(from a sermon preached at Knox United Church)
“Practice what you preach.” That rather hoary old saw is often trotted
out when a high profile person, experienced as “holier than thou”, has their
wings clipped. Or we hear it when
someone who has made a great deal of their “sterling character” is revealed to
have feet of clay. The trouble with
“practice what you preach” is that it depends on what you are preaching. Mother Teresa of Calcutta certainly practiced
what she preached – but then so too did Adolf Hitler. Just because he was consistent few of us are
likely to excuse the horrible excesses that followed on his practice and his
preaching! I sometimes wonder if we
might be further ahead in the church if we were to focus on “preaching what we
practice.” I don’t mean everyone sets up a little stand on the corner and
haranguing the passersby! What I was
thinking about was being more willing to actually speak about why we as Christians do what we do.
That comes to mind because I was asked to speak about
Christianity and Professional Sport.
This is one of the topics purchased at our congregational auction. The deal is that the purchaser gets to pick
the topic and I choose how to address it.
So Ken and Kyle will have to tell us afterwards whether they got their
money’s worth. They introduced me to a
fellow by the name of Tim Tebow. Since I
don’t follow the National Football League at
all it took a little bit of follow up research on my part. Tebow grew up in a very religious Christian
family where he was home schooled. His
father is a Baptist pastor and missionary.
Tim Tebow has made headlines for his unorthodox quarterbacking skills,
his surprise wins, and his frequent public demonstrations of Christian
Now, I am the last person qualified to comment on
someone’s athletic and quarterbacking skills.
From what I have read, however, Tebow does hold some impressive records
and awards in different categories and he is noted by most – fans and critics
alike – as being physically courageous and intensely competitive. It’s the connection between his faith and his
performance that interests us today.
Tebow is by no means the first or the only professional athlete to give
public demonstrations of their Christian commitment. We’ll speak more about that in a moment. What seems to attract attention to Tebow is
the fact that he does it more frequently than most and, just as importantly, he
developed a certain reputation for pulling out victories in difficult
situations. 43% of fans surveyed believe
that God is actually helping Tebow win football games. Which ought to be a matter of some concern
for folk like us. Because, if in fact
God does intervene to help one side win something – excuse me, as trivial as a
football game – then that immediately leads us into a whole lot of unhealthy
and unhelpful other ideas about God. Why
Tebow’s team and not others? Are they
doing something special, have they uncovered the magic formula that pulls God
in on their side? I’m sorry, the mess is
endless when we start down that path.
think it is both more faithful and wiser to say that God does not intervene in
football games. That’s not the same as
saying God doesn’t care. We just have no
evidence either way. And if God does
intervene in something like a football game why not something important – like
hockey. Surely Leaf fans have sent up
enough prayers over the decades!
Seriously though, if God does overtly interfere in football games, why
not in a drought or plague or genocide, where tens and hundreds of thousands of
innocents are losing their lives? And we
have no evidence of God’s intervention there.
Such a God, intervening in one setting and not another, would be
monstrous, not worthy of worship. So, is
Tebow specially favoured by God?
No. Is he exceptionally
lucky? Perhaps. Does he play for an organization that is
willing to try unorthodox tactics and does he perform exceptionally well in
such circumstances? Now you’ve got
it. Although 43% of fans believe that God
is specially favouring Tebow there is no evidence to suggest that he ever prays
for God to give his team victory or that he ceases to pray if they lose.
is part of a strain of the faith sometimes called “Muscular Christianity.” This came into prominence in the Victorian
Era, when there was a concern that Christianity was becoming the field of – in
21st century terms – “wimps” and “nerds.” NT passages like these from Paul inspired a
combination of Christian piety and physical health: “I press on towards the
goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.;”(Philippians
3:14) and “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit
within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you
were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians
6:19-20). Of course, anyone familiar
with Paul’s letters knows that he regularly employed images from athletics as
metaphors for the Christian life. So,
“Muscular Christianity” sought to make a more obvious connection between physical
fitness and faith in order to deepen the connection with men and boys and
girls. It played an important part in
the formation of the YMCA and to a lesser extent the YWCA.
