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The Packers, the Steelers, and Jesus

H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous reflections on the relationship of Christ and culture continue to hold up pretty well decades after he wrote them.  But years of parish ministry often made me wish that he had included “culture transforming Christ” in his list.  I recall my first year in Pennsylvania when my confirmation class rose up in revolt because I had scheduled a class for the first Monday evening after Thanksgiving.  “It’s the first day of deer hunting season!”  OK, I thought, I’m not in suburban Connecticut anymore.  More depressing for many of us are the memories of those moments when the lure of whatever cultural event or faddish trend seduced us into making fools of ourselves as opposed to fools for Christ.  I know of one pastor who honors the beginning of the hunting season by wearing a bright orange robe with a stole crafted of hunter’s camouflage.  Can you hear the deer beseeching, “Holy Mary, pray for us now and in the hour of our death?”

All of this comes to mind as we approach the annual feast day called Super Bowl Sunday.  Eighteen years living in Cleveland made me relatively indifferent to the Super Bowl, though this year the Bears threatened to make it exciting in my particular part of the world.  No doubt there will be pastors wearing cheese wedges on their heads during children’s sermons, amusing the adults and bewildering, perhaps even scaring the children.  I suppose pastors in Steeler country will have hard hats on, though the poignancy of that may not be lost on everyone living in the shadows of abandoned steel mills along the Monongahela River.

Relevance is a tricky thing.  No one wants Christianity to be irrelevant, exactly.  We’ve done that, and done it well over the years, breezing through our liturgies as if the great moral challenges of the day, the crushing wounds of our neighbors, or the dramatic social movements of our time existed on some other plane.  But the striving after relevance can also begin to look desperate as well, making us seem more pathetic than anything else.  Sunday morning ought to leave us with some sense that we have encountered a Word relevant for the personal and corporate struggles, joys, and challenges of life, and a Presence capable of overcoming the loneliness and despair that so often lurks nearby.  Knowing that my pastor may be as goofy about a football game as I am may not be the most important reason for gathering on Sunday around pulpit, basin, and table.

In 1988 I met a young Presbyterian pastor named Brad Smith who was a participant with me in a special summer program at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches held overlooking beautiful Lac Leman and the Alps near Geneva.  Brad was a bright, energetic and delightful guy from South Carolina who seemed destined for a successful ministry in some comfortable parish.  Imagine my surprise almost twenty years later when I learned that he was the inventor of and driving force behind a dynamic national program called The Souper Bowl of Caring.  Each year on Super Bowl Sunday the program stations youth group members with large soup pots at churches all across the country to raise money for programs in their communities aimed at eliminating hunger.  Brad’s vision in 1990 has grown to the point where millions of dollars are raised each year by thousands of young people in local churches in a variety of different denominations.  Even the NFL owners have endorsed this effort.  (see www.souperbowl.org)

As I write this little piece, near white-out conditions prevail outside my window as Chicago endures its worst blizzard in decades.  No doubt soup kitchens are closed today, meals-on-wheels programs are grounded, and hungry people hunker down with the hope that tomorrow they’ll get a meal.  For some, snow days are hardly fun days off, but deadly serious business, reminding us of the mandates of faith for justice and compassion. Brad’s inspiration didn’t ignore the culture’s annual football festival.  But he figured out a creative way to make it serve the Gospel, not the other way around.  And more than many of the rest of us, he has helped to shape a culture of caring among young people in our churches.

I hope many good Christians will have a wonderful time watching football on Sunday evening, gathered with friends swilling down beer, pizza, and brats.  I just hope no one will think it wise to try substituting deep fried cheese curds for communion wafers in the morning.  After all, as the Gospel lesson for this Sunday points out, we are to provide a certain kind of seasoning to the world, and salt that has lost its taste is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

John H. Thomas

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