To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.
Churches recognize the impact. In bulletins across America today are no doubt a zillion sermon titles similar to mine. I recall seeing online several years ago the description of one of a previous year’s services on Super Bowl Sunday. The ushers were dressed in referee-striped shirts, the pews were marked off as yard lines, and at the beginning of the service the choir director and pastor came down to the front of the chancel fully robed, then pealed off to reveal a jersey representing the two teams in the day’s game. The lay leader flipped a coin to see who would direct the choir and who would preach. The choir director got to direct--of course. The choir had a couple of cheers ready. At the hymn times, the ushers were equipped with yellow flags to throw at people who were not singing. And with approximately two minutes to go in the sermon, the organist blew the two minute warning whistle! (1)
So, does God care who wins the Super Bowl? Actually, the question is not original with me. It comes from an article in an old issue of Sports Illustrated from several years ago by William Nack. (2)
Of course, our national attention WILL be focused on Atlanta 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.
Thinking of those who will see the game tonight but who do not normally follow such things, are you old enough to remember that wonderful Andy Griffith bit called, "What It Was, Was Football?" (3) It is about 70 years old. It is the story about a country boy at his first football game: “What I seen was this whole raft of people a-settin' on these two banks, and a-lookin' at one another across this pretty little green cow pasture.” There were these five or six convicts runnin’ up and down a-blowin’ whistles. Then 30 or 40 fellows come a-runnin’ out of this little outhouse at the end of the pasture followed by another 30 or 40 coming from the other end of the outhouse and commencing "the awfulest fight I have ever seen in my life," all over this “punkin’” that each group wanted. There were “these purty girls a-wearin' these little-bitty short dresses and a-dancin' around... And I don't know, friends, to this day what it was that they was a'doin' down thar! But I have studied about it. And I think that it's some kindly of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that punkin' and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other, without either gettin' knocked down...or steppin' in somethin'!”
That about has it. Amazingly, the National Football League has managed to turn that run around the cow pasture tonight into the phenomenon known as Super Bowl LIII. HUGE!!!
So, who is going to win? New England and Tom Brady are slightly favored, as you probably know, but that rarely makes a difference. In the early days of the Super Bowl, the contests were often not particularly competitive, but in recent years, the games have gone right down to the wire. If that is the case this evening, wonderful. It will be worth watching them chase that punkin’, even without the commercials.
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, “Ask, and it will be given you”? Will there not be players praying in those locker rooms in Atlanta 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 Patriots and the Rams 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 was teaching religion in American culture at Columbia at the time the article was written. “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 Los Angeles over New Orleans or New England over Kansas City 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 Rams or the Patriots 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 Syria and Afghanistan, the genocides in Africa, a fragile world economy that threatens stability all over the 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 from Deuteronomy: “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 kids all over the country are involved, the S-O-U-P-E-R Bowl of Caring.
Does God care about this game? In America today, God IS seen as marching in step with our political parties, and with our national interests. God IS understood to want nothing but the best for us, the gospel of health and wealth. God IS perceived as a calming presence, a supportive friend, and a healing helper, all of which work together to maintain the status quo. There may be some truth to these characterizations, but they are certainly not the whole truth, not the whole truth at all.
I read once of a tavern owner in Kentucky who was suing the neighboring Baptist Church. It seems the Baptists had prayed for God’s intervention to close this tavern down. Not long after, in the midst of a thunderstorm, the tavern was struck by lightning and destroyed. The owner sued, the church replied, “What did WE do?” The judge responded by noting that the tavern owner believed in the power of prayer but apparently the church did not. Hmm.
Annie Dillard, one of our most eloquent and insightful writers, has asked of our understandings about God, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet gloves to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return." (4)
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 head home to our warm and cozy hearth and big screen TV, remember God does care about the players, God cares about the thousands of fans who will be traveling hither and yon to get to and from the game, and 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. From Presbynet “Worship Plans,” note #556 by Bob Vaughn, 1/22/96
2. 1/26/98, pp. 46-48. It is from this article that most of the quotations from players and theologians comes.
3. Capitol Records, 1953
4. Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone To Talk, (New York : Harper & Row, 1982), p.58