"Blessed Are Those Who Punt"

Sunday sermon from February 2, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:1-12
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

The lectionary today in its journey through the Gospel of Matthew leads us into Jesus’ sermon on the mount and then gives us only this brief moment to consider the Beatitudes, certainly among the most well-known words in all of scripture. And though we could certainly spend a whole season preaching through each of these well-worn lines, the challenge today is rather to figure out what to say of them as a whole unit in such a brief passing moment. The challenge is multiplied by the coincidence of the Beatitudes appearing on Superbowl Sunday, which, while not being observed per se on the Christian calendar is nonetheless an event of some cultural force. But let it not be said that I am not up for a challenge. So, if you will: blessed are those who punt, for they shall have the ball returned unto them.

Actually, while the game tonight will presumably have plenty of punting, the trendier minds in football strategy have been telling us for some time now that punting is, more often than not, bad strategy. The offense has four plays to advance the ball ten yards and if they can’t make it in the first three down they have the option to use their fourth down to punt the ball downfield into their opponent’s possession and thereby at least give the other team a worse starting location on the field, so punting has been around in professional American football since the very beginning and at the very center of the pulse of most football games is the assumption that punting is elementary strategy; it’s just what you do; not punting; not kicking it downfield, using that fourth down for a regular play – so-called “going for it on fourth” – is a risk that the long history of American football confines to only the most dire situations. Punting is the basic conventional wisdom of football, alongside, you know, “trying to score,” and, maybe, “wearing helmets.”

But then the most recent generation of football analysis – the real data-driven, numbers- driven stuff, guys with Masters Degrees in statistics or econ who end up making a living playing fantasy football – these guys are adding up the numbers and it turns out that punting on fourth down is more often than not terrible strategy. Now obviously context matters a lot. Field position matters, yards left for a first down matters, the score matters. But the general consensus among those who have studied the statistical history of the game is that the net change in field position offered by a punt is generally overshadowed by the percentage chance of scoring offered by going for it on fourth down. And if you doubt the stat wonks, consider this: at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock Arkansas, high school football coach Kevin Kelley has taken this approach and run: his team almost never punts on fourth down. In 2009, they punted twice, and reached the state semifinals. In 2010, they never punted, and went to the title game. In 2011, they punted once, and they won the whole thing.

Now, the obvious question is: if not punting is such an obviously successful strategy, why do professional football coaches punt all the time? And the answer, to the best that anyone can figure, is that while punting may not be the statistically strategic move, it is by far the safe move. It is the expected move. It is the move you make as a coach if you have some value associated with being employed. If, tonight, Denver coach John Fox calls for a dramatic fourth down conversion and misses, he will end up being the lightning rod for criticism of what might have been. But nobody will fault him for punting. If he punts when he’s supposed to and his team loses anyway, at least it won’t be directly on his head. And so instead of choosing a strategy that maximizes his team’s chances for victory he would be choosing a strategy that minimizes his own risk of public humiliation. The problem for a coach is that in the big game it’s almost impossible to be the hero and entirely too easy to be the goat and so the goal is just to kind of slip through unnoticed, to get by at the margins of the game instead of underneath the spotlight. And so the longstanding strategy of punting on fourth down, established since the dawn of time as football’s most conventional wisdom, turns out not to be a strategy for winning a football game at all; rather, it’s just a strategy for staying conveniently anonymous and being conveniently forgotten.

Now, for a quick brush past the Beatitudes we could do worse than to understand them as an inversion of conventional wisdom. The Jewish literature of Jesus’s time abounds overflows with interest in the possibility and practicality of wisdom; advice for the best kind of successful living; something like Life’s Little Instruction Manual written in Biblical Hebrew. One thinks immediately of the grounded pragmatism embodied in the book of Proverbs, or even in the dutiful logic of so many of the Psalms. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,” the Psalter begins; “Happy are those who live in the Lord’s house;” Proverbs keeps up the pace: “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates;” “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” And the wisdom these books advise seems invariably to be a very safe kind of wisdom, a very typical kind of wisdom, the kind of wisdom made entirely uncontroversial by the fact that everybody basically agrees that it should be followed in the first place, regardless of whether anybody ever gets around to actually doing it. “Happy are those who walk in the law of the Lord,” spoken with the deep assumption that “everybody’s doing it and why don’t you?” As a strategy for winning at life you will find nothing in Scripture to equal these verses for their directness. “Happy are those whose way is blameless.”

Except for one problem, which is that you have to forget the word “happy.” Our regular translation, of which I am normally quite fond, has a blind spot for this particular construction of Biblical Hebrew; it’s like they couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it and so they reverted to the cheesiest kind of modern claptrap. “Happy.” Hmph. Here’s the real story. Several centuries before Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures were famously translated into Greek and in fact we have every reason to believe that it was the Greek version of those Scriptures that was most prevalent among the Jewish communities of Jesus’s day; as subjects of the eastern half of the Roman empire it’s entirely likely that they were better at Greek than they were at Hebrew. I know the feeling (that’s a little seminary humor). What it means for us today is that our translators have ignored the fact that the Old Testament word translated as “happy” shows up again in the Gospel of Matthew, in our reading for today, and since the beginning of time we have translated it as “Blessed.” Now, I like that translation, but whether it’s really the right English word or not isn’t the point. The point is that Jesus is precisely quoting the very language and structure of the so-called Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and he’s quoting it so that he can turn it upside down. You’ve heard it said: “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,” but I say to you: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

