Sunday, February 23, 2014

Winter Games: Sermon, February 23, 2014

I do all this for the good news, because I want to share in its blessings.

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. And I don’t box by beating my fists in the air. I keep my body under control and make it my slave, so I won’t lose out after telling the good news to others.

1 Corinthians 9:23-27, Common English Version

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

Matthew 5:38-48, Common English Bible

I don’t need to tell anyone that this winter has seemed exceptionally cold and snowy. You may remember that one day that the temperature here was colder than at the South Pole. Maybe the Winter Olympics should have been held here, instead of in the warmest city in Russia.

Someone said that there are always two Olympics. There is the experience of the games themselves, where athletes do amazing things, and there is another, darker side, all about in whose service the games are held. There can be no doubt that these Sochi games are intended to promote Vladimir Putin and his regime in Russia. Where the news from the Olympics should be about medal sweeps, in Russia there have been other sweeps, arrests of peaceful critics of Putin’s policies on the rights of gay and lesbian people, the right to a free press, and environmental protection.

Olympic games are ruinously expensive – Vancouver did relatively well, but Russia has spent $51 billion on the winter games in Sochi, the most ever. There have already been riots in Brazil over how much money the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics are costing, money that could be spent on public services. And most of these venues in Sochi, built at such expense and some displacing entire villages of people, will apparently just be left to decay when the games are over, benefiting no one.

One of the big book and movie franchises for young adults the last few years has been The Hunger Games. I feel as if we are the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, as we eagerly watch these winter games and look past what’s behind the event. Among the few athletes who have drawn attention to this other side during the Olympics are two Canadian snowboarders. Michael Lambert said that he’s all for a pure form of sport with no distractions, but at the same time just because he’s part of the Olympics doesn’t mean he can ignore the controversial realities behind Sochi. Jasey Jay Anderson criticized the extravagant spending on these games, and how distant it is from his life at home, and from the future of humanity. As well, a Ukrainian skier withdrew from the slalom, her best event, saying that she can’t participate when people are dying in protests against the pro-Russian government of Ukraine.

So, like Michael Lambert, I can’t close my eyes to the reality behind these games, the corruption, the waste, the arrests and intimidation. But the young people from all over the world who have trained for years to compete in the games deserve honour, and the celebration of their achievements. They bring us together as we cheer them on. The whole country pretty much shut down for the hockey games. Complete strangers were gathering around someone’s cell phone to watch, and hugging each other when Canada scored. On Thursday afternoon I was on a church conference call, and suddenly everyone erupted into shouts of joy as news broke that the Canadian women’s hockey team had won the gold medal. We were in Toronto and there was a TV on in a food court, and men wearing Team Canada hockey sweaters were anxiously watching figure skating.

And these athletes inspire us. Who can’t rejoice with the three Dufour-Lapointe sisters from Quebec, who all qualified for the Olympics in moguls skiing, and two of them won gold and silver medals? Who can’t follow with rapt attention Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in ice dancing, or Jennifer Jones and the Canadian women’s curling team? And who can’t sympathize with athletes who finished a fraction of a second out of the medals? These games have produced so many remarkable stories. There’s the story of Noriaki Kasai, the Japanese ski jumper who won a silver medal at Lillehammer in 1994, and 20 years later came to Sochi aged 41 and won another silver. Or Dario Cologna, from Switzerland, who won a gold medal in cross country sking. You would think that after such a gruelling race he would head off to rest, but he waited a half hour at the finish line to congratulate the final skier, from Peru, who was competing with broken ribs from an accident before the games.

For many of us these Olympics expose us to sports we don’t normally follow. A lot of us watch hockey and curling and figure skating, but when else are we so interested in freestyle skiing, or long track speed skating, or what I think are really insane sports like luge, where you go down feet first on a sled, or skeleton, where you go down face first. But as a kid I found tobogganing pretty scary at times, so these are probably not the sports for me. And after the Olympics finish there will be the Paralympic games, which will allow us to watch athletes with disabilities, who don’t get much attention any other time.

The Olympic flame burning in Sochi traveled from Greece, for the modern games are a revival of the ancient Olympics. And the Apostle Paul knew about these Greek games, as did the believers in the churches he was writing to, so he uses sports to make his point to the Corinthian church in his letter we read today: “You know that many runners – or skiers, or speed skaters, or snowboarders – enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! Athletes work hard to win a prize that cannot last, but we do it for a prize that will last forever.”

An athlete must train with intensity to win the contest. We can only imagine how hard athletes need to train to win an Olympic event. What’s more, an athlete went through this self-discipline and this training in ancient Greece, not to win a medal or commercial endorsements, but a simple crown of laurel leaves that withered within days. When we refer to laurels, that’s what the expression refers to. Nowadays the point is still the same: Athletes may work for a prize that can’t last, but followers of Jesus do it for the prize of eternal life.

To win the race demands discipline. But Paul is telling us that to win this eternal prize we must be just as self-disciplined in our lives. We have to discipline our bodies, our minds, our souls, because to follow Jesus and live in his way isn’t easy. Look at what Jesus tells us today: Don’t oppose those who want to hurt you. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. That’s hard, to put it mildly. It goes against the script our society has socialized into us. TV shows are called Revenge, and Die Hard, they’re not called Turning the Other Cheek or Loving Your Enemies.

Paul tells the Corinthians, “I don’t run without a goal.” In life we need to know our goal. And, Paul says, he won’t be able to reach his goal if he gets distracted by his own purposes. To reach our goal in life, to live in the way Jesus taught us and shows us, we need to practice self-discipline, self-control. William Barclay said that we can’t do what Jesus tells us to do, to serve others, until we have mastered ourselves. We can’t tell people the Good News of Jesus unless we know it. We can’t bring others to Jesus unless we ourselves are with him and found in him.

Remember on Thursday, when the Canadian women were down 2-0 in the third period to Team USA? No one gave up. These women responded as they had been trained to do, they pressed on, they showed discipline, they showed passion, they showed that, as they put it, every minute matters – and they tied the game and took it to overtime, and then scored to become the Olympic champions. Sisters and brothers, Olympic medals are for the young and fit, but our game, our race, is for the young and old, of all stages of health and ability, for all of us. And every minute matters. You know those Canadian Tire commercials, We All Play For Canada? Well, we are all athletes in this race of life, heading for the goal. Run to win!

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