November 8, 2015


Isaiah 40:28-31

I Corinthians 9:24-27


So, the Hawkeyes are doing all right. So well, it seems that it’s making some people kind of jumpy.

Last month as things were really taking off for the football team, “The Solid Verbal” college football podcast posted “Talking to Your Kids about and Undefeated Iowa.” They said that scientists around the world have been “alerted to a strange phenomenon in the heartland of the United States and quickly concluded that Iowa football, buoyed by a weak schedule and a savvy coach, could potentially finish its college football season with a perfect 12-0 record.” The problem? Well, they said, “Iowa is undefeated, and your kids are asking questions. They’re confused and concerned. The truth is that you might be, too, which makes talking to them very uncomfortable…We can’t fully explain why Iowa is undefeated,” they continued. “Statistically speaking, Iowa is unbeaten because it has played good, honest defense and has had a solid rushing attack, all under the tutelage of a veteran coach. Nobody saw this coming, although scientists are looking into whether unusually successful Iowa football seasons correlate with El Niño’s seven-year cycle.”

Their conclusion? As a parent, it is important to convey that unexplained things happen all the time, and we are still able to go about our lives without fear!

Sound advice all around, I’d say.

I thought it might be good to explore athletics and faith this morning, but I need to get over two, well, hurdles, if you will.

First, as Nathan Lane once said about himself, I’m just not a sportster. It is not my area of expertise. My calling on Sunday morning is to interpret scripture .

And of course, the Bible doesn’t have much to say about sports and the human drama of athletic competition.

Now, I know that I’ve told you before that Michael Coogan, my Old Testament professor at Harvard Divinity School, told the students assembled on the first day of class about the surprising ancient reference to baseball in the first chapter of Genesis. It is there, you will recall, that we learn about what happened “in the big inning.”

And he also pointed out the possible allusion to tennis in the record of I Samuel that “David served in the court of Saul.”

Those are the kind of things you learn at Harvard. Congregational UCC’s son, the Rev. Nathan Willard also studied with Michael Coogan at the Divinity School, so he’s probably shared that biblical wisdom with the UCC church in Ankeny.

Baseball, tennis. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I discovered Paul’s reference to football when he wrote to the early church in Philippi: “I press on toward the goal.”

For the most part, however, there is little to engage the athletic soul in the Bible.

Still, the desire to win does inform our faith. Didn’t we sing just last Sunday about our hope that we might, with all the saints, win “the victor’s crown of gold?”

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we find a rare and wonderful image of athletic competition and faith: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air…”

As is often the case with Paul, he doesn’t really carry through with a single image and badly mixes his metaphors. He starts out running and ends up boxing. Still, like those Corinthians, we get some sense of what he means.

Certainly those Corinthians would have known what he was talking about. In ancient Greece there were several athletic games in addition to the ones at Olympus. There were the Athenian games. And there were Isthmian games that were held eight miles from Corinth—most likely just a year or so before Paul’s letter was written. The recipients of letter would have known about boxers and runners. Even the “perishable wreath” would have been fixed in their imagination. The symbol of victory—the wreath in the Isthmian games—was made from wilted celery—a far cry from the trophies and product endorsements that athletes compete for today.

Yes, there is much to be concerned about with college athletics, especially at the level played over at Kinnick. There are unpaid football players—“student athletes” we call them—who do not share in the immense profits that they make for others. There is the troubling fact that we take our weekend enjoyment in watching young men deliver concussion delivering blows that are known to cause brain damage. Sometime I should deal with all of this—we need to address such issues.

But in sports well played, we also see, as Paul indicates, purpose and discipline and achievement. And those three words should in some way characterize the Christian life as well.

The Christian life is a life of purpose. “I do not run aimlessly,” Paul writes. There is a goal toward which we run. Paul encouraged the early Christians to keep their eye on the prize.

We know that. The bylaws of our congregation begin with a statement of purpose. As a congregation, we are called to purposeful action—not simply reactive response to this fad or that complaint. We claim that our purpose is “to worship God, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate the sacraments; to realize Christian fellowship and unity within this church and the Church Universal; to render loving service toward humankind; and to strive for righteousness, justice, and peace.”

This is a statement about what is most important to us.

It is a statement about what we love, what we value, about our ultimate commitments.

