Summary: For over 80 years Chief Illiniwek, symbol of the University of Illinois, represented Christian attributes; this is the first of six sermons that examine those attributes based on the Scriptures.

Jesus and the Chief: Courage

--Mark 6:45-52

This has been a newsworthy week. On Tuesday, April 10th, it was finally announced that Larry Birkhead is the biological father of Anna Nichole Smith’s baby daughter Dannielynn. Radio-Television shock jock Don Imus’ program “Imus in the Morning” was dropped by MSNBC television on Wednesday, April 11th, and by CBS radio the next day for his course, stabbing, degrading, immoral, vulgar, vile, racial, sexist remarks berating the Rutgers’ Women’s Basketball Team which he made on Wednesday, April 4, 2007.

Due to pressure by the NCAA, a few civil rights organizations speaking for a minority of Native Americans, and even our own United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, Dan Maloney, University of Illinois graduate student who served as Chief Illiniwek XXXVI, performed what appears to be the last half-time dance by the Chief at the Illinois-Michigan basketball game on Wednesday, February 21, 2007, terminating a proud tradition that began at the half-time of the Illinois-Pennsylvania football game played in Philadelphia on October 30, 1926.

A small faction would have us believe that Chief Illiniwek is just as degrading and offensive towards Native Americans as Don Imus’ remarks were towards women and people of color, but is that a fair and just conclusion? Although Chief Illiniwek is not a historical figure, for more than eight decades he has symbolized what is noble, true, and admirable in Native American tradition and, therefore, worthy of emulation by people of all ethnic groups.

The Native American people that originally inhabited what is now our Great State of Illinois spoke a dialect of the Algonquin tribe. Their word “Illiniwek” described “the complete human being—the strong, agile human body; the unfettered human intellect; and the indomitable, or unconquerable human spirit.” [Jim Fay, “The Roots of the Chief Illiniwek Tradition at the University of Illinois” as posted on web site:]. Thus our brothers and sisters who preceded us viewed humanity as a trichotomy, not unlike the view held by many Christians that we are endowed by God with body, soul, and spirit.

The name “Illiniwek” first came to be associated with the University of Illinois in the decade of the 1920’s by legendary Illinois football coach Bob Zuppke. “Zup,” as he was called, was head football coach at Illinois from 1913 to 1941. During his tenure the Fighting Illini won four National and seven Big Ten titles. [ ]. Zuppke was a passionate philosopher and historian; and, despite the fact that he coached great Illinois teams, his primary priority was not in producing winning game plans and developing physically strong teams but in cultivating players of good character [Fay, op. cit.].

A man of high principles, Bob Zuppke emphasized that our American Indian brothers and sisters are worthy role models for us to follow. They uphold noble attributes for us to incorporate in our personal lives. Therefore, from October 1926 through February 2007, Chief Illiniwek has continually been a hallmark of courage, spirit, strength, bravery, honor, and loyalty. These attributes are not only rooted in the traditions of our Native American people and honorably exemplified by Chief Illiniwek, they are characteristics that for centuries have been proclaimed by the prophets of Israel and the Apostles of Jesus for all of God’s people to practice in our daily lives.

Jesus and the Chief call each one of us to live a life of courage. What is courage? John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” [--John Wayne, Leadership, Vol. 17, no. 2.]. The Hebrew and Greek terms for courage help us understand and appreciate its meaning. The basic Hebrew meaning behind courage is “strength.” In Greek it primarily means “to be confident or bold.” Courage is the strength and confidence to conquer fear. Courage enables us “to do something that is frightening.”

There are many times we must stand up and face difficult, dangerous circumstances and situations with courage. Examples might include instances of stress, emergencies, persecution, trouble, hardship, misfortune, obstacles, danger, pain, grief, sickness, death, or other challenging times in our lives. In such instances we may be tempted to “throw in the towel,” quit, give up, or even run away from facing the difficult situation.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we keep going, because we know we face our fears in the presence and power of God. The Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle taught that courage could be naturally developed, but God’s Word assures us that it is a gift of His grace which we develop by the aid of the Holy Spirit. We stand on His promises such as Hebrews 13:5-6, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mortals do to me?” We hear His still, small voice affirming in Isaiah 41:10, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” We have courage in every situation because we know God is with us to strengthen, help, and uphold us in all circumstances no matter how difficult or dangerous they may be.

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