Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Back in the days when live sports on television were an ongoing expectation – it seems like it was only yesterday, but it was before the world ended last March – I would get caught up in it. Weekends, especially, became a ritual of sitting in front of the television, watching football or baseball.
Where I live now is not where I was born and raised. I was born and raised in a major city in the United States, which offered professional sports of several varieties: Baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, and American soccer. Here there are no local sports teams of the professional variety. The closest major cities with professional teams only offer (as far as I know) football, basketball, and ice hockey. Of course, all across America college sports has big followings. My hometown city was where a technical institution I followed was located, which had a glorious history. Still, the state university, located in a small town, was king everywhere in the state, including the major city where I lived. A fierce rivalry had been established between those two schools, long before I was born; and, it was once something to follow and look forward to. Once upon a time, both schools had equally formidable players. Once upon a time. When I was a child, I was strongly pulled by something inside me to root for the teams – of all sports – offered in my hometown. I would regularly be taken into the city by my mother, so it was like my home. On occasions when I would be taken to a professional sporting event, it was a special feeling. I got to enter the big sports arenas and sit among the throngs of sports fans. In the old days, sports were a casual pastime, when tickets to go see games were cheap and radio was the main venue. Television was primarily network run and the ‘games of the week’ were advertised and looked forward to. Those marquee games mostly featured the best teams. College football ruled Saturdays in the fall and professional baseball in the summer. Professional football ruled Sundays in the fall. Back then the country had “blue laws,” when meant Sunday businesses (including professional sports) could not be held at times that interfered with church services, meaning games could only be played between noon and six p.m. My mother was born and raised in rural America, back in the days when farmers knew one life – hard work – and watching boys and young men play games on television was not something they had any interest for. They worked hard all day (even if the hard work was just watching the crops grow from the front porch of a general store), went to bed at sundown and got up with the rooster’s crow before sunrise. As a boy who loved baseball, with a professional baseball team whose games were broadcast on a clear channel radio station, when I visited my aunts and uncles I would have to listen intently to a radio broadcast of my favorite team’s game on an old tube radio, which could barely pick up the station.
As I got older, things changed. All the promise of new sports seasons turned into year after year of misery – loss after loss, excuse after excuse. Every team in my hometown, more often than not – college and pro – would lose and do so with such ineptitude that my local hometown city became a laughing stock of a nation of fans. The moniker “Loserville” was given to my major city, and every time I heard or read that title, I felt as if I was being ridiculed. As personal as I took the persecution of those hometown teams losing and suffering, circumstances that I had absolutely no way to control, as far as being a player or coach, I still took each loss as if I had been tied to a whipping post and whipped for being a lazy, good for nothing slave. I was a slave – a slave to an addiction. Sports – all kinds and all levels – had been fed to me like heroin being placed on a bird feeder, free for my consumption. Because it was there and promoted, I ate my fill, day after day; and, I became an addicted little bird. Sports became so prevalent in my life, especially with the advent of cable and satellite programming, every day there would be some sport televised or broadcast on multiple venues, making it too easy to want and to hard to turn away from. The heaping quantities of sports were forcing all birds like me to lose all sense of what being a bird was about. All us birds of a feather could do was tremble and shake on the closest limb, waiting for our next fix.
MANY TIMES I watched one of my teams play a close game, knowing how many times in the past they had found a way to lose a lead and lose a game late that I would silently pray to God, “Please let them win this game.” I would promise God to stop doing every sin I could think of having ever done, IF only He would just let me celebrate a victory … after so much pain and suffering that had come from defeat. I am not the only one with this addiction. I am not the only one who would pray for something so meaningless as a sports team winning a game. The television people who set this heroin out in heaping quantities would ALWAYS pan the stands during nail-biting points in a game and show close-ups of fans praying. They would show them with hands clasped in the ‘praying hands’ position and looking upward.
There are many people like me who would pray for some divine intervention by God to come; and for what? So some over-paid young people (if professional teams) or just young people wanting to win so they could become over-paid professional players could win? Our prayers were so their owners could get richer? I hope you can see where I am going with this sermon now. After all, Acts 1:14 says, “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
John 17 is all about Jesus praying: for the glorification of his ministry; and, for the ministries that would become his, through his disciples. Peter’s epistle – the verses read aloud – speak of humbling “yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” Peter advised all Apostles in Christ to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s suffering, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”
Being humble is being innocent, not self-important.
A sports team losing is not Christ’s suffering. Peter was not giving advice that says “pray for some sports team to win and be glorified as if your prayers brought you joy and the personal reward of spiritual accomplishment.” I remember being told by a female priest about a Diocesan Convention she attended. It was held during Super Bowl week, at a time when the local professional football team was about to play in the Super Bowl. She said all the closing prayers were sped up, so the ending rituals would be over and everyone could then drive home and be in front of their televisions in time to watch the big game. She said it was like a stampede of mad cows for the exits when the last “Amen” was said. No doubt – there were plenty of ‘holy men’ (and ‘holy women too) who were praying for that local professional football team to win that day. I hope they all had time to change clothes.
