“Why Public Prayer Before Football Games is a Bad ldea"

Since this issue has arisen again recently, I decided to repost this sermon from a decade or so ago.  I would say some things differently today but I continue to believe what I say here.      

 (Exodus 19:1-6; lsaiah 43:14-21; I Peter 2:1-1O)

I know I face an uphill battle in today's sermon. I suspect many of you are disappointed and/or alarmed by my title: “Why Public Prayer Before Football Games is a Bad ldea." Others are puzzled. A few of you may even agree, though almost certainly not for the same reasons I will give. So, like I said, l've got an uphill battle today.

Let me say this right off the top: Though I am certainly not deliberately trying to provoke or upset anyone, it is my pastoral responsibility to help you reflect theologically on what goes on in the world around you. And that's what I'm going to try to do. It won’t be easy because the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling of pre-game public prayer unconstitutional has stirred emotions to a fever pitch - on all sides. Add to that a dash of nostalgia and a pinch of inadequate theology - and you have a situation that resists reasoned discussion. So, I don't pretend to think I'm going to persuade all or perhaps any of you of what I will say on first hearing. I do hope, though, to plant some seeds that will bear fruit somewhere down the road.

Let me also say that through this issue we will touch on the deepest roots of the church's distress in North America. lf you want to know why we are in the shape we are in in this country, you'll find out this morning. That’s why it is imperative for you to listen over, around, or through your immediate reaction to what I say. This is incredibly important stuff!

And one other thing: I love God's church. With everything in me I love her and long for her to be and do what God call's her to be and do. And what we will talk about this morning is more directly responsible for her troubles in this country than anything else. That bothers me - a lot! I take it personally. I get passionate about it. ln fact, any hope we have of forging a viable church and witness ln the next century hinges on coming to terms with it So what I share with you this morning comes from as deep in my heart as I can go. And I risk disappointing or upsetting some of you by sharing it simply because it matters so terribly much!

I want to share with you the learnings I have come to over the last 20-25 years. I came out of college with three majors - history, Bible, and Greek. I covered a lot of ground in those four years! And learned a lot. But I never found an answer for my gut feeling that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong, in the church. I struggled to learn and experience as much as I could in Seminary and after, as I worked in a national ministry, and a campus ministry, and then a local church. I wrestled to better understand that gut feeling that just never went away. And through much reading and reflection, nearly twenty years of ministry, some tears, many disappointments and a few glorious moments, I've gotten much closer to understanding it. Here's some of what I've learned.

Let me start by identifying the real issue at stake here. I stood at the concession stand on Friday night at halftime of the Pine Tree - Crockett game and listened to the Crockett parents behind the counter bemoaning the court's decision to ban the public pre-game prayer. One of them said, 'At feast we always used to be able to pray!" And I wanted to say to her, "Who's stopping you? Who could stop you? We can pray anywhere, anytime, and in any situation we want to - and nobody has the power to stop us. The court's decision certainly can't. That is a basic biblical insight about prayer. So if you want to pray, pray! Bow your head, or close your eyes, or gather a group of like-minded folks in the stands and pray. What the court has done is to prohibit a certain form of prayer on a particular occasion but has done and can do nothing about whether other forms of prayer are offered on that occasion!

So, you see, prayer is not really what the fuss is all about. What it is really about is a certain form of prayer - a publically acknowledged and officially sanctioned verbal prayer  offered to the Christian God at a civic gathering. Let me say that again – a publically acknowledged and officially sanctioned verbal prayer offered to the Christian God at a civic gathering. I say "the Christian God" because I’d be willing to bet a month's salary that the vast majority of those reacting against the court's ruling aren't interested in having a Jew, a Moslem, a Hindu, a Buddhist or someone from any other faith offer the pregame prayer. lf only one or two games in ten features a Christian prayer, I strongly suspect these folks would quickly turn and support the silent prayer option.

Be that as it may, what these well-meaning folks desperately want (whether they realize it or not!) is to retain any gesture or ritual that reassures them that this country is indeed God's country - a Christian nation. Woven deep into our national history and psyche runs the conviction that in a way different from any other people, God loves and blesses us North Americans. To put it simply, we are God's favorites. And he has destined us for special work and special privilege. What is good for North America is also good for God!  And correspondingly, when we decline, God's plan and work in the world takes a hit too!

