Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
February 19, 2012
SHINE YOUR LIGHT: TIM TEBOW, MUHAMMAD ALI AND SANDY KOUFAX
Texts: Daniel 3:13-18; Matthew 5:14-16; Matthew 6:1-6
Here is my post-Super Bowl sermon, “Shine Your Light: Tim Tebow, Muhammad Ali, and Sandy Koufax.
Sometimes Jesus makes you scratch your head, and maybe think! In one place he says:
Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Abba in heaven.
In another place he says:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you . . . as the hypocrites so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward. [That is, the praise of others] . . . . And whenever you pray do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.... But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door.
So there it is: When do we let it shine? When do we keep it secret? This requires spiritual discernment and some thinking through.
At one level the answer seems to be: The motive is the key. If you are doing good, practicing your faith in order to be seen and praised by others you are on the wrong track. The word “hypocrite” in the Greek means “play actor.” You do what you do to be seen, for the applause of others.
Our motive in any good work should be the love of God and neighbor, passion for God, compassion for others. But can our motives ever be completely pure, unmixed, selfless? Perhaps at times, by the grace of God. Those are such freeing moments. On many days however the best we hope for is to act from our highest and best motives, even with other motives present. Is it okay to feel good when you are doing good? Of course. I think God made us that way. But it is another thing to do something good only for the praise of others.
I suppose I should add at this point: Since our motives are rarely pure, since they are never completely knowable to us, and since we cannot know the deepest motives of others, it is good to follow the advice of Jesus just a few verses down on the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
I think many in this room are more comfortable doing good, doing the work of Jesus without using words, talking about why we do it. This is okay. I think Jesus would approve. You’ve heard the famous line by St. Francis who left his riches, married Lady Poverty to work with the poor. He said:
Preach the Gospel everywhere. If necessary use words.
The latest sports sensation is Jeremy Lin, the Asian, Harvard graduate, New York Knicks point guard. He has been amazing since coming off the bench to lead the Knicks to a number of victories. He was overlooked by most scouts and teams. “Linsanity” is afoot! He is also a dedicated Christian. Recently in an interview he said:
I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please others. My audience is God . . . . the right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God.
I think Jesus would smile.
So now to Tim Tebow, the former Florida Gator quarterback who led them to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy, and who has all life long had a bold and winsome public witness of his Christian faith. As a Denver Broncos quarterback he came off the bench mid-season to lead his team to a number of last quarter, last minute, last second victories and get them into the playoffs. After touchdowns he would go to the end of the bench, kneel on one knee, place his head on his fist resting on his knee and offer a prayer of thanks to God. The gesture became known as “Tebowing.”
His public faith in Christ has drawn praise from many, but also great criticism and derision from others. When at Florida, he would write a Bible reference in his eye-black beneath his eyes. Recently he tweeted this Bible reference, Mark 8:36, which reads, if you look it up:
What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their own soul?
Why such derisiveness? Perhaps because his brand of Christianity is evangelical and conservative. He has been pro-life. He and his mother appeared in a pro-life Focus On the Family commercial during the 2010 Super Bowl - - both he and CBS took great heat. If Tebow’s faith had led him to be vocally anti-war he would have been criticized by a different segment of American society. It is not easy living your faith out loud. He has also stood for sexual chastity outside marriage - - which has brought another round of ridicule.
Some of the criticism comes from a wave of sentiment in our nation today which is anti-religion and anti-God - - which given what is, sometimes done in the name of God and religion, is certainly understandable. Michael T. Murray has called it “Theo-phobia.” Today’s antipathy toward God and religion is fueled in part from fear that Christian religionists will take over the country and govern as a theocracy. Others are offended because they want religion private, out of sight, kept at a safe distance.
Sometimes the lampooning of Tebow has been good-natured fun. Other times it has been bitter and vitriolic, like Bill Maher’s mocking tirades this past season - - which provoked Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins to write an article, “Bill Maher and Tim Tebow: Why Are So, So Many Offended by the Quarterback’s Faith?”
When Tebow kneels on the field his religion becomes challengingly present. . . . Just when you’re trying to mindlessly surrender to an afternoon of pleasure, Tebow begs the question, what if faith actually, well, works? . . . Belittle Tebow if you must. But the trouble with shouting down Tebow’s religion. . . is the same as shouting down any other form of inspired expression. Do that, and you also shout down mystery, possibility, surprise. And some perfectly good questions.
