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Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 12, 2023

Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday! I know the church has long been threatened by football, with the congregations’ eyes on their watches as services run late and the kickoff comes near. Have no worries about the length of my sermon. The big game is this evening, so you will have plenty of time after I finish.

Even if you are not a football fan, you can’t escape the significance of the Super Bowl. The media talks about the match non-stop. There are two great teams, even if you don’t root for either of them. It is the first Super Bowl with two starting African American quarterbacks, a landmark moment. Also for the first time, two brothers are playing in the game, one on each team, their mother wearing a jacket that is half Kansas City Chiefs and half Philadelphia Eagles.

The journey to the Super Bowl demands everything from the players, the coaches, the staff, each team’s whole organization. It probably demanded all from the parents of those two brothers. To compete in the 60 minutes of game time, each player has devoted years of preparation. Think of the sacrifices made, holidays and weekends lost, the inevitable injuries and rehabs, and the strains on friendship and family to pursue the dream of a Super Bowl ring. I suspect if you asked the players and coaches this morning whether their journeys were worth it, they would say yes.

While we may not be able to relate to the journey of a professional football player or coach, I’d wager most or all of us have devoted ourselves to a great goal or ambition at some point. Some goals may have been sports-related: making a team or winning a competition. Some may have related to exercise, but not to be competitive with anyone other than yourself, such as running a marathon or half-marathon for the first time. Some may have been cerebral rather than physical: making an academic team, acing or just passing a test, getting into a school, qualifying for a career or specialization. In each case, we went “all-in,” devoting that extra measure of dedication in an attempt to reach that milestone. Sometimes we made it, sometimes we came up short.

Win or lose, these events change our lives. For our character, for the person we became, the efforts we made were more telling than whether circumstances enabled us to achieve a particular goal. I am reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1910, which included one of his most famous quotes. A year after his presidency ended, Roosevelt spoke to his French audience on the subject of individual citizenship in a republic:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Hear those words.

Now hear the words of the Gospel today. Jesus quotes the law. “You shall not murder.” “You shall not commit adultery.” “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” These were commandments wholly known, perhaps overly familiar, to his audience. To live a righteous life, there were some acts a person should never commit, like murder. To live a righteous life, there were some acts a person should do, like giving your ex-wife a certificate of divorce.

Compliance with these strictures can be compared to checking boxes in one’s life. Here is what to do and what not to do. You may feel like acting differently, but if you stay within these lines, you’ll be good.

Speaking to those who just heard him proclaim the Beatitudes and whom Jesus called the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus dramatically expands how the law applies in the kingdom of heaven. Using the language of the law, he declares those angry with a brother or sister liable to judgment by a local court, those insulting a brother or sister liable to the council, the Sanhedrin, and those saying something as mild as “you fool” condemned to the fires of hell. Jesus’ use of overstated legal language in this reading shocks his audience and us. His declarations of the dramatic consequences of what is common behavior keep us from ignoring his message. Are we really supposed to pluck out our sinning right eye?

Jesus reveals that in the kingdom of heaven, checking the boxes won’t cut it. It is not enough simply to comply with the literal rules, for example, not murdering, not committing adultery, and not swearing falsely. It is not only how we behave towards others that matters; our honest attitude towards our family members and neighbors is equally important.

Jesus reveals that the kingdom of heaven demands us to be all-in. Like the player on the field during his football game, we are called to be fully engaged in our relationships with our family, friends, and those others we meet on our journeys. Even if we conceal our anger, our scorn, our divisions, and our unfaithfulness, our concealments do not exonerate us. We remain guilty of the crimes of not loving our God with all that we have and not loving our neighbors as ourselves. We can’t pretend that we are right with God when we harbor ill-will towards others or betray their trust.

No doubt, the pull of common human nature is strong. How easy and how human it is to be friendly to someone, then later speak ill of them to others. Perhaps we make a joke at another’s expense, a joke we never would have made in front of them. How human it is to criticize those who have hurt us. We don’t understand why we should we forgive a person who continues to injure us. We tell ourselves it is easier, indeed perhaps better, simply to end all contact with that person, even if we never told them of our hurt. We believe we don’t need to be friends with or even tolerate those kinds of people. We ain’t got time for some folk…do we?

Sometimes the hurt occurs without our conscious thought. We substitute time with our spouses and children, parents and siblings, for time at work, for time absorbed by other activities, for time with other people. Little by little, we distance ourselves—all for legitimate reasons we’re sure—until these central relationships are adrift or sundered. It can be easier to accept the brokenness than to invest in the repair.

The way to the kingdom of heaven requires our removal of these obstacles, however much we want to treasure them. It’s hard to ignore past injuries. It’s hard to give up a grudge or feud. Putting our family first may demand painful reexaminations of close and rewarding relationships to other people, employment, and pastimes.

Jesus confronts us to love our God with all we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He demands nothing short of the full devotion of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. This reorientation of inner and outer lives is our great challenge, our Super Bowl, with the prize far greater than a ring.

That it is impossible for any of us to fully meet these challenges takes nothing from our efforts. We fail—time and time again we fail—but when we fail, we fail while daring greatly. And by daring greatly, we transform not only our lives, but also the lives of others. We listen more because we can’t be reconciled to others without hearing them first. We forgive others, and in the process, we forgive ourselves. We revolutionize our relationships, abandoning the weights we have been carrying for so long. We prioritize our lives in healthier ways.

Individually and as a church, we let our light shine before others. As a community living authentically, we become the news about which everyone is talking non-stop. We become the change our city, our state, our world, craves. The kingdom of heaven has that effect.

I had better end this sermon. It’s time for our kickoff.

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