Failing Gods and Falling Idols

Sermon for Sunday September 2, 2012,  Isaiah 44:6-11 and I Timothy 4:7-16     

(Note: This is Part 1 of 3 of  A Sermon Series “Games People Play: The (Holy) Spirit of Sports” by myself and the senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church.) 

Celebrating after Auburn won the 2010 National Championship Game, January 10, 2011

         I am a sports fan.

        I love watching college football, especially the Auburn Tigers, and I cheered loudly in January 2011 when they won their first national championship in more than 50 years.  I enjoy big sporting events like the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Championships and March Madness, and I’ve had the opportunity to attend some professional games and see athletes perform amazing feats. I relish the memory of going with a few seminary friends to the 2004 Masters National Golf Tournament in Augusta on Easter Sunday, a week after Elizabeth and I got married!

            I cry when I watch Remember The Titans and Field of Dreams or when an athlete making a huge sacrifice off the field for someone else.  And I admire athletes who have transcended sports through incredible humanitarian efforts like the late Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Walter Payton, the latter of whom autographed a football card for me at a celebrity golf pro-am in the mid 90s in Birmingham.

              But the best part about sports is sharing it with others, throwing a football around with Katie and introducing her to Auburn games or staring intently at the TV screen with Elizabeth as we both watch a player sink a game-winning basket seconds before the buzzer. This past weekend, for the second year in a row, I got together with some of my seminary buddies for NFL Fantasy Football Draft Weekend, aka our “Man-treat!” It’s good fun, good food, good drink and a lot of lowbrow smack talk among a group of good reformed Presbyterian ministers.

         I enjoyed the time we spent, and I feel fairly confident about my fantasy team this season. I’m also more than excited that college football season and Auburn football has begun, even if the Tigers are not likely to win many games. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I felt more ambivalent about sports in general these days.  As much as I value sports as a means for improving health, promoting fun, forming relationships, creating community and teaching life lessons, I regard the sports world as a miserable place.

The doping charge controversy surrounding super star cyclist Lance Armstrong and the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State have stirred up mixed feelings for me about sports fandom and the athletic heroes we help create.

          Needless to say, the events at Penn have disturbed me the most. My heart broke when I learned along with the rest of the nation in July that an internal investigation showed that coach Joe Paterno and other top school officials had undoubtedly concealed the heinous actions of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky–convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse toward several boys over a 15 year period–to protect the university’s celebrated football program.

          I’ve read with utter dismay the findings from the internal investigation and other news reports that revealed Paterno, knowing Sandusky was being investigated, sought out a change in his contract for $5 million if he retired at the end of the 2011 season. Worse, after Sandusky was arrested in November 2011 and Paterno was subsequently fired because of accusations that he had participated in a cover-up, the board of trustees bowed into pressure from fans, alumni and the family to honor the coach’s new contract. [1]

         Under the threat of a defamation lawsuit, Paterno’s family also squeezed out extra demands from the university like the use of specialized hydrotherapy massage equipment for Paterno’s wife Sue at the university’s Lasch Building, where Sandusky had molested a number of his victims. “The details of (Mr.) Paterno and his family’s fight for money”, wrote New York Times reporter Jo Becker, “seem to deepen one of the lasting truths of the Sandusky scandal: the significant power that (Mr.) Paterno exerted on the state institution, its officials, its alumni and its purse strings.”[2]

Out of ego, fear and cowardice, Paterno, an educator of young men and women, protected a child molester and a legendary football program instead of children. Or as one State College resident put it: “Sandusky’s victims were sacrificed upon the altar of gold, greed, and glory-the glory being football.”