If only someone had taught them the true meaning of prayer – if only someone had taught me the true meaning of prayer – then maybe we all could have become true Christians, rather than addicts who think dressing up in costumes and acting like fools is pleasing to the eye of God. To be truthful, the Gospel reading from John 17 is difficult to see a sermon coming from it. It tells of Jesus praying for himself and his disciples. It seems too private to talk about.
It is so much easier to read from Acts 1 and focus on the Ascension of Jesus. The Ascension can be seen like a sports fan’s dream of his or her favorite team – college or pro, any sport of significance – rising slowly to the top, where (once the team is crowned champions) the season ends and that team then disappears from view forever. After all, the 1927 Yankees were the greatest, but that team will never be anything more than a past winner in a world that always asks, “What have you done for me lately?” When I realized prayer was the theme of the Seventh Sunday of Easter, it was a revelation to me. I researched what Jesus had said about prayer, remembering a few stories. I wanted to refresh my memory. It dawned on me, when I looked up Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray, that Jesus never intended the Lord’s Prayer to be a mainstay in adult lives. After all, I doubt any of the adults shown on television cameras during tense moments in a big game were reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I never used that to bargain for a victory with God. In Matthew’s sixth chapter, he was still writing about what is termed Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” It was there that the bulk of what we Christians know as the Lord’s Prayer is found, in verses nine through fifteen. In the reverse lectionary that lists all the readings that are set aside to be read over a three-year cycle, the Lord’s Prayer is never a reading for discussion or sermons. In addition to that, the lead-in verses – verses five through eight – finds that only verses five and six are read aloud publicly, with those only read during Ash Wednesday services (all three years: A, B, and C) – never on Sunday. Whereas the Lord’s Prayer incorporates verses nine through fifteen (just never preached on), verses seven and eight are never read at all, being completely ignored. Therefore, it was a shock to me what verses five through eight state (again, spoken by Jesus on the mountainside to seekers below). Jesus taught how to pray. Since John 17 focuses on prayer, and since Jesus’ teaching about prayer never gets serious consideration, this is the perfect time to let that cat out of the bag. That is an important lesson to know. So, here is what is written in Matthew 6:5-8: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Clearly, a babbler if I ever saw one.
A whole sermon could be written about what Jesus said in those verses, but I will only focus here on two elements of those instructions. First, Jesus said “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Second, three times Jesus said, “your Father.” Our misuse of prayer says no one has ever taught us to pray properly, making Christians be like the hypocrites. In terms of praying for a sports team to win a game, this is a classic example of one being hypocritical. The model of this is found in the Old Testament, where the ‘Super Bowl’ of Israel was played out, pitting the prophet of Yahweh – Elijah – versus the prophets of Baal (a god) and Asherah (a goddess) – nine hundred in all. It was a contest – a death match – to see whose deity could light a fire under a sacrificed bull. (1 Kings 18:16-45) In that ‘game’ the score was tied after three quarters, 0-0; but, Elijah played with both hands behind his back (so to speak). Certainly, in the owner’s suite, Ahab and Jezebel were praying for their priests to make a score and end the game in their favor. They wanted Elijah dead, thinking he was a troublemaker. Alas, Elijah broke out in the fourth quarter and his prayer to Yahweh was answered, when fire came down from heaven and burnt his sacrificial bull. In celebration, all of the priests to Baal and Asherah were slaughtered, with Ahab and Jezebel would soon follow that path to death. The lesson of this story seems to be to be that the winner of a religious contest, where faith is determined in victory, means gaining the right to destroy all the evils. In today’s world of idolatry everywhere, that would mean eradicating the sources of all the addictions that cause ‘fans’ to worship idols. That would put an end to all the ‘games’ that people love to play. Unfortunately, that would only result in a world full of Californians, where games are still played, only the scores aren’t kept. The people would resent God forever if religion became the oppressor of the masses. That explains why Christianity has become too afraid to actually do anything that would bring harm to evil. If everyone resented God and nobody went to church – because church took all the fun out of playing the games of sin – then who would pay all the bills? The answer is not to kill all the priests of sports and athletics (Baal) or all the priests to Hollywood and the music industry (Asherah). The answer is to let them be; but, a priest (like Elijah) cannot be part of that drug-fest. The world is the only realm where evil is free to exist; so the only way to be like Elijah – the G.O.A.T.[i] of Israel’s Prophets – is to walk among evil without being influenced by it.
A good shepherd then prays for those who pray poorly.
