"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Occupying the Gospel" (Sunday, February 19, 2012)

            Of course, one of the big news stories of this past fall was the “Occupy” movement that spread from city to city, around the world really, starting around the middle of September. Primarily directed against economic and social inequality, the movement began with a protest in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, and soon spread to protests in 82 different countries worldwide, including hundreds of communities across the United States. By the end of the year, estimates were that there were more than 2800 “Occupy” communities worldwide.

            It was (and still is, really, because it is still certainly going on in many places), was a widespread movement, certainly, and difficult to summarize in just a few words. Its list of demands varied from city to city, as did the particular makeup of its cohorts. But the Occupy Movement seemed to focus on the question of growing economic disparity in modern society, and the sense that (no, the fact that) more and more wealth was being concentrated in the hands of an economic and social elite (the so-called “1 percent”), to the detriment of the vast majority of society (hence the slogan, “We are the 99%.)

            But whatever we think of the politics of the Occupy Movement (and I am sure that most of you can guess what I think of its politics: Along with Cornel West, I am hopeful that it does, indeed, represent the birth of a great “political awakening” in American history; I am hopeful,. If not convinced), I think that its modus and methods—its overriding ethos and spirit—can help us as we consider other deeper issues, as well. It provides us with a framework for viewing different aspects of our lives, not just politics or economics. It is useful, I think, to ponder what it means, truly to “occupy” something—to take it over; to seize control of it; to reclaim something that has been taken; to liberate once confined, or restricted, places or concepts for the common good. For in so doing, we liberate ourselves to new possibilities and new growth. We become occupied then, with a wondrous new vision that changes everything, and restores our hope for these lives we lead.

            For those of us who care about matters of faith in this world of ours, and who care about the abiding truth of the Christian message in particular, the time has certainly come to “Occupy the Gospel”: to reclaim the abiding message of the life and teachings of Jesus; to liberate the Gospel message from the heavy hand of narrow-mindedness and the marginalization of sentimentality; to throw off the bonds of misogyny and homophobia which have too often in the past corrupted the liberating message of Christianity, and changed it into a tool of continued oppression.

            God help any religious prophets for the actions taken in their names by the generations that followed them. How badly used an abused that name can be. That’s true of Moses; it’s true of Mohamed; and it’s certainly true of Jesus.

            “Jesus saves” we’re told, by bumper stickers, and billboards, and t-shirts and refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs and what have you. And I don’t question the workings of God’s grace, through Jesus Christ, in the hearts and souls of individual believers throughout the centuries. The power of Jesus—his example, his teachings, his grace—has saved countless souls and has transformed untold lives. I don’t question that for a minute.

            But all too often, the cross of Jesus has been turned on its side, and has become a sword of conquest. All too often, the Bible has been used as a cudgel to force free spirits into obedience, or as a battering ram to force the institutions of the Church into places where they have no business.

            “They will know we are Christian by our love,” the old Gospel hymn proclaims. If only it were only true! The jury is still out on the efficacy of the Christian church in this world of ours, and of its influence, for good or ill, down through the past two thousand years. “The evils of the church that now is are manifest,” Emerson said in his Divinity School Address in 1838. Were he alive today, he would have no reason to tone down his comments.

            As the Secretary General of the Anglican Council in Great Britain said a few years ago: “In certain parts of the world, the word ‘Christian’ has become an embarrassment because it has been aligned with movements which are contrary to the loving Christ that is at the heart of the [gospel] message. I hold my head in shame to hear the name of Jesus being affiliated with political movements that isolate, inhibit, and breed hate and discontent among human beings.”

            Let’s be honest: When someone goes out of his or her way, as people will,  to introduce himself or herself to you as a “Christian” at a social or civic event, don’t you start looking for a bush to hide behind? Aren’t the words that start popping into your head most likely to be things like “judgmental”, “narrow-minded”, “holier-than-thou”, or “intolerant”?

            I don’t say this as someone who is out to bash either Christianity or Christians. I say this as someone who loves the Christian tradition, who has a deep affinity for its culture and symbols and ritual and history. Nothing warms my heart more than entering a church, and the older and more traditional that church is, the better. I call myself a Christian, and I feel drawn more and more to the Christian tradition, the older I get.


