A relatively new Pats fan reflects on the role of grace in Jesus’ high standards.
Julian Edelman makes the greatest catch since Catch came to Catchtown.
When I was a freshman in college, I had a coach named Dews. Coach Dews was an old, loud, decorated, grizzled baseball coach, not unlike a Belichick of the softball world. He scared the wits out of me, but like any good coach, he also taught me things not on offer in any classroom.
Once, after several screwups in which I almost definitely looked as terrified as I was, Coach Dews stopped practice, came over, got right in my face, and said, “If you’re afraid to fail, get off my field now.”
That is when I learned that failure is not the worst thing. Fear is.
Fear ends everything before it’s over.
Now, in case you’ve just woken up from a coma or have been living under a snow-covered rock on the side of Mount Tom, you probably know that our New England Patriots are Super Bowl Champs.
[pause for brief celebratory moment]
I am relatively new to Patriots’ fandom, coming out of none other than Atlanta with no NFL loyalties, having never donned a thread of NFL gear prior to this season (check the record). To be honest, like most Southerners, I was raised to love football — college football. I mean, prior to this, I never really watched the Falcons, in part because it always seemed like they tended to blow it at the last minute.
In moving here, I underwent what other pastors who move here describe: “You move to New England and your church people like the Patriots. And when the Patriots win, your church people are really happy. And you love your church people and you want them to be happy. Then one night you find yourself yelling ‘DO YOUR JOB’ at your TV and then you know they got you.”
That’s probably the nicest thing I yelled at my TV in the first half last Sunday.
And so, after last Sunday’s amazing comeback, I wondered, along with a lot of other folks, what, exactly, Bill Belichick said at halftime.
Nate Solder told reporters sarcastically, “He cast a wizard spell over us that changed everything.”
But Don’ta Hightower confirmed what most Pats fans already knew:
What did Belichick say? “Do your job.”
Taylor Gabriel, a Falcons player, listened during the second quarter as his Atlanta teammates crowed about putting 40 up on the Patriots. He said something pretty important that would resonate later:
“It’s Tom Brady though.”
One of my current jams, none other than Big Sean’s “Bounce Back,” includes the common wisdom: “If you a winner, you know how to bounce back.”
But let’s be real. Not every game, and not every life situation, ends in a miracle comeback. Most don’t. There are times that we can’t win for losing, that we can’t succeed for failing. Most of the time when you fall behind 21-3 at halftime, you don’t come back. When you fail, you have to deal with the consequences, so it’s no wonder many of us come away with a fear of failure, especially when it comes to faith and morality. Doesn’t seem like a lot of second chances are often on offer, and today’s Gospel lesson might lead us to that conclusion too.
Jesus today gives us a barrage of moral instructions, letting us know that he expects us to do our job: to live the kingdom wherever we go. To hold ourselves to an even higher standard than even the Law ever did. Like Jesus said last week: “Your righteousness must exceed the scribes and Pharisees, or you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Now, when we consider that the “kingdom of heaven” applies as much to this life as to the next life — that what Jesus is talking about is arguably more about living the Kingdom here than it is about getting a ticket to heaven — still, those standards are even higher than the toughest coach ever to don a hoodie. These are the kinds of standards that would make almost anyone afraid to fail.
If you’re angry, reconcile before you come to worship.
If you’re angry and you won’t reconcile, you’re basically committing murder.
Don’t objectify people and treat (especially) women with respect, otherwise you’re basically committing adultery.
There is also Jesus’ famous prohibition against divorce.
And finally, Jesus tells us not to swear. I mean, that sounds different than he means it. He doesn’t mean not to say bad words, but instead let our yes be yes and our no be no.
The easy way out of these texts is to say “good thing Jesus paid the price” and move on to the hymn of the day. And that would most certainly be true — Jesus death and resurrection does free us from having to fear failure. But I think there’s more for us here than simply writing off Jesus’ words. He said these things for a reason, and he didn’t follow it up with, “But if you fail; everything will be okay, so don’t worry too much about these high standards.”
