Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – Christianity on a Collision Course
It does not matter that professional football is a big business that pays huge salaries to players, coaches and owners all thanks to our cable TV bills and lucrative advertisements. Millions across the globe will still watch the game tonight.
It does not matter whether we like football or not. Our tax dollars underwrite the cost of constructing arenas to house sporting events in our communities. Millions of us buy price-inflated tickets and flock to these temples to adore the saints in what has become a new Americanized religion.
It does not matter that over one hundred professional players and innumerable college kids and youngsters suffer or die from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the game of football for most viewers is still a form of entertainment.
In football, as in any game except golf, the goal is to score more points than the opponent. To do so offensive linesmen protect their quarterback who is expected to find ways to score touchdowns. The defense is paid handsomely to rush and crush the quarterback, tackle a running back or receiver. Vince Lombardi, the legendary 1960s coach of the Green Bay Packers, called football a “collision sport.”
Religion is somewhat similar. With our own rules and regulations people affiliated with a faith tradition strive to win at all costs. The objective in our game is to beat down not only hunger, prejudice and oppression but also human trafficking and domestic violence — two problems that escalate during big sporting events. Over time we find that religious cultures inevitably will clash with secular ones. Our differences are the sources of so many tensions in the United States today. Just listen to the rhetoric in the presidential debates.
Last weekend, in her homily, Betsy Rowe-Manning proposed that to live a wonderful life [as Christians] we are compelled to “make trouble.” I took her message to mean that we have to speak out and act against any person or institution, any law or cultural custom, that thrives on acts of injustice. In this sense, like the game of football, our religion is on a collision course with the opposition. Our heads are to butt up against the opponents of equality. Some people will get hurt. Some will leave the game. Some will quit the team.
How did this happen? Is not religion supposed to provide harmony and peace in our lives? Isn’t it the path to creating wholesome relationships with God and one another? Isn’t faith geared to make us feel good, give us hope especially when we are down and out? I think that to be a religious or spiritual person today requires a “both/and” attitude. We cannot be content with seeking to make things better for ourselves without doing so for others. We cannot go out on the field of life without practicing or expecting no opposition. To be good we have to be troublemakers knowing we may not win every game.
Our sacred texts, our traditions and life experiences teach us how to be good and holy, to act responsibly, to live justly and humbly. We model our lives after Jesus of Nazareth, his Spirit and other contemporary prophets, parents, coaches, teachers.
Jesus was an itinerant apocalyptic Jew. He believed the world was in very bad shape. He saw that oppressors treated people unfairly and brutally. He sensed that society needed a savior who could cross the line of scrimmage, gain first downs and score touchdowns. He also knew that the odds were stacked up against him. Jesus was an underdog. He needed help from his teammates. The cross was too heavy.
Jesus never thought of himself as a star quarterback, the franchise player who would win every game. No. He himself got sacked, was thrown for a loss and was ultimately defeated. It was when he got up again that others came to believe in him and his game plan. During Lent we will learn more about Jesus and his desire to win — how he overcame devilish temptations and forgave adulterers; how he told stories about a long lost child who was welcomed home and how barren trees can bear good fruit.
As I read about Jesus I think he was a troubled but optimistic Jew. He passionately believed that life could be better especially if you are willing to work at it. Consider today’s gospel. “You didn’t catch any fish this morning? Go back out and cast those nets into the sea. There will be lots of fish to catch, to share and keep for yourselves.”
The disciples doubted his idealism. They said they worked hard but still came up empty handed. Life as Jesus modeled it is hard work. Advocating for peace and justice takes time. Working with enemies requires diplomacy. Overcoming illness and poverty does not happen easily. Sometimes we win. But ohh how we hate to lose.
I will watch the game tonight. I will watch it as I look at and play other games because of the challenges that face every player, every team. I will marvel at the skills honed by hours of practice. I will see the delight in the faces of little kids when their heroes succeed. For a couple of hours the game provides a fantasy filled opportunity to imagine what it takes to win — hard work and a little bit of luck.
There is something about football and other sports that could serve as a metaphor for living. Our country like our religion is built on hard work, standing up to oppressive governments, fighting for just causes and winning no matter what the cost.
Christianity is not a perfect religion. Like football and the game of life, however, it is exciting, troubling and still very unfair. Often players, coaches and owners do not agree on how to play the game. Yet, Christianity is a two century old religion with over two billion players on the team. We still have a game to play on this planet. We just have to keep practicing with the joyful hope that mercy and justice will win in the end. But we have to play together. There is no letter “I” in the word “team.”