e hear it said, and see it written, that sporting games are alleged to have some higher purpose because they are microcosms of real life. This ideal lies at the soul of the true baseball fan’s interest in the game. The same can be said of: football, running events, and a few other sports. Many of you share my interest in sports and we strive to keep real life vs. sports in perspective, except during The World Series, Super Bowl, the Olympic Games, and many other games.
As Atlanta Braves baseball fans, during the 1960-70’s, we struggled with a constant losing record; however, there was one fan who never gave up on her boys, in fact she never missed a home game, for over 25 years, until she was forced by old age to watch on television. Our own church member, Pearl Sandow, has even made the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I have seen her statue standing there amid the greats of the game, many of whom she has known personally. She casually talks about having Ted Williams over for supper; and of course Pearl knows all of the Braves players, past and present. She and her brother joined this church on the first Sunday that a former professional baseball player came here as Pastor in 1944: They had known Pierce Harris from his baseball days.
Do we hear St. Paul encouraging us to take our spiritual life as seriously as we take our interest in sports?
The Apostle Paul may have shared in my occasional feeling of being torn between sporting drama and true life struggles. His letters to the Church, located at the international seaport city of Corinth, Greece, reflect a contextual assumed knowledge of what we now call Olympic Games. In our text for this Sunday he uses boxing and running as a background for his encouragement for the Corinthians, and us, to focus on the ultimate race that really matters--- “Athletes struggle to win a fading crown of leaves, but our contest is for a crown that will never fade.” (see 1 Cor. 9: 24-27). Games are fine, in their place, but if we are not careful they can mull our focus on the struggle to win that eternal gold medal.
In the game of life we are to “Run To Win!” The New English New Testament says, “You know (do you not?) that at the sports all the runners run the race, though only one wins the prize. Like them, run to win!” (v.24). J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase of Paul’s analogy captures this idea well, “I run the race with determination, I am no shadowboxer; I really fight!” (v.26).
I made sure to see the Track and Field events in our city’s 1996 Olympic Games. Candi, my college age at the time daughter, went with me one day and we sat there twelve hours watching the greatest athletes in the world compete for many medals. At one point Candi turned to me and said, “Daddy, this is the greatest day of my life!” And it was one of my favorite days too. But as I remember the day, I can hardly name the names of many athletes, or which ones won which medals; but I do cherish that day with Candi. And that’s life! We sporadically enjoy the games as a way of heightening and brightening the real struggle that we will win as we stay focused on what really matters. And the precious promise is that if we will stay the course, we will all win the prize, not by our might, but through His Grace.
And what is this prize that we strive to win? Many think it is happiness. That may be overdone. At least we Americans have made “the pursuit of happiness” an almost end in itself. “The eye is never satisfied” when we spend our lives merely chasing after the things that we think can make us happy.
My classmate Will Willimon, now Dean of the Duke University Chapel, related a story this week at a preachers’ conference about a psychology professor who had a spoiled young husband appear at his office without an appointment: “I want to be happy! I must find happiness! I deserve being happy!”, the nouveau riche young man repeated. The counselor was exhausted after a long day, so he blurted out, “Well just go find a girlfriend, and get drunk, and maybe run off to Tahiti, and you will be happy, for a while, if that’s all you want!”
We are reminded of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus seeking happiness, but when Jesus told him what he really had to do, the young man went away sad--- and the reason was money. He was the only specific person recorded in the New Testament who said No to Jesus--- and the reason was mammon. He thought he could not give up his tangible possessions, in order to attain an intangible.
Marilyn and I have been to the impressive ruins of ancient Corinth. In Christianity’s first century it was at the crossroads of the world. Ships brought all kinds of people, and expensive merchandise to Corinth. All of the philosophies, and competing religions also came into that wealthy city. Archeologists have uncovered huge stone buildings, temples, and sports palaces there. Their streets were paved with stone. I recall a large indoor swimming pool. They had indoor bathrooms, and a general opulent lifestyle; but amid all of that there was a young church made up of folks seeking more out of life.
Paul himself seems to be concerned that even he could miss out on the prize. After preaching to others he knew that it was not automatic that he would win the prize. The race we run is more like a lifelong marathon than it is a one hundred meter dash. “There, I have run, I have won, that is it!” But, that’s not it, is it? Evidently we keep on running well past our prime.
So, what is it that we seek? What really is “An imperishable wreath?” Is that something we really need to run all of our lives to attain at the end of the race? Of course, the answer is, Yes! And there will come a day for all of us when that’s all that matters. But, just maybe there is also joy in the running: God joining us along the way. Maybe it’s not so much our winning: Look who our star teammate is-- We are sure to win with Him on our team!
a sermon synopsis
by C. Robert Allred, Th.D.,