For me, one of the most profound Principles that we hold dear as Unitarian Universalists is the 7th: “The interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” The implications are so many. This sermon builds on one: that nothing in existence is cut off from meaning. Everything is a bearer of theology, if we but have the eyes to see and ears to hear.
Even in stones, there can be sermons.
Even in Cleveland Browns football.
Now that might be the last thing we think of, when we think of theology, or spiritual wisdom. Especially if we are not a fan, and tonight, when the Super Bowl is on, we’d rather be knitting, or watching figure skating at the Olympics.
That’s what we’re fans of, not football.
Of course, you might not want to watch the Super Bowl exactly because you are a Browns fan—because the Super Bowl contenders include (1) the team the Browns beat twice and (2) the team that Odell Beckham Jr. or OBJ left Cleveland for. This whole situation might offend you to your core. So, of course you won’t watch. As someone tweeted, “Because the football gods haven’t punished the Browns enough, we get the Bengals and OBJ in the Super Bowl.”
And already, with what I have just said, we are knee-deep in theological reflection:
First is the category of theology proper, which addresses the nature of God. Is God punishing the Browns? Does God take sides, meaning that this year’s Superbowl competitors the Bengals and the Rams are in because God wants it this way? Can God be persuaded by the extraordinary passions of football fans to do things God might not otherwise do?
Then there is the theological category of soteriology, which addresses the nature of salvation. Now that’s a word–”salvation”–that can mean many different things to many people, so in this context, we will explore it in two ways: salvation as a path of managing the stresses of life with courage and creativity, and salvation as a path of transcendence beyond matters of winning and losing.
There are certainly other categories of theological reflection football can provoke. Ecclesiology, for example, which is the study of church community—what it means to belong to something larger than yourself, which commands your ultimate loyalty. Fanship, in other words. In the interests of time, however, we’ll have to look at this later.
For now: the study of God and the study of salvation: that’s what we’ll look at together today.
Whether or not you wear the brown and orange on game days; whether or not you’ve ever barked encouragement at the team as a member of the Dawg Pound; whether or not you know the sainted names of Paul Brown, Jim Brown, Ozzie Newsome, and Bernie Kosar; whether or not you know the hated names of Art Modell, Braylon Edwards, and Johnny Manziel–whether or not you do any of these things or know these things, there’s something here for you.
Let’s start with a classic question in the area of the study of God: “Does God take sides?” Is that truly in keeping with God’s character? Some fans, when their team happens to win, like to quote from the Christian scriptures—Romans 8:31—”If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Yet the feeling of God’s role in winning and losing can be very persistent. In the case of the Browns, in the 1940s (before the NFL existed), you had a team that crushed opponents and won every championship there was to win. When the NFL came to be, the Browns continued their dominating ways and basically accomplished a feat still unequaled in any of the North American major professional sports: playing in the league championships in each of their first 10 years of existence, winning seven of those games.
These were the years of the Cleveland Municipal Stadium, about which it was said that “it’s not a very good place to watch a football game, but other than that, it’s a great building.” Scott Huler, author of On Being Brown, says, “it may not have offered the best view of a football game—unless you liked close-ups of a pole—but it was a smashing place to be….” Scott Huler goes on to say something that might stun a Browns fan who came into their fanship only recently: that “the Browns didn’t always fill the stadium in those early days because they were simply too good—they were so certain to win that what was the point?”
Here’s the part of the story where God might come in. In religions around the world, a common theme is God punishing pride. Did the Browns and their fans become so full of pride at their success, that God turned God’s face away from them, or actively cursed them?
What we do know of the history is that the Browns fell into mediocrity in the 1970s. Quarterback Brian Sipes and the “Kardiac Kids” brought somewhat of a revival in 1979 and 1980, and then there was the late 1980s and the great Bernie Kosar who led the Browns to three AFC Championship games. But they lost every one—including a game where Bernie Kosar miraculously brought the team back from being down 21-3 and they were about to win but then Ernest Byner fumbled the ball on the 2-yard line.
Ever since, that play has been called “The Fumble.”
The misfortune was so stunning that some might speculate that the one who stripped the ball from Byner was none other than God….
From here, things got worse, horribly worse. You all know it. The team’s owner, Art Modell, moved the team to Baltimore in the mid-1990s. Cleveland Municipal Stadium was torn down 1995—and both felt like a death in the family. Three long years later, a new Browns team emerged, and since then—since 1999—the team has had only three winning seasons (2002, 2007, and 2020). In the 2016-2017 seasons, the Browns went 1-31 which is the worst two-year stretch in NFL history! The team’s performance since resuming operations in 1999 had been so completely depressing and dire that local humorist and journalist Mike Polk dubbed FirstEnergy Stadium (where the Browns now play) as the “Factory of Sadness.”
