Text: Matthew 10:24-29
A time honored tradition in coaching is the locker room speech. These used to be largely a mystery to those who were not athletes, but with cameras allowed in locker rooms more and more, we can often listen in on a coach’s instructions to the team before the big game. In the NBA Finals, for example, those who were watching could listen in on what Coach Popovich or Coach Spoelstra said to their teams.
We know a little bit about locker room speeches here at Iowa State. Football coach Paul Rhoads, after a big upset of Nebraska in Lincoln in his first season, told his cheering team in the locker room after the game, “I am so proud to be your football coach!” This carried even more weight because the previous coach didn’t seem so proud and in fact seemed pretty eager to get out of town at the first opportunity, but Coach Rhoads’ obvious love and passion for his team shone through, and the video went viral. And then we had Coach Hoiberg dancing – if you could call it that – in the locker room after the Cyclones defeated North Carolina in the NCAA tournament, which endeared him to ISU fans even more, if that is possible. We occasionally get such glimpses of coaches’ locker room communication with players.
The most legendary locker room speech ever given belongs to Knute Rockne, the great coach at Notre Dame. It was popularized in the movie Knute Rockne, All-American. It was halftime of the game against Army in 1928, and his team was losing badly. To inspire his players he told them the story of the greatest player ever at Notre Dame, George Gipp.
The scene begins in the Notre Dame locker room. The players are seated with blankets draped over their shoulders. They are dejected and silent when the door pushes open and Rockne enters. They look at Rockne and then turn away in order to avoid his eyes. He looks over his team for a full moment of unbroken silence. Then, quietly, as if the game didn’t matter to him, he says:
“Well, boys ... I haven't a thing to say. Played a great game...all of you. Great game. I guess we just can’t expect to win ‘em all.”
And then he paused and said quietly, “I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years -- None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame... “
There is a faraway look in his eyes as he recalls George Gipp. He talks about Gipp on his deathbved and continues, “And the last thing he said to me – ‘Rock,’ he said – ‘sometime, when the team is up against it -- and the breaks are beating the boys -- tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper...’”
The coach's eyes are misty and his voice is unsteady as he finishes. “’I don’t know where I'll be then, Rock,” he said – ‘but I'll know about it - and I'll be happy.’”
Rockne slowly leaves the locker room. Finally, one of the players says, “What are we waiting for?” and with a single roar, they throw off the blankets, rush onto the field, and of course they come back to win the game.
The phrase “Win one for the Gipper” came to be a part of our American lexicon, and was heard in political campaigns because the actor who played George Gipp in the 1940 movie was none other than Ronald Reagan.
Now, historians doubt whether Rockne’s version of George Gipp’s last words was true, and Rockne was known for inventing such scenarios in order to motivate his team, but that is beside the point. Whether he quoted George Gipp accurately or not, Rockne’s words are the gold standard for locker room speeches. He knew how to fire up and motivate his team.
Why do I bring this up? Our scripture this morning includes instructions Jesus gave to his disciples before they were to go out in ministry – before they were sent out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick and cast out demons. This is what he told his followers before they were to go out on to the field, as it were. This is his “Win One for the Gipper” speech.
Except that as such speeches go, I would take Knute Rockne’s any day.
In our scripture this morning, we join Jesus’ locker room speech already in progress. Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission by reminding them of how hard it was going to be. They would be persecuted. They would face danger. They would be arrested. They had to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
If they malign and slander me as the leader, you can expect at least as much as my followers, he says. Sure, they can do you harm, in fact they very well might kill you, but no matter what they do, they cannot do anything to your spirit.
Now, a coach might prepare the team for an opponent who is taller or faster or stronger, but this is another order of difficulty altogether.
Can you imagine this being used as a recruiting tool? Think of Jesus as a coach on a recruiting visit in a high school athlete’s home. “We’d love to have you on our team. Sure, you will be vilified, slandered, betrayed. You may be disowned by your family and you might even be killed. How about it? We’re offering you a full-ride scholarship.”
On first reading, this comes across as very intimidating. This is certainly not an easy passage. But remember, Matthew is not only telling his readers about the life of Jesus; he is writing for a community who were themselves smack in the middle of persecution and oppression. Some of those original hearers were people who had been rejected by family and friends because of their faith. This wasn’t just an abstract, hypothetical idea.
And so while it comes across as very challenging and very strong, Jesus is simply holding up reality. And as he does so many times, Jesus says, “Do not fear.” They are not to fear their opponents because while their opponents may be able to hurt them physically, they can do them no spiritual harm. God, however, is the one who has power over both body and spirit, and God has promised to guard and protect them and bring them to eternal life. The God who created and tends every living thing, values them more than anything. God cares for the sparrows; how much more does God care for us.
Lord knows, our situations are far, far different from those earlier followers of Jesus. Although in some parts of the world, in parts of the Middle East, in parts of Africa, it may be very much like the situation of the early church, and one can face danger and even death simply for being a follower of Jesus.
We thankfully do not live in that kind of environment. But what we do have in common with the early church is this issue of fear. We all have to face fear.