“Jesus loves you—as long as you’re not a liberal.” “Or  a Democrat.” “Or believe women should have an untrammeled right to control their own bodies”. “Or believe that people of the same gender have the right to marry.” “Jesus loves you—as long as you have all the ‘correct’ answers on this fifty-question survey of your political and social attitudes.”

Christian fundamentalism is not Christianity.

Narrow-mindedness which preaches that women should be subservient; that gays and lesbians are perverts; that those who deviate from certain narrow social norms (as defined by them) are bound for the fires of hell—this is not Christianity, any more than the economics of Wall Street is social justice and those who greedily hoard the world’s wealth for themselves are “job creators”.

And just as we need to Occupy the citadels of economic injustice and eventually liberate them, so too, the mantel of “Christian” has to be wrenched from the hands of these self-serving, self-righteous hypocrites.

But why should it even matter? Why bother occupying the Gospel, trying to reclaim it? Why should we even care if Jesus has been kidnapped by the Religious Right? Why, in this post-modern, post-Christian world, should the gospel of Jesus even matter to us anymore?

Because, very simply, to those of us who consider ourselves Christian-- or even who consider ourselves, somehow, in some way, to be descendants of the Jewish-Christian heritage-- or even for those of us who think of ourselves as religious-- or even “spiritual” beings, who refuse to surrender the whole of reality over to a monolithic secularism— even for all of us who believe that there is a spiritual side to this existence of ours—Jesus is important to us. He is our religious brother, as much as he is the Christian Coalition’s and the Religious Right’s.

“What matters [about Jesus],” David McFarland writes, “are the deep truths put into the telling of his life.” It is Jesus who teaches us how to stand up to authority, how to speak truth to those in power, how to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “It is the Jesus who stood up to authority,” McFarland continues, “who challenged the status quo, who wouldn’t let anyone claim spiritual authority or material superiority or political superiority”.  

It is Jesus who reminds us that, when all is done and said, that we all stand as equals as neighbors, as brothers and sisters to one another, as sons and daughters of one Abba—Father-- “Our Father, which art in Heaven.”

The heart of the Gospel isn’t about who to vote for, or who to sleep with, or who to marry. The heart of the gospel consists of four things, four precious gifts which the Christian faith offers.

First is the coming of the Kingdom of God—the coming of an entirely new way of being with one another, that will transform all relationships, transcend all barriers that divide people from one another, and turn the old hierarchies and pecking orders on their heads.

Second is our need to love one another. Just as divine love and divine mercy beat at the heart of creation, Jesus taught, so we respond to God’s love by loving one another as ourselves. That is how we grow into the very image and likeness of the God who created us.

The third lesson Jesus taught was our need to hold concern for the poor and the downtrodden at the center of our hearts. Te Gospel could not be clearer about this: “As you have done to these, the least of my brethren, you have done unto me.” Jesus never mentions homosexuality in the Gospels. He mentions caring for the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, dozens of times. It boggles my mind how people can call themselves Christians, and yet turn their backs on the poor.

And the fourth call of Christianity is the call to do justice: to seek to act with fairness and righteousness and in all aspects of our lives, in every one of our relationships. 

This is the heart of the gospel: caring, compassion, justice, and love. Those are the building stones from which the kingdom of our hearts can be built. Those are the sacred spaces we must occupy if the Christian faith is to be redeemed.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, religion editor for the Huffington Post, puts it this way:

“The Gospel isn’t something that you ‘get right’ and  then get on with becoming godly. The gospel is an entire story of God’s ruling love over creation and his activity to restore it to his original intent. The gospel is a story that is meant to be occupied. Lived in. Soaked in… The gospel is meant to be occupied. You have to… let the truth of it sink down into the core of your being. Then it will change the aim of your heart. Then it will change the way you think. Then it will change the way you act.”

The example of Jesus is still “precious to the world,” Theodore Parker once said, because Jesus “dared to live fully and love deeply.”

Perhaps this is what “occupying the gospel” ultimately mans: daring to live fully and to love deeply.

If we do that, and dare to occupy the gospel—or, more importantly, if we let this good news occupy us—let it fill our hearts and souls, and illumine our minds, and energize our bodies-- then that spirit that was in Jesus can transform us, and transform our lives, as well, and remake the face of this world, at last, in an image of compassion and justice.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Of Church and State and Religion and Politics" (Sunday, February 12, 2012)

            You don’t see unanimous votes of the United States Supreme Court very often. Not this Supreme Court, certainly, which seems so evenly divided on so many things. I’d hate to be there listening to them argue what to bring in for lunch.

