Isaiah 58:1-9a

Matthew 5:13-20

My apologies to those of you who were hoping this worship service would be the one hour when you don’t have to hear about football this weekend. It’s just that it’s hard to ignore an event that, statistically, one in three of us are going to spend four hours watching tonight. Especially when we’ve made this push for contributions to the Salvation Army supper club as part of the event. And bless us for having done that, because it’s the beginning of what I’m trying to talk about here.

I want to talk about the Super Bowl because it’s a defining cultural ritual in our country. It’s been said that if alien anthropologists were studying our country, they would describe the Super Bowl as our most important religious event. Thanksgiving and Christmas would show up, to be sure, but when 100 million people sit down to watch one television event at the same time, that’s the definition of a big deal. Not even hockey stands up to the Super Bowl. For comparison, there are probably about 40 million Americans in religious services this weekend.

Now, what’s the difference between what we’re doing here this morning and what many of us will do later this evening? Ritually, they’re about the same, right? Worship with Communion and a Super Bowl party: we get together with other people, eat and drink special food together, and participate in the pieces of the ritual we’re supposed to be part of. We sing hymns and recite prayers, or we cheer and holler for our team.

There are differences, of course. We’ll talk about what worship is supposed to accomplish in a minute, but first, what are they trying to do in the Super Bowl? Your first answer might be “to win,” but that’s only partially true. Yes, the people in the funny costumes are working very hard to have their team win the game, and they take that very seriously. But every so often, the camera cuts to the rich guy in the private box who owns the team, and what’s his goal? It’s not to win the game. As near as anyone can figure, it’s his goal to make some money by paying the earnest men in tight pants to entertain the rest of us.

So that’s what happens at the Super Bowl: regardless of what the people involved are directly thinking about, their real work is to make money by entertaining us. That also goes for those of you who watch the show but don’t care about the game, by the way. The other reason to watch the game tonight is for the commercials, which I admit are usually very entertaining. Entertaining. And even as I try to resist the call to spend money on things I don’t need, I know I’m not ultimately watching the game tonight to cheer for my team. I’m watching it to be entertained.

So, the other side of the same question is, what are we doing here in worship? The same basic ritual of gathering, eating, and responding appropriately to things someone else does, but what’s the difference? The prophet Isaiah tells us:

“The kind of [worship] I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.”

That may or may not be directly apparent in every motion of our Sunday morning service, but the prophet tells us that the ultimate point of religion is to pursue justice. We can broaden the scope to talk about the dual commandment to love God and love your neighbor, but anything outside that commandment just misses the point. The referees don’t care whether a wide receiver did a magnificent triple lutz on the way to catching the ball, and the prophet doesn’t care whether we sing beautiful hymns on the way to feeding the hungry and housing the poor.

Which is not to say that what we’re doing here isn’t important. The question is, why is it important?You may have noticed that I’m not fulfilling my pastoral responsibility to lament over how much more popular the Super Bowl is than church worship. I’m avoiding that lament because I think it’s based on the wrong kind of score-keeping. Comparing our popularity to the NFL’s is a way of asking how many people are buying what we have to sell, as if we were a mass retailer of religious sentiment. I’m more concerned about how we’re revealing the living presence of God in the world, what kind of gifts we’re offering to the life of God’s people everywhere.

Jesus tells us that we are to be salt, giving the human race something to savor. We are to be light, shining truth and love into every corner of the world. We are to proclaim God’s love in everything we do, because that’s the fruit of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Everything else we do – our meetings, our stewardship of this building and our financial resources, even our Sunday morning rituals – finds its meaning in proclaiming the love of God in Christ for all people.

When Isaiah reminds us of that, he’s like a good coach (it comes back to football again, sorry). Here I’m going to praise our local community college coach, Dan Lind. First, a brag for ourselves: we fed 43 players and coaches on Thursday evening in the fellowship hall, thanks to your support. I was talking to Coach at the dinner, and he said that the football team’s overall grade point average last semester was 2.64 – including nine players over a 3.0 – for the best academic semester he’s had in his time here. He was more proud of that accomplishment than if the team had won the state championship: he said, “it’s not about wins and losses, it’s about getting a degree.”

Those of you who know Coach Lind, you know he cares about wins and losses. He cares about these players being the best football players they can be. But more than that, he cares about them being the best students they can be. Ultimately, the football skills are in service of the education. It’s never the other way around. That’s what Isaiah says about worship: it’s vitally important, but only in that it serves us in having our lives shaped around God.

And that’s the big difference, the reason I don’t count success on Sunday morning the way you count success at getting people to watch the Super Bowl. What we’re doing this morning isn’t the game. It’s practice. This is where we develop our skills, run through the plays, study the game. But the game happens out there during the week, when we serve others, share the love of Christ with them, and live out the love of God for this holy creation. And you should come to practice, because this is where you learn how to live our faith for real, but then you had better show up for the game as well.

So I’ll see you at the game this week. Not at the big game where you have to pay $3 million to get a spot on the air, but at the really big game where every moment is priceless, where the weak and unfortunate are the referees, and where giving up all you have is the only way to win. I’ll bring the chips.

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