Let that image sink in: the Factory of Sadness….
Yes, last year’s winning team broke an 18-year playoff drought, and the city was so caught up in the good news that Mike Polk, on the eve of our first playoff game in 18 years, publicly closed the Factory. He said, “As the old saying goes, ‘All good things must come to an end,’ well … so do bad things, it turns out.”
But that was last year. This year, the Browns went 8-9 and did not make the playoffs and fans are pretty upset that the team did not live up to its clear potential. And so: should we reopen the Factory of Sadness? Will last year’s success prove to be a mere blip in the long history of futility since 1999 and we are destined for more of the sad same?
Or will God forgive the Browns their pride and restore them to their former greatness?
Well, what do you think about all this? If, in fact, you happen to believe in God (not all of us do!), do you think that God is behind the Browns’ failure? And that if only the prayers of fans were passionate enough, God might relent and forgive? (That perhaps if they started to reclaim the ancient tradition of providing burnt offerings, they might more easily get God’s attention?)
For sure, the picture of God that the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible offer is that of a being who does value burnt offerings and who takes an active role in human history, punishing the unjust and defending the righteous. But in a way that is so interesting, this portrayal changes over time. It really does. By the time we get to the Christian Bible and to Jesus, God is a God who treats the just and unjust alike. Jesus taught that the energy of God can be known and felt through nothing else but compassion and love. Where love stirs, he taught, there is God. My proof text for this comes from the gospel of Matthew, right after Jesus shares what we now call the Beatitudes. After this, he says (in chapter 5, verses 43-45): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
In football terms: God allows both the evil and the good to experience touchdowns and go to Superbowls; God sends fumbles and penalties and losing streaks on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Yes, Romans 8:31 says, ”If God is for us, who can be against us?” But this passage is not about winning games so much as it is about the power of Love—its ultimate triumph over all.
Jesus’ theology is better theology. God does not play favorites. The Browns have not been cursed by God. We humans are the source of our own troubles, thank you very much. Why, in fact, are we so amazed that the Browns have had such a hard going since 1999 anyway? What happened when Art Modell took the team from us and Cleveland Municipal Stadium was torn down was trauma. It was a death in the family. Let’s just name that squarely. Trauma persists. Recovery from trauma just takes time. We know that in our own lives, as we are recovering from the trauma of the past two years.
Why are we forgetting that this might also and equally apply to the Browns?
But now let us turn to the other category of theology we are exploring today: that of soteriology, which addresses the nature of salvation. But it is a this-world salvation we are talking about: salvation as a path of managing the stresses of life with courage and creativity; salvation as a path of transcendence beyond matters of winning and losing.
In this respect, the soteriology of football resonates with the soteriology of the books of the Bible we explored last week: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Remember, for the people who originally wrote those books, and for the ancient people who read and studied them, there was no conception of the afterlife like we have today. Today, people speculate about what happens after death, and the common conception is that the afterlife is a place of judgment, where the soul is either welcomed into Heaven or it is condemned to Hell—or, for Catholic Christians, there is an additional place of Purgatory. This is today’s common conception. But back in early Biblical times, the prevailing conception of the afterlife was of a place they called Sheol, where souls would go, and it was a little like a garbage heap. Everyone went there. Everyone, no matter who you were and what you did while alive. And when you got there, your degree of aliveness became practically nothing. Souls are shadowy, weak things; there is no energy, there is no interest in anything, there is no further learning. You just linger, like a shadow…
Life is only for the living; when you are dead, you become a vague nothing.
Therefore, soteriology for the ancient Hebrews was all about how to live better in this life; and so it is with the soteriology of Cleveland Browns football.
From football, we learn:
First of all, how It feels great to belong to something larger than yourself. All the experiences—all the ways that the experiences further connect you to the people in your life. West Shore member Mimi Mayer tells this story:
I was a sometime fan of the Browns until I married Don and found out that actually the Cleveland Browns were a religion. We had season tickets – he had held them FOREVER. Missing a game was not to be considered under any circumstance. I remember going to a game when the wind chill factor was -30 degrees and I had so much clothing on I could hardly bend my knee to get into the car. We did this for years – during the fun years when Brian Sipes and then Bernie Kosar made us feel like the cream of the crop – and through the heartbreaking losses. At one time, we lived in the same neighborhood with Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, and Refrigerator Perry. Such a deal! Bragging rights for our kids!
That’s Mimi Mayer. Thanks Mimi for sharing your story!