“By a 5 to 4 decision, with Justice Kennedy speaking for the majority, the Supreme Court today decided to order Chinese food for lunch… In a stinging dissent, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor argued in favor of sushi, while in a separate dissent, Justices Alito and Scalia made the case for pizza.”

            But a few weeks ago, almost exactly a month ago actually, they did agree on something—all nine of them, unanimously. In the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Opportunity Commission (how’s that for a mouthful?), the Supreme Court issued one of its very rare 9-0 decisions.

            Here’s the background:

            In 1999, Cheryl Perich began teaching at Hosanna-Tabor, a small religious school in Redford, Michigan. She also led daily chapel services for the students there. But in 2004, she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, so left her job on disability. The next year, doctors gave her a clean bill of health to return to work; but officials at the school told her they had already hired someone else. After a long, acrimonious argument, Perich sued the school for discrimination, and her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

            Before the Court, the Obama administration argued that even though Perich was classified as a “minister” by the school, she nevertheless deserved protection as a disabled person under the law. The school, supported by a wide array of religious institutions (though not ours, interestingly) argued that the right of religious institutions to choose their own employees, regardless of outside regulation and interference, was absolute—and the Court agreed. Unanimously.

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts cited the only two clauses of the U.S. Constitution that deal with religion, both part of the First Amendment: The so-called “Establishment Clause” which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” together with the next clause, which is called the “Free Exercise Clause”: “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, Justice Roberts said; the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.  Period. End of discussion.

Another great affirmation of the absolute separation of Church and State, one would think.

But not in this Through the Looking Glass Mad Tea Party World of Right Wing Newspeak that the American political landscape has become. No, rather, we are supposed to believe that this case is just further “proof” of the Obama Administration’s “war on religion” (all religions except Islam, I guess, which, we are supposed to believe, the President “appeases” rather than assaults).

Single-term former United States Senator Rick Santorum (who is, somehow, still being mentioned, seriously, as a possible nominee for President of the United States) recently called President Obama “the most anti-religious President in U.S. history”. He is even more anti-religious, we are to believe, than Washington and Jefferson and all those other Deist Founding Fathers which our country (so inconveniently for the Christian right) had. Not John Adams, though. He wasn’t a Deist. He was a Unitarian.

Obama is “the most anti-religious President in U.S. history,” Santorum said. His polices would force the Catholic Church to hire women priests. It would make Orthodox Jews hire women rabbis! If same sex marriage is affirmed, Santorum added, then all ministers and priests would be forced to perform such abominable ceremonies—even if their own doctrines and tenets considered them sinful! The long arm of the State would reach into our church’s windows (or maybe down through the steeple) and start telling us what to do here in our church.  How frightening!

This is, of course, pure, unabashed nonsense. Say that I wasn’t already married, but decided I wanted to be: Do you think my fiancee and I could march right into the Islamic mosque in Sharon and demand that the imam there perform our service? Of course not! Do you think we could stroll over to Immaculate Conception Church down the street, and simply demand that Father Joe officiate at our wedding service? Hardly.

No church or synagogue or masque is forced to marry anyone they don’t want to now, and that won’t change if (as we hope and pray) the right to marriage equality becomes the law of the land for all Americans. Saying otherwise is just a scare tactic; it’s a red herring tossed into the discussion by certain Right Wing Evangelical zealots (and the Right Wing allies, like Santorum and certain reactionary bishops they have cultivated, sadly, within the Catholic Church) to muddy the waters about same-sex marriage (which is, ultimately, an issue of justice and equity, and not theology) and to advance their own reactionary, retrogressive, highly dangerous political agenda.

            The tragedy isn’t that such pompous windbags exist (for the self-righteous and the self-serving you will always have among you, Jesus taught). The tragedy (and the danger) is that so many unsuspecting people believe them, and that their ideas have somehow made it onto the main court of this year’s political arena, and are starting to be given credence (or at least air time) 

            Does it bother you (as it does me) that, in this election, with the absolutely awesome problems our nation and our world faces on every front—issues of war and peace, a nuclear Iran, the economy, what do we do about social security and budget deficits and growing economic inequality—does it bother you that we are even talking about religion as one of the “issues” in this campaign? Let-alone issues “related” (perhaps) to religion like gay marriage (about which I still cannot understand the controversy). Should religion itself even be an issue in the race for any political office, let alone for the Presidency? Frankly, I don’t care what my President’s religion is. (It would be nice, maybe, to have a UU President someday; but don’t ask me when that might be. Maybe when some of the kids in our church school grow up.) I don’t care how many times a Presidential candidate has been married either. I wouldn’t care in Newt Gingrich was married to the very same woman for 99 years—I’m still not going to vote for him! I don’t care about their personal lives, not as criteria for choosing for whom to vote, for choosing who should lead us.

