Reverend Mel Baars
1 Cor 9:24-27
There is nothing like a good sports metaphor to get us started this morning. It seems that, in every age, sports is something that we all “get.” Paul uses metaphors of athleticism because these were the tangible examples that his audience understood. Back then, sporting events had a very religious element to them. Athletes would give offerings and prayers to the gods before the events began, often believing that it was the gods that determined the outcome of the game. I don’t know about you, but I think this sounds a little Tim Tibow-esque if you ask me. From antiquity to the present, some things never change.
Now, there is natural talent, but if one really wants to be a contender, whether it is against others or against oneself, one has to put time and effort into training. Most people can’t just go out and pass a Physical Fitness test without ever practicing. If we want to grow in our athleticism, we have to train. We have to work hard. This must be one of the reasons that I see so many of my soldiers in the gym no matter what time of the day that I go to work out. Whether it is to finally achieve that “beach body” so many desire or just to get stronger and better prepared for the demands of the military, the only way to get anywhere in fitness, is to make training a life priority, part of our everyday lifestyle.
It should be no surprise that the same principles apply to faith. Like physical fitness requires time, effort, training, practice, and prioritization, all driven by discipline. So does faith. Faith doesn’t just happen… automatically, out of the blue. Faith takes our time, our devotion, our priority. Through a life grounded in prayer and worship, through commitment to compassion and generosity, often against the grain of what our culture encourages, these become the disciplines of our faith.
If there is one thing that the military community understands it is the importance of discipline. Train as you fight, they say. And train we do. From the first moments of basic training and then in every training environment where we may find ourselves afterwards, the heart of what we learn and learn again and then learn yet again is the importance of discipline. No matter how successful we are in our training, no matter how well we know our craft and can execute without flaw, no matter if we have hit the near perfect mark, we still continue to train, to practice discipline. Without it, we become vulnerable.
In one of my favorite military movies, An Officer and a Gentleman, when Richard Gere was much younger, there is an infamous and challenging obstacle course that all of the officer candidates have to run in order to graduate from Officer Basic Course. None of us need to watch the movie to imagine the scene since we have all been there ourselves. There is the high and low crawl under the barbed wire and the tires to run through. There are ropes to scurry up and high walls to clear. There is a lot of dirt and grime and each part of the course has to be mastered into order for the OC to get a “go.” In the movie, Gere’s character is undoubtably one of the stronger students. He is so good at athletics that he can do this obstacle course without really trying and with a little effort, he becomes a contender for holding the record for the fastest time ever. Not all of the OCs are as fortunate as him. One, a woman probably not bigger than me, can’t seem to clear the wall, no matter how hard she tries. Climbing walls does not come easy for her. I totally understand her plight.
Throughout the movie, we watch as they continue to train for this event, which will make or break them. Gere is always at the front, leaving everyone else in the dust while the others slowly but surely make progress toward mastering this course. Finally, it is their test day. For Gere it is the moment when he can do his personal best and break the course record. For some of the others, it is the moment when they either pass or fail officer candidate school. Many are nervous, particularly the woman who is not a natural wall climber. I would be nervous, too. They begin the course, and Gere leads the pack. He is definitely going to break the record. Nothing is going to stop him. But suddenly, he slows down, and he looks back. He sees her. She is stuck on the wrong side of the wall, fighting and struggling to climb. It is not looking promising. Throughout the entire movie, Gere only thinks of himself and his personal successes. He never helps or encourages anyone else. He is not a team player. But in this moment, he does something very curious for him. He turns around and heads back to the wall, going the opposite direction of the finish line, ensuring that he won’t break the record after all. When he gets to the wall, she is still on the wrong side. He starts yelling at her and encouraging her, even though she is ready to quit. He refuses to leave her there, even when she tells him to. He stays with her until she gets over the wall. In doing so, he loses his “prize.”
It’s as if the deeper point of all the training that he had been through in officer candidate school had finally sunk in. Discipline was not merely about winning and getting the record time, because for Gere, breaking the record didn’t require too much of him. Discipline was about being molded and shaped into the kind of player that recognized that being the best wasn’t necessarily the goal. It isn’t always what demands the most out of us. Yes, in the military, we do put a lot of credence in the strongest and the fastest. We have ribbons and awards which pose as incentives for us to try harder to do more pushups and run a little faster. But, the purpose of discipline is more than even this. Discipline is all about growth. It is about becoming more than we ever thought we could be. For Gere, the record on the obstacle course was not his true prize. He could have done that without growing at all. Helping his comrade get to the finish line, no matter what time it took them, this demonstrated his growth. This was the real win- a win for all of them.
In biblical hermeneutics, which is just a theological word for interpretation, inevitably much gets “lost in translation.” Sometimes our English just doesn’t do justice to the sacred text. When Paul writes, “(You) run in such a way that you may win it.” The “you” is really a good southern Ya’ll. It’s plural, referring to a team of sorts, not just one athlete. After all, he is writing to a whole community of people in Corinth, who are, together, trying to figure out how it is that they are going to live their lives faithfully, for faithfulness is their ultimate goal. They are struggling and fighting amongst themselves, worrying about what amounts to insignificance in the scheme of God's grace. They are spinning in circles, trying to somehow capture God in the box which works for them and their clique, all the while, forgetting that God made us in God’s image. Not the other way around.
It is no wonder that the Corinthians are having a hard time. Maintaining the discipline of faith is not easy, especially when that discipline demands our love- love of God and love of our neighbors. Not just the people we like most or the ones who practice faith like we do. Not just the ones who love us back but even the ones who spend a lifetime trying to do away with us and everything we hold dear. Furthermore, not just the God who we prefer, who fits best with our opinions or our agendas or our politics or what is convenient, but the one true God. The God who loves both sons fully, the one who is obedient and the one who strays. The God who pays a full wage to his workers, even when, to us, it doesn’t seem fair because one only works for an hour while the other works for a lifetime. The God of the cross, who, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, bids us to come and die. This is the cost of our discipleship.
Paul reminds us that for this life of faith we need each other. Because it’s never just “You,” singular, but it is always “You,” plural, all of us, together. We can never do faithfulness alone. That’s not how it works. The disciplines of faith are discovered more deeply when we realize that we depend on God and one another to live well, really, to live at all. We know that there are days, in our training, that we are ready to give up, when the pain gets to be too much, and we are on the verge of walking away. It doesn’t take me very long to recall a moment in my own training, when I was moments from quitting, and someone, one of my leaders or even one of my peers, stepped in and reminded me that I was not alone. Even though they were faster and stronger, they came back around to the barrier where I was stuck and helped me get over to the other side. To run the race well, is to run with our whole heart, giving it all, having nothing left over. But, in the life of faith, our discipline of love teaches us that we are not running the race as solo contenders. But, we are running together, as a people, as God’s beloved people. Reaching out to each other across the walls we have built up, risking our own successes, no matter what it takes, so that no one, not even one, is left behind. This is our prize. And, we know it’s true because this is our God. This is exactly what God is doing for us in our world, even now. God invites us into a life of faith where we learn the discipline of love, love of both God and neighbor, where we learn to give ourselves away because we trust that God’s promise of faithfulness is all we ever really need. It may take us our lifetime. But, this is what it means to win. Amen