          

Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

And yet sadly, there are still some Paterno supporters who believe wholeheartedly that their beloved coach was unfairly tarnished by the scandal and that the NCAA was heavy handed with its sanctions against the university’s football program.[3]

        

As the 7-foot, 900 lb bronze statue of Paterno was being removed from campus (a decision made by new university President Rodney Erickson) in mid-July, one Penn State football fan placed a photo on the ground nearby with the inscription:

 PSU Board of Trustees, Gov. Corbett, Media and “President” Erickson, you expedited the DEATH of a good man fighting cancer…Now along with the NCAA, you spit on his grave. SLEEP WELL! (and be proud of yourselves).[4]

Equally if not more jarring than the antagonistic note was a small wooden cross that the person positioned perfectly across a portion of the photo. While he or she may be a good and faithful follower of Christ, they too—out of ego, fear, cowardice and anger—brazenly placed their idol before God. Even when the hero is literally pulled off his pedestal, human beings still try to hold the champion up again as if they were a revered saint or a mighty god.

          Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, the holy and triune God whom we encounter in scripture warns humanity of the dangers of creating and worshipping idols: 

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
   and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
   besides me there is no god. 
 Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
   let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
   Let them tell us what is yet to be. …
 Is there any god besides me?
   There is no other rock; I know not one. All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

 We are shamed.

We are humiliated.

When the idol we have cast way up high and the image we have worshipped from afar has come crashing down, we are disgraced.

In those moments, we realize that we’ve built up the idol so much that the hero or thing we worship has to resort to dishonesty to maintain their high stature.

While it’s true that every individual is responsible for the choices they make and the suffering they cause as a result of some of those choices, we can’t deny our (indirect) role in events like the abuse and cover-up at Penn State…

or the rampant steroid use in Major League Baseball

or the pay for pain scandal in the National Football League

or the numerous news reports of sexual and physical abuse, sexual harassment, affairs, gun violence, drug use, academic fraud and money schemes committed by celebrity coaches and athletes.[5]

Nike Women’s T-shirt: “Losing is For Losers”

We put so much pressure and value on “winning” and “being perfect” and “annihilating the competition” that if a coach or athlete fails to do those things, they are deeply shunned by the rest of us and, in many instances, the person is fired and sent packing.

So to avoid scorn, loss of fans and ultimately money and a career, the sports heroes look for ways to maintain their spot on the pedestal we’ve built for them and expect them to remain.  We don’t want to know what they’ve had to do to stay there, just as long as they are there.  We need them there because they are our gods and idols that we will give anything to be like. We let the idols define our lives, our identity.

Often we continue to worship our sports heroes even after their god-like status has been knocked down a peg or two.  Consider for a moment Forbes magazine’s Top 50 Wealthiest Athlete list of 2011: Despite the public discovery of multiple sexual indiscretions that he committed while he was married, superstar golfer Tiger Woods earned $75 million on the links and from endorsements, making him the highest paid athlete last year. And sliding in at number eight on the list was confessed steroids user and popular Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) with $24.9 million.[6]

As long as they keep playing and winning and raking in the dough (which makes them so ultra cool we want to buy anything with their mug pasted on it), we as fans can keep cheaply forgiving and worshipping the gods we’ve made. Their egregious mistakes outside of the sports arena are of no consequence to us most of the time.

         Of course, it can be argued that just as much damage has been done when everything appears to be on the up-and-up in the sports world.  While involvement in sports is important for education, wellness and the building of community, we often cater to it at the expense of others. As one Lutheran pastor noted in an opinion piece in early August:

 “In the U.S. we experience massive inequality and outcry surrounding government budget shortfalls, yet we seem to have more than enough funds for stadiums, tickets, TV packages, and team-related memorabilia. …While we should appreciate—and strive for—athletic achievement in its various forms, we can no longer ignore the various costs of a society that worships sport…We cannot disregard the sociological phenomenon that domestic abuse increases on the days after a team loses…We can no longer accept the onslaught of verbal and physical violence that is often directed toward referees and opposing fans. We can no longer remain neutral when parents scream at their children or coaches from the sidelines.”[7]

