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Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
In college, I was a history major. I majored in American History with a focus on protestant religious groups, and I had a minor in Gender and Women's Studies. Because I was a history major, my college within the university was "Liberal Arts and Sciences."
What this means is that there were a lot of classes that I had to take that had nothing to do with history, religion or the celebration of women.
One of those classes was "Theatre 101."
Now I enjoy a good play as much as the next guy, but did I really need a whole 16 week course on theater?
It turns out that I did.
Just like a lot of classes I've taken, and workshops I've attended and adult enrichment courses I've attended, they all add up to my body of knowledge, which enriches my life experience, and my life's experience.
Theatre 101 helped me with this very sermon, on football.
Surprised? Me, too.
I learned that one of the driving reasons behind the development of Greek Theater was due to the belief that the Ancient Greeks had about democracy and a well-functioning society. The idea is that if you want a whole society to behave like gentlefolk, caring for each other, and generally being polite, you have to offer them a venue in which they can express their baser impulses.
When Starr King School for the Ministry student William Dufford was here, he told us in his sermon "Ishly" that one way that a group of people really bonds is by singing together. The very act of singing together helps foster community.
So does laughing and crying. Hence the development of theater.
Laughing and jeering and cheering and crying help a sense of community.
What happens at sporting games?
I was in Marching Band in high school and college ... I know a little about this.
I've often been puzzled by Sports teams and the identification of some people with a local professional team. I enjoy a ball game, really I do. I play softball. I really enjoy going to baseball games, and football games. I'm devoted in a perhaps un-settling way to the artic sport of curling.
When I'm at the game, I really enjoy myself. I get all tense when there's a pop fly, or a long pass, of the puck gets shot way across the ice. I cheer when "my" team scores, and I boo at bad calls.
I do this in a stadium, with a crowd.
Like the Ancient Greeks and theater.
But for me, at the end of the game, that's it.
I don't think about the stats. I don't worry about the team's chances at being in the big playoffs at the end of the year.
As some of you know, I was born in Detroit. And so my Dad and Brother are die hard Detroit teams fans. The Lions, the Tigers, the Red Wings. They have shirts, mugs, a quilt even. I've just never caught the bug.
But I think there is something big and true here in this topic, lurking just out of sight. Like capital B and capital T.
When I was in seventh grade I enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. It wasn't my feathered hair, it wasn't my Nike shoes and we certainly couldn't afford Jordache jeans. For a little while, probably half a season, I played football.
And playing football taught me a lot.
I had been a kid who spent most of my childhood wearing a back brace. I have scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and this brace was meant to help contain my scoliosis until I was old enough to have surgery. Starting at age 4 I wore the brace 23 hours a day. By junior high I had successfully badgered my doctor into allowing me NOT to wear the brace to school any more. And also, I had changed school, so none of the new people in my life knew about the brace.
And so, in seventh grade, as soon as I had been able, I joined the football team.
I learned that I was a lot stronger than I thought. And when we were told to run laps around the school yard's "Back 40" which was really only about back 3, at first I couldn't manage it. I felt like a total failure, like a loser, like the fat kid that everyone made fun of. But with the help of a couple of friends, and coach who mercifully never tried to motivate us by denigrating women, in a couple of weeks I was able to not only run the field a couple of times, I was in the middle of the pack.
And this was a profound lesson for me: I could do many things that I thought I couldn't.
What I didn't learn, however, was the play book.
It was utterly baffling to me. Here's what I did know. I was a starting player on both the offensive and defensive teams. I was either a full back or a tackle.
That was my entire body of knowledge with regard to football.
I studied that stupid playbook for hours. I couldn't make heads or tails of it.
Happily, I had a friend, a best friend actually, named Bob Cukr. Bob knew football, and Bob was happy to help me out.
In every huddle when the quarterback called out a play, Bob would sneak up to me and say "Go past Cosart, and hit number 44," or whatever the appropriate thing I was supposed to do. The system was practically flawless.
And so I went on with life, going to football practice, getting stronger, making new social connections, sitting with the popular kids at the lunch table. Life was good.
And then Bob had to stay home sick one game day.
My coach was angry with me when I confessed to him what Bob and I had been doing. So angry that in fact, he told me to turn my back on the game, and not even watch it. And I sat in the autumn afternoon, looking at some school, that wasn't mine, waiting, feeling doomed, for what I expected was going to be a VERY awkward and uncomfortable bus ride home.
It was the end of my football career, my sitting with the popular kids, and the end of my time with the "in" crowd.
But I had learned that I could do many things I thought I couldn't, and that lesson has been a gift to me many, many times over.
