Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Run The Race Before Us

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Hebrews 12:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Tonight many of the athletes will gather once again will gather for the closing ceremonies of the Olympic games, not including those who fled the country with the police on their heels.  At tonight’s ceremony, the head of the International Olympic Committee will declare that the Rio games are officially closed, and then the flag of Japan will be hoisted up in the stadium, as they will be the host nation of the next Olympic games, and the race to the next Olympics will be begun with stories of cost overruns, of the inability of the city to host the Olympics, of the worries of terrorism, and as we get closer the reality that many of the facilities are not yet completed, just like we hear every single time the Olympics come around.  We move from what has just happened, and we move forward to the next games. In some sense this is just one big relay race, one nation passing the baton on to the next, and on to the next, with everyone hoping the baton doesn’t get dropped, or perhaps with a little glee at the spectacle hoping the baton does get dropped.  But regardless, the athletes and Tokyo are now all working hard to prepare to be ready come back in four years to do it all over again, to run the race that is before them.  And so today we conclude this series looking at what we can learn from the games about our faith in how we run the race that is before us.

Last week when we looked at wrestling, I said that it was believed to be one of the oldest sports in the world and one that is found in every culture.  But, since walking is an Olympic sport we would have to go with walking as being the oldest sport, something we have been doing for some 4 million years, but running probably comes in as the second oldest sport in which we undertake. Although my guess is that the earliest races were not about being the fastest person, but instead only about not being the slowest person, because when you’re being chased by a wild animal intent on killing you, you don’t have to be the fastest one, you merely have to outrun the slowest person in order to survive.

But, at some point, we began running races against each other to see who was the fastest runner and awarding them a prize.  Indeed, the earliest Olympic games consisted only of foot races, with other events being added in over time, but much like the modern games, it was the athletes of the track who attracted the most attention and usually garnered the highest praise. But they didn’t just gain local praise, they could also gain immortal fame, as well as being financially supported for the rest of their lives and sought out by others. The first true athletic free agents were found in these games as exemplified by Sotades who appeared and won at one Olympic games representing Cretw only to appear representing the Ephesians at the next games. But while the athletes could make large financial gains by winning, just like today, at the games themselves the only thing they would win was a wreath of leaves, a laurel, that was placed around their heads. At the Olympic games it was a wreath of olive branches, but at the games on the isthmus of Corinth it was a wreath of wild celery, and the wreath was only given to the victor there was no second or third place prize awarded.  So when we hear Paul say to the Corinthian community to run in such a way not to receive “a perishable wreath,” but instead to receive “an imperishable one,” this is what we should be picturing in our minds. This is not just some random analogy that Paul is making, but instead he is focusing specifically on the things that the members of the Corinthian community would know.

The Isthmian games took place every two year, and so when Paul is writing this letter to the Corinthians, at the most, there has only been one year since they have seen an athlete crowned with this perishable wreath and the understand the implications of what he is saying.  Indeed, while we have no idea what the real reason is why Paul first goes to Corinth, and there are many possibilities, one of them is the fact that he could have gone there because of these games. He might have done so because he knew that the games drew people from throughout the Mediterranean to attend, and thus would have a large crowd for him to evangelize, and then help him to spread his message even more as these potential converts took the gospel message back to their home towns. In addition, there were no facilities for the athletes or observers to stay in, and so they would be camped out in tents around the countryside, and since Paul was a tentmaker by trade, this would also allow him to be able to pay for his missionary endeavors, perhaps even making enough to allow him to travel and evangelize for a time without having to worry about working. That’s all speculation, but it’s, I believe, some strong speculation, and if true, perhaps the Corinthians not only saw the athletes dedicating themselves to the task at hand, of running the race, but also saw Paul with determined grit and dedication also doggedly pursuing the task before him of trying to win more converts to become followers of Christ.

In the ancient Olympic games, athletes had to take an oath at the beginning of the games that they had been training at least 10 months in order to prepare themselves to be able to compete.  People were not just showing up on the day of the event to run.  Now there are some people who are incredibly gifted who can compete at a high level without any practice work in advance. I happen to be one of those people, and I think I could beat Usain Bolt, but I don’t want to show him up, nor do I need the accolades and headaches that go with that.  So I’ll let him train and train in order to win his none gold medals and the title of fastest man in the world three times. But most people are not like me, they have to prepare long and hard for these events.  And so Paul is saying, at the very least, if you are going to train for this, if you are going to try and run the race, at the very least shouldn’t you do everything in your power to prepare yourself in order to try and win. This is not about showing up hoping you will come in second place, not about just shadow boxing, or running aimlessly, but about seeing the finish line, knowing what it will take, and then doing everything we can in order to run to win.  Which means that we have to train and dedicate ourselves in order to do it.

It’s said that the difference between involvement and commitment is the difference between eggs and bacon. When you eat your eggs, the chicken is involved, but when you eat bacon, the pig is committed. Paul is telling us, and Jesus tells us before Paul, that God does not want us to be involved, God wants us to be committed, to give everything that we have to the effort.  This is something about the fallacy of amateur athletics, and our desire to hold “amateur” athletes up as being better than professional athletes, because amateur athletes only are competing for the love of the sport, not for the money. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. But the ideal of amateur athletics was a ruse from the start and was set-up by the European aristocracy, in particular the British, where the wealthy gentleman of leisure who had the time to dedicate to their sport in order to become world class athletes didn’t want to have to worry about competing against those who might be better but who didn’t have the time to dedicate all their time to it because they had to work in order to support themselves and their families. So by eliminating their potential rivals who would need some financial reward in order to be able to be the best and give it their all, they were able to compete and win the prizes and accolades they otherwise might not have been able to win. So they set out to create a fallacy of amateurs versus professionals, knowing that it took lots of time, and the dedication of self, doing things that you might not otherwise want to do, including giving up on other careers and time dedication to be the best. It took the disciplining of your life and body in order to be the best, in order not to run aimlessly.