            It reminds me of a little bumper sticker I read recently in the Holy Scripture of Facebook: “Your religion belongs in your church and your home. Not in our government.”

That just seems like a common sense bottom line to me, that all of us, wherever we stand politically, wherever we stand religiously, should be able to agree on.

            But why have things moved so far in the other direction? Why have religious zealots of the Right been able to hijack the political discourse in such a manner? (And, as much as I believe in fairness, the zealots are all of the Right; there aren’t any “religious zealots of the Left”; such a concept might even be an oxymoron).

In his book, Our Endangered Values, America's Moral Crisis, that very wise man, our former President Jimmy Carter—a deeply religious evangelical Christian himself, of course—tries to explain it for us. He writes that the "most important factor" causing the polarization of American politics (the great “red/blue divide”) is that “fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government, and have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree.”  

At the same time, President Carter writes, “these religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state. This has empowered a group of influential neo-conservatives, who have been able to implement their long-frustrated philosophy in both domestic and foreign policy.” This, according to St. Jimmy, has brought about "profound departures from America's traditional values" like political pluralism, respect for one another’s religions, our sense of cohesiveness and the obligation we have to take care of the less fortunate, and cooperation with other nations in foreign affairs. (These things might all seem like “liberal” values now, but they were simply mainstream American values a little more than a generation ago. They were the values both of Presidents Truman and of Eisenhower and leaders like them. They were the values of the middle of the road. That is how far our national politics have moved to the right.)

“Modern fundamentalism [has] made the move to theocracy,” President Carter says. Fundamentalists of all kinds “desire their religious agendas to be enforced through the power of the state.” This is no less true of Christian fundamentalists in Alabama or Texas than it is of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shiite clerics in Iran.  

“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ,” writes George Grant of Coral Ridge Ministries in Florida, “ to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less. Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land—of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.”

If this is what Right Wing religion is aiming for in America, then maybe having an “anti-religious” President, or at least a religiously neutral President, is not such a bad thing. The last thing we need, it seems to me, is a President who would try to court the favor (to gain the votes) of people who are, in effect, nothing less than Christian fascists.

Sometimes, it’s hard to be people of calm and quiet faith in this world of ours. Oftentimes, we might feel puny and weak compared with the challenges this world faces-- puny Davids against mighty Goliaths of corruption, greed, selfishness, and injustice; puny Davids, with the Goliath of religious fundamentalism on one side, and the Goliath of this mad materialist, hedonist, consumerist, godless culture on the other. Why even bother to fight? Why even bother to vote? Why even bother to venture out into the civic playing field? Why even bother to hope?

We want leaders who are humble about their personal faiths—who cherish their religions, but who do not insist upon imposing it on those who disagree. We do not want leaders who presume to speak for God.

We want leaders who practice a transformative politics which seeks dialogue, and not polarization; who are not afraid of differing opinions; who know that the ways of cooperation and coalition are always preferable to hard-headedness, stubbornness, and narrow-mindedness.

We want leaders who are true to their deepest values, and don’t just use the brittle facade of pious platitudes and self-righteous moralizing as another tool for gaining votes, and for fostering ignorance and fear.

Those are the kinds of leaders we need. But to find them, those are the kids of citizens we must each one of us become.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Super Bowl Spirituality (Sunday, February 5, 2012)

One of the great things about being a minister, and a Unitarian Universalist minister in particular, is that you get paid to talk about subjects about which you know basically next to nothing. Often, I am able to speak about topics about which I am generally literate, either through training and education (say, religion, for instance); or, I can talk about those about which I am knowledgeable through my own personal study and interest. (You know, for instance, that this church probably holds the record for Bruce Springsteen- related sermons. Guess what? There’s a new album coming out next month!)  

