Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 9
24You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! 25Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever. 26I don't run without a goal. And I don't box by beating my fists in the air. 27I keep my body under control and make it my slave, so I won't lose out after telling the good news to others.

I regard it as a sure sign of getting older that I react badly that the Olympics have begun. Measuring your life in four year segments, experiencing alarm that the games have come around again, and knowing that the next games are right around the corner all add the chilling sense that the passage of time continues to accelerate.

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement. Gold for Jennifer Heil in moguls, disappointment for Beckie Scott in cross-country skiing, a 16-0 rout in women's hockey: the games are back and it's only day two. As a "winter country" we have much to look forward to, and we will no doubt swell with pride as the games unfold knowing that for such a small nation we do remarkably well at the winter games.

Part of the coverage I have enjoyed is looking forward. As the host nation for 2010 there is a sub-set of stories regarding preparation for Vancouver and the next wave of Olympians. Will they be ready? Are they sufficiently funded? Organizers look forward to the natural boost that comes with being the host country, but are also aware of all the added pressure. As the only country to host the games twice and fail to win a gold medal at either event, there is pressure but also national pride to consider. Clearly, these remarkable young women and men are not only preparing for their own Olympics but the team and the nation they represent. Not only do they feel the pressure of improving their individual performance, but must remain mindful of the Olympic hopes of the 30 million Canadians watching. I'm trying to imagine a situation that creates more pressure, and I can't.


You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever. I don't run without a goal.

St. Paul used a variety of images to convey the same idea. Like a good preacher, he knew that different members of his audience would respond to different ideas. So he added a mixture of metaphors (and sometimes mixed his metaphors) and trusted that something he wrote would reach the reader. In the verses that immediately precede our passage for today he shares his famous idea, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some." In other words, he will adopt local customs and consider the context when he is attempting to share the story of Jesus.

An athletic metaphor such as running the race is readily understood by athletes and non-athletes alike, and also gives birth to a variety of insights: You run to win. This is not the same as defeating the competition, but rather recognition that the purpose of the race is to do your best. Athletes must work hard. Race day is preceded by years of preparation, and at the heart of this preparation is self-discipline. In this way, most of the competition is internal: a race with yourself.

Applying these insights to a life of faith is a trickier matter. Paul is not simply giving life lessons but trying to prepare his reader for life in the Kingdom: "Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever," he writes. The prize is a life with God, and a realized vision where the ways of God are made known to all people. One way to imagine this is like a race: performing with an eye on the prize, doing our best, working hard, and always exercising self-disciple. Again, most of the competition is internal: a race with ourselves.


From the Waterloo Record:

Win your race to financial security by playing catch-up

Marathon runners must top up their fluid levels at regular intervals during a race or they will never make their personal goal times at the finish line. The same strategy is true for you in the long race toward financial security at retirement. If you don't top-up your RRSP at regular intervals along the way, you'll never reach your financial goals at the retirement finish line. But unlike those marathoners, you can catch up to peak RRSP performance even if you've neglected your RRSP top-ups for years.

By shear coincidence, the end of RRSP season corresponds with the Olympics. No shock then that a clever writer would use an athletic metaphor to describe the best route to financial security. For the record, he is correct that one of the secrets to a good race is hydration. And, without the benefit of being a financial person, I imagine he is also correct that one of the keys to long-term financial security is making regular contributions to an RRSP.

I highlight this article because it speaks to our age. By the way, I knew this article existed before I knew it existed. I guessed with complete certainty that if I googled the words "RRSP" and "race" that someone somewhere would have written an article comparing retirements savings with a marathon. Call me a prophet of the Internet age, because sure enough, there it was.

Here's the message you will never here in February of the year: Pay your taxes and feel the satisfaction of helping others. Has anyone ever seen such as ad? Of course, not, because even the government doesn't have the nerve to frame it in such a way. Instead, the messages are "let us help you avoid paying taxes" and "safeguard your own financial future through a tax deductible RRSP contribution." Somehow our society has made a virtue out of avoiding taxes when the very taxes we avoid paying provide the things we say we treasure most: health care, education and security.

Back to the race, it is a metaphor that can lead to selfishness and an excessive focus on the individual. In our time, when we think of winning, we inevitable think of getting the most for ourselves. This even bleeds in the spiritual life of many. In some expressions of Christianity the focus is almost exclusively on the life of the individual soul, with personal salvation as the object of faith. The other danger is a focus on perfection, and the quest for a personal piety that does not fit with the understanding that we continually fall short of God's desire for us yet remain a forgiven people.

When Gregory of Nyssa (writing in the fourth century) considered Paul's idea of the race, he summarized it this way: "we consider becoming God's friend the only thing worthy of honour and desire." The goal of the race, achieving the name "friend of God," takes practice and determination and a willingness to embark on a lifelong journey. We race beside others and we all have the same goal: but unlike the Olympics, we can all win the prize. Everyone who completes a marathon gets a medal. At first I thought this was a little trite, but when I actually stumbled over the line I realized that I had won my race, and the medal seemed like a nice reminder of that fact.

Every Olympian is part of a team. And at the Olympics, unlike many other sporting events, the desire to support the overall performance of the team is never far from the athlete's minds. Christianity, like the Olympics, is both about the individual and the team. We run our race and we do our very best for the sake of our selves and for others. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are building something together. We must never lose sight of the fact that this is a common endeavor undertaken by faithful individuals. The tension is built in, but also the truth that personal achievement means more when it supports our common life and that a friendship with God is both individual and collective.

May you run with renewed strength the race before you, and may you remember that we never run alone. Amen.


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