I remember a soccer coach I had who said that we were never going to be outplayed in the second half of the game. We might lose because they were better than we were, but we were never going to lose because we didn’t play hard enough and definitely wouldn’t lose because we got tired. That when the other team was sucking wind in the second half, we would still be going strong.  But in order to make that a reality what did we have to do? We had to run, and run, and run, and then run some more. We ran wind sprints until we were exhausted and trying not to bring up the last thing we ate, and then we ran some more. We were punishing our bodies, as Paul would say, in order to be the best that we could be.  This is where the line from Hebrews also comes into play that discipline, while unpleasant at the time, always yields fruit in the end.

But Paul adds one more caveat, and that is that we are to discipline ourselves, to prepare, so that in the end we should not be disqualified. The Greek word that Paul uses in this passage that is translated as disqualified, is a word that was used in reference to athletic events, like making a false start, not passing the baton in the proper area so you lose the bronze medal, or testing positive for some banned substance, something that gets you thrown out of the games, something that will cause you to lose the prize for which you are competing.  This is Paul telling us that we cannot be standing on the sidelines trying to be a coach, telling other people what to do, but unwilling to engage in the same activities ourselves. It’s showing people how to live a Christian life, or what it means to be a Christian, by doing the same things ourselves. Run this race to win the prize, run the race before us and run with perseverance, looking to Jesus, who is not running beside us, but who is up ahead of us, having shown us the way to run and to win.

One of the things that our Leadership Council has done is that at each meeting we are all going to pledge to undertake one spiritual discipline, such as prayer, scripture reading, fasting, retreat, and we are saying publicly what we are going to do, being as specific as we can, and then at the next leadership council meeting we are going to report back on how we did this month, and what we are going to do next month. This is a way of learning to discipline ourselves, while also setting up an accountability structure, so that we are better prepared for the race in which we are engaged. Now I can’t say how it’s going for everyone else, but one week in I have not been as successful on my goal, which was to pray with the family before dinner each night, but it’s a learning process. Just like in any sport, we start out slow, we make mistakes and hopefully we learn from them, and hopefully we also have someone who is around who can coach us on how to do it better, but we build into it, and while it seems painful, or perhaps awkward at the start, these things will yield the fruits of righteousness in the end.

No one is truly made a runner, or an athlete, even if they have the natural gifts and graces to do it, they have to work at it, and they have to work hard at it, every day.  And they have to make a choice. They can either choose to do the work necessary in order to be prepared to win the race, or they can choose not to and pay the price of not winning. We too have a choice. No one is born a Christian, it’s a choice we make. We are born with certain gifts and graces, but we get to choose whether we are going to use them or not, and what we are going to do in our faith lives. Are we going to run the race before us and do everything we can to prepare for that race, to make that preparation the priority in our lives, or are we going to make other things the priority in our lives, put our faith lives to the side and not run the race that is before us?  And how do we prepare to run that race?

The first step is that we have to make it our priority, to say we’re going to stop trying to be only an amateur on this, to do it on a limited and small scale, that we are only going to be involved and instead say that we are going to be committed, to approach this as professionals, to dedicate ourselves to it. As Paul said “I have decided to know nothing among you except Christ Jesus.”  In the United Methodist church, the membership vows are to support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  I think those are things to do even if we are not members, because they sort of encapsulate the disciplines needed to run the race of faith. Prayer – engaging with God in conversation, lifting up our concerns and our celebrations, and seeking guidance. Presence – which starts with being present in worship, but is also about being present for other faith development activities in order to deepen our faith, and being present for each other. Gifts – which is not only giving financially, not because we have to but because we get to in remembering that it has all been entrusted to us by God, and also using our gifts in service to others, to serve our church and our community, and then finally is to continue to spread the gospel message, which is not as much about telling people about Jesus as it is showing people about Jesus through how we live our lives. Disciplining ourselves in the way of discipleship by picking up our cross and following daily, and remembering that disciplines, while they may not be the funnest thing in the moment, always produce the fruits of righteousness in the end.

We are called to run the race before us, and not just to run it, but to run it with the intention of winning. But winning here is not about only one person, but for all of us to run to win for ourselves, because the goal is not to win a perishable wreath, but instead for the imperishable one. We might also be reminded that we are not to rest on our laurels of past accomplishments. The laurel here is that wreath that runners win.  What has happened in the past is in the past, we are not looking back at where we have been, but looking forward to where we still have to go and the race that is still out there, and to run with perseverance, to keep going, knowing that we don’t run alone. We run together as a body of Christ, and we run the race that has already been run by Jesus Christ on our behalf, and we continue looking forward to Christ at the end of the lane waiting for us and calling us forward. So continue running that race and do it is such a way that we may not be disqualified, but instead to win the eternal reward, the imperishable victory that has been promised to us. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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