Alarm Clocks, Football, and Belonging: A Sermon About Repentance

The New England Patriots’ End Zone Militia. 

The Second Sunday of Advent

Matthew 3:1-12

This past week, when I drove back from my parents’ home in Alabama back here to South Hadley, I had to leave early on both mornings of my drive in order to get ahead of some pretty nasty rain and that evil Northern creation called a “wintry mix.” This required driving all day, crashing with kind friends, and then waking up at some ungodly hour of the morning to do it all again. You know how it feels when the alarm goes off so early that it seems like it’s going off in the middle of the night, because it kind of is? When the alarm’s sound comes crashing into your skull with such force that your first thought of the day is a very impolite word or two?

That’s the experience I had.

That alarm that shatters your sleep and springs you into action isn’t pleasant, especially when it interrupts your sleep in a warm bed to throw you into a world of cold rain, as my alarm did. But I knew that it was necessary, so I let it move me.

It was time to wake up and go somewhere.

We usually see repentance as being kind of like that, and sometimes it is. I imagine that John the Baptist’s words, to his original hearers, must have been like a sharp sounding alarm. I imagine that they called up that same feeling of visceral, shocking unpleasantness. I mean, really. Take another look at what he says in today’s Gospel text.“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). 

… Merry Christmas, everybody?

This would be a terrible Christmas text indeed, if indeed it were Christmas. And it may have been Christmas at Target since before Halloween but in here, it’s Advent: a time of waiting, and yes, a time of repentance.

I’ve always thought of repentance as this kind of experience: unpleasant, like jumping into cold water or waking up to that jarring alarm. And you know, a lot of the time it is. Jesus routinely smacks me upside the head, usually when I’m being unnecessarily bitter or judgy.

But ever since I left the Southern Baptist church of my childhood, and especially since I entered Lutheranism, I’ve learned that repentance isn’t about getting a smack upside the head. Thinking about things this week, I’ve concluded that I’ve been confusing repentance with guilt — that in order to repent you have to feel bad.

To “repent,” after all, is simply to change direction — which can be unpleasant at first, or it can just be a sudden and certain realization that things could be different than the way they are now. Repentance, in other words, can really be a hopeful thing.

Blessed Advent, everybody.

I grew up, as you all know by now, in Alabama, where college football is king. I went to church on and off as a kid, and I was, of course, Baptist like everybody else. Repentance was talked about a lot, usually in terms of the unpleasant alarm that shatters your sleep. We made that mistake of conflating repentance with guilt. True repentance, I was taught, was usually noted by tears and shame, so preachers pushed to make people feel “convicted,” which is a fancy Baptist word for feeling terrible.

One common device for making people feel bad was to go after something they loved. In Alabama, as you also know, college football is king. People love their teams. In Alabama, you are born an Auburn fan or you’re born an Alabama fan, and things rarely change throughout the course of one’s life. Team loyalties run deep.

For example, the Auburn Tigers have always been my team. When I was a baby, I wore Auburn onesies. As I grew, so did the Auburn apparel. My dad and I bonded over football games. From the time that I was little, my bedtime stories were stories of great Auburn players and coaches — of Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan, of Shug Jordan and Pat Dye.

People often joke about college football as another religion in the South, a comparison that often makes preachers uncomfortable and moves them to preach repentance for what they see as idolatry. “If only people would get as excited about Jesus as they get about football!” they moan every fall, hoping that football fans will feel guilty and repent.

As I grew older, I began to question this preaching tactic. Was my love of football really taking anything away from my love of God? Was my ability to love really a zero sum game — that anything and anyone I loved took away from my love of God? As time went on, these sermons would make me angry, but this year, I’ve come around to rethink them. Most criticism after all, contains some grain of truth.

The truth that those preachers are getting at is that the church is sometimes — often, depending on the church — not a very raucous or thrilling place. At its worst, it can be about obligation more than anything, going to church because we feel like we have to.

