by Rev. Scott Summerville
…they were bringing children to Jesus, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
How many of you are planning to watch the Super Bowl today?
How many of you did not know that the Super Bowl is being played today?
How many of you do not have even the vaguest slightest minutest interest in whether the Super Bowl is being played?
[To the post-Super Bowl readers of this, I should add:
“How many of you wish you had not watched the Super Bowl?]
This is a challenging week for preachers. On this high holy day in our culture preachers have to decide whether to ignore the event or to mention it in their sermons. The sophisticated preachers, the serious preachers, the highbrow preachers who do not cater to the popular culture will not even mention the Super Bowl today. But us lowbrow preachers cannot resist the opportunity.
Sports are a deeply important part of the human experience. The game of football as we know it is probably not going to be around for very much longer. Yesterday one of the greatest football players of all time, Broadway Joe Namath, said this: “None of the body was designed to play football. Excuse me, you know, football, we’re just not designed for it.” Football’s days may be numbered, but there will always be sports. There will always be fans. There will always be the competition, the straining bodies, the supreme effort, the agony and ecstasy of sport. Sports are in many ways close to religion, and for a lot of people sports are a religion. 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.
This space where we are temporarily worshiping, is a place where five days a week children play. I often pass through the gym while the children are at play. Unless you have been there, you have no idea what a mob of three-year-olds and four-year-olds playing in a gym is like. It is controlled mayhem. There is such excitement bordering on frenzy as the children play — all that energy – the spirit of childhood – the squeals of excitement reverberating off the walls and the ceiling. One grabs the ball; one grabs a doll; one is running; one is kicking; one is jumping; all are vocalizing. It is deafening.
When do adults get to behave like that? At the office? Driving their cars ? – well maybe for some people…. In church? You can cut loose in church to a certain extent – you can sing your heart out —
♬ Praise ye, the Lord! Hallelujah! Everybody praise the Lord!
♬ Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love!
But you are expected to comport yourself with some dignity in church. Where else but as spectators of athletic events are adults permitted or permit themselves to let loose and become children: “Ahhhhheeehh!! Go! Go! Go! Go! No! no! no! Make it! Make it! Please please please please make it!!” Adults – even the ones that haven’t had too many beers – scream, embrace, jump up and down, squeel with delight and even weep.
Sports is one of the only ways that many people have to let out all the bottled-up passions of life. The culture we live in has most people walking around every day with a cork stuck in their heart. 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 – the quarterback takes the ball – drops back – fakes deep – 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 defender 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. If the offensive linemen have protected him, he will be fine, but if they have not, the moment he releases the ball, he will feel the crushing blow of someone twice his size whose sole purpose in life is to smash quarterbacks. 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 90% hype and money-making, 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.
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 nor 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 on the coach’s face. He has ten seconds to decide. There are millions of 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. The 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. (RINGGGGG!!! RINGGGG!!!)
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?”
What happened to then two-minute warning?”
The preacher’s wife: In football there is a two-minute warning.
For football sermons there is a one minute warning.
The preacher: I guess I’ve only got time for one more play:
There are a thousand things in this world far more important than who wins the Super Bowl. 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 and groan, and act like two year olds at play, and gives them a sense of belonging.
Out there on the field there is real courage, pain, and even sacrifice. There are real people making real choices in real time. In the stadium and around their TV sets the fans are giving themselves permission to be children for a time, to shout and stomp and yell and squeal with delight.
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.
Those things are not enough to build one’s life on, and sports cannot substitute for 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.