pay a lot of attention to college football, and over the years I’ve developed a true appreciation for the Texas A&M Aggies football team. They are one of the classiest organizations in college football, and their fans rival only my Huskers in terms of dedication and support. One of the things I’ve loved about the Aggies is the tradition of the 12th Man. Let me give you a bit of a history:
“In Dallas on 2 January 1922, at the Dixie Classic (the forerunner of the Cotton Bowl), Texas A&M University played defending national champion Centre College in the first post-season game in the southwest. In this hard-fought game, which produced national publicity, an underdog Aggie team was slowly but surely defeating a team which boasted having three All-Americans. Unfortunately, the first half produced so many injuries for A&M that Coach D.X. Bible feard he wouldn’t have enough players to finish the game. At that moment, he called into the Aggie section of the stands for E. King Gill, a reserve who had left football after the regular season to play basketball. Gill willingly volunteered and donned the uniform of injured player Heine Weir. Although he did not actually play in the game, his readiness to play symbolized the willingness of all Aggies to support their team to the point of actually entering the game. A&M eventually won the game, 22-14. When the game ended, Gill was the only player left standing on the sidelines for the Aggies. Gill later said, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me.” A statue of E. King Gill stands to the north of Kyle Field, the Texas A&M football stadium, to remind today’s Aggies of their constant obligation to preserve the spirit of what has come to be known as the Twelfth Man. That spirit of readiness, desire and enthusiasm has continued through the years, and to this day the Aggie student body, known as the Twelfth Man, remains standing at football games a s agesture of its loyalty and readiness for duty. But the tradition of the Twelfth Man embraces more than mere athletic events. It is the essence of the Aggie Spirit that unites all Aggies into a fellowship of service and devotion to each other and their school.”
Called out of the stands, a young man accepts an invitation to join in a team effort. Is that so different than the invitation Elijah offers to Elisha in today’s reading from 1st Kings? Is it so different from the invitation Jesus offers in our Gospel reading? What do you do when you get called out of the crowd to join in the fight? How do you respond?
As much as I enjoyed my years in Lincoln as a Cornhusker, and as much as I loved being in the marching band and blasting through fight songs upwards of 100 times a game, I never once suffered under the delusion that I was actually a member of the team. Much as I might have wanted to play for my beloved Cornhuskers, I was three inches too short and three tenths of a second too slow to actually think I might be able to play for Tom Osborne in the 1990s. The closest I ever got to the Huskers was living three floors down from quarterback Tommie Frazier when he and I were both freshmen in 1992. I, like the other 75,000 people in the stands on game day, was watching while the players in uniform actually played the game. I was a spectator.
In our readings today, however, we discover that for God’s team, there are no spectators. Elisha was called to ministry in the midst of working fields for planting. Those who watched Jesus as he set his face toward Jerusalem got called out of the stands and asked to suit up. Paul encouraged his readers in Galatia to consider their freedom an invitation to join the team rather than considering their freedom as an opportunity to become a free agent. When God gets involved in the lives of his saints, we discover that there are no sidelines, no concession stands, no luxury boxes and no scalpers: the playing field is the whole world, and we wear the uniform of Christ in the cross sealed on our foreheads and the gowns washed white as snow in the blood of the Lamb.
Elisha was out working his fields when he was called by God to a different vocation. This was a very common happening in the Old Testament. Abraham was called when he was working for his father near modern day Baghdad. Moses was called when he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Gideon was called when he was threshing wheat. Samuel was called when he was sleeping in the house of Eli, the priest to whom Samuel was an apprentice. Even in the New Testament, people get called by God to ministry in the midst of their working lives. Peter, James & John were fishing when Jesus called them to follow. Matthew was collecting taxes. Paul, known at the time by his given name, Saul, was carrying out the orders of the Pharisees and hunting down Jesus’ followers when Jesus called him to join the other team. We find throughout the scriptures that God calls people in surprising ways and at surprising times; the question is, what do God’s children do with the interruption? How did they handle it in the scriptures? How do we handle it today?
When Elisha was called, he was working the fields with twelve yoke of oxen. Those of you who know something about farming with animals know that you only need one yoke of oxen to pull a plow, so you know that Elisha was either very wealthy himself or working for a very wealthy farmer. Twelve yoke of oxen would have been the Biblical equivalent of the most massive four-wheel drive John Deere tractor, hooked up to the widest plow you can imagine. But Elisha doesn’t just leave his old job to follow Elijah: he offers the oxen and their harnesses as a sacrifice to the God who has called him to follow Elijah. The interruption isn’t an inconvenience: it is an opportunity, and Elisha takes the time to completely sever the ties with his old life when God calls him to a new life. The spectator became the player, and Elisha took the time to burn his old clothes before donning the uniform of a prophet. What in our lives is holding us back to our old life of sin and death? Now that you and I have been called by God out of the stands, are we still wearing the uniform of the old life? What needs burning in us?
When Jesus calls people to follow him, it is clear that the calling will involve this type of sacrifice. While Elisha made time to sacrifice the old life, Jesus made it clear that in his call there is no time for sacrifice: the call is to follow, NOW. This isn’t a call-up from A ball to AAA – you’re going straight to the show, folks, and the manager is handing you the ball. Time to suit up!
There are a lot of us, unfortunately, who are content to be spectators of God’s kingdom here on earth. Somehow we got the idea that simply receiving baptism as our ticket to eternal life was all that matters, and an occasional check-in at the church on Sunday morning is good enough. Just sit there, smile, nod when it seems appropriate and you’ll be just fine. But here’s the thing: God loves you far too much to let you continue to be a spectator. The joy of playing the game is far too great for God to let you just sit there and watch. That uncomfortable feeling you get when you wonder if you’re missing something? I would say that it’s God calling you to get out of your seat and onto the field. Just watching the game isn’t enough – if you’re still breathing, you’ve got time and the ability to play the game. Time to suit up!
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul talked about the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. In regard to the fruits of the Spirit, Paul said, “There is no law against such things.” Those of you who played sports at one point in your life know that if you enter a game and work your hardest NOT to commit a foul or do something illegal, the game becomes an exercise in frustration and completely miserable. But if you play a sport with the mindset of what you can do, how the game is played and looking for opportunities to be a great player, the game becomes a joy to play. It’s the same for us as we get called by God into action: focusing our attention on those things we can be is far more life-giving and inspiring than focusing our attention on those things which are off-limits. When God calls us to play, God is calling us to be what is good – and you can never get enough of it.
I love watching a good sporting event. Whether I’m watching Phil Mickelson blast golf balls, Justin Morneau blast home runs or my beloved Cornhuskers blast opponents in Lincoln, I love sports. But merely watching leads us to second-class living: we substitute the glory of the game for the far-better joy of actually living and doing and being players ourselves. God did not create you to be a spectator: God created you to play the game, and to play it with all the passion and heart and desire and joy you have within you. You’ve been freed in baptism to come out of the stands and take your place on the field: suit up, friends, because you’ve been forgiven. It’s a brand-new ballgame, and now is the time to play. Amen.