Winning One for the Gipper

Bricks(Creative Commons Image by Marc Falardeau on Flickr)

In 1920, University of Notre Dame’s football star, George Gipp, contracted pneumonia and died, just weeks after being named an All-American.

According to his coach, the legendary Knute Rockne, Gipp had told him on his deathbed that when the time came that the Irish were in a desperate situation, he should invoke Gipp’s name and ask them to “win one for the Gipper.” Eight years later, Rockne did just that when Notre Dame trailed an undefeated Army squad. An emotionally charged Notre Dame team rallied to win the game.

Grand, inspiring orations — whether from politicians, generals, coaches, or religious leaders — seem to have the power to change lives, even to change history. This has certainly been true since before the days of William Shakespeare.

What has changed is the Hollywoodization of such speeches. Rockne’s speech was immortalized in a popular film with a young actor named Ronald Reagan playing the part of George Gipp. Since then, stirring, fact-polished, theatrically staged orations, backed by music designed to stir the emotions, have become a routine part of the motion picture media. So many movies now lean heavily on a brilliantly crafted, insightful, perfectly timed speech to change mice into men, the morally bankrupt into heroes.

I can’t help but suspect this has had an influence on preachers. My guess is that most of us have in the back of our minds a vision of what a powerful, dynamic sermon ought to accomplish. We feel the pressure to emulate these life-changing rhetorical exercises that lift spirits to the heavens.

Unfortunately, that bar is set too high. In almost all cases, that vision is as unrealistic as a Hollywood set. Oration such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is memorable precisely because it is so incredibly rare.

The longer I have been at one parish, the more I begin to realize that a good sermon is not likely to achieve a full-throated roar from the congregation that, through those words, suddenly finds courage and inspiration to charge into the fray and do tremendous deeds of love and mercy.

It seems that preaching is more along the lines of modest, largely unknown football coach from my area of the country, a man named Jerry Kill. Through social media, I’ve heard some of Kill’s speeches. They contain a lot of energy but that is not unusual in the football arena. I haven’t heard anything in them that would make me want to run out and smash down a wall.

What is effective about Kill is a simple motto: “Brick by Brick.” He knows very well that turning around the fortunes of a team that has struggled for decades will not happened through a dynamic speech. It will happen, and is happening at the University of Minnesota, through the cumulative effect of saying and doing the right things.

I believe that is true of preaching. There may be the occasional lost soul sitting out in the pews in such desperate need of hope and love that an especially stirring message from the pulpit will inspire him or her to new life. If that happens, then praise God.

More likely, good preaching will achieve its effect by adhering to the “brick by brick” approach. When a congregation hears the love of God in Jesus Christ proclaimed time and time again, that will have a cumulative effect, as long as the preacher can do it with enough insight and imagination that the congregation will keep listening and gradually incorporate what they have.

I know it doesn’t make for grand theater. But then we pastors are not called to win Academy awards in screen-writing. We are called to help build the kingdom, brick by brick.

I know there is more appeal in being the silver-tongued virtuoso who can rouse people to action by asking them to win one for the Gipper. But there’s a danger in getting caught up in trying to manufacture Hollywood moments. The congregation is going to be better served in the long run by a pastor who can lay those bricks faithfully, patiently, and skillfully.