Now at times, Jesus’ sayings are in the category of hyperbole. At least, when he says he has come not to bring peace but a sword and to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother, I certainly hope it is hyperbole. But he is addressing a very real issue. There is a cost to being a disciple. It is not simply that becoming a follower of Jesus could mean drastic changes for family relationships; Jesus is getting at a core fear of most of us, and that is the fear of conflict. Nobody wants conflict, and we want it least of all in our families.
This includes church families. We can get so afraid of conflict, so worried about disagreements that our witness is muted, our voices are quieted, and new, fresh, creative ministry is limited for fear of upsetting the apple cart. Jesus invites us to remember that there are worse things than conflict and that following him will in fact have costs – including at times conflict, even among families.
Jesus’ pep talk, if you want to call it that, invites us to acknowledge how much fear has influence over our lives. You might be thinking that no, you don’t spend a lot of time or don’t use up a lot of emotional energy being afraid. But after reflecting on it, I think fear is bigger in our lives than we might at first believe. We have just gotten so used to it that we may not notice very much.
I’m no financial expert, but it seems to me that if you want to buy stock in a company, you could do a lot worse than investing in a company that has something to do with security. Security cameras, car alarms, home alarms, insurance of all sorts, radon detectors. Security against identity theft, computer viruses, malware. I’m not saying there is no cause for concern, I’m just saying that fear is definitely a growth industry. Fear has everything to do with the proliferation of guns in our country. And lucky us, it is already campaign season, and there will be one political ad after another playing on various fears.
There is a huge fear of not having enough. We learn to have an attitude of scarcity about life in general. Not enough money, not enough resources, not enough wisdom, not enough skill, certainly not enough love and kindness and goodwill. And we come to believe that somehow we are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough. These messages are reinforced every day. Watch a few commercials and it is striking how much of our advertising has to do with fear – fear of not fitting in or not being attractive or not having the latest and greatest.
Rather than focus on the abundance that God offers us, we focus on what we lack, or seem to lack. It is a form of fear.
We could go on and on listing the ways that fear affects us. We fear for loved ones – for their safety, for their future, for their success, for their happiness. We have fears about an uncertain future – for ourselves, for the ones we love, for our church, for our community, for our country, for our world – there is no limit on those kinds of fears.
There are all kinds of fears over being accepted – whether we are moving on to middle school or high school or college or a new job, or whether we are entering a retirement community, we never really lose those kinds of fears. And we can certainly have fears about losing our health. The list just goes on and on and on. The news brings a daily dose of war, terrorism, natural disasters, human suffering, disease, abductions, and economic upheaval. That, and Donald Sterling and the Kardashians. It can be downright depressing. There is a lot to fear.
This week I was at the ISU Orientation for new students and their parents. The Religious Leaders Association has a table at an activity fair that students and their parents attend toward the end of orientation. We had information on churches and other places of worship in Ames and religious groups on campus – we were not just representing our own faith communities but providing information on whatever group a person might be interested in.
It was very interesting watching the students and their families. Of course, it was the end of a tiring event, and I noticed a lot of different attitudes and emotions. Two stood out to me: excitement and fear. Some moved through the room and took in all of the variety of opportunities and had a sense of excitement about it all. You could just see that they were excited about coming to ISU. It wasn’t just students – parents were excited too. But others seemed a little bit intimidated, kind of overwhelmed by it all. Often, it was the parents. Parents would come by and want information on churches and ministries while their son or daughter went to a display on Recreation Services or Greek Life. Or, a family would approach our table together, but it was clearly the parents who were more interested. They were afraid that their child would come to school, get in the wrong crowd, get involved in all sorts of things, and they wanted to steer them toward a church or campus ministry. Not a bad strategy, but it has to be the stduent's idea.
We all know about fear. Rather than ignore the fear that is just kind of in the air, both then and now, Jesus comes right out and names some of those fears facing the disciples, from whether their message will be received to whether their families will still accept them to whether they can stay out of jail and for that matter stay alive. And his answer is this: “Do not fear, for you are of great value to God. God cares for the sparrows; how much more does God care about you?”
Do not fear. Three different times during his talk to his “team,” Jesus says, “Do not fear.” If you spend your life trying to drive away all of these fears, he says, you will lose your life in the process. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, if you jump right in and invest your life in following me and living by my way of hope and grace and peace and abundance, then you will find yourself and you will learn what living really is.”
To truly follow Jesus can be a hard thing. To do justice, to act with kindness, to walk humbly with God is not easy. To do what is right rather than what is expedient, to take a stand that may be unpopular, to live by faith in God rather than faith in money or power, to strive for faithfulness rather than success, to love our enemies, to be willing to offer forgiveness - these can all be very scary.
It can be easy to give in to fear. It can be easy to feel downtrodden. It is easy to feel like that Notre Dame team, getting beat up by big bad Army, blankets over our shoulders, nursing our wounds. But that is not the way we are meant to live.
We all face fears, but those fears do not have to define us. Ultimately love is far greater than fear, and the love of God in Jesus Christ can lead us to rich, abundant, joyful living – even in a challenging world. Amen.