Are you ready for some football? This afternoon eighty thousand fans will pack NRG Stadium specially expanded to accommodate the Super Bowl LI crowd. Beyond that, an estimated two million visitors have come to Houston this past week, increasing by half the population of our fair city (as you may have noticed if you attempted to drive anywhere). [i] In scarcely a week’s time, we’ll see an estimated $500 million infusion into our economy. [ii] Whether or not you like football, you’re bound to like that!
Well, I do like football. A whole lot. And while the occupational hazard of working on Sunday has prevented me from paying much attention to professional football for many years, I have some great NFL memories from earlier in my life. Growing up, I was both a Cowboys and an Oilers fan. I realize that’s anathema to native Texans, but in Arkansas we were blissfully unaware of the Houston-Dallas family dysfunction, and in our ignorance we could love both Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett.
The best Super Bowl I ever watched was during my senior year of high school: Super Bowl XXV, pitting the Buffalo Bills against the New York Giants. The Bills were the NFL’s most prolific offense that year, scoring more points than any other team. The Giants, by contrast, had the NFL’s stingiest defense—led by the fearsome Lawrence Taylor, after all—and gave up the fewest points in the league. The two teams had met in a cross-conference game earlier in the season, with the Bills squeaking out a 17-13 victory. Super Bowl XXV had all the promise of a game for the ages.
It did not disappoint. At the half, Buffalo led 12-10. Both star running backs, Ottis Anderson and Thurman Thomas, ran for over 100 yards. Jim Kelly’s throwing arm was absurdly accurate. Right until the end, the only thing to mar an otherwise sublime football game was the halftime show, performed by the odious boy band “New Kids on the Block.” (You can’t have everything.)
Right until the end. With two minutes, sixteen seconds remaining, and down 20-19, Buffalo received the ball at their own ten yard line and quickly drove the ball down the field into field goal range. With eight seconds left, Bills placekicker Scott Norwood walked onto the field to seal a two-point victory. The snap was good; Norwood’s foot connected solidly with the ball…and the football sailed wide right of the upright. Norwood missed. The Giants won, and Scott Norwood became the only kicker in Super Bowl history to lose the championship off his toe.
Overnight, Scott Norwood became infamous. He was the talk of sports radio and television. Reporter Scott Pitoniak reminds us, “The following season [Norwood] was bombarded with the same inquiries. Over and over and over again. Each kick prompted references to The Miss. The jokes became callous and pervasive. Talk show callers referred to him as Scott NorWIDE.” Norwood himself said, “I’d be at a restaurant and I’d hear people say things like, ‘If Scott Norwood walked in here, I’d punch him in the face.’” [iii]
But the attention wasn’t merely local. In 1994, Jim Carrey’s movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective parodied Norwood. In 1998, the film Buffalo ’66 went further with a plot line in which a disgruntled fan tries to murder a Bills kicker for missing a Super Bowl-winning field goal.
Scott Norwood played one more season for the Bills, until he was cut from the roster and intentionally receded from public view. For years after his career ended, he avoided Buffalo and the Bills organization. In a 1997 interview, he spoke poignantly about the awkwardness and disappointment of being distanced from a team to which he’d given his talent and his heart. [iv] And it is true: Scott Norwood became defined by his lowest moment, by his worst self.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has just finished reciting the Beatitudes. He has, in one breath, shared with those who would follow him where bliss is to be found: not in material things, or in the approval of the world, or, it might be said, in the revelry of a football game. Rather, bliss is found in a life that allows the desires of God to be its compass and its motivation.
In the very next breath, Jesus says, using a rare Greek subject form that is so pointed as to be pushy [v], ‘You—not someone else, not the person sitting next to you, not my theoretical follower, and not at some point in the future—but you, right here, right now are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the one to live these Beatitudes, or else no one will. If you are not salt, then the world will lose its saltiness. Its compassion will become weak and bland. If you are not light, then dusk and twilight will become the way of things. It is up to you.”
And, of course, the “you” is us. The Gospel travels effortlessly across space and time, so that Jesus speaks to a room of Houston Episcopalians on Super Bowl Sunday just as pointedly as he speaks to a hillside of Palestinian Jews two thousand years ago.
Jesus is equally clear about where the danger lies. In his telling, no one can leach the salt from us. No one can snuff our light. No one, that is, except us. And the way we hide our light under a bushel, the way we silence our voices from speaking words of grace, is by defining ourselves by our lowest moments, by our worst self.
We are all susceptible. Whether our worst self is publicly known, due to an indiscretion, a mistake, a failure, or a opinion loudly voiced and then revealed to be foolish; or whether our worst self consists of passions, grudges, doubts, and prejudices hidden within and known only to ourselves, it is the commonest thing in creation to define ourselves by that low, and then to ask ourselves, “Who am I to speak? Who am I to take a risk and act in love? I am the failure. I am the mistake. I am the missed opportunity. I am the let down in the clutch moment, wide right in life. I have no seasoning to offer, no light to shine.”
In his brilliant little book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a parade of ghosts who travel from hell to the grassy plain that is the forecourt to heaven. Every ghost is invited into heaven, but few accept. In every case, the decision turns on how the ghosts define themselves. Again and again, they describe themselves and the world around them in terms of their lowest moments, their most negative self-understanding. Again and again, they are surprised and confused when the angels counter. God, say the celestials, defines you by your very best self. God sees you as your very best self. You, right here, right now, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
For a few ghosts, admittedly, that best self was little more than a singular moment in a virtual lifetime of error, a solitary act of grace or word of kindness amidst years marked by grudges and mistakes. But that is gracious plenty with which the God of love can work! The smallest pinch of salt can season the whole. A single flicker of flame can light the room. With only that, God can redeem each one of us. We can begin to see ourselves as God has always seen us, through our best moments and not our worst. And through that vision, life can go from hell to heaven, if we will allow it.
Scott Norwood was a Pro Bowl kicker. For years, he held the record as the all-time leading scorer for the Buffalo Bills franchise. The season after Super Bowl XXV, he never missed a kick in the post season and made the clinching field goal against the Denver Broncos to win the AFC championship game. More importantly, after leaving the NFL, Norwood became a substitute teacher, tutored kids who hoped to be kickers, spoke to church youth groups, and started a family with his wife. [vi] Others attempted to define Scott by his lowest moment, but he would not. He is not Wide Right. He is salt, and he is light.
God sees us as our very best moment, and God invites us to remove the bushel and let our light shine. God asks us to season the world with love and grace, and he claims us as just the people to do so. The world surely needs our seasoning. It needs our light. Blessed are those… May we shine.
[v] Brunner, Federick Dale. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 187.