Nope. Instead, we get something a lot more like “Do your job.”
But the reality is that we often don’t. Sometimes we lose. And sometimes, it’s not even our fault. Sometimes people won’t reconcile. Sometimes spouses are abusive or unfaithful or both, or sometimes you find that you were just a bad match.
But no matter whose fault it is or isn’t, we fail. We come to worship quite angry with each other or someone else in our lives. We make a big show of making promises that we can’t keep. We objectify people that we find attractive and forget that they’re human, or we allow other people to do the same thing and don’t say anything.
And yes, sometimes, at times through no fault of our own, we or those we love go through the heartbreak of divorce.
On that note, I always refer to Steffen Lösel, my systematic theology professor, the Bavarian Lutheran German national who deftly theologically turned me into a Lutheran. And he did it while preaching on this text about divorce, introducing me to the Lutheran concept of Law and Gospel.
Preaching on this text, he explained that yes, this prohibition on divorce is real. We have to believe, in all of these instances that Jesus named, that he did indeed mean what he said. That is the Law.
But in Christian community, there is also Gospel.
When we witness to a marriage, Dr. Lösel said, we are proclaiming that these two people before us are joined together by God. We say, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”
The difficult part is that no one fully knows the mind of God. We try to discern God’s will. Every couple and every pastor who performs a marriage tries to discern that indeed, this is a match made, as they say, in heaven. At every wedding, we proclaim and hope and believe that God has indeed joined these two souls together for eternity.
But sometimes later we find, painfully, that that isn’t the case. In a perfect world, all we would witness would be marriages are two souls joined together by God forever in mutual love and respect. In a perfect world, we would easily follow the Law and divorce would never be necessary. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.
If we allow the Law to rule the day — that divorce is not permitted — we keep people trapped in destructive marriages because they are afraid to fail, to break the Law. This should not be. In Christian community, there is Gospel.
The Gospel to counteract the Law is that divorce is never the end of the story. The Gospel is that there is hope and healing, even beyond heartbreak, and it is our job as the community of Jesus to hold people and hear their pain and help them heal.
Do your job, Church.
Our Old Testament lesson for today is Moses’ admonition to the Israelites: “Choose life.” Indeed, so often we are given the choice: we can choose to really live, to love others, to bring the kingdom into our lives here and now. But so often we don’t. We choose death. We choose exclusivity, hatred, fear, war, conflict. Because we are afraid to fail, to not be enough, we fail even more, just as I did that day on the softball field.
We can respond to that in a few ways: we can despair. We can even take the Scriptures as literally as some have throughout history and still today: not allowing divorce, and actually cutting off hands and plucking out eyes as punishment for things like stealing and lust. Given that we’re a modern, educated society, though, a more likely option seems to be just throwing up our hands in despair. You know, like when you fall behind 21-3 at halftime of the Super Bowl.
“It’s Tom Brady though.”
Life isn’t a football game and despite how much Pats fans love him, Tom Brady ain’t Jesus. However.
I think it’s important to remember that even when our best efforts have failed, even when we find ourselves in difficult situations of our own making because we have continually chosen death over life, cursing over blessing, and put ourselves in quite a hole, there’s someone else.
It’s Jesus though. And Jesus never fails to do his job.
In our Corinthians reading, Paul reminds us that, as they say, we are only human after all — but God raises us up, God makes us grow, God helps us bounce back.
People of God, you are loved, you are redeemed, and you are never lost. Your worst failures are never the end. This life is a story about God. And God always wins. You don’t need to fear failure.
And no, God won’t cast a wizard spell over us that changes everything. We will still screw things up, cause pain, come to worship mad, and fail all the time.
It’s Jesus though. And with Jesus, there is always hope.
God brings the growth, God brings us back, snatching life from death every single day.
So don’t be afraid to fail. Bounce back. Keep trying. God will bring the increase, even, perhaps especially, when we screw it up big time.
This is a story about God, after all, and God loves a good comeback.
So get out there. Do your job. Amen.