Saturday, February 11, 2006

Spring Training

Someone from the Midrash preaching e-list asked me to post my sermon for tomorrow so folks could link to it from his website. (for more information on Midrash, go to the website.)

February 12, 2005
Spring Training
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Are you watching any of the Olympics?

In the time leading up to the opening ceremony on Friday, we’ve heard a great deal about some of the people who are going to be competing for the United States in Turin. One of the rising stars right now is the skier Bode Miller. He’s actually in trouble, mostly, because of some less-than-diplomatic comments he made about drug testing of athletes, and also because he said there were times he has skied impaired or hung over—which isn’t funny, even though he acted like it was during an interview on 60 Minutes, because skiing is a dangerous sport, and he could be seriously hurt skiing drunk.

Not one of the best examples for a young athlete to set—but you have to cut him maybe a little slack because of that one word: young. He actually reminds me a little of what Andre Agassi was like when he first appeared on the scene almost 20 years ago. I remember seeing him on David Letterman or the Tonight Show, I forget which, when he was about 22, talking about how he’d never, ever play at Wimbledon, because he wouldn’t be allowed to wear denim on the court. And, of course, he outgrew his attitude, and eventually did take off his denim and play at Wimbledon. So, although I do think it’s extremely stupid of Bode Miller to be skiing drunk, I don’t see the point in getting too riled up about some of the other things he says or does. (If he’s still saying and doing the same things when he’s in his 30s, then I’ll worry.)

Right now, at least from what I’ve heard, this guy is a shining star because of his incredible natural talent. Sort of like when Tiger Woods was a college kid winning the U.S. Amateur tournaments, and folks were talking about his potential, and looking back we discovered that he was a golf prodigy even as early as five years old. (We can only take this comparison so far, though, because unlike Bode Miller, I think Tiger has always been pretty careful about what he says in public, and has for the most part kept his nose clean.) And Tiger turned pro, and immediately won some major tournaments. But now we’re several years after that, and while Tiger is still very good, he doesn’t win every tournament he plays in—sometimes he doesn’t even make the cut. And he’s had some trouble with his back, and amazingly enough, he has to practice, just like any of the rest of us would.

Now, golf is a different sort of sport than many of our professional sports today, like football and baseball. A football player can’t plan on having a very long career. It’s just too hard on the body. With baseball, folks can play until they’re a little older before retiring, but still you don’t see too many pro baseball players older than mid-40s. But a golfer like Tiger can expect to play professionally for as many as 40 years!

He’ll have to do some things to make sure he can do that, though. He will have to take care of his body. He’ll have to eat right and exercise—paying special attention to the parts of the body that golf can be hard on. He will also have to keep his mind sharp—because as any of you who play know, golf is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. He will—and this goes without saying, really—want to stay away from drugs and alcohol and other things that would impair his mental and physical abilities. And he’ll have to continue to practice, continue to work on the various skills that go into the game of golf. As long as he intends to continue to play golf, he will have to do all these things. His training won’t end. It will always be a part of his life.

To be truthful, no athlete who intends to continue being an athlete can say one day, "I’ve trained enough now. I’m not going to show up for practice anymore. I’m not going to report (as pitchers, catchers and injured players will do this Thursday) for spring training this year. I’ll just come to the games, and that’ll be fine." Training, and practicing, and conditioning, cannot stop, or the athlete’s career will also stop.

Some of us women preachers—at least the ones of us who have no athletic ability, like myself—object when we hear a sermon filled with illustrations and images from sports. And certainly it can be taken too far. But there are some times when talking about sports and athletics is exactly what’s called for. One of those times is when we’re working on some texts from Paul’s letters, because Paul uses a lot of athletic imagery to talk about what the Christian life is like.

In the case of our text from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the analogies of boxing and running because Corinth was host, every two years, to an event called the Isthmian Games—second only in prestige to the Olympic Games themselves. No doubt there were a number of events that athletes could compete in, just like at the modern Olympic Games that are going on right now. The winners of the competitions at the Isthmian Games, like the winners at the Olympics and other ancient athletic events, received wreaths of greenery as prizes. What was unusual about the Isthmian Games’ wreaths, though, was that they were made out of withered celery. Imagine you bought a stalk of celery at the grocery store and left it in your refrigerator a couple of weeks, until it started to droop and turn brown. Then you made a wreath out of it: that was first prize at the Isthmian Games. I hate to think what the second- and third-place awards were like.

Paul says these athletes compete to receive "a perishable wreath"—very clearly perishable from the moment it was put on the winner’s head. We—and by "we" he means Christians—have our eyes on an imperishable, an eternal, prize. So how much more should we be training and practicing for our own races? How much more should we be disciplining ourselves in order to be in the best possible shape for the life Christ has called us to live? How much more—and read in context this is Paul’s point—do we need to lay aside our desire to have our own way, our indulgence in attitudes and behaviors that impair our ability to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the community of believers established to live and proclaim that Gospel in the world?

See, this text comes in the midst of a discussion Paul is having with the Corinthian church over the question of a Christian’s freedom. He has talked about the issue of Christians eating meat that has been offered to idols. Some of the Corinthian Christians had major concerns about this, and others thought it was no big deal and that the ones who had the concerns were superstitious rubes who needed to get over it. But Paul told them that, yes, we are free to eat this meat, because we know that idols are phony gods and can’t help or hurt us—however, if exercising that freedom might cause other Christians to fall, then we would do well to lay it aside.

What he is trying to say to the Corinthians is that a faithful Christian life is a disciplined life, a life of self-control. It isn’t a life of unbridled freedom, where we can do whatever we want because Christ has set us free from the demands of the Law. It also isn’t a life of rampant individualism, where all that matters is each believer’s personal relationship with Jesus. The faithful Christian life is a process of being shaped and formed more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And it’s a life lived among others who are in the same process, in a community where we all help with the training and formation of one another in the context of mutual love and grace. Our training won’t end. It will always be a part of our lives.

The training of a Christian involves a number of activities. Like an athlete, we need to make sure we take good care of our bodies, including eating well, exercising, managing our illnesses and other conditions carefully. We need to avoid substances and behaviors that detract from our physical, mental and spiritual health, like excessive use of alcohol and drugs, and inappropriate sexual expressions. We also need to take good care of our minds, studying and reading and learning all the time, reading our Bibles alone and with others. And we need to strengthen our spiritual lives, by practicing the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, worship, confession, celebration, and stewardship.

These things aren’t always exciting. Sometimes they’re downright repetitive and boring—sort of like lifting weights or running laps or hitting balls at the driving range or in the batting cage. But if we are going to receive that imperishable wreath Paul talks about, we have to keep ourselves in shape for the race we’re called to run.