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!)
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
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.)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
is estimated that more than 49.2 million cases of beer were consumed by
Americans on Super Bowl Sunday last year, of course!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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