Monday, August 8, 2016

Opening Ceremony: Celebration

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Philippians 4:4-9:

For the next two weeks, a large majority of the world is going to have their eyes turned towards Rio and the Olympic games taking place there.  This is the first time the Olympics have been held in south America, which is like America, but south, and also the first time the summer games have been held in the winter. And so I thought it might be a good time for us to turn our eyes to the idea of sport, and Olympic sport in particular, of what it can teach us about our faith, or how we might apply what we see in the games to our faith.  Now this idea is not really as far off as it might seem, because, in fact, there are several different illusions to sport to be found in scripture. Jacob wrestles with God, something we will grapple with next week. Moses served in the courts of the Pharaoh, so there is tennis, and of course baseball, the greatest sport, is mentioned twice when we are told that God did things in the big inning.  But on a more serious note, we do see this specifically in the writings of Paul.  While we are much more familiar with the ancient Olympic games, which also took place every four years, they were not the only games taking place in the ancient world.  There were also the Isthmian games which were held the year before and the year after the Olympic games. The Isthmian games were named after their location, which was on the isthmus of Corinth, a city in which Paul spent plenty of time.  And so when we hear him say to the Corinthians, run the race before you, that is not just some generic statement, he is making a reference to an activity with which they would have been very familiar.  So as Paul used the games for his illustrations of living a Christian life, so we too are going to use the games for the same purpose, and we’re going to begin with where the Olympics begin and that is with the opening ceremonies.

Now I am aware that there were actually some games that started even before the opening ceremonies started on Friday night, but that is really seen as the kick-off, the beginning of the Olympics. It draws the largest number of people both in terms of participants who will be there, but also in drawing the highest television ratings of any of the events that will take place at the Olympics. Consider that for a moment. The biggest event, the biggest celebration, the thing everyone wants to attend and to watch is not the celebration at the end, but instead a celebration at the beginning. A celebration to begin things. That’s sort of the opposite of how we normally do things. We normally have a party at the end of events as a celebration that it’s all over and to celebrate what was accomplished. I was trying to come up with some other things that we celebrate before they actually begin. I think the first would be Christmas, which we celebrate on the 25th of December and then act as if Christmas is over, when really it’s only just begun as it runs for another 11 days. But I think that’s more out of ignorance than an intentionality of celebrating at the start. There are New Year’s Eve celebrations, but those really end with the stroke of midnight, so we’re celebrating the start of something, but also, and maybe to a larger degree it’s the saying good-bye, and perhaps good-riddance, to the prior year.  We celebrate ground breaking for new buildings, but those usually still pale in comparison to dedication celebrations.  There are baby showers, celebrations before the baby comes, but I think that’s because new parents need the items to be ready, and also we know they will be too exhausted to do anything after the baby comes. There are bachelor and bachelorette parties, but that’s more to mourn the loss of singleness to a degree, then to actually celebrate the wedding. Perhaps the wedding itself is one area where we truly celebrate an event when it begins, to kick off the marriage rather than celebrating some other time.  But again, that is by far the exception to the rule. Is there some other event I’m missing where the celebration at the beginning is bigger than the celebration at the end, or at least the same?

Why is that? The school year will begin this week, but there are no parties being held this week to celebrate, although there will be parties next May to celebrate the end. Why don’t we celebrate beginnings more? Or we might even ask, why don’t we just celebrate more in general? The opening ceremonies are a huge celebration, a celebration of beginnings, but we might also see them as a celebration of an end. We just watched a documentary on the US table tennis team and their dreams of making the Olympics while knowing they will never really ever have a shot at winning any medals there. But they want to be there to participate. If you watched the opening ceremonies, they showed one of the athletes from Bolivia who was crying as he walked into the stadium.  For most of these athletes this is their one moment of glory, their moment in the sun, the thing they have been striving for and so just being at the Olympics, of being able to say for the rest of their lives “I was an Olympic athlete” culminates in this one event. There are more than 11,000 athletes competing this year, and 2,102 medals will be awarded, and many of those medals will go to athletes who have already won other medals. That means that more than 80% of the athletes will never stand up on the winner’s platform, will not have anything put around their necks, and so this is their moment.

