Last night the congregation I serve held its Ash Wednesday worship service. We prayed, and sang, and received communion together. And then we received the ashes that signify the start of Lent. Finally we reflected in silence on how we would observe Lent, and we asked God for strength and wisdom during this time. I left feeling everything that Ash Wednesday evokes in us: recommitted, penitent, meditative, and finite.
This afternoon I know many of you are going to be tuning in to see who wins the Super Bowl. You Giants and Patriots fans especially have been waiting for this moment to see who wins. It’s the biggest game of the year. So big, that not even the church is immune. That’s why some of us will even be here at the church watching the game down in the basement.
Now, our little Super Bowl party is not the first time this season that faith and football have collided. Sports and religion have often intersected. Like Cassius Clay converting to Islam and changing his name, or Hank Greenberg refusing to play baseball on Yom Kippur. But this year we heard quite a lot about Tim Tebow, and his very public prayers in the end zone during football games.
Now, I’ve heard different theories. Some say religion has no place in sports. Others say it’s a refreshing change. Some say that a football player should do as Jesus suggests, and pray in private. Others say, how is this not okay when extravagant touchdown dances are?
All valid points, perhaps. But they are also all secondary to the real point here. Which is, does God even care about football?
There was a picture going around the internet that showed Tebow praying in his classic Tebow pose after a touchdown. It was placed right next to a picture of a child in Africa who was severely emaciated. The implication was clear. How can God care about a football game when there is real grief and suffering in the world?
Today’s reading from the lectionary may seem very fitting for a day focused on sports. It’s a verse that is often read by athletes as a source of inspiration: “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
I’ve heard athletes and teams read that before a game as a sort of promise that God will give them physical strength. God will help them run that last mile, or push past that last hurdle. And, maybe that’s true. But winning the football game is nowhere near as glorious, and incredible as what the author of the passage was talking about.
This section of the book of Isaiah was written near the end of the Babylonian captivity. It was written right around the time that the people had lost all hope, and needed that strength of God. They needed that renewal, that ability to rise up and not be defeated. It wasn’t 4th and goal. It was 4th and life.
It wasn’t the Broncos vs. Patriots. It was the child who didn’t know what it was to be full.
But does that mean that things like football don’t matter? Does that mean that God doesn’t give us strength and perseverance in our daily lives, even when we are not in crisis?
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Now, as much as I like to tease the Giants fans in our congregation, I honestly don’t think God is going to be nudging the football through the uprights for one team or another tonight. I think in the big scheme of things that Giants vs. Patriots is a battle of good and evil. (That’s Red Sox vs. Yankees.)
But what happens tonight doesn’t have to be irrelevant to the life of faith.
Many of you have seen the movie “Chariots of Fire”. It’s actually a true story, and one of the central characters is a runner named Eric Liddell who happens to be a devout Christian. He makes the 1924 Olympic Team only to discover that his best race is being run on Sunday, the sabbath. He makes a principled, and unpopular, decision not to run. And instead he goes to a church and preaches on this passage. Years later, as a missionary, he died in an internment camp in China. He had declined an opportunity to be released, and had decided to stay and serve the people around him.
Eric Liddell’s life was not made great by the fact that he was a great runner. It was made great because he was a principled man who made hard, sometimes unpopular, choices because he believed his relationship with God demanded it. But his gift for running was not irrelevant.
He talked about how when he ran he could “feel God’s pleasure”. And he used the recognition he received as a runner in order to turn focus away from himself, and to God. When he made the hard decision not to run, it was all the more notable because had he run that day he probably would have won. But for him, honoring his understanding of who God was meant so much more.
We all have gifts. Some are runners. Some are quarterbacks. Some are musicians. Some writers. Some preachers. Some artists. The list goes on. And sometimes we judge our gifts by what they get us. Do they get us money? Prestige? Super Bowl rings? Or do they get us something more. Namely, do they get us that much closer to God’s will for us?
The mark of how valuable our gifts truly are is in how we are able to use them to serve God and others.
That’s one reason we are having this Super Bowl food drive. We have a gift in this church that maybe we wouldn’t generally describe that way. We are a church divided on football lines. We have our die-hard Giants. And our die-hard Patriots. (And we also have a lot of other good people with really good hearts and a sense of humor.) And you might be saying, how is that a gift?
Well, the truth is, if we do nothing with it, it isn’t. But if we see it as an opportunity, if we see it as a way that we can glorify God and help our neighbor, it becomes one. Anything can be a gift if we look at it in the right way, and decide to use it in a way that matters.
And so now, you have brought what you had in your cabinets. Or, what you bought on your last grocery trip. And because of you, a few more people are going to get a good meal here in the Deerfield Valley. You might have brought your food items here because you wanted one team or the other to win. You may have finally remembered that can of Cream of Tomato soup you’ve been meaning to throw in the box today because you are the world’s biggest Giants fan. Or you might have heard the Giants were in the lead and so you grabbed some more pasta because you are a diehard Pats lover. But I sincerely doubt any of you only did it for that reason. I’m guessing you did it because you love your neighbor, and because you love God. The football stuff…that’s just a fun way to use this gift of a good-natured football rivalry to create gifts for others.
Things like that happen more often than we know.
This afternoon, between this service and the Super Bowl tonight, the Wilmington church will be having their last closing service. It’s a sad day in so many ways. And yet it is also one in which I know God has lifted the people up on eagle’s wings, and is getting ready to give them more strength. I know that, because they have found their gifts, and they are, even in their last acts together, using them to help their neighbor and glorify God.
I’ve told you all before that the people of Wilmington could have waited to close their church. They could have decided to keep all they had. But instead, they saw they had a gift, and they gave it to you. Those are the kinds of people that made up Wilmington. They are people of faith, and goodness, and giftedness. And now, they are going to be joining us here in our church as well. We are blessed by that.
And maybe no one is going to be kneeling in the endzone here, Tebowing, and thanking God for them. But we should be. There may be no trophies, or rings, or ticker-tape parades, but there can be warm welcomes, and open hearts, and gratitude. I know that we are welcoming, open, grateful people. It’s one of our gifts. And it’s one we can give to give to people who need to know those eagle’s wings are real right now. Amen.