In short, it is a statement about our passion.  And we are a people of deep passion. That statement of purpose helps focus our passion. It saves us from the aimlessness that is so much a part of contemporary life. We need to blow the dust off of that statement and start holding it up to what we’re doing around here to see how we measure up.

Worship and celebration. Loving service. Righteousness, justice, and peace. These are the goals toward which we run as a congregation.

Let us not run aimlessly. Let us, as individuals and as a congregation be purposeful in what we do.

The Christian life is also a life of discipline—that is, of actions taken toward a purpose.

Madeleine L’Engle recalled hearing Rudolph Serkin playing Beethoven’s “Sonata Appassionata” better than it could be played. She said, “It was absolutely incredible. People were standing on their seats, screaming and applauding.” She thought to herself: “OK, that was a completely numinous, spirit-filled production. However, I’ll bet Serkin practices the piano eight hours a day, every day, and if he didn’t, this performance couldn’t have happened.” L’Engle concluded: “So in anything we do, unless we do our equivalent of practicing, the Holy Spirit has nothing to work with.”

Special hats, always wearing the same game-day T-shirt, whatever magic charms you or other Hawkeye fans use to guarantee winning, whatever estoeric game-day rituals you might engage in, the truth is, winning in a sustained way is not dependent on luck. All athletic events call for the discipline of training over many years.

Paul gives us the image of athletes exercising self-control and of his own “punishing” his body. The point here is not that we beat ourselves up, but that we watch our actions, our words so that they might show the love of God working in us and among us. It’s easy to get sloppy in our life together, to take the image of God in one another for granted.

This is the point of the spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, and giving. They help us get to the place where we are living what we believe. They are intended not to hurt or debase us but to help us recover ourselves so that we may present ourselves more fully to God.

Through prayer we enter into a conversation with God that can be public or private.

Prayer invites us into silence in the midst of a noisy world. In the silence we can be still and know God and know that we are not God. Prayer calls us to be honest in a world that is filled with lies. Prayer leads us to open up all the closed doors of our lives. In doing so we discover our emptiness and the places where we are full. We discover our strength and our broken places. We discover God present even in the valley of our shadows.

Through fasting we bring the daily bombardment of our senses to a halt. Each day we receive countless messages telling us: eat this, drink that, buy me. News is available 24 hours a day. We can access our e-mail with our cell phones. Fasting calls a temporary halt to the input of the world so that we can be still and listen to God’s still, small voice. Sometimes fasting involves food. In our time, however, maybe you’ll turn off the TV, or stop reading the newspaper or curb your rampant consuming in some other way.

Through giving we put our possessions in perspective. We are told to get more and more. We are told that the one who dies with the most toys, wins. Actually the one who dies with the most toys, still dies. Giving helps us reexamine what we call winning and living. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We have a high calling—to love one another as Christ has loved us. That doesn’t always come easily. It requires the discipline of the Christian life.

And the Christian life is a life of achievement. Paul encourages us: “Run in such a way that you might win the prize.” Now certainly Paul isn’t imagining a race with only one winner. He’s not suggesting that we should be in competition with each other. In fact, the context of those words shows that he means exactly the opposite: that striving for excellence means considering the welfare of others. Maybe it’s more like a team sport in which players couple rigorous training with restraint of their own egos so that the team might succeed.

Do you remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined Jesus talking to his disciples? “You want to be first…you want to be great. You want to be important. Well you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be…Don’t give up…Keep feeling the need to be first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do”[i]

The life of faith is a life of achievement. It’s just that the goal toward which we run is different than the goal for many others. For many, a wreath of withered vegetables or a Rose Bowl trophy or a shiny car is enough. My sense is that God wants something more for us, that God calls us to something higher.

Run to win the prize. The Christian life is a life of achievement.

As we live out our own commitments to love one another as we have been loved, we recognize that the justice, peace, and right relationships that we desire do not happen overnight. But the world that we desire, the congregation that we desire, the life that we desire will develop only as we start and maintain the practice of the Christian life.

This is a life of purpose, discipline, and achievement—for all of us together as a congregation and for each of us as individuals.

We are running for a great prize—an imperishable crown.

Run—live your life each day—in such a way that you might win it.

[i] MLK, “The Drum Major Instinct,” in A Testament of Hope, pg. 265.