Psalm 80; Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
I heard Langford called “the Sports Capitol of BC” on the radio the other day, and I thought – well, there are worse things to be known for. Our municipality is trying to rebrand itself around athletic endeavours: you can see this in the Olympic Fan Zone and Olympic mountain biking training facility at Bear Mountain, the new Y and the National Men’s rugby program at City Centre Park. I found out when I went online that Langford even offers subsidies so that low-income people can participate in sports. Kudos to Langford!
I don’t share our region’s obsession with sports. I prefer to be active myself than watch other people be active, and organized sports just don’t do much for me – probably in part because I’m really bad at them! But at the very least sports means physical activity, and activity means better health, and better physical health is a huge step towards better mental and spiritual health. So I can see the value of sports; but I wonder about the priority we place on athletic competition and organized sports – even to the point where sports has become, along with shopping, the major competitor for the allegiance of Christians. I remember a poster the Anglican Church in BC came up with 20 years or so now. It had a picture of a BC Lions quarterback, and the caption read something like, “The Lions – still the church’s greatest competition”.
As the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Olympics have taken place and competitions is undersay, it seems a good time to look at how our widespread interest in sports can inform our faith yet also can come into conflict with contemporary faith.
Spectator sports are not new to the world by any means, and neither is the amount of money poured into them. The apostle Paul frequently uses images from GrecoRoman athletics to illustrate aspects of Christian living, and so do other early Christian writers who write in his name. Every big city had its own coliseum or arena where everyday citizens, professional gladiators, slaves and prisoners of war would compete for large monetary awards, social status or even their lives and their freedom. Who hasn’t seen Ben Hur or Gladiator? This is the world Paul knew, and he used images from the sporting world of his day to illustrate his messages to the churches – even though there was much in that sporting world that was the opposite of what Christ taught! Paul knows his audience, knows what’ s important to them, and he uses this language, combining it with the stories of Scripture, to talk to them about what it means to be a Christian in that place and time.
I don’t use sporting images often, because I don’t really understand a lot of the language. (One of these days I’ll learn how football works!) But I can understand Paul using athletic language to illustrate the commitment necessary to the life of faith. Ken and Ruth Kelbough’s granddaughter, who is competing in rowing in Brazil this year, has had to put in thousands of hours of training in all kinds of different conditions, to get where she is now. That is more than natural talent – that is dedication and drive of the utmost strength. That is precisely the dedication, drive and faithfulness evidenced by these ancestors in the faith Paul lists for us.
This is the faithfulness we are asked to offer God, in response to the unshakeable faithfulness God has shown to us. Ironically though, it is precisely here that the Christian life and the life of the athlete, sports lover or even armchair fan come into conflict. There are certain things that have been taught to us and affirmed by the church for generations, that are really hard to stick to when you are a sports fan.
The most obvious one is “keeping the Sabbath” – putting a whole day aside to rest one’s body, and to rest in, worship, and learn from God. We all know the “Sunday/sports” conflict – I don’t need to tell you about that – but it’s not just Sunday. Large quantities of our quiet time is being taken away by the perceived need to become more and more organized in our recreational pursuits – not to mention the need to watch televised sports events! So you don’t just jog or run for your own fitness level – you TRAIN for a walking and running clinic to prepare for a marathon (especially fundraising marathons) that are nearly always on Sunday mornings. You don’t just go for a bike ride – you TRAIN. Children go to all-day nature camps instead of just running around their neighbourhood parks in packs. They play hockey or soccer, year round – 8 months apparently isn’t enough! The playground isn’t challenging enough anymore either…we have to have ziplines and high ropes courses and climbing walls (all of which cost money, by the way.) Victoria area people are unbelievably intense about their recreation. So much for the laidback West Coast! The truth is, it’s pretty hard for your average neighbourhood church to connect with people when this is how they spend their days.
There are successful Christian children’s programs that capitalize on this interest –like the Soccer Camp Canvas Church runs every summer. It’s flooded with children. They get professional athletes from the States to come teach the children soccer skills. Canvas Church definitely takes the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to the conflict between sports and religious practice. If you read the description of the camp, there’s absolutely nothing in there about Christian faith as part of the curriculum. But because it’s run by a church that is clear that its task is to bring new people to Christ – there’s a little Bible camp to throw in with all the soccer practice.
