6 Epiphany, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
I have to confess that until this past fall - when I actually trained for a race for the first time in my life - this passage from Paul that we heard this morning did not resonate much for me. But sometime about six or seven weeks into my regiment of waking up between five and six a.m. for my morning runs, I started thinking about this passage. As I ran, I remembered it and for the first time in my life, it suddenly began to make sense to me: not intellectually, but viscerally, instinctually, intuitively. In this passage, Paul is making a connection between the life of an athlete and the training necessary for a spiritual life. Simply wishing that I had a deep spiritual life was just as helpful as wishing that I could run: it hadn’t gotten me anywhere. To strengthen my heart and muscles to run my first 5k, I had to take up a deliberate training program and commit to it. To strengthen my spiritual life, I had to take up deliberate practices of faith – like starting a routine of regular prayer.
Athletes are not the only ones who know that it takes a lot of training to achieve one’s goals. Musicians train just as hard for their art through hours upon hours of practice year after year. Visual artists do the same, practicing basics like lines and circles over and over again. Academics train their minds through years of study, research, teaching, and writing. There are certainly many more examples we could think of. What all of these folks know is that any goal worth reaching requires training, and that training requires discipline.
In a few weeks, we will begin Lent. For over a thousand years, Lent has been considered the perfect time to do some spiritual training. Lent is a clear, defined period of time to try out a new practice, to take on a practice of giving some things up or taking some things on, in order to train our souls, to build our spiritual endurance. We give things up during Lent to open up space for God to enter; we take things on to invite God in. Whether it’s abstaining from our favorite foods, giving up TV or Facebook, engaging in a daily routine of prayer, reading Scripture or a book on faith or theology, or whatever else it might be, these practices, when done intentionally to strengthen our spiritual lives, can help us grow in our faith.
As with all metaphors, the racing metaphor can be taken too far. As Paul mentions, in a race, there can only be one winner. If we do not win, does that not suggest that we have failed? Personally, I do not race to win; I just want to give a respectable showing. I would rather not be last, though the first will be last and the last will be first, right? How does that famous line of Jesus’ relate to this winning metaphor of Paul’s? If we take this racing/winning metaphor too far, we might even think that salvation is only for one - or perhaps just a few - when e
verything else we know from Paul and the rest of Scripture is that this is simply not the case: Salvation is at least for the many, if not for all. And we might also think that salvation is something we earn, while our Collect today reminds us that everything good we do is only accomplished by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone.
The other danger with a racing metaphor is that racing is mostly an individual event, and although there are individual components to our faith, the Christian faith is very much something done in community. After all, Paul’s greatest metaphor for faith is the Body of Christ. It really makes me wonder what Paul could have done if they had had team sports like today. The better athletic metaphor that still draws upon training and disciple, yet also picks up on the communal elements of the Body of Christ, might be a basketball, football, baseball, soccer, softball, or lacrosse team. Or to go out of athletics, the discipline of training that a musician engages in, and the beauty of the symphony when all of the strings, winds, brass, and percussion sections make music together.
Or perhaps racing is good enough here in Tracktown, USA, and we can picture it as a relay race, with each team member passing the baton to each other. We, as members of the Body of Christ, pass the baton to one another as we run this race through life in faith together. This afternoon, we will spend some time together as a parish at the Annual Meeting, talking about our training plan for the coming year – what we need to do in the year ahead to keep our ministry in motion. We as members of St. Mary’s do not run the race of our faith alone, we run it together, passing the baton along to one another. Sometimes that means that we all end up going a little slower because a member of our team is a little slower, and sometimes the faster members of the team encourage the rest of us to go a bit faster. But we run the race together, we finish the race together, and we receive the imperishable wreath together.
The track picture is used by permission. Image: xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net