Some of the questions? “How does faith work?” “When does it work?” I think we all grow in our understanding of this. I do not think God has a stake in who wins football games. But I pray for others, my children, friends, friends’ children, and anybody who asks, that they be able to do their best, whether in classroom, at work, in sports. Does it “work”? I don’t know. Still I pray. And I think it good and proper to give thanks for one’s God-given talents and God-inspired dedication. When Bach wrote his music, he put at the top of every manuscript the initials S.D.G., Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone the glory.” Any problem?
Tim Tebow has taken the ribbing, criticism and insults with amazing good humor and humility. Recently he received a letter from a boy going through chemo-therapy for cancer. The boy wrote: “I’m Tebowing while Chemo-ing.” “That makes it all worthwhile,” Tebow said.
Maybe one purpose of the sermon is to help us all work on what one has called, “the Sneer Factor,” which is so pervasive in our culture, to reduce it in our hearts and in our speech - - including from the pulpit. I sometimes pray while writing sermons for the “mind of Christ” to be present. I often pray privately before a sermon, the Psalmist’s words: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord My Rock and Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). It doesn’t always work. There is another Psalm that goes: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord” (Psalm 141:3). That could be handy some days. Memorize it! Sneering should be one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Maybe it is already, under Pride, or Envy, or Anger.
Tim Tebow brought to mind two other premier professional athletes who made dramatic public witness to their faith: Muhammad Ali and Sandy Koufax.
Muhammad Ali grew up in Louisville, Kentucky with the name Cassius Clay, who was a famous 19th century Kentucky politician and emancipationist. The young Cassius Clay won Olympic gold in 1960. He won the professional heavy-weight boxing championship of the world in 1964 by defeating Sonny Liston. Soon after he did the unthinkable. He converted to Islam, joining the Nation of Islam, and becoming a Black Muslim and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. The acrimony and vitriol spewed forth. Imagine a year after 9/11 Tom Brady, New England quarterback, converting to Islam and changing his name to Allah Akbar? It was in the middle of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement when American nerves were frayed. On April 18, 1967, Ali refused induction into the army on religious grounds. He was sentenced to five years in prison which was held up on appeal until the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. But he was immediately stripped of his title and could not box for three-and-a-half years, in the prime of his athletic career. There are two Ali moments I remember. Once I saw him walking down Bardstown Road in Louisville, his once beautiful gait hampered by Parkinson’s. My heart was in my throat. But he has not let that stop him. The other was a day he spoke at a big dinner in Ft. Worth or Charlotte. Before he come to the head table and podium, he asked where the kitchen was and went through the kitchen meeting the cooks and wait staff.
His too is a story of public witness of faith.
Now Sandy Koufax. There are a few here old enough to remember him. He was the best pitcher in baseball, the ace of the pitching staff of the Brooklyn, then Los Angeles Dodgers. He was also an observant Jew. It came time for the World Series in 1965. He was slated to pitch the first game, very important for two reasons: to win the first game and to give your ace a chance to pitch two or three times if needed in a best of seven game series. But the first game was on Yom Kippur, the high holy day for Jews, and Koufax gave up his place in the rotation. They lost that game, and the next, but came back to win the series. Koufax pitched three times and won the Most Valuable Player award. But who knows what could have happened? It was such an amazing witness of faith to me as a teenager. It seems even more amazing today.
I close with the story of the three young men in Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the book of Daniel. The whole book of Daniel is about standing up for your faith in adverse times. Daniel, along with the three, had been taken into Babylonian captivity. Daniel himself had been thrown into a lion’s den for persisting in his public prayers as a Jew. The three young men excelled so that the king had promoted them to places of leadership, which others envied.
One day the king erected a giant gold idol and issued a decree that everyone bow down to it or be thrown into a furnace of fire. To refuse to worship the king’s god was political insurrection. The three young men refused.
Some Chaldeans came to the king and in anti-Semitic whispers told him that these Jews, whom the king had promoted, had refused to bow down to the golden statue.
King Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage. He called them in. “Is this true?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied. The king gave them one more chance. “If you bow down now, all will be well, but if not you will be thrown into the furnace of fire. Who will deliver you then?” he asked. Their response is one of the most astounding expressions of faith I’ve ever heard. They said:
If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and our God will deliver us from your hand. But if not, be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image.
But if not! There is courageous faith! But if not, no matter what, I will keep the faith.
It is like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane:
Abba, Father if thou art willing,
remove this cup from me;
Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.
But if not; nevertheless, no matter what: faith at its deepest.
Max Cleland, the head of the Veterans Administration under President Carter was a Vietnam vet and triple amputee. I’ll never forget watching him on 60 Minutes as he read the prayer of an injured Civil War soldier. On crutches, with prosthetics, Cleland read:
I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for help that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.
I among all men am most richly blessed.
O God, give me, give us, such faith this day.