I remember that sermon like it was last month. I was one year into pastoring First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, and as a 34-year-old determined to say something significant on the cultural disease afflicting this country, chose Super Bowl Sunday to address America’s fascination with sport.
How well I did it is another matter.
Last week, a lady who had been in the congregation that morning came across the printed copy of that message and forwarded it to me. “It will give you the giggles,” she said.
After reading it, the only thing I could see that would make her say that was my reference to the New Orleans Saints as losers. Which they were, at that time.
All right. Here’s the printed copy of the sermon. At the conclusion, I’ll share where the sermon came from and what happened afterwards.
Where that sermon came from.
My wife was a subscriber to Psychology Today magazine, a publication given to expounding on controversial subjects with the voice of (ahem) professionals.
As the country prepared for that Super Bowl–still a relatively new phenomenon in this country–their cover article shouted, “Winning Isn’t Everything; It’s Nothing.”
That, you will recall, is a play on the line attributed to Vince Lombardi, that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
How much of the content of the sermon was lifted whole or in part from that magazine article, I cannot say. And it grieves me slightly that nowhere in the article did I credit the publication. Sorry about that, editors and advocates of pulpit integrity!
Looking back, I wish I had taken longer to think through the message of that article and my sermon. The burden on my heart then has never gone away, even though I’m a strong supporter of the New Orleans Saints team and a longtime lover of football itself. (If none of my teams are playing and yours are on the tube, I’m good to pull up a chair and enjoy the game just for the game’s sake.)
So, where did the sermon come from:
a. From that magazine article. God can use those things, you know.
b. From a burden the Lord gave me.
c. From Scripture. But listing this last is an admission that the scriptural insights in the sermon are fairly weak.
And what happened as a result of the message?
Two things that I remember to this day.
First, a man in the congregation sent me a letter of several typed pages. The letter was delivered to my desk Monday morning first thing, which made me think he had gone to his office on Sunday afternoon and either dictated it or typed it himself.
He was angry at me.
I was preaching something the Bible does not speak on, was advocating a philosophy that would destroy the soul of America, and was catering to the Communist line.
I was unAmerican.
Now, no preacher likes to get such letters. However, I knew the writer was not a faithful member of the church–he later divorced his godly wife and went off the deep end–and therefore, was not unduly upset over his thoughts. He had no influence with anyone else in the church.
His note did make me think however, that I need to think through very carefully such sermons in the future.
And the other thing.
That Sunday we had a young family visiting the church. He was a lawyer, she a soloist of uncommon ability, and they had two young daughters. Several members had mentioned them to me, adding, “We sure do want them in the church; they are such fine Christians.” No argument from me on that.
After the service, the husband mentioned to someone that this might not be the church for them. “We’re looking for a church where the pastor preaches the Word, not just his latest idea.” Pow. Take that, preacher.
He was on target with one thing: I was out of my comfort zone, out of my element, and also, probably, out of my depth. As Obama said on another subject, “That was beyond my pay grade.”
Can a Bible-preaching pastor preach on such subjects?
Sure. Absolutely. As I said to the friend who forwarded this printed sermon, there’s not a word in it I take back. However, my launching platform was weak.
What I should have done was, after plenty of prayer and reflection on the subject, found the scriptural principle I wanted to expound and preach, and start there.
The sermon is weak on positive solutions. It is strong on the burden troubling me, but that’s not enough to construct an effective sermon.
I was young and immature. And this is a common trait of young, immature preachers: We sound forth on issues we’ve not thought through, give superficial remedies, inadequately bring in relevant Scriptures, and consequently send our people away more frustrated than ministered to.
By the way, the young family joined our church and became strong leaders. We remain friends to this day.
But I have never forgotten that sermon. In particular, when our Saints made their appearance in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, I rethought the issue.
The sports religion in America is far worse now than then, of course. In 1975, there was no ESPN, no BCS championship series, no billion-dollar contracts for sports broadcasting, and no college coaches pulling down millions of dollars a year in salaries.
Time for this sermon to be preached again. But better and stronger, thought-through and biblically based.