While we celebrate the winners of the Olympics, people like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and Gabby Douglas, we also will come to celebrate some of the lovable losers we see throughout the games as well, and some of them become even bigger names than those who won. I bet you could not tell me who won Olympic gold in bobsledding in 1988, but you can remember the Jamaican bobsled team. This is one of those moments that remind us that as much as we say that sports is only about winning, that in fact that it’s about so much more than that. It’s about being there, it’s about participating, it’s about being able to say “I did that” and in that sense participation trophies are incredibly important because there can only be a few winners, but everyone else is not a loser simply because they didn’t win, they can still celebrate, and do celebrate, and we celebrate this one moment, even before any of the other things we normally celebrate have actually begun. And I think we need to remember that in our own lives. We need to remember, or learn how to celebrate, and to do it a lot more.

In the passage we heard from Philippians, Paul says that we are to rejoice always, in everything we do. But it’s even more than that, because he says that not only should we rejoice, but we should also not worry about anything. That’s easy right? Of course not, but what Paul is saying is that we should take everything we are worried about to God in prayer. But there is one key piece of how we are to take our concerns to God, and that is by supplication with thanksgiving. Supplication with thanksgiving. Supplication means that we realize that we are not equals with God, that we are dependent upon God, and because we are dependent upon God, when we come to realize that, and we know of God’s promises then we should be thankful because when we go to God, God will in turn give us the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. Notice he does not say God will give us everything we ask for, but that our worries will be heard and in return we will receive peace. So therefore rejoice… always… in everything.  Or we might say, celebrate.

Now some of you might be saying, didn’t he dismiss this passage just two weeks ago when we looked at the movie Inside Out and he told us we shouldn’t be joyful all the time that we should give room for all of our emotions.  And the answer to that is yes I did, and first if you are looking for consistency in everything I say you’re not always going to find it. But second, learning to celebrate does not mean dismissing everything else, nor is that fully what Paul is saying. It’s a part of it, but not all of it. But what I think we should hear Paul saying is that we need to learn to trust God more, especially to trust God’s presence in our lives and God’s promises for our life. And then when we learn to trust God we learn to take our worries, our cares, our concerns, even our celebrations, to God knowing that God hears them and is there for us, not that those things will be magically solved, but that God will take them from us, and give us the peace of God, and we should focus on this. And in focusing on the things worthy of praise, then we should celebrate what God has done for us.

Sometimes we think that we as Christians are supposed to always be happy, which I think is a fallacy, but at the same time also worry that while we should be happy, and maybe we should have some fun, we shouldn’t have too much fun, because we all know where that leads right? Having too much fun must certainly mean that we are crossing some line somewhere that we aren’t supposed to cross, that we must be sinning. We don’t want people to get the wrong idea and think that we are enjoying life.  But that’s the opposite of what Jesus tells us and what we witness in scripture. Jesus does not say I have come to bring you life, but a boring life. He says I come to bring you life abundant. Surely abundant life is a life of enjoyment, a life of celebration, and what does the father do in the parable of the prodigal son when he wayward son comes home? He throws him a party. Indeed, we are told that there is celebration in heaven whenever a lost sheep of the flock comes home. And so if they are celebrating in heaven, why aren’t we celebrating here on earth?

The opening ceremonies are a celebration of the beginning of the games, but they are also the celebration of the completion of the effort to even get there. They don’t wait for the end to celebrate; they celebrate even in the midst of things.  We too should celebrate more in our lives. Don’t let the little things, the little accomplishments in your life, or in the life of others pass you by. Celebrate them. Celebrate them now because you don’t know if you will be able to celebrate them later. So here is my challenge to you. I want you to think of something to celebrate between now and Christmas, something that you ordinarily wouldn’t celebrate, and instead make a big deal about it, maybe even through a party, but definitely think about the things that are worthy of praise and celebrate them this day and every day. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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