Habakkuk 2:1-4 – I Corinthians 9:24-27
The Rev. Helen Havlik – Trinity – June 16, 2019
We talk about people being physically fit or mentally fit, in other words, in good condition or health. We talk about people being fit for a job or a good fit as a couple—fit means suitable or proper. It means qualified or competent, prepared or ready. You can fit a garment—and it can fit well or poorly. To make something fit means to adjust or to conform. You can throw a fit—or be fit to be tied. Fit also refers to a type of song (look it up in Webster’s Dictionary!). So given all this, what does it mean to be spiritually fit? Proper, as in always doing the right thing? Conforming as in fitting into the group? Competent, as in always having the right answers? This summer we’re looking at what it means to be Fit for Life—the life God is calling us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. Is this one size fits all or a set of rules to follow? If we want to be spiritually fit we have to clear some hurdles that can hold us back. The Apostle Paul has his ideas about that. I’m reading from I Corinthians, Ch. 9, beginning with vs. 24. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
My grandnephew Marshall played on a soccer team this spring for the first time. All his games were in Greenville, so I was able to make it to most of them. The first game he was so excited that he kept running over to the sidelines to tell his mom and me what had just happened. Finally Robin said as kindly as she could that we were able to see the game just fine and he needed to get back in there and play because his team needed him. Even though they don’t pay much attention to scores at this age, they did pretty well for the season because some of the kids had older siblings who play soccer and already knew the game. I wanted to vote Marshall most improved because by the last game, he was focused on one thing—getting that ball in the net for a goal.
One of the fun things I get to do as a pastor is go to sporting events where kids from church are involved. Over the years I’ve been to soccer games, football games, basketball games, baseball games, softball games, t-ball games, volleyball games, track meets, cross country races, wrestling matches, tennis matches—I know I’m leaving something out. It always impresses me how kids’ skills improve as they put time and effort into their sport of choice. And not just their skills but their teamwork also improves over time. Skills and teamwork usually lead to wins—that victor’s wreath that Paul talks about which is the point, right? Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
Or is it? As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he’s probably thinking of the Isthmus Games that were held there every two years, something like our modern-day Olympics. Running was one of the events—so was boxing. So Paul’s using these sports that people knew well as an analogy about the life of faith. In our 21st century way of thinking, he seems to be making the point that we need to work hard to reach the ultimate goal of faith, which is eternal life, the victory of heaven, the imperishable crown of glory promised to those who persevere. And, given our times, we might get the idea that anything we do to get there is okay—the end we seek justifies the means we use—even if we knock a few hurdles—or people—out of the way in the process.
But what if Paul’s point isn’t about the finish line and the winner’s stand? What if his idea of winning isn’t about our personal achievement, all those first place trophies and ribbons and medals? What if those things are some of the hurdles that actually get in the way of the real prize? What if he’s more concerned about the training ahead of time and how we run the race and in the end who gets the glory—and it’s not us? In these four verses, Paul talks about a couple of things that can help us run this race, so that we can clear all the other hurdles as we strive toward the finish line.
First there’s the matter of self-control or discipline. We’ve all seen the commercials advertising for the Olympics that show skaters or runners rolling out of bed before the sun comes up and heading to a dark arena or track to begin their day with practice. It’s the discipline of repetition, of falling down and always getting up again, of doing the hard thing in favor of the easy thing. But Paul isn’t just thinking of individuals here—he’s thinking of the good of the group, the well-being of the team. Of sacrifices made for the sake of others. Like Steph Curry who could so easily just put the ball in the net, but instead supports his teammates as they have their chance to shine. Self-control means putting aside our own needs and working with others for a common goal—for Paul, that was sharing the gospel with others so that they, too, would wear that victor’s wreath, eternal life now and always.
Which leads us to consider the goal we’re trying to reach. Paul isn’t running aimlessly or boxing at shadows—he isn’t practicing self-denial for its own sake and neither should we. But he also isn’t aiming at just any goal. He isn’t trying to build a cathedral or an endowment. He isn’t seeking power and glory for himself. He isn’t setting aside his ethics to get what he wants. He isn’t stepping on people to get to God. His goal isn’t even the finish line—but pulling others in to run the race together. To paraphrase a political cliché, it’s the people, stupid! Remember that Special Olympics race where a group of runners set off from the starting line and were plowing toward the finish when one of them fell and started crying? At first the other runners kept going, knowing a medal was waiting for the winner. Then the one out ahead suddenly stopped—it may have been just short of the finish line—and looked back toward the sound of the one who had fallen. Instead of finishing, the frontrunner ran back to the fallen one and one by one the other runners did, too. Picking up their friend, they linked arms and crossed the finish line together. The goal is the journey that we take together—it’s not about who’s faster and gets across the finish line first. In fact, Paul wants us to make sacrifices so that we all can finish together.
Over the years I’ve watched many kids learn so much from participating in sports. I’ve seen them grow from novices to seasoned players through the discipline of practice and the tempering of playing on a team. There’s no “I” in team, right? Learning that is one of the most valuable lessons of all—in the sporting life, in the spiritual life, self-improvement isn’t the be-all, end-all. Marshall’s going to his church’s soccer camp in July where he’ll learn a lot to help him play the game better and be a better team member. His parents also want him to know and love God so that he’ll be ready to clear the hurdles to answer God’s call whenever and wherever it comes. Because it’s the same when it comes to the spiritual life: we use those same disciplines of practice—worship, praying, studying scripture, serving—and the tempering of participating in church and community, to grow from novices to mature disciples. Spiritual fitness starts with hearing God’s wake-up call—then getting up and onto the track or into the arena.