This leads to the second point of Jesus’ lesson about how to pray. When he said, “pray to your Father,” think about that. For every schmuck praying to God for his (or her) team to win, somebody is equally praying (supposedly to the same god) for the opposite team to win. How many times have you seen some baseball player hit a home run or strike someone out and the make some religious sign to outer space (pointing upward usually, maybe with a kiss thrown in with a heart tap) as if God wants them to have all the glory. If that were so, then that means the one who threw the ‘gopher ball’ or let his team down by striking out is hated by the same God. We love giving the impression that “our God” loves victory only.
All sporting events in the United States are played before citizens of that country. That means the fans in attendance and those watching at home are mostly worshipping the same God, as Christians. When Jesus instructed his disciples to “pray to your Father,” the hidden thing that is missed, proved by no priest or minister ever talking about it, is God is not the Father of everyone. In the Lord’s Prayer that everyone recites, “Our Father” or “the Father of us,” is a statement that the disciple has become one with Jesus, so the Father of the Son of God has become the Father of an Apostle in the name of Jesus (Jesus resurrected in new flesh). When Peter said “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time,” that speaks directly to what Jesus taught in the story of his watching the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector) praying. The ‘moral’ of that story was this: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) Thus, Peter, as one who could truly pray to “the Father,” as the Son reborn – a true Christian. Peter was writing in a letter that included the same instructions that had been given by Jesus about praying. The suffering, anxiety, pains and tests of faith that Peter prayed of (his reading ends in “Amen,” indicating a prayer) means he knew other Apostles would need encouragement to endure the same, in order to gain eternal glory. For us today, his words tell us to ignore all the obnoxious fans who are so drunk on their love of some worldly distraction that they will persecute anyone who stands between them and some imaginary trophy of meaningless value. No matter how many times someone spits on an Apostle for not revelling at the altar of some idol of worship [too many to list], the call is to remain humble and be exalted for that steadfastness only a Saint can possess. A Saint means being reborn in the name of Jesus Christ, so one can then truly pray to “our Father.” In Jesus’ instructions for how to pray, he said “go into your room, close the door and pray.” That means prayer is a privately held conversation between a Son and the Father. When one realizes Jesus had left the upper room with his (then eleven) disciples, neither Matthew nor Mark wrote about these prayers that John detailed. They were not the accounts of Matthew, Peter,or John [of Zebedee, brother of James], three who were named disciples in Acts 1:13. Jesus went and prayed privately, but John the Gospel writer was with him, within earshot. John listened as Jesus prayed for his ministry to be glorified through the successful acceptance of God in his disciples. John heard how Jesus prayer so they would truly be Sons of God reborn. However, Jesus said, “I am not asking on behalf of the world,” meaning God was not to be the Father of everyone.” As Jesus prayed to Yahweh, as the Son having a private conversation with the Father, think about this: Why was John privy to that detail? The John of the Gospels was not named by Luke as one of those returning to the upper room in verse thirteen. The question then should be: Did Jesus break his own rule about how to pray, by not praying privately? If not, then who is John?
[Hint: Dwell on the Father-Son theme a while.]
If you are one of Jesus’ disciples (not Judas Iscariot, who had left the group), then Jesus promised you, “Ask and you shall receive.” (Matthew 7:7) As long as you are in the name of Jesus Christ, ask “your Father” for that answer. It is an answer worth knowing. On this Sunday when all eyes are on the Ascension, as if Jesus floated up into some fairy tale heaven in the sky, ask God to explain who were the “two men in white robes [who] stood by” the disciples, asking, “Why do you stand looking up towards the sky?” The readings always fit for us too; so, they are asking us (and everyone at all times), “Why are you thinking Jesus is up in the sky?”
The answer, you might find is this, “Jesus is not external to you.” God is not limited to some secret place, because He said He did not want to be placed in some fancy house of cedar. God wants to live in the portable tabernacle that is an Apostle’s heart.
That means God and His right hand man, Jesus Christ, are standing right next to you, right now, wanting you to love them with all your heart. That heart cannot have a ‘man cave” or “she shed” set aside for personal lusts, desires, or addictions. You cannot see God or Christ or the Holy Spirit. You have to have deep faith that they are within your grasp, now. You need to reach out to them through prayer. That is why the reading from Acts 1 says, “All [the named disciples] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” Prayer is how we find God and Christ within us.
Prayer is what leads one to become the elohim David sang of in Psalm 68, where the plural number of “gods” is the same as the plural number of “our,” when we call upon the Lord as “our Father.” Prayer is how one becomes married to God and give birth to His Son, so a true Christian can know the truth of “our Father” by being the plural statement of “God.” With Jesus Christ as our name, we become God’s elohim. Amen
[i] Greatest Of All Time.
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