Just last year, when visiting my folks, I had the chance to meet up with some people from high school, almost all of whom I hadn't seen in 24 years. My coach, and math teacher, was there. I got to meet his beautiful wife. And when he reminded her that I was the kid who he'd coached who didn't understand football, we all had a good laugh about it. He told me back in 1981 and again in 2010, that he was just really concerned that in my ignorance I would get hurt. He's a good man, and when I reminded him that he made me spend the whole game with my back turned, his wife - also a teacher - clucked her tongue at him and hit him playfully on the shoulder and said "for shame, Bill," which brought more laughter.
So the Big Truth that I alluded to earlier? I think it partly has to do with the story that I just told you.
We men are raised from boyhood to be solitary beings. We are taught that to cry is to be weak, that you can only depend on yourself and that every other man is competition.
Just as women are assaulted by advertising about body image and the beauty myth, so are men instructed in lessons and un-truths about our own personhoods.
In many species in the animal kingdom, the males of a species is NOT part of the pack. They are sent off at puberty to make their way, so as to not challenge the lead male for mates. Lions, primates, elephant seals all do this.
I've begun to suspect that team identification is one way, one safe way, that men can be in tribes together. It's one way that we can bond together, that is acceptable to the greater culture. One that is not seen as weak, emotionally awkward, vulnerable and I hate to say it because every fiber of my being rejects this sentiment: womanly.
Men, too, need catharsis. We also need a way to vent emotions, but for us, this can be a dangerous game. Yes, it's a trap that we men created for ourselves, but we are in it, and I don't think we know how to un-construct it.
It's hard to be brave enough to defy what society teaches you about your gender and the "natural" expression of that gender.
Intellectually, we know that gender is a construct, like race is a construct. And yet emotionally, there, deep in the back of our minds, are the lessons we learned young. Boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls.
I would submit that even the very existence of feminism is a product of girls being taught to be nice and to cooperate with each other.
There is no "masculinism" counter movement, because mainly, we men stand alone. Even when we stand alone in clusters.
Men are allowed to "have a piece of sand" in their eyes at sporting events. We're allowed to get teary when we hear the national anthem, with one hand over our hearts. We're allowed to express emotions that are not acceptable in polite society at games.
Maybe this is why professional sports is such a huge business. Maybe not.
I do know that when I've been to a good game, I am emotionally wrung out, just as if I'd been to a really good play.
And for the record, Denis and I are going to make it the Modesto Nuts opening day. I'm looking forward to a new baseball cap.
This is not the sermon I set out to write. In fact, I almost scrapped it and started all over again. I felt awkward, I worried that it focused too much on the spiritually of men, and might feel as though I was excluding women.
But I decided to stick with it. I know that women also feel these ways. I know that no gender-expression is monolithic. I learned just this month at the minister's study - retreat, that there are at least six genders. That makes the whole boys get trucks, girls get dolls idea turn on its head, doesn't it?
Just this week, Diana Nyad, Hall of Fame Swimmer and sports commentator wrote about the quarterback for the Denver Broncos: Tim Tebow. For those who don't know, Tim is one of the many sports figures who prays when a good play happens. Tim is an unapologetic evangelical Christian. Tim's level of religious expression is remarkable enough for him to have been spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Nyad's blog post about her discomfort with Tim's proselytizing while in his work uniform has been spinning around the web, and Diana has felt the need to respond to the criticism in a short video.
Diana's complaint about Tim isn't that he's a Christian or a man living his faith, it's about the fact that he's doing it while representing his team, and by extension sports in general. Her concern is about team cohesion, not whether or not she shares his world view. With regard to his reportedly constant praying into his microphone, Diana writes:
I say take it into the locker room. As was true at the University of Florida, doesn't this constant Christian promotion, in a Broncos uniform, trump the other common bonds of the team? Doesn't Tebow separate himself from his non-Christian teammates?
When I read this blog, and the part about "Under God," I thought about Martin, who died this last week. Many of us know that Martin was chair of our social justice committee and a long time ACLU member. Even though Martin didn't get to show his faith to millions of Americans at once, by getting on his knees and pointing to the sky in a stadium full of people, and on television, Martin, too, lived his religious values.
If we are intentional about living our lives, we can accomplish so many things we didn't think we could.
We can make space for people to fully experience their emotions. We can let men cry and let women be strong ... without shaming them.
And this is something that the people in this faith can do. We're well equipped for it. After all, we have both the history of a radically loving God who cherishes every being and we have the intellectual chops to argue with just about anybody who says different.
We have the radical message of the Transformative power of Love. Our Young Adults started a campaign called Standing on the Side of Love through which we gather in ever greater numbers, wearing t-shirts in a color no one looks good in, to demonstrate love made manifest in our world.
Like the Ancient Greeks, we embrace the ideals of democracy, and community. May we, as a people of faith, strive like so many generations before us, to make the world more fair, more just, more loving.
Note 1: Diana Nyad's Blog.
February 5, 2012 [Super Bowl Sunday]
Copyright by Rev. Joe Cherry. If you liked it or want to use parts of it, please contact him:
This is from a collection of sermons by Rev. Joe Cherry.
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.