Harrowing Of Hell
February 11, 2015

Evening Prayer Homily: Convention vs Inspired Alternatives

Preacher: Dave Walker

As you may be aware, our hometown Seahawks played in a pretty big football game recently. And it was a great game, played between two teams making tremendous plays, and with momentum that swung back and forth. It came down to the last moments, and with 30 seconds to play the Seahawks held the ball a single yard away from the end zone, down by 4. A win would give them not only the season’s championship, but would put them among the great teams of all time as back-to-back champions.

With this on the line, and with perhaps the best running back in football on his team, Coach Pete Carroll called for a risky short pass to his 4th string, backup wide receiver. As you may have heard, the ball was intercepted, and just like that the game was lost.

The commentary began immediately from all corners. Carroll was lambasted for the Worst Play Call of All Time. It was called an unforgivable blunder. Why, why, why on earth would you possibly even consider throwing the ball, when you have an amazing running back to hand it to? Everyone knows that you run the ball in that situation.

As he does so often, Jesus challenges “that which everyone knows”—otherwise known as conventional wisdom—in today’s gospel. And as they do so often, the Pharisees serve as his example. At this point in Jesus’s journey, he attracts quite a crowd, and among them are some Pharisees from the Jerusalem establishment to check out this upstart. Now the Pharisees are a sect that strictly maintains Jewish law and traditions passed down through the generations. These traditions are not crazy. They were formed from study, prayer, and a deep desire to know God. And over the generations they became the “conventional wisdom” regarding how human actions connect to God’s commands.

In this case, the tradition at issue is eating with clean hands, and when the Pharisees see Jesus and his disciples breaking from orthodoxy, they call him on it. Now this is a tradition that makes sense as a matter of hygiene if nothing else, but to Jesus it is a distraction. He chides them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God to adhere to your own traditions!” and reminds us that the purity that matters starts from the heart.

Because while the wisdom of God is simple, true, and blindingly apparent in those special moments of our lives, more often than not it is hidden in plain sight. Even with the best of intentions, we tend toward conventional, safe responses to situations in our lives, rather than the divinely inspired ones that are right there for the taking.

I fight this tendency every day, and find that my first reaction is almost always completely understandable, and just as frequently completely wrong. It shows up most acutely with my parenting. I feel an urge to sign my kids up for the best things money can buy, to pack their schedule full of interesting activities, to manipulate their friendships and add rules to prevent every manner of bad behavior. Exerting as much control as I can seems like the obvious way to create the outcome I’m looking for, and I certainly am not the only one who heads down that road. But in my heart I know that this isn’t how you build strong people or healthy relationships, and so I pray that I might see the inspired alternatives.

Which leads me to admire Coach Carroll. Running the ball from the 1-yard line would have been the conventional choice. We all would have done it, as would most other coaches, back through the history of the NFL. It was obvious. By making a different choice, Coach Carroll showed us a decidedly unconventional set of values. He didn’t worry about the downside of the play, but instead looked at its potential. He didn’t brand his receiver as a useless backup, but instead saw him as uniquely capable to make this one play. He runs a championship team built around a quarterback who was too short, a running back who got run out of his last town, and a historically dominant defense made up of unwanteds. He seeks to magnify the best in people, and forget the bad. And he sees the best in people when it shows up in unconventional places. While it may have cost him this football game, I believe it is the reason he had his team in that position in the first place, and that it is a winning strategy for living in the kingdom of God.

And so my reflection on the Super Bowl is this: where in your life does convention interfere with your ability to see God?