One of the great things about being a minister, and a Unitarian Universalist minister in particular, is that you get paid to talk about subjects about which you know basically next to nothing. Often, I am able to speak about topics about which I am generally literate, either through training and education (say, religion, for instance); or, I can talk about those about which I am knowledgeable through my own personal study and interest. (You know, for instance, that this church probably holds the record for Bruce Springsteen- related sermons. Guess what? There’s a new album coming out next month!)
But sometimes, as a minister, one is called upon to lead a conversation about a topic about which numerous members of one’s congregation know infinitely more. This should always keep one humble; sometimes, it actually does.
So it is on Super Bowl Sunday. At least when the New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl. The import of such an august occasion would seem to call for at least a “few words” (which, in my case, means somewhere between 1800 and 2000) from your Spiritual Leader. I owe it to you.
But what I found interesting, as I looked back over past Super Bowl Sunday sermons I have delivered (hoping to get some idea of what, exactly, I was supposed to talk about today) is that, while I certainly have not delivered such a sermon every Super Bowl Sunday, I haven’t even delivered one every year the Patriots did make the Big Game. (Which is funny, because I thought I had.)
I know that when I was still in Maine, I spoke about football in honor of their first appearance, back at Super Bowl XX in 1986 (Why the Roman numerals in Super Bowl numerology? Something to do with gladiators, I guess.) They lost that year to the Chicago Bears by the score of 46 to 10—the second worst shellacking in Super Bowl history, until the Denver Broncos lost to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV by an even more ignominious score of 55 to 10.
Then, I remember preaching about “The Spirituality of Sports” here in Stoughton in 1997, when we sang “Over my head” as the second hymn, and sure enough, the Pats lost to the Green Bay Packers by a (somewhat) more respectable score of 35 to 21.
One verse from that song went:
Over my head, I see angels in the air,
Over my head, I see angels in the air,
Over my head, I see angels in the air.
There must be a God somewhere.
Well, not for the Patriots at the New Orleans Superdome that day in 1997, I’m afraid.
Then, all was quiet on the football front from this pulpit until February 3, 2002—the next time the New England Patriots made it to the championship game—Super Bowl XXXVI (that’s 36), against the St. Louis Rams. (Which I thought were still the Los Angeles Rams for some reason; their move to St. Louis in 1995 passed my notice, I suppose.)
Looking back at that February 3, 2002 sermon, I am amazed at how… unamazing… it was. I talked mostly about how I didn’t know anything about football. And I talked about baseball (a sport I know—a little—more about.) And teamwork, And other good (unremarkable) themes like that. But that most unremarkable of sermons was, some of you might even remember, remarkable for the following (brief) paragraph:
“And, in case you’re interested,” I said back then, “here’s my prediction… on tonight’s game: I think the Patriots will pull it out—20 to 17—maybe even in overtime. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s been that kind of season, after all. If it happens that way—or anywhere close—remember: You heard it here! If it doesn’t, and if they get creamed (again), I’ll deny everything!].”
Well, as some of you might remember, the Rev. called it right on the money! The final score of that game was 20 to 17! With placekicker Adam Vinatieri successfully completing a 48 yard field goal as time expired. It was a great game. And I haven’t been right about a Super Bowl score since. Not even close.
But then, in 2004, when the Patriots faced the Carolina Panthers, I didn’t talk about it. We had a guest minister that day, so I oculdn’t even if I wanted to. On February 6, 2005, as the Patriots prepared to face the Philadelphia Eagles (for what would be the Patriots’ third Super Bowl win in four years), I spoke on “The Eight Sins of Gandhi”. (Maybe it was a loony leftist, Freudian, passive aggressive protest against the “violence” inherent in professional sports, and how football is so much like war or something. I dunno. But I know that I sure as heck would prefer an Israeli football team facing off against an Iranian one, than the real thing.)
Then, on February 3, 2008, as the Patriots completed a phenomenal 16-0 undefeated regular season, and went into Super Bowl XLII (42) as heavy favorites against the New York Giants, I spoke “In Defense of Food” (of course).
Now, the Super Bowl is connected to food, of course, big time.
The California Avocado Commission projects that 13.2 million pounds or 26 million avocados will be consumed Super Bowl Sunday, mostly in the form of guacamole. That's enough guacamole to cover the football field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis from end zone to end zone, approximately 40 inches deep. Waist deep in guacamole. How gross is that!
More pizzas are sold on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year. Approximately eight million pounds of popcorn will be consumed on Super Bowl Sunday, along with 28 million pounds of potato chips, and 450 million chicken wings. (Is my math right? Is that really 225 million chickens give their lives every Super Bowl Sunday?)
