Too Much Salt or Not Enough? What Jesus Says About Americans and Their Super Bowl. (Matthew 5: 13 - 20 and Isaiah 58: 1 - 9)
By Barbara K. Lundblad
The Super Bowl - A Religious Festival?
It will surely be a festival, but is it religious? Most people will say "no," but in terms of devotion - well, devotion to a team or even the game itself often has religious zeal. The game hasn't started yet, but we can imagine this year's festival. Even the number of the game cannot be ordinary. Roman numerals set it apart as sacred time: this is Super Bowl LI (and that doesn't mean Long Island!) Pilgrimages began earlier this week from New England and Atlanta, not on foot but by some faster means. Around sundown, the service will begin with the invocation. Everyone stands without a minister's invitation. "Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light..." There are no stained glass windows, but an enormous American flag covers the field, carried by soldiers. Liturgical actions differ. Many place a hand over their heart. Men remove their caps. Some sing along with the soloist or choir. Others mouth the words in silence, as if praying. As the invocation comes to a close there is a sense of anticipation, then applause erupts. Most of the people sit down, though some continue to stand. Ushers move through the aisles shouting. An offering is made and the donor receives something tangible in return: a beer with a hot dog, a bag of popcorn or another high sodium snack. In church people don't usually receive anything that tangible which may explain why people are willing to pay so much for a paper stub. A week before game time, available tickets ranged from a low of $5000 to $16,674, far more than most people ever consider giving to any church or charity.
What would Jesus think about the Super Bowl?
Jesus didn't say anything about football but he would surely raise questions about spending all that money. Jesus didn't talk about football but that doesn't keep players and fans from talking about Jesus. In his book Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game, Mark Edmundson remembers playing in high school: "The coach asked God and the Lord Jesus Christ to help us play a fair game...and asked that we might win the game if we were deserving. Then we said a prayer, usually it was the 'Our Father.' Football, it seemed, was a Christian game."
It's probably true that most prayers today will be offered in the name of Jesus.
Religion and patriotism and football get all mixed up on the same playing field. But they aren't all the same. In his first teaching session in Matthew, Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world." (Matt. 5: 13-16) But what did Jesus mean by calling his followers to be salt and light? Did Jesus mean we should hold up a sign at the football game that says simply "John 3:16" as though everyone knows what that means?
Salt and light can't be whatever we want
We're tempted to fill in Jesus' metaphors with our own content. Maybe salt is prayer in the schools or daring to say "Merry Christmas." Maybe salt is justification by grace through faith or being born again or putting God's name on our money. Maybe we believe America is a city set on a hill giving light to the world. But Jesus' metaphors aren't as open-ended as we imagine. Salt and light already meant something when Jesus chose these metaphors. Salt and light were central images for the people of Israel: "You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God..." (Lev. 2: 13) Light appears often in the Old Testament: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (Ps. 119: 105)
Jesus chose these two images on purpose. To be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God. Jesus said it plainly: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them." We can't tear Jesus' images from their roots in Hebrew scriptures.
Isaiah fills in the metaphors
There is another reading today, this one from the prophet Isaiah. These verses were written some time after the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon. The last chapters of Isaiah are filled with visions of hope and urgent warnings. Here Isaiah speaks to people who are proud of their religious festivals and their piety. They fast in public and ask why God doesn't pay attention. They complain directly to God: "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?" C'mon God! Give us some credit!
Then it is God's turn: "What is the fast that I choose?" asks God.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly...
Have we lost our saltiness? Have we failed to be light?
We often hear that the United States is shaped by "Judeo-Christian values." Most people watching today's game would probably agree. But what does that mean? It cannot mean everyone believes in Jesus because Jewish people don't. If we say Jews and Christians share some of the same scriptures that is closer to the truth. Both traditions turn to Isaiah 58 for guidance. I suppose we could hold up a sign at the game that says "Isaiah 58" -- but people probably won't know what it means. Isaiah gives a vivid picture of authentic religion: let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, cover the naked and don't hide from your own kin. That's something to print on a soda cup for next year's Super Bowl. More than a slogan, that's the way God calls us to live. That's what Jesus meant when he called us to be salt and light. Don't lose your saltiness! Don't put your light under a bushel basket!
Bible Study Questions:
1. In what ways does the Super Bowl seem like a religious event? How is it different?
2. When you read what God wants in Isaiah 58: 6 - 9, how do you respond? Is God asking us to do the impossible?
3. What makes us lose our "saltiness" as followers of Jesus? How can our saltiness be restored?
For Further Reading:
Mark Edmundson, "Football and Religion: The Odd Relationship Between God and the Gridiron"
Mark Oppenheimer, "In the Fields of the Lord"
Joseph Price, "The Super Bowl as Religious Festival"
Marcia Mount Shoop, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports. See also her blog at marciamountshoop.com which includes a video interview of the author talking about her book.
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