But sometimes, as a minister, one is called upon to lead a conversation about a topic about which numerous members of one’s congregation know infinitely more. This should always keep one humble; sometimes, it actually does.

So it is on Super Bowl Sunday. At least when the New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl. The import of such an august occasion would seem to call for at least a “few words” (which, in my case, means somewhere between 1800 and 2000) from your Spiritual Leader. I owe it to you.

But what I found interesting, as I looked back over past Super Bowl Sunday sermons I have delivered (hoping to get some idea of what, exactly, I was supposed to talk about today) is that, while I certainly have not delivered such a sermon every Super Bowl Sunday, I haven’t even delivered one every year the Patriots did make the Big Game. (Which is funny, because I thought  I had.)

I know that when I was still in Maine, I spoke about football in honor of their first appearance, back at Super Bowl XX in 1986 (Why the Roman numerals in Super Bowl numerology? Something to do with gladiators, I guess.) They lost that year to the Chicago Bears by the score of 46 to 10—the second worst shellacking in Super Bowl history, until the Denver Broncos lost to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV by an even more ignominious score of 55 to 10.

Then, I remember preaching about “The Spirituality of Sports” here in Stoughton in 1997, when we sang “Over my head” as the second hymn, and sure enough, the Pats lost to the Green Bay Packers by a (somewhat) more respectable score of 35 to 21.

One verse from that song went:

Over my head, I see angels in the air,

Over my head, I see angels in the air,

Over my head, I see angels in the air.

There must be a God somewhere.

 Well, not for the Patriots at the New Orleans Superdome that day in 1997, I’m afraid.

Then, all was quiet on the football front from this pulpit until February 3, 2002—the next time the New England Patriots made it to the championship game—Super Bowl XXXVI (that’s 36), against the St. Louis Rams. (Which I thought were still the Los Angeles Rams for some reason; their move to St. Louis in 1995 passed my notice, I suppose.)

Looking back at that February 3, 2002 sermon, I am amazed at how… unamazing… it was. I talked mostly about how I didn’t know anything about football. And I talked about baseball (a sport I know—a little—more about.) And teamwork, And other good (unremarkable) themes like that. But that most unremarkable of sermons was, some of you might even remember, remarkable for the following (brief) paragraph:

“And, in case you’re interested,” I said back then, “here’s my prediction…  on tonight’s game: I think the Patriots will pull it out—20 to 17—maybe even in overtime. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s been that kind of season, after all. If it happens that way—or anywhere close—remember: You heard it here! If it doesn’t, and if they get creamed (again), I’ll deny everything!].”

Well, as some of you might remember, the Rev. called it right on the money! The final score of that game was 20 to 17!  With placekicker Adam Vinatieri successfully completing a 48 yard field goal as time expired. It was a great game. And I haven’t been right about a Super Bowl score since. Not even close.

But then, in 2004, when the Patriots faced the Carolina Panthers, I didn’t talk about it. We had a guest minister that day, so I oculdn’t even if I wanted to. On February 6, 2005, as the Patriots  prepared to face the Philadelphia Eagles (for what would be the Patriots’ third Super Bowl win in four years), I spoke on “The Eight Sins of Gandhi”. (Maybe it was a loony leftist, Freudian, passive aggressive protest against the “violence” inherent in professional sports, and how football is so much like war or something. I dunno. But I know that I sure as heck would prefer an Israeli football team facing off against an Iranian one, than the real thing.)

Then, on February 3, 2008, as the Patriots completed a phenomenal 16-0 undefeated regular season, and went into Super Bowl  XLII (42) as heavy favorites against the New York Giants, I spoke “In Defense of Food” (of course).

Now, the Super Bowl is connected to food, of course, big time.

The California Avocado Commission projects that 13.2 million pounds or 26 million avocados will be consumed Super Bowl Sunday, mostly in the form of guacamole. That's enough guacamole to cover the football field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis from end zone to end zone, approximately 40 inches deep. Waist deep in guacamole. How gross is that!

         More pizzas are sold on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year. Approximately eight million pounds of popcorn will be consumed on Super Bowl Sunday, along with 28 million pounds of potato chips, and 450 million chicken wings. (Is my math right? Is that really 225 million chickens give their lives every Super Bowl Sunday?)

And to wash it all down?  

It is estimated that more than 49.2 million cases of beer were consumed by Americans on Super Bowl Sunday  last year, of course!

