The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 13, 2022
Tonight millions of us will gather around their televisions to celebrate the great American high holy day – the Super Bowl. I mean, it is our feast day. Think of how many million chicken wings we’ll eat, how many tons of guacamole we’ll scarf down. And come tomorrow morning, we’ll be inundated with commentary on how the game was played and who won; we’ll hear everybody’s hot takes on the halftime show; we’ll suffer through everybody’s reenactment of their favorite commercials. That’s all part of the Super Bowl Sunday ritual, our American liturgy.
But there are a few people at the very center of the game that we hope don’t become part of the storyline. It’s the referees. Think about this – for the NFL, for the sportscasters, for the audience – the worst thing that can happen is if the game becomes about the referees. If the referees make a bad call, if they do something wrong, if their mistake costs one team the game, that’s all we’ll talk about, and everyone will hate it. And it makes sense; the referees shouldn’t decide who wins or loses, that’s up to the players and coaches. The referees don’t make the rules, they just enforce them to make sure the game is fair. If we are talking about the referees tomorrow morning, something has gone drastically wrong, someone will have spoiled our high holy day. Those chicken wings and guacamole won’t have been worth the cholesterol.
So I want to dig in here. Football referees are not like Olympic judges. Olympic judges, say for figure skating, are using their own subjective views to decide who gets gold, silver, and bronze. Not so with football referees. They are, to the best of their ability, enforcing the rules that are already in place. They are supposed to be objective. There should be no surprises for the players and coaches tonight at the Super Bowl. They all know the rules, the referees are just there to call the game as they see it.
We all know the rules. As Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we know what we are supposed to do. We know the vision that God has for us. When we hear this teaching from the Gospel of Luke, called the Beatitudes, nothing should surprise us. We’ve heard it before. Jesus is just calling the game as he sees it. “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are you who weep, blessed are you when people hate you because of me,” Jesus says. Then there’s, “woe to you who are rich, woe to you are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, who to you when all speak well of you.” This is nothing new. The rulebook goes all the way back to Deuteronomy. As Moses is dying, he gives the people of Israel a final word. Moses says that they can choose death, or they can choose life. They can choose a blessing or they can choose a curse. Jesus is reiterating what Moses said – there is blessing and there is woe. This is nothing new, it’s the same old rulebook. The same old description of who the people of God should be and what the people of God should do.
Reading it this way, Jesus’ words here are not an exhortation. He’s not calling us to be poor, he’s not asking us to weep, he’s not telling us to go hungry. Jesus is only calling it as he sees it. In God’s Kingdom, the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the reviled will be lifted up; and the rich, the sated, the laughing, and the highly esteemed will be brought low.
God is not deciding who wins and who loses, God is not changing the rules as the game is played, God is making sure that things will be just and fair. Jesus is describing what the Kingdom of God is like; he’s calling us to be what we know we ought to be; and to do what we know we ought to do.
The wrinkle, of course, is that these rules are so very different from the rules that we usually live by; so very different from the game that the world plays. And that’s what makes the Beatitudes such a gut check. If this is God’s vision for blessing and woe, for life and death, then how in the world do I fit into that vision? Let’s be real here – compared to the vast majority of the world, I am filthy rich. I’ve never really worried about my next meal; except maybe that time I had lunch at two in the afternoon. That was brutal. I’m generally happy, I laugh more than I cry. I think I’m well-respected in Galveston; I mean, I’ve had my picture in the paper and all; a picture, not a mugshot mind you. So what do I do? So what do we do as wealthy, sated, happy, respectable Episcopalians? Is the Lord God pronouncing woe over us?
I think there are only two reasonable responses. First, I’m not saying that you should empty your bank account, I’m not saying that you should go hungry, I’m not saying that you should go out looking for someone to stone you. But I am asking you to remember that your money, your job, your affluence, the clubs you’re in, the titles you have, the great dinner you have planned for the Super Bowl tonight amounts to nothing compared to knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and living in God’s Kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven. As it will be when we are called to account for ourselves. If you’re all you’re thinking about is how to get richer, how to get fuller, how to get more thrills out of life, how to get people to respect you, then all you’ll get in return is woe. The topsy-turvy upside-down good news of Jesus Christ is that that kind of life, that kind of desperate drive to accumulate things, to get others to praise you, that kind of life will eat you alive. “Woe” is a funeral word. Jesus is saying that if you choose to live that way, you won’t really be alive.
And our second response is to start playing by the rules that God has laid out for us. To remember that the referee is always watching. The good news of Jesus Christ is that you don’t have to play that other game, you don’t have to play by the world’s rules. There is another game, another set of rules, there is another way to live. And that’s in the Kingdom of God. If you are rich now, then give something for the poor. If you are full now, then do something to feed the hungry. If you are laughing now, then console someone who is weeping. If people speak well of you now, then speak up for someone who is scorned. Then you, you will be the blessing for someone who so desperately needs it. These are the rules. This is the life that we are called to live. This is the way it is with Jesus.
Tonight, as you’re chowing down on nachos and chili dogs, and enjoying the game, take note of the referees. Notice how they watching, always watching. They shouldn’t be playing favorites, they shouldn’t be on one side or the other, we shouldn’t even really talk about them. But they are watching, making sure that the game is fair. And equal. And just. When rules are broken, when they do have to step in, one team will see it as a blessing, the other team will see it as a woe. The whole gospel will be played out right there on national television. And then tomorrow, when you wake up and go back to work and school and whatever else, remember that the referee is watching, always watching. Not wanting to punish, not wanting to judge, but the Lord God will be watching, watching that we play by the rules of the Kingdom. And in everything you do, in every conversation, in every decision, in every thought, turn from death and choose life. Turn from woe and choose blessing. Turn from this world and its petty little games, and choose Jesus.