The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thoughts on Tebow and Faith

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Shabbat Shemot • January 12, 2012
Exodus 4:1-5
But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: Adonai did not appear to you?” Adonai said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “A rod.” He said, “Cast it on the ground.” He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it. Then Adonai said to Moses, “Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail” — he put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand — “that they may believe that Adonai, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you.” 
Moses was never excited about being chosen to lead.  From the first time God called him, he started in with excuses and reasons God should choose someone else.  In this episode, Moses stalls by worrying that the Israelites might be doubters:
Moses spoke up and said: “What if they do not believe me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you!’?!” (Exod 4:1)
God responds like a magician, as if to say: "Nothing up my sleeve..."  It’s a story about faith and doubt, about signs and miracles, and looking for proof of God’s existence.

Last month, in the Wall Street Journal, there was an article called “Tim Tebow: Denver’s New Favorite Mensch.”  It reported on the growing number of Denver rabbis who admire Tim Tebow and sermonize about him.  Now you can add me to list of rabbis giving sermons about him!
There has been a lot of public conversation about Tebow in the last weeks and months. About his very visible faith, and it’s potential role in Broncos victories.  I saw a poll on the NFL Network this morning: 43% (43!) of Americans attribute the Broncos’ success to divine intervention.  (42% do not, and 14% are not sure.)

Not long ago, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman wrote in The Jewish Week (the column has since been removed),
If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants. While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.
This take on Tebow’s faith is borderline offensive, and more importantly a misreading of Tebow, and of American religiosity.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld, in “What GOP Candidates Could Learn from Tim Tebow,” reminds us of the Gallup poll finding that 90% of Americans believe in God.  That said, Hirschfeld continues: “We are believers who embrace questions and seem to prefer ambiguity over certainty. When offered the chance, in a related Gallup survey, to choose between beliefs in God, a ‘universal spirit,’ or a ‘higher power,’ only about 15% chose God.  America is neither as secular as those on the far left would have us believe, nor as theologically certain as our Republican presidential candidates seem to be.”

Hirschfeld goes on:
“Tebow proudly proclaims his personal faith, but does so with remarkable modesty about his understanding of God, God’s word, or how it is meant to play out... What Tebow does not tell people what God’s plan is for him or his team.”

Now, it’s easy to be a detractor.  Looking at Tebow’s faith as if it’s about “pray hard enough and win the Super Bowl” -- that’s a house-of-cards theology.  There’s no integrity to it, and no depth.

It would be like taking our story of Moses’ concern too literally.  In order to prove himself to the Israelites as a true prophet of Adonai, God’s solution is: do some magic tricks!  Turn your rod into a snake.  Put your hand in your chest, take it out, and there are scales on it; put it back, and they’re gone.  Now you see it, now you don’t!  And if those tricks don’t work, take some water from the Nile and sprinkle it on the ground, and it’ll turn to blood.  Impress the people with presto-chango, some sleight of hand.

But we should be aware of the ancient context, and the place of magic traditions.  If religion is to be meaningful and useful today, it must be more than magic tricks.  The God described by the Israelites may not be quite the God we believe in today.  And the signs and wonders they looked for aren’t the signs and wonders we put our stock in anymore.

After Denver’s unlikely 4th-Qtr comeback vs. the Bears, some beautiful theology emerged from an unlikely source: namely, Bob Costas.  It’s worth sharing his words at length:
...the truth is, there’s nobody else quite like Tebow. No fewer than five of his seven victories have featured late fourth quarter comebacks. Approaching — okay, we’ll say it — the miraculous. 
Again today, Tebow did next to nothing until the waning moments, and then, down 10-0 with two minutes left, he throws a touchdown pass, and the Broncos tie it at the gun on a 59-yard field goal. And then win it in overtime on a 51 yarder. The combination of Denver’s continuing late heroics, and today, the Bears otherwise unexplainable errors, is enough to have some at least suspect divine intervention. Except that Tebow, whose sincere faith cannot be questioned, and should be respected, also has the good sense, and good grace, to make it clear he does not believe God takes a hand in the outcome of games.Most of us are good with that. Otherwise, how to explain what happens when there are equal numbers of believers on either side. Or why so many of those same believers came up empty facing Sandy Koufax. Or hit the deck against Muhammad Ali. Or why the almighty wouldn’t have better things to do. 
Still, there is no doubt that Tebow and his team benefit from his honest belief. How? Frank Bruni put it well in today’s New York Times. Whatever Tebow may lack in classic NFL quarterbacking traits, he possesses other qualities in abundance. And in his case, those qualities — confidence, equanimity, optimism — and a presence that can’t be explained, but can certainly be felt. The whole Tebow persona derives from how he sees the world, and his place in it. Those qualities, no matter how one comes by them, are an asset, perhaps especially in sports. 
Good for Tebow, and those who share his beliefs. And those who don’t can still acknowledge, and appreciate, that who Tim Tebow is, is not only genuine, but for the moment at least, it makes him and the Broncos, one of the most fascinating, and in whatever sense you interpret it, uplifting stories in sports.
I would like to invite Bob Costas to speak at services, because there’s profound wisdom there on faith.  And I have a feeling it resonates with many.

Let’s leave room for doubt and uncertainty -- we are honest about not knowing God’s will, or the scope of God’s action in the world, or, yes, even the possibility of miracles -- but even without certainty about these things, we can still say: Faith is good, prayer is good, religion and spirituality are good. They are good when they make us better.

“Confidence, equanimity, optimism” says Costas.  I’d add to those: compassion, justice, righteousness. Reverence.

As George Meredith said, “Who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.”

I hope that’s a lesson from Tebow that we can all embrace. If you have faith, and through that faith caring community, then even when you lose -- even when things don’t go your way -- you still have love, you still have strength, you still belong, and you matter.

That’s what we’re about here. Building this congregation out of people of faith -- faith that helps us belong, and matter, and make a difference to each other and to the world.

And whether you’re on the gridiron or in the infinite expanse of time and space, we can say: we were here, and we made a difference.  We lived, we connected, we had faith.
Shabbat Shalom.

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