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Of course, our national attention WILL be focused on Tampa this afternoon. The Super Bowl has grown into a phenomenon that has transcended being a mere sporting event - about a zillion people are expected to tune in from a million countries and hear the broadcast in a thousand different languages. People will watch who otherwise would not bother with a football game, which advertisers know all too well - they are paying multi-millions for 30-second spots. Is it worth it? Apparently. Surveys indicate that lots of people every year tune in to the Super Bowl just to see the new commercials. Intriguing.
So, who is going to win? Pittsburgh is favored, as you know, but Steelers players say they would just as soon have it be Arizona. However, Pittsburgh was favored each of the four times it won the Super Bowl back in the '70's - the one time the Steelers lost the big game was the one time the opposition came in as favorites. So, which would you prefer, players?
In the mint, a one dollar bill and a twenty dollar bill become friends. They get split up and go into circulation. Six years later they happen to be in the same load of bills returned to the mint for destruction. So the one says to the twenty, "How was your life?"
"Oh, marvelous," says the twenty, "I went to Vegas, to Europe, last year to the Super Bowl, just wonderful. And you, what about your life."
"Awful," says the one dollar bill, "every week the same: church, church, church." Hmm.
So now the church and the Super Bowl meet. Who does GOD want to win the game? Does God CARE who wins the game? Come to think of it, can our prayers have an influence on the outcome? Why not? Did Jesus not say, "I will do whatever you ask in my name?" (2) Will there not be players praying in those locker rooms in Tampa in just a few hours? What do you think?
My mind is suddenly filled with images of Sunday afternoon heroes, kneeling in the end zone in a brief prayer after scoring a touchdown, or groups of players dropped to their knees, heads bowed, in the middle of the field at the conclusion of a game. I hear post-game interviews with sweaty stars: "Great game, Biff."
"Thanks, Bud. The first thing I have to say is that I owe it all to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We kicked some BUTT out there today. WHOO-OOH!"
Does any of that make you feel funny? It does me. I confess I am more than glad that there are public figures acknowledging the importance of faith in their lives. That is GOOD! But I am dismayed by the implication that Jesus Christ helps anyone "kick butt." On or off the field.
In that old Sports Illustrated article, the reason, according to at least some of the players, that one team as opposed to others is in this afternoon's game is because God decided it should be so. This is God's will. God enables someone to make a spectacular catch while condemning another to give up a fumble. In the theology of the locker room, the course of every game and season has been scripted by God to serve divine purposes. So it is not human error that leads to those fumbles - God orchestrates them. The game is already decided before anyone walks out there. Uh-huh.
The Cardinals and the Steelers each have a number of Christians on their rosters. That is normal. The presence of Christians in NFL locker rooms is not a new phenomenon--they have been studying the Bible together for years--but their numbers and visibility have increased dramatically in recent seasons. Why? Sports Illustrated quotes Randall Balmer who teaches religion in American culture at Columbia. "This is a way of seeking stability in their lives," he says. "It has to be a dizzying world [huge salaries, incredible temptations, the danger of being injured or cut from the team]. For the more sane among them, faith is the refuge."
OK. We can buy that. But can we buy the assertion that some of these players make that they are mere instruments of God's will in the outcome of these games? Does God take an active interest in the final score of athletic matches? Did God favor Pittsburgh over Baltimore or Arizona over Philadelphia two weeks ago? Does a believer on one side of the ball have an advantage over a non-believer on the other side of it?
Richard Wood is a Methodist and Quaker minister and the former Dean of the Divinity School at Yale. He says, "It doesn't seem to me odd that God would know in detail what happens in football games. What seems to me odd is that God would care. The idea that God intervenes in sports is one that most Christian theologians reject as absurd at best and blasphemous at worst." The notion that God cares whether the Cardinals or the Steelers win the Super Bowl suggests that God is in detailed control of what human beings do, which is certainly questionable - I cannot imagine saying that it was God who arranged for you to have Corn Flakes or Eggs or a sticky bun for breakfast this morning. That kind of micro-management flies in the face of the human freedom we believe God graciously gives. But, moving that up a notch, we have terrible wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, the genocide in Darfur, an economy in shambles here that threatens stability all acrossthe globe, plus all sorts of other problems, and to suggest, in that light, that God has some direct involvement in a ball game tends to trivialize the whole notion of God's involvement with the world.
One more theologian. No heavy duty academic credentials here, but he is too big and too strong to ignore - the late, great Reggie White, defensive end for the Packers and the Eagles and also a Christian minister. Reggie bristled at suggestions that God takes no part in the outcome of games. "How do they know?" he asked. "They're not God. They can't find anything in the scriptures that proves it." He noted that the Bible is filled with evidence of God's decisive role in human conflicts. "God intervened in David's fight with Goliath," he said. "When Jesus died, [God] intervened in Jesus's victory over death."
True, Reggie, true. But to put the outcome of an athletic contest between teams of spoiled millionaires in the same category as the dramatic rescue of the chosen people or the redemption of humanity is a bit of a stretch.
Does God take sides in a game? How about in a war? The only "side" I see God taking in scripture is the side of the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden, the helpless. Scripture is full of references such as those in our lesson: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'" Over and over the Bible makes it clear. The Bible talks about the poor more than it talks about the resurrection. In fact, it talks more about the poor than about prayer...even the prayer for victory in the Super Bowl! The Bowl that God cares about today is the one in which our kids are involved, the S-O-U-P-E-R Bowl of Caring.
So should the players be praying for a victory this afternoon? I am with Yogi Berra on this one who is reported to have told a player coming up to bat who had just crossed himself, "Aw, why don't you leave God alone; let him just sit back and WATCH for once."
So, does God care who wins the Super Bowl? No. As we come to the Table, remember God does care about the players, God cares about you, and you and you and you and you. God cares about me. And that is all any of us will ever need.
1. 1/26/98, pp. 46-48. It is from this article that most of the quotations from players and theologians comes.
2. John 14:14