Football, on the other hand, is different. Football is about family, about belonging, about doing something together. You wear your team’s colors proudly and you attend the games because you love the team so much. The games have an expected liturgy and order: before the Auburn games begin, the eagle flies around the stadium. When the Patriots score a touchdown, the End Zone Militia fires off their muskets.

Football fills us with pride and belonging, giving us a common story — tales of great games and great players and great coaches of old — and a common bond that knits us together with strangers around the state and around the world. I have been as far away as the Netherlands wearing my Auburn hat and heard “War eagle!” from a stranger at the airport.

What if church gave us the same sense of belonging and a common bond with strangers as football? What if being a Christian carried with it the same sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves, of doing something together with people around the world? What is it that lights us up about football that translates into our lives within these walls?

I don’t think there is anything to feel guilty about here. Despite some unfortunate and notable examples, football loyalties typically don’t hurt anyone, as long as people remain level-headed and nonviolent. Surely God doesn’t hate fun — there was some doubt about that when I was a kid, but now I firmly believe that as long as no one is being hurt, God likes fun just as much as anybody. Good theology aside, I’m pretty convinced that God is an Auburn fan — God always did like a good underdog story.

You see, Lutheranism and the Holy Spirit have helped me to reimagine repentance.

The last time I attended an Auburn game, I watched the eagle float above the crowd as the people chanted “Waaaaaaaaaar eagle, hey!” ending as the bird landed at midfield. No one told the crowd to do this; we just knew, all 85,000 of us, what to do. I decided that this is how liturgy, how church, is meant to be: to knit us together with common symbols and a common story and a common purpose. But we’re not currently very good at that in our churches.

A little repentance — a change of direction — is required.

How do we build that kind of community? Together. By forming traditions and an identity and a sense of community and belonging around our faith. Around our story. To agree to attend not because we feel obligated, but because we feel inspired by the stories that we tell here and the things we accomplish together — things that knit us together with Christians around the world and throughout history.

I have tons of interest in liturgy and the ways that it connects people to God and to each other and to our ancestors and contemporaries in faith, and I am here to build this kind of community, but I need you. Each of you is important. Each of you has an angle on faith and commitment and this congregation’s passions and identity — what it is and what it could be.

So let us pay attention to what our relationships and our passions out in the world teach us about who we are and what we crave as humans, and what they teach us about community and belonging. What do your passions teach you about God and about yourself? What do the things you love teach you about your needs as a child of God? What do your relationships with your clients or your students teach you about care and community? About God? What do you love about bowling or football or music that helps you feel connected to other people and to something bigger? How can we use that to build our community here?

What is God teaching you through your life out there that you can offer to help us be a better church, more connected to each other and the world around us?

We’re here at the beginning of a new church year. This is the first church year that we will walk through from beginning to end as pastor and people. This is the first year that we get to tell the whole story of Jesus together.

We are in Advent, telling the story of when the people of God cried out for a Savior. We remember together what it means to us to wait in darkness to find the light. Advent reminds us what it’s like to change direction and to have hope. The church year is not something we live through year after year as an obligation. It is a song that we sing again and again to remember who we are as a people, and what knits us together.

Repentance sometimes shatters your sleep and jars you into an unpleasant awakeness. But repentance is not the same as guilt. Real repentance doesn’t just tear down the negative — it builds something out of hope and resolve. Repentance, at its best, helps us to turn and build a better future.

So let’s start here, in Advent, as we light the darkness, candle by candle, on that wreath, until the Son of God appears at Christmas. Let’s walk through the night towards the dawn together, knowing that what God reveals in the darkness and in the dawn will change us as individuals and as a community forever.

Whether it’s unpleasant or whether we’re excited to greet the day, the alarm is going off. It’s time to wake up, to take note of what God is teaching us in each moment in here and out there.

So let’s wake up and go somewhere. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s