Belonging to something larger than yourself feels great. It gets even better, since the Browns also can serve as a distraction from the troubles and cares of real life. There’s a story about a philosophy professor who, one day, held up a glass of water in front of the classroom. She asked her students, “How heavy is it?” Answers ranged from 8 ounces to 20 ounces. The professor replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter—what matters is how long I hold it up. The longer I hold it up, the heavier it feels to me….” In other words: whatever the problem you’re holding on to is, the longer you hold on without a break, the heavier it’s going to get. There must be times when you put the cup down.
For some Browns fans, it’s the Dawg Pound especially that can serve as a break from the troubles of real life. The origin is this: Retired cornerback Hanford Dixon named the Cleveland Browns defense ‘The Dawgs’ in the mid-1980s. Dixon and teammates Frank Minnifield and Eddie Johnson would bark at each other and to the fans in the bleachers at the Cleveland Stadium to fire them up. From this was born the Dawg Pound, which is the bleacher section now located at the east end of FirstEnergy Stadium. Go there, and you will see hundreds of orange and brown clad fans sporting dog masks or other canine paraphernalia, who are barking up a storm and, when necessary, throwing milk bones out onto the field. As, for example, during the 1989 season, when, on a windy day, the Browns were clashing with the Broncos. A rowdy Dawg Pound pelted the Broncos with dog biscuits, eggs and other debris, resulting in referee Tom Dooley ordering the teams to switch ends. The game was late in the 4th quarter and the teams were neck-and-neck tied. But what the switch in ends did for the Browns allowed Matt Bahr to kick a field goal with a wind advantage. The wind helped carry the ball over the crossbars, and we won that game 16-13.
Dawg Pound! Woof! Woof! Woof!
It’s just fun. Sometimes, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Put the cup down.
But when we are talking about the Cleveland Browns—the Browns post 1999—belonging inevitably comes with suffering. Again: Factory of Sadness. Misery. Futility. And therefore we come to yet another way in which Cleveland Browns football teaches us how to live better in this life: it builds resilience. It builds this positive virtue in its fans. Writer Michael Lehmann in Cleveland.com speaks to this when he says, “Learning to carry on through bad losses … works the same emotional muscles that must max out when confronting truly devastating life events.” Without resilience, he says, Browns fans can fall into two traps: “First, the barrage of soul-crushing losses can make you a fatalist who always expects the worst and spews negativity. This negativity is contagious. It turns loyal fans into obstinate trolls who hate-watch their own team. Second, you approach each new season with irrational hope (this is finally our year to win it all!) that blinds you from realistically evaluating the team’s needs and capabilities.” Both of these are traps. But, says Michael Lehmann, “True resilience acknowledges obstacles and perseveres through them.” “A Super Bowl victory won’t make up for decades of comically bad seasons. But the losing will make that glorious day even sweeter — especially for the increasingly loyal and resilient fans who became better people along the way.”
Resilience. Cleveland Browns football teaches resilience. Which includes this: that you don’t freeze the Browns in time, and you don’t freeze others and yourself in time. You don’t equate someone with their failures and make that equation permanent in your mind. Yes, there has been failure: but the door is always open to success. Comebacks are always possible.
To this, an entire world of wisdom resonates:
Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Winston S. Churchill: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Julie Andrews: “Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th.”
Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
Abraham Lincoln: “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.”
It must be as true for the Cleveland Browns, recovering from the trauma it took in the mid-1990s, as it must be for all of us. And for this church too, which is working to come back from the past two years of Covid-19 and social distancing and how that has frayed the fabric of our community.
It is time to rebuild, it is time to heal.
And now comes the last lesson from Cleveland Browns football that we will consider today. Our last lesson on soteriology, or living well in this life. It’s to find a way, finally, to transcend all such considerations as winning and losing. Of course, we want our football team to win, and we want to win. But life is often unfair, privilege is distributed randomly, and -isms of all kinds hold so many of us back. What makes for victory as society defines it is often beyond our control.
And even if we were to win, what happens after that? What happens when we retire out of whatever game that enabled all our winning?
The spiritual peace that passes understanding cannot be dependent upon such a fleeting thing as winning.
Listen to this halftime locker room speech, given by a coach to his team. It actually comes from a football movie—Friday Night Lights—which is not about the Cleveland Browns per se, but I would wish that such a speech would be made in their locker room. I would also wish that such a speech would be heard here too, in this locker room of the sanctuary of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church…
Well [says the coach], it’s real simple. You got two more quarters and that’s it. Now, most of you have been playin’ this game for … years. And you got two more quarters and after that most of you will never play this game again as long as you live. Now, y’all have known me for a while, and for a long time now you’ve been hearin’ me talk about being perfect. Well, I want you to understand something. To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes and love in your heart? With joy in your heart? If you can do that gentlemen, then you’re perfect. I want you to take a moment. And I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever, because forever’s about to happen here in just a few minutes. Boys, my heart is full. My heart’s full.
Let’s be perfect, like this.