Did I ever tell you how much I love soccer?
Such a love –rather passion—for soccer goes all the way to my toddler days, when my mother was pregnant with my little brother. Her belly was so huge, I naturally assumed something more than my brother was there, in my mom’s belly. Yes, you guessed well – a soccer ball, my brother’s present for me!
Soccer ran deep in our family’s DNA. Even though my soccer skills were very limited, I always played it with such a passion. And I always believed that everybody ought to enjoy soccer as much as I did. Which somehow explains my first cultural shock right after landing in this country –in Texas, more precisely.
Back in the summer of 1977, not many Texans cared that much for soccer, so I felt out of place, for everyone was into football, and baseball, and basketball. How could I ever belong with these folks?
A few weeks later, when our District Superintendent asked me to help with a Spanish-speaking congregation some 75 miles north of Dallas, near Oklahoma, I experience another cultural shock. Let me tell you – for the most part, those migrant families didn’t care much about soccer either. Like my Anglo buddies in campus, they only cared for football! How could I reach out to them?
But God had a great idea, so he reminded me of Paul’s dilemma – how to behave as Christians in a diverse, multicultural world.
Writing to the Corinthian church, not far from Athens, Paul says: “Though I am free and belong to no one in particular, I have become a servant in Christ to everyone, to win as many as possible. So, when I was living among the Jews, I became a Jew to win as many Jews as possible. When I was living among the Greeks, I became a Greek, to win as many Greeks as possible, and when living among the Romans, a became a Roman.” (9:19-23)
You know the rest.
Wow! What a heavenly tip we have here! By “winning” the locals, Paul meant not only “winning them for himself” –to make new friends, to be accepted as one. But also “winning them for Christ.” Finally, I could see some light at the end of the tunnel.
I wrote down on a sticky note something like this: “As long as I live here among Texans –whether Anglos or Latinos– I will become a Texan Anglo or a Texan Latino to win as many Texans Anglos or Latinos as possible. And if that means to force myself to fully understand and enjoy football, and to stop whining about both their unbelievable ignorance and disregard for soccer, so be it.”
And I attached it to my first English Bible ever.
I’ll never forget my very first Thanksgiving in Texas –such a delicious meal with my new Anglo friends. Boy! –that turkey was so finger-likin’ good, I all but forgot about the texture, the taste, and the smell of my Argentinian rib-eyes. That same afternoon I watched with them my first complete football game –and boy! how I enjoyed it new how the game was played. And they all noticed –now I was one of them and one with them, and our joy was complete.
I had a similar epiphany with my Spanish-speaking congregation. In fact, the Sunday after Thanksgiving they were waiting for me with their own Latino version of such a memorable meal, and that afternoon I watched the football game with them!
Four years later, now serving two Latino churches in Queens and Brooklyn, I experienced a new cultural shock. They were not into football — just baseball! Folks from the Caribbean Spanish — Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans — all so deeply invested in baseball. How could I win those Latinos unless I became one of them? I wondered.
Once again, God spoke to me through the apostle Paul –“Ariel, you’d better learn some baseball!” And that’s why I did –against my will, for baseball felt so slow, so boring, not to mention when it goes extra innings.
Now, it didn’t make much sense to me to play a game with only one mitt — that was like playing soccer with one shoe only. Weird game — can’t they see that two mitts could increase their catching chances tremendously?
Time went by, and one evening as I was watching Ophra’s show with my family, I found the answer. This time it was not through the apostle, rather Dr. Maja Angelou, the famous American poet and civil rights activist.
Towards the end of the show, Ophra asked Dr. Angelou point blank — “What have you learned over the years that would like to share with our audience today?”
Dr. Angelou responded: “I have learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas lights. I have also learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. And I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a baseball’s mitt on both hands.”
Why not, I wondered, again.
So early next day I drove up to a Target and grabbed two baseball mitts — one for my left hand, one for my right hand. I also grabbed a baseball and then I checked my surroundings – no one was nearby — so for a few seconds I pretended to be a famous Yankees catcher. I started catching balls with my left hand, like this [gesturing], but the moment I tried to release them with my right hand, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t throw them around with a mitt on each hand!
Dr. Angelou was right –“You can’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands.”
Emotionally drained, yet feeling a winner, I dropped the baseball, removed my two mitts, and left Target. On my way home, Jesus’s insistent message on generous hearts began to ring in my heart: “Life, buddy, is a gift from God for you to share with others. A gift to pass around.”
“Give, and it will be given to you.” (Lk. 6:37-38)
Dr. Angelou’s secret was also ringing loud in my heart:
“Yes, my gaucho friend, one mitt is more than enough for you, for I love it when you pass your blessings around, when you share them with others. Such is the way I like to do things around here, and you’d better get on board.”
In the late 40s of the Christian Era, a brutal drought swept across Judea, in the very heart of Palestine. Many poor Christians in the church in Jerusalem were starving, and when the apostle Paul found out, he appealed for help to his church in Corinth. Paul the pastor must have anticipated some of the same typical reservations we tend to raise whenever we are invited to volunteer money or work.
So he wrote to his church in Corinth: “Remember, my friends, the farmer who plants few seeds will have a small crop; the one who plants many seeds will have a large crop. You should each give, then, as you have decided, not with regret or out of a sense of obligation; for God loves the one who gives gladly. And God is able to give you more than you need, so that you will always have all you need . . . As the Scripture says about the one who gives generously to the needy, ‘his kindness lasts forever.’” (9:6-15)
Time went by, and little by little generous offerings began to arrive in Jerusalem. Paul was so impressed, so grateful, so glad that his folks back in Corinth were sharing their blessings with his folks far away in Jerusalem –his joy was complete.
Contagious enthusiasm, planning skills, empathy, quality time, preaching or leading abilities, financial resources, inspiring singing, compassion, prophetic boldness, leadership, service, you name it – you have so many wonderful gifts and talents here, my friends!
Together, you are a gift from God to yourselves, to others, and to me too. For you are always doing your very best to pass your gifts, your blessings around.
And very much like the Corinthian congregation, you do it with a generous heart, not reluctantly or by obligation, but with such a cheerful heart, and not to score points or to brag about, rather to glorify God.
And that’s the reason our church keeps growing in numbers and in joy.
Let me close with one of my favorite fables – Aesop’s tale about an old crow who was very thirsty.
Close to desperation, he came to a jug that had a little water –so little, his beak was not long enough to reach it. So, he started picking up pebbles one at a time and dropping them into the jug. All those many pebbles gradually accumulated in the bottom of the jug and the water gradually rose until finally the old crow was able to quench his thirst.
To sum up –2 spiritual secrets for the price of 1!!
First secret, from the realm of baseball — eternal life, quality life, is about learning to throw back, to pass around, to share our gifts with God, and with one another.
Second secret, from the realm of ancient fables — each of your gifts, each of your talents, all your blessings are like little pebbles that you consecrate here in this sacred place.
No matter how small, how rough your blessings may be – when you share them around, they gradually pile up together. And when that happens, we can all gather around Jesus Christ, the fountain of Living Waters, to quench our thirst.
And that’s what we celebrate today as we come together to partake around this table – and with one mitt only!