And today we are afraid that we are indeed in decline. We long for public gestures supporting the Christian faith as a way to deal with our FEAR! Our fear, fear that the world we thought we knew and controlled is or has already slipped away from us. Fear that the societal props for our faith we've grown used to, like public prayer before football games, are no longer there. Fear that perhaps we no longer are, and maybe never really were, a Christian nation, specially blessed by God and destined to be a "city set on a hill," "a light to the nations."

And in our fear we reach out to what we know.  And we try to insist on recovering or holding on to symbols and gestures of the past we wish the present was. And whether it be our current concern, or prayer in public school classrooms, or creches on the lawns of public buildings at Christmas time - the same fear fuels them all. We desperately seek some way to wrest from our now thoroughly secular world some public acknowledgment that we are a Christian nation. But even in the Bible Belt, such things are rapidly passing away. And we have no experience and little idea of how to live, worship, and serve in a world that now neither acknowledges nor supports our faith. Little wonder that we fear!

"Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended and a fresh, new world began." So writes Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their book Resident Aliens. They continue, 'We do not mean to be overly dramatic.  Although there are many who have not yet heard the news, it is neveftheless true: A
tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition ...

“When and how did we change? Although it may sound trivial, one of us is tempted to date the shift sometime on a Sunday evening in 1963. Then in Greenville, South Carolina, in defiance of the state's time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us - regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church - made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox.

"That evening has come to represent a watershed... On that night, Greenville, South Carolina ... served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free passes, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish" (pp. 15-16).

And in this late summer of 1999 the Fifth Circuit Court in Texas fired a similar salvo, in line with other court decisions decreeing that the institutions and agencies of American society will not sponsor religion of any kind. But since the Christian faith is the one it has informally sponsored since the founding of the country, the thrust of the decision is aimed right at the church.

We are under attack, folks. Our culture and its institutions require of us attitudes, habits, and behaviors that are in many cases diametrically opposed to the will and way of our God made known in Jesus Christ. lt's been that way from the beginning, though the peculiar circumstances of our origin cast a Christian veneer over it that has only recently been stripped away. The secular, pagan principles which have effectively and decisively shaped the character of this country have finally declared themselves openly.

But in that stripping away, things become clear again for the church! We see, perhaps for the first time, what it might mean for the church to be the church in America.

Fundamental issues are at stake here.

We reformed folk have been through this before in our history.  A number of times. And our tradition gives us resources to help us recover our identity and integrity as God's "holy nation" in the midst of a pagan culture.  I call your attention to a 1934 document in our Book of Confessions entitled “The Theological Declaration of Barmen." Written in the midst of the struggle with Nazism in Germany prior to the Second World War, the "Confessing Church" in Germany delivers a prophetic message fully relevant for our own time. This "Confessing Church" had separated from the mass of German Christians who willingly adopted the perspective and directives of the Hitler regime as compatible with the Christian faith. They clearly saw the error and the danger of that compromise. And they spoke to it with gospel clarity and urgency. The same clarity and urgency the church in North America must recover if it is to remain a viable vehicle for God's work here.

“The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit.  As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

“We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions."

You see, friends, I believe that public prayer before football games is a bad idea because it encourages us to nurture the illusion that we really do live in a basically Christian country which we ought to support because it is trying, or at least should be trying, to do God's will.

The truth of the matter is, as I have tried to make clear, that the church in North America lives in the midst of a pagan culture, a culture both secular and religious at the same time. A culture which until recent years has been happy to hide behind a Christian veneer by sponsoring things like Christian prayers at civic functions, having the Ten Commandments posted in public buildings, and creches on courthouse lawns, Now however, the secular forces driving our country have won the day and they no longer need to keep up that veneer. Hence the court decision that has thrown us into such turmoil.

But our God is pretty resourceful and always has a trick or two up his sleeve. And if the church can get her head and heart clear about all this by embracing and internalizing the call of the Barmen Declaration; and stir herself to claim again her heritage and hope as God's "holy nation," it might just tum out that God uses the Fifth Circuit Court's decision to shoot the forces of secularism in the foot with their own bullet!

Wouldn't that be cool! But that will only happen if we all come to understand why public prayer before football games is a bad idea. And that's because God has a much better idea.

Alleluia! Jesus is victor! Amen.


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