A message given by Rev. Scott Summerville
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Matthew 17:1-7

I have been debating with myself this week concerning the subject of this morning’s message. I was eager to delve into the gospel story of the Transfiguration, that fascinating and dreamlike story of mountains and visions. I also felt pulled in the direction of sports in this Super Bowl week.

You may think I am being capricious or facetious in saying that, but I am not. Sports are in many ways close to religion, and for many people they are a religion.

Once when the Mets were in the World Series, I preached a sermon on baseball. At the end of the service two octogenarian sisters approached me. I was concerned that the sermon had been completely irrelevant to them, but they were beaming, and they said to me, “We’ve been Mets fans for years! We never miss a game! That was the best sermon you ever gave.” Sports touch people in all kinds of ways.

In order to come to a decision about the topic of this morning’s message, I decided to go to the gym and see what was on the minds of the guys in the locker room. I wandered around the locker room and did a survey. Twenty of the guys were talking about the Super Bowl and making their predictions. Only ten guys were talking about the lectionary and predicting how the preacher was going to handle the gospel text this morning. (I was not allowed to take a survey in the ladies locker room, so this survey may have a gender bias, but it’s the best I can do.) Based on my survey, I have decided to focus today on football.

I know some of you may be thinking that professional sports is just big business, big egos, big salaries, and a fantasy world where people escape from real problems. I don’t disagree with any of those observations, but they are not the whole story. There are spiritual realities and theological truths woven into the world of sports in ways that no preacher should ignore. A football stadium at game time has more in common with the church full of worshipers than you might think.

Our neighbors have young children. I hear those kids every morning when they go out the door to be taken to school. As soon as they are out in the fresh air, the chattering and hollering begins, “Hey ! Weeeee! Ha Ha Ha! I’m gonna get there before you do!!” With words and shouts and laughs they greet the day.

I assure you – in my neighborhood there are no adults who step out their doors in the morning on their way to work or to their daily chores shouting, “Hey! Wow! hahahahahah! – gonna beat you to the train!” Adults are expected to keep their composure. There are very few socially acceptable times for adults to raise their voices.

You can do it church:

Praise ye, the Lord! Hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!

Joyful, joyful, we adore the God of glory, Lord of love!

And you are allowed to raise your voice when the game is on : “Go go go go go go go go go! No no no! Get him, get him, get him!” “Why didn’t you pass the ball!!!!!”

Sports – playing sports or watching others play – is one of the only ways that many people have to let out all the bottled-up passions of life. The modern culture we live in has most people walking around every day with corks stuck in their hearts. When you pop that cork, it is a spiritual experience – whether you pop the cork at church, or at the stadium, or in front of a TV set when the game is on.

O Lord, hear my prayer!
Let my cry come to you!

“Make this field goal! Make this field goal!
Please go in! Please go in! Go in! Go in!
O no! I can’t believe he missed it! I can’t believe it!”

Sports and spirituality are not such different worlds.
You can get more theology out of a football game than you will find in many a sermon.

The wide receiver lines up on the right – quarterback takes the ball– he drops back. The quarterback fakes deep, and the receiver breaks right to the sideline. The quarterback aims the ball to that exact point at the sideline to which the receiver lunges, dragging his toes, so that they will be in bounds at the moment the pass arrives. The receiver’s body is wracked with injuries and pain from a long season. He has been limping on and off the field. He knows that when he leaps into the air – even if he catches the pass – even if he manages to keep his feet in bounds – he will land upon the frozen ground with the full momentum of his speeding body and probably with the crushing blows of the defenders smashing into his back.

This is an act of sacrifice, exposing the athlete to certain pain and possible injury. There is certain pain – but there is no certainty of glory.

The moment the quarterback releases the ball is the moment of greatest risk for the quarterback, who then stands utterly exposed. If the offensive linemen have protected him, he will be fine, but if they have not, the moment he releases the ball, he may feel the crushing blow of someone twice his size whose sole purpose in life is to smash quarterbacks.

And if the quarterback is already injured from the previous play or the previous week’s battering, then there is another dimension to all of this: it is the spectacle of one who is in pain and limited by injury, who must find the emotional and spiritual energy to expose himself to further pain and injury for the sake of the team.

Professional sports may be corrupt, and grown-up people may make themselves silly watching it, but when that quarterback steps back and prepares to release that ball, at the very moment that the receiver is making his cut and leaping off the ground, as a crushing blow is about to fall on the quarterback and on the receiver, the pain and the risk are real. These are real people in the drama of a real moment of real risk, and courage, and pain.

So if preachers want to get people off the couch and away from the TV set and into the church – especially if they want to get men off the couch and away from the TV set and into the church – they would do well to ponder what is happening on that football field and in the heart of the fan who is watching.

Back into the game:

It is the fourth quarter. Your team is behind by ten points; there are ten minutes left in the game. On third down your team does not make the first down; they are 1 yard short. Do they take the risk and go for the first down? Or do they punt the ball and hope to get it back in time to catch up? The fans are weighing in, “Go for it! Go for it! Go for it!” The commentators are divided in their opinion. “I say punt the ball now and let the defense get it back for you. There is still plenty of time – no reason to panic.” But neither the fans or the commentators have the burden of making the decision. The lonely choices fall on the shoulders of the coach. On the day after the game, he is the one who will lose his head or be crowned victorious based on the choices he made.

The camera focuses in on the coach’s face. He has ten seconds to make this decision. There are ten million people who will curse him if the decision he makes does not turn out well or love him if it does.

It is human nature to avoid difficult choices, and most of us postpone the toughest choices as long as we can.

When the preacher speaks the gospel, the message is a challenge to make choices now – here and now – to make choices about how we will live and how we will use our talents, our time, and our money. The preacher announces that this moment is sacred and calls people to encounter God and acknowledge the claims of God upon their lives here and now, today. Not tomorrow, or after the tax season, or after the kids get out of college, or when I retire. Preacher’s job is to announce that the sacred moment is right now.

What makes the football game different from most of the other TV dramas is that out on that field people are making real choices in real time, and they are responsible for the choices they make. There is a spiritual message in that.


The preacher: What was that?

The preacher’s wife: That was the one-minute warning.

The preacher: What do you mean “the one-minute warning?”

The preacher’s wife: Don’t you know that in football there is a two-minute warning? For football sermons there is a one minute warning.

The preacher: But I’m just getting started. I haven’t even mentioned the cheerleaders yet.

The preacher’s wife: Careful – or you’ll get the ten second warning.

The preacher: I guess I’ve only got time for one more play:

There are things in this world are far more important than whether the New York Giants win the Super Bowl today. And professional athletes are way down on the list of good role models these days. But there are things about these games and those who play them that touch something deep in the hearts of millions of people, something that stirs up their passions, something that makes them shout and scream and cheer in ways that nothing else does. And even if many of these athletes are poor role models off the field, on the field of play it is real pain that their bodies endure, real risks that they take, and often real courage that they show as they hurl themselves into their sport. They have something to teach us about life.

It has been said a thousand times that modern life is lonely; and it is true. A loneliness hovers over many of our lives, and we don’t seem to break out of it entirely even with family and friends. For some people identifying with a sports team gives them a sense of belonging, a group they can call their own, a team to cheer for, a logo and a team color to wear.

Obviously as Christians we know that those things are not enough to build one’s life on, and sports can be a substitute for real life and real relationships. But don’t look down on the game or those who play it, or those who watch it with passionate fervor – for the spirit of God imparts wisdom in all kinds of strange ways,
even on basketball courts and baseball diamonds and football fields.

Grace and peace to you.