Sports Illustrated Cover, May 14, 2012

In the spring, Sports Illustrated featured a cover story on retired super star NFL linebacker Junior Seau who committed suicide at the age of 43. A six-time All Pro and 1994 NFL Man of the Year, Seau was known for his intensity on the field and his toughness for playing through serious career-debilitating injuries. Sports writer Peter King wrote a touching piece in which he pondered whether the media and fans should rethink our idol making and worshipping. He wrote:

Since Junior Seau died, I’ve been wondering about our part in all of this. The media’s part, the hero-creating part, the Seau-as-superhero part. Did we lionize Seau for his toughness to the point where it was impossible for him to even consider asking for help? Superman never asks for help…I don’t know what happened to Junior Seau…But I do know that it bothers me that I helped create this image of a man incapable of feeling what you and I feel. In the end he must have felt more pain than any of us could imagine. And for that reason I know I’ll be a lot more cautious about praising men as heroes for playing with injuries they shouldn’t be playing with.”[8]

The apostle Paul reminds Timothy, a young man serving in one of the early Christian churches, the importance of spiritually training one’s self in godliness, which is about living in the is-ness of God and God’s love that is Christ. Paul says that godliness is more valuable than physically training to be a god-like athlete:

Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.

Practicing godliness, conducting ourselves in the ways of God’s love is what ultimately defines us as children of God. Granted, sports can be an avenue in which we learn how to grow in our faith. But the incredible feats we can accomplish in a game or the number of national championships our favorite team can receive by dominating opponents or our faithful weekly attendance at a Sunday NFL or MLB game does not determine who we are or to whom we give our allegiance and worship.

             Showing compassion and humility or mustering enough courage to speak up for the suffering when others remain silent is what shapes our identity.  Becoming followers of Jesus who use their gifts to serve in a world broken by failing gods and falling idols is who we are and the triune God who calls us to go is whom we give our faithfulness and worship.

          The baptismal font in which we make promises to nurture a child in God’s love, and the communion table in which we eat together as people who are called to share God’s love—these two sacraments that we celebrate in worship today—remind us again and again of who we are and to whom we always belong!

We are not solely identified as super star athletes, beloved and fierce sports mascots, team logos and colors, a prestigious university or an electrifying group of loyal fans.

We are something much, much more.

WE ARE…CHILDREN OF GOD![9]

Amen.

[1] “Paterno Won Sweater Deal Even As Scandal Played Out” by Jo Becker, The  New York Times, July 14, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/sports/ncaafootball/joe-paterno-got-richer-contract-amid-jerry-sandusky-inquiry.html?pagewanted=all

[2] Ibid

[3] “Findings Stun Even Paterno’s Ardent Supporters”by Bill Pennington, The New York Times July 12, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/sports/ncaafootball/freehs-findings-stun-even-paternos-ardent-supporters.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

[4] “On Penn State Campus, Tears, Sorrow, Resignation” by Melissa Driben, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 25, 2012,http://articles.philly.com/2012-07-25/news/32828915_1_mark-emmert-student-center-economic-impact

[5] “When Our Idols Fall” by Bret Mavrich, Relevant Magazine, Nov. 11, 2011; “When Hero Worship Blinds Us” by Joanna Weiss, The Boston Globe, Nov. 13, 2011; “The Sins of the Father” by Rick Reilly, ESPN.com, July 13, 2012; “Suffer the Little Children: Crime and Punishment at Penn State” by Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine, July 26, 2012; “Lance Armstrong and the Way of Fallen Idols” by Christian Piatt, Sojourners Magazine, August 24, 2012.

[7] “High Appreciation or Holy Adoration? The Slippery Slope of Sports” by Brian Konkol, Sojourners Magazine, August 9, 2012

[8] “All Men Are Mortal” by Peter King, Sports Illustrated, May 14, 2012

[9] An upside-down turning of the Penn State cheer, “Penn State’s New Start Under O’Brien A Loss To Ohio” by Genaro C. Armas, Associated Press, September 1, 2012http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/48872226/ns/sports-college_football/?ns=sports-college_football

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