So what we have here instead of conventional wisdom is a strategy of risk. Forget punting — blessed are those who go for it on fourth down. Meekness? Hardly a conventional virtue; it’s hard to fight your way to the top of the heap on meekness; but Jesus says God will reward you for it. Mercy? Hardly an adaptive trait. I mean, you can’t get very far in this world on mercy; but Jesus says God will reward you for it, and I guess if you’re just crazy enough you could put all these bits of strategy together and come up with a model for Christian discipleship that would be in practice so ludicrous to those of us long steeped in the best kind of conventional wisdom that it would look nothing short of foolhardy. Because of course we play discipleship as safely as we can. We huddle up here on Sunday morning and we call the play and we agree that really the whole point of going out there into the world is not to embarrass ourselves by doing something so risky as practicing mercy or meekness or peacemaking; it is so much easier just to hang out in the safe anonymity of conventional wisdom, what Paul calls the wisdom of the world, and we fool ourselves into the belief that just because everybody else is doing the same thing that it must somehow be the right thing to do. Meanwhile the world cries out for mercy, and the world cries out for peacemaking, and the world hungers and thirsts for righteousness, and what do we do in return? We punt. Jesus gives us a vision of what could be if we but dare risk ourselves in His name, and instead, we punt. God gives us nothing short of a strategy for the healing of creation, and instead, we punt.

Fortunately, the Beatitudes are something more than strategy. After all, even the word “strategy” implies that this text is at its heart concerned first and foremost with guiding our Christian behavior; by using the word we make the assumption that the text is first and foremost about us. And surely in a quick brush past the Beatitudes there’s very little to undermine that assumption: we run through the text and think, “Well, maybe we should be merciful, and maybe we should be pure in heart, and maybe we should be peacemakers,” and while I don’t want to take that urge away, let’s not overlook where the text lands, the final Beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are those who are reviled for my sake;” the change of grammar is distinctive, and it suggests that only at the very end does Jesus really mean to address his hearers directly. And if that’s the case, if it’s only in the last line that Jesus ever really talks not just to his audience but about his audience, then we have to reread the entire thing. Maybe “Blessed are the peacemakers” doesn’t just mean “Go be peacemakers;” maybe it also means “Hey, there are peacemakers out there, you know, the crazy ones, the ones who buck all the conventional wisdom, the ones you all forget about all the time, and yet God blesses them. And there are folks out there practicing mercy, you know, the crazy ones, the ones defying all the convention of the world, the ones you all never want to talk about, and yet God blesses them.

So maybe this passage isn’t all about us. If it is, then all we have is strategy, Life’s Little Instruction Book, newly revised and and now available in Greek. But if it’s something bigger. If it’s about all the people we forget. If it’s about all the people on the margin. If it’s not just about us and instead about the limitless reach of God and the limitless reach of God’s mercy, then this text is more than strategy. It’s promise. It’s the promise that God’s spirit finds even those poor in spirit. It’s the promise that God’s table makes room even for those who hunger and thirst. It’s the promise that God’s righteousness finds even those persecuted in the name of that righteousness. It’s the promise that God’s blessing extends to those whose live far beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. That’s the good news of this text: that it is something more than a proscription for what we ought to do; it’s a powerful declaration of what God is doing.

There is no player less respected in a football locker room than the punter. Kickers as a whole, of course, are smaller, and weaker. They’re not seen as “regular” football players; they just have this one job and it doesn’t involve hitting or tackling or very often being hit – in fact in the field of play NFL kickers are a protected class; you can’t hit them without incurring a penalty – and so you can go a long way in football just by mocking the kickers. But at least place kickers get to be symbols of victory. A field goal can win the game; it happens all the time. A kickoff likely means your team just scored, so everyone’s in a good mood; but the punter only shows up when everything has gone wrong. He’s not just smaller and weaker; he’s a symbol of strategic failure. No football fan in recorded history has exploded into spasms of glee at the announcement that their team’s punter was coming onto the field, because it means that something has gone terrible wrong. And the metric for success as a punter is only that you incrementally help your team hand the ball over to their opponents, so it’s not like punters ever get to be heroes; It is a life of professional anonymity. It is a calling inextricably tied to systemic failure and entirely destined to be forgotten; even in the spotlight of tonight’s game I doubt you will ever really see the punter. And yet blessed are those who punt.

Blessed are those unknown and unheralded who symbolize our most strategic failures. As of this morning the death toll in the Syrian Civil War has topped 136,000, roughly four times the population of Amherst County. They live as anonymous symbols of our failure, and yet blessed are the those who mourn, and blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. In this country sixteen million children live in food-insecure households. They live as anonymous symbols of our failure; and yet, blessed are the meek who hunger and thirst, for they will be filled. 2.3 million Americans reside behind bars, the highest incarceration rate in the world by a sizable margin. They live as anonymous symbols of our failure, and yet, blessed are those who are persecuted, and blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy in the kingdom of heaven. This Gospel is not about the conventional wisdom; it’s about God’s promises to those whom the conventional wisdom has chosen conveniently to forget. The only question to us is how conventional will be our response?