Super Bowl  Sunday

A Sermon by the late Archbishop Jon T Cahoon and also then Rector of St.
Andrew & St. Margaret of Scotland given on January 31, 1999

I would be willing to bet that not everybody in the congregation today knows that this is Super Bowl Sunday -- and that some who know it is Super Bowl Sunday might not know exactly what Super Bowl Sunday is. I would also be willing to bet that at least one member of the congregation would be extremely upset if I exploited Super Bowl Sunday -- which is the culmination of the professional football season -- in a tacky way.

That might involve saying things such as, "The Christian life is just like football -- you try to carry the ball toward the goal, but you can run into some tackles and penalties along the way." Or "Praying is like throwing a forward pass -- you need to have absolute confidence in your receiver." You see what I mean -- tacky.

The Book of Acts tells us that St. Paul spent an extended period of time in the Greek port city of Corinth. Every other year Corinth played host to an athletic competition called the Isthmian games -- the games on the isthmus. The Isthmian games were like the Olympics, and they certainly included footraces -- the most basic athletic competition of all.

As this morning's epistle/New Testament lesson reveals, St. Paul was not above exploiting the imagery of the footrace to make points about Christianity -- tacky as that might have seemed to some of his more sophisticated readers and listeners.

The footrace image was designed to attract Gentile sports fans, and it also had echoes of the Hebrew Bible to entice the Jews in his audience. That grumpy realist Ecclesiastes reminds us, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." And in writing in Psalm 19 about the sun's passage across the sky, King David says, "It comes out in the morning like a happy bridegroom, like an athlete eager to run a race." Or in the far more beautiful, if somewhat obscure Prayer Book version, "(The sun) cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course."

We read this passage at the beginning of Pre-Lent for a fairly obvious reason. Pre-Lent is designed to help us shift gears away from the happy, celebratory seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, and point us toward the penitential and disciplinary season of Lent.

St. Paul is saying that athletes who want to win a footrace place themselves under a regime of discipline, writing, "Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things," or "Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline."

Then St. Paul makes the point that all an athlete gets even if he does win his race is a crown of celery or laurel leaves. So he calls the athletic prize a "corruptible crown" -- one that will rot away. In contrast, the prize in the Christian race is an incorruptible crown -- one that cannot rot away -- the enduring prize of everlasting life in union with God.

His point should be obvious. If athletes are willing to discipline themselves physically in hopes of winning a crown that will only rot, should we not be willing to discipline ourselves spiritually so we can win a crown that will never rot?

St. Paul amplifies the point other places in his writings. In the Epistle to the Philippians, he says that what gives his life meaning is the realization that life is like a footrace. He is always pressing ahead to win the prize that Jesus has already won for him. The only way he can do it is to forget what is behind him and concentrate on what is ahead of him, concluding, "I run straight toward the goal in order to win the prize, which is God's call through Christ Jesus to the life above."

Nobody can be certain if St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, but Hebrews also makes a very similar point. We all run a race course which God sets before us. The people who have already finished their races (the dead, the saints) are watching us and cheering us on. To try to run the Christian race without confessing and being absolved of our sins would be like trying to run a sprint in an overcoat and boots. We press ahead by keeping our eyes on Jesus who has finished his own race already. He ran right through the humiliation of the cross, and now he is sitting down with God waiting for us to join him.

Now the obvious place the footrace analogy falls down is in the matter of winners. In a footrace only one person can win. In the Christian race, everybody who makes it to the finish line is a winner. That makes perseverance -- keeping at it -- hanging in there -- a Christian virtue on the same level as penitence -- sorrow for your sins.

For the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. They do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. And Jesus tells us, "Be faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and
rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth
nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through
nor steal.
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