It really brings the children in – but I find it rather sad that we have to sneak faith into children’s lives – even the lives of children who are connected to the church, through their families, through baptism, through occasional attendance at Sunday School. It’s like we’ve tacitly accepted that sports are more important than anything else – except maybe school. So instead of baseball leagues or bowling teams attached to churches, we have some semblance of church attached to sports programs. Better than nothing, of course, but still…I wonder what the apostle Paul might have thought?
Some of the questions that arise around professional sports have to do with other commandments, as well as the teaching about the Sabbath. For example, “you shall not covet” – ie. “Don’t want what your neighbour has just because he or she has it.” Yet look at the amount of money in sponsorship deals both amateur and professional athletes make convincing us to wear that they wear, drive what they drive, eat what they eat, and more. The whole international sports network is upheld by the principle of covetousness! Though certainly not unique to sports, this is problematic from a Christian point of view.
Another commandment that our passion for sports calls into question is the one against idolatry: “You shall have no other God before me.” Many people have observed the ways that sporting events mimic and replace religious activity: strong ties between believers (ie fans), group chants that everyone knows and participates in, repetitive music that both echoes emotion and produces it, initiation at a young age into family and pack loyalties, inter-team rivalries, and more. Loyalty to one’s team or one’s sport becomes religious in fervor, sometimes in the most negative sense of religion – us against them, you’re for us or against us, and those who don’t “share the faith” are acceptable targets when things don’t go the way you want. Rugby stampedes, Stanley Cup riots, opposing fans targeted and taunted – all of this is “sports fundamentalism”. Not a pretty picture! What should be playful and positive becomes dangerous and dark.
The Rio Olympics has displaced 77,000 people from their homes. The city of Beijing conducted a massive sweep, removing 1000s of homeless people and migrants and forcing evictions to make room for their Olympic visitors. Vancouver did not do this, but neither were any of the promises made to homelessness activists kept. For example, Vancouver cut social housing at Olympic Village by 50% in order to finance its debt. How would this sit with Jesus, who said, “Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do for me?”
None of this is to detract from the achievements of athletes who have stayed committed, stayed clean, worked hard, and achieved the ultimate in their fields. The dedication they have shown will benefit the nations from which they come for a generation or more, as they pass that commitment and drive to the young who idolize them. Many of the values learned by participating in sports fit well with Christian teaching – that’s why these sport images keep cropping up! In fact, some people think the letter to the Hebrews was deliberately written for an audience interested in athletics. Listen to some more quotations from Paul and the writers who follow in his footsteps:
1Corinthians 9:24-27 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Hebrews 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,
Hebrews 12:13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
And a reminder from 1 Timothy:
1Timothy 4:8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
What I hope for, is to see that dedication many of us have to athletics is also expressed in our Christian living;
that we will be as ready to sacrifice for the life of faith as we are for the life of the body; that we will be as willing to sink our money, our energy, our time into the things God deeply desires for the world, as we are for our entertainment, exercise or personal and team achievement.
That means we’ll TRAIN, just like the athletes do. We will participate in worship, we will pray daily, we will give generously, we will read our Bibles and engage in Bible study either on our own or in a group, we will participate in the life of the church and serve the community, we will learn to know and love our neighbours, especially those the world counts as “the least of these”. We will learn the stories of our ancestors in faith – that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us all – and be inspired by them, as young athletes are inspired by Matt Kuchar and Silken Laumann, Usain Bolt and Kohei Uchimara, Ryan Cochrane and Penny Oleksiak.
Do you think these athletes enjoy what they do? Of course they do – otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it! Do not lose your joy in the faith. Do not forget the love of Jesus and the grace and mercy that come through him from the hand of God. Do not forget how you were called and claimed by Jesus, baptised and confirmed into a life that can only make the world, your community, your self more hopeful, peaceful, joyful. Christianity can be challenging at times. True, we will sometimes – often, even – find ourselves walking a bit to one side of those around us. True, there are no easy answers to some of the questions and tensions raised by our faith. But it is also true that when joined with Christ and with one another, we do not run the race alone. Christianity is a team sport, and we’ve got the best coach in the universe. Indeed, he invented the game!
So friends, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also …run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. “
May It Be So.