So maybe, “In Defense of [Real] Food” wasn’t such a bad choice for the day of a Super Bowl.  Though, in retrospect, of course, I could have talked about the dangers of hubris, and pride coming before a fall, and all that, because, in spite of the phenomenal 16-0 undefeated regular season, the Patriots lost to the New York Giants on that fateful Sunday in 2008 by a score of 17 to 14.

So, this morning, I suppose, I could be speaking about the need to overcome the “Curse of the Giants”. But while that would be grotesquely premature (unless the Patriots do somehow lose today [even uttering such words is heresy I know, but, you know, I’ve been called a heretic before in other contexts, and it really doesn’t bother me]—but if that does happen, then, you know that everyone will be talking about the “curse of the Giants” tomorrow, and a new absurd legend will enter New England sports folklore. 

But while it might be possible to speak about “Why we hate the Yankees”, as I have, and raise more than a few understanding smiles and approving nods of the head, “Why we hate the Giants” doesn’t quite cut it. Because we don’t, most of us; most of us born before 1962, at least.

I remember my late father, born and bred Rhode Island working class New Englander that he was, who loved the Boston Red Sox with all his heart, often cursing the New York Yankees in terms somewhat more colorful than “Damn Yankees”.  But he was also a New York Giants fan through and through in those years before New England had a football team to call its own.  And even when the Patriots came to Boston (they were the Boston Patriots, originally, remember), and had to play at Fenway Park (which I somehow can’t picture now) or at B.U. or at Harvard Stadium, his loyalties still were divided. Your word is your bond, he taught me; and when you make a choice, and declare your loyalty, you stick to it. He was stubborn that way, and so am I. But he’ll be there with me in spirit today as I watch the game (I guess), and I’ll root (a little) for both teams, in honor of him—and a game well played.

            So maybe it was the tug of a Patriots-Giants rematch (even I know how awesome that is) which brought me back home again to talk about this Red Letter Day on our secular calendars. To remind me to remind you that perhaps sports (and maybe even especially football) have a thing or two to teach us about the importance of teamwork, and the need we have in this disparate, individualism-at-any-cost culture of ours to sacrifice some of our individual fulfillment for the good of the whole. Perhaps that’s a lesson that we, as Americans, need to learn more than any other in these fractious times in which we live.

Football also has something to teach us about the contributions we all have to make to the realization of our team’s goals—when we are who we are to the best of our ability; when we do our best at the task we are called to perform. Field goal kickers, punt returners, quarterbacks all doing their parts; that’s how games are won; that’s  how nations are rebuilt.  We have to know who we are—and the other members of our team have to respect our abilities— know that they can count on us-- for a team to work, for teamwork to work. Football teaches us about the ultimate value of teamwork. But it teaches us just as much about using our individual gifts to their full potential, as well.

“I want to be with people who submerge in the task,” Marge Piercy has written. “Who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along. Who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters, but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”

Sports is all about community, on the field, and in the stands, and in parlors and living rooms across our land. It’s about celebrating community— celebrating belonging. It is about celebrating this New England, this particular, peculiar, oh-so-special piece of Earth which we all call home, and which many of us have been blessed to call home all the years of our lives.

I’m not saying that New England is “better” than other places to live. Most of the year, the South had better weather (and probably better cooking). The Rockies may have better scenery. The Midwest (it is said) has friendlier, more neighborly people. Seattle has better coffee and better rock bands… New York has Broadway and Wall Street and Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty…. Indianapolis has… I’ll be damned if I know what Indianapolis has.

These are all good places. But they’re just not New England… And today, as Tom Brady and all those other Patriots players whose names I don’t know take the field, so will ocean air and clambakes and country roads and covered bridges and leaves burning in the fall and pumpkin pie and apple crisp and clam chowder and lobster bisque and hasty pudding and real maple syrup and weather vanes and saltbox boxes and the whole crazy quilt of people and places and real odd ways of pronouncing words that makes up this place we love, this home of our bodies and our spirits, this New England.

“There is joy in all,” writes Anne Sexton, and “The joy that isn’t shared dies young.”

So may we share together with joy this special day, this special season. And win or lose (for we will always do both in life; though I am predicting a Patriots’ victory, 17 to 14, to “reverse the curse” of 2008), may even those of us who don’t know Randy Moss from peat moss seize the joy in every season of these lives we have been blessed to lead.