And to wash it all down?
It is estimated that more than 49.2 million cases of beer were consumed by Americans on Super Bowl Sunday last year, of course!
So maybe, “In Defense of [Real] Food” wasn’t such a bad choice for the day of a Super Bowl. Though, in retrospect, of course, I could have talked about the dangers of hubris, and pride coming before a fall, and all that, because, in spite of the phenomenal 16-0 undefeated regular season, the Patriots lost to the New York Giants on that fateful Sunday in 2008 by a score of 17 to 14.
So, this morning, I suppose, I could be speaking about the need to overcome the “Curse of the Giants”. But while that would be grotesquely premature (unless the Patriots do somehow lose today [even uttering such words is heresy I know, but, you know, I’ve been called a heretic before in other contexts, and it really doesn’t bother me]—but if that does happen, then, you know that everyone will be talking about the “curse of the Giants” tomorrow, and a new absurd legend will enter New England sports folklore.
But while it might be possible to speak about “Why we hate the Yankees”, as I have, and raise more than a few understanding smiles and approving nods of the head, “Why we hate the Giants” doesn’t quite cut it. Because we don’t, most of us; most of us born before 1962, at least.
I remember my late father, born and bred Rhode Island working class New Englander that he was, who loved the Boston Red Sox with all his heart, often cursing the New York Yankees in terms somewhat more colorful than “Damn Yankees”. But he was also a New York Giants fan through and through in those years before New England had a football team to call its own. And even when the Patriots came to Boston (they were the Boston Patriots, originally, remember), and had to play at Fenway Park (which I somehow can’t picture now) or at B.U. or at Harvard Stadium, his loyalties still were divided. Your word is your bond, he taught me; and when you make a choice, and declare your loyalty, you stick to it. He was stubborn that way, and so am I. But he’ll be there with me in spirit today as I watch the game (I guess), and I’ll root (a little) for both teams, in honor of him—and a game well played.
So maybe it was the tug of a Patriots-Giants rematch (even I know how awesome that is) which brought me back home again to talk about this Red Letter Day on our secular calendars. To remind me to remind you that perhaps sports (and maybe even especially football) have a thing or two to teach us about the importance of teamwork, and the need we have in this disparate, individualism-at-any-cost culture of ours to sacrifice some of our individual fulfillment for the good of the whole. Perhaps that’s a lesson that we, as Americans, need to learn more than any other in these fractious times in which we live.
Football also has something to teach us about the contributions we all have to make to the realization of our team’s goals—when we are who we are to the best of our ability; when we do our best at the task we are called to perform. Field goal kickers, punt returners, quarterbacks all doing their parts; that’s how games are won; that’s how nations are rebuilt. We have to know who we are—and the other members of our team have to respect our abilities— know that they can count on us-- for a team to work, for teamwork to work. Football teaches us about the ultimate value of teamwork. But it teaches us just as much about using our individual gifts to their full potential, as well.
“I want to be with people who submerge in the task,” Marge Piercy has written. “Who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along. Who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters, but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”
Sports is all about community, on the field, and in the stands, and in parlors and living rooms across our land. It’s about celebrating community— celebrating belonging. It is about celebrating this New England, this particular, peculiar, oh-so-special piece of Earth which we all call home, and which many of us have been blessed to call home all the years of our lives.
I’m not saying that New England is “better” than other places to live. Most of the year, the South had better weather (and probably better cooking). The Rockies may have better scenery. The Midwest (it is said) has friendlier, more neighborly people. Seattle has better coffee and better rock bands… New York has Broadway and Wall Street and Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty…. Indianapolis has… I’ll be damned if I know what Indianapolis has.
These are all good places. But they’re just not New England… And today, as Tom Brady and all those other Patriots players whose names I don’t know take the field, so will ocean air and clambakes and country roads and covered bridges and leaves burning in the fall and pumpkin pie and apple crisp and clam chowder and lobster bisque and hasty pudding and real maple syrup and weather vanes and saltbox boxes and the whole crazy quilt of people and places and real odd ways of pronouncing words that makes up this place we love, this home of our bodies and our spirits, this New England.
“There is joy in all,” writes Anne Sexton, and “The joy that isn’t shared dies young.”
So may we share together with joy this special day, this special season. And win or lose (for we will always do both in life; though I am predicting a Patriots’ victory, 17 to 14, to “reverse the curse” of 2008), may even those of us who don’t know Randy Moss from peat moss seize the joy in every season of these lives we have been blessed to lead.