famous example of muscular Christianity you may recognize is Eric Liddell, the
“Flying Scotsman” who is a central character in the movie “Chariots of
Fire.” Liddell was an Olympic Gold
medalist (Paris, 1924), a champion rugby player, and a famous Christian
missionary. During the Olympic Liddell
refused to run in a heat held on the Christian Sabbath. One of his famous quotes is: “I believe God
made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His
that connection between faith and sport continues in groups like the Fellowship
of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and Promise Keepers. The phenomenon was investigated by Tim
Krattenmaker in Onward Christian
Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers (Rowman
Littlefield, 2009). It is particularly
important in the United States where coaches and chaplains encourage players at
all levels to make public professions of faith in different circumstances. Tebow is certainly part of that movement.
what might you and I learn from considering the witness of Tim Tebow and other
Christian athletes. We’ve already
observed that God does not intervene to affect the scores of games. Yet several commentators have made the point
that Tebow’s convictions – chiefly his faith – leads to what successes he’s
had. In other words, because he believes
he is willing to take risks which lead to positive results. Not only that, he seems to have no fear of
failure, not because he cannot fail but because his personal identity is
secured in something deeper – in God. So
he believes in himself and his fellow players. Perhaps you can recall a time when you did
something without worrying what other people might think. Maybe that was unusual for you. When we live our lives looking over our
shoulder at what others might say we can rarely do our best. If our identity truly is rooted in Jesus
Christ we can “perform” to our best ability in any sphere, and know that, win
or lose, we are valued and treasured.
seems to have owned who he is. He is an
unusual individual – but then, so are you.
Can you accept that? Each one of
us is a unique combination of gifts, skills, life experience, faith,
hopes. No one else is you. Does God help Tebow win? I doubt it.
But I do believe that the 3rd century theologian was correct
when he wrote: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” (Iraneaus) That doesn’t mean just be yourself. It means that we are fully alive when we have
found that thing God wants us to be doing and do it with all our being. When we do that, we make a difference. What does God want you to do? Have you found it yet?
seems to have a capacity to inspire others.
Football is not a sport where a single individual wins the game. He apparently motivates his teammates to
excel in seemingly difficult or impossible situations. Someone who believes does that. Someone who says to others, “You can do it”
or “I believe in you,” has an impact far beyond their own individual self. It has to be sincere, but in a world, a
society, a church that is far more apt to criticize than nurture, if you can
cultivate the habit of looking for the good in others and complimenting them,
you can have a tremendous impact.
is often mocked for his witness. His
signature stance has been ridiculed on several websites. That kind of overt Christian witnessing often
makes Canadians more uncomfortable than Americans but it does rub some people
the wrong way. The interesting thing is
that Tebow does seem to be preaching what he practices. In addition to football, he is engaged in a
number of Christian philanthropic activities around the world; which is in
definite contrast to the infamous excesses of a minority of professional
athletes. If we who call ourselves
Christians are offended or put off by such demonstrations of Christian faith we
need to ask ourselves why?
are rightly offended when someone claims to be something they are not for
personal gain – but Tebow’s convictions and behaviours seem consistent;
might claim that religion has no place in professional sports, but have you
ever watched the behaviour of sports fans?
If that’s not religious fervor I don’t know what is! And professional sports is surrounded,
cocooned and overwhelmed by a religion of constant consumerism and mindless
buying. Why exclude Christianity from
witness may be misunderstood, as when fans think God helps Christian athletes
win games. But, by a similar token, the
silence that many of us practice in relationship to our Christian faith is
equally likely to be misunderstood as faith’s absence. Does one misunderstanding trump another?
must not overlook the power of affinity.
If someone you know, trust and/or admire presents or celebrates a
particular viewpoint or lifestyle – for good or for ill – you are more likely
to adopt it as your own. Why not do that
the muscular Christianity that it continues, the public witness of Tim Tebow
and other athletes raises questions.
They bring the faith straight into the face of a demographic that might
be most likely to dismiss it. And for
those of us who do believe they raise an awkward question: if we don’t like the
way they preach what they practice what do we do differently? Let those with
ears hear the Spirit’s word to the church.