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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


1 Corinthians 9:24-25 “X Games”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

The introduction to Pat Summitt's book, Reach For the Summit, starts out with a warning:

When I get after something, the veins in my neck stand out. The color begins to rise up from my collarbone, and you can see the pulse going in my throat, and my eyes look like the high beams of an oncoming car. I am what you would call a classic Type A personality. An extremely demanding person. Certainly the people close to me would tell you that, including my seven-year-old son, Tyler.

"Mama," Tyler says, when I get that look in my eye. "Please put your sunglasses back on."

That's who you're dealing with here. Someone who will sell her house to own your farm. Someone who will push you beyond all reasonable limits. Someone who will ask you to not just fulfill your potential, but to exceed it. Someone who will expect more from you than you may believe you are capable of. So if you aren't ready to go to work, shut this book.

“So if you aren't ready to go to work, shut this book.” I wonder if anyone has. Then again, if you pick up a book by Pat Summitt, this is exactly what you'd expect. If Pat started out her book saying, “I want to thank you so very much for sacrificing $14.95 to buy my little book with a few nice ideas that I hope will make your life happier,” you'd check the jacket to make sure someone hadn't switched it for Joel Osteen. Not that there's anything wrong with Joel Osteen. It's just that Joel's so sweet, and nice, with those big, puppy-dog eyes. Pat Summitt does not have big puppy-dog eyes. Pat Summitt has the eyes of a hungry falcon. Pat Summitt narrows her eyes and people, literally, burst into flames. At least that's what one guy on SportsTalk said he'd heard. Thanks be to Pat for putting a word of warning on the front page of her book.

Here's my question: If the word of Pat deserves a warning label, wouldn't you think the Word of God would deserve one, too? If Pat Summitt's book is going to expect more from you than you may believe you're capable of, what about God's book? Wouldn't you think Jesus would expect more of you than Pat? We buy books by demanding, Type-A motivational experts, hoping to become better people, more effective, more productive, more successful, hoping to be shaken out of our ruts. And their books warn us: If you aren't ready to go to work, shut this book.” And yet we buy the Bible expecting the exact opposite. We buy the Bible thinking all we have to do is open it and it's going to make us peaceful and serene. It's not, “No pain, no gain.” That's not in the Bible. The Bible says Jesus has already taken the pain and all we have to do is enjoy the gain.

The Apostle Paul would narrow his eyes, pop every vein in his neck, and blow smoke out his ears if he thought this is what the Bible would become. Of course the Bible contains heavenly words of comfort and solace. But read the paragraph before the comfort and solace. Read the words of disciples like Paul, people who died for their faith, and you'll quickly find while this is a book that will change your life, it does so at a cost that's so much more than $14.95, or $39.95 in leather. The Bible expects so much more of you than you may ever believe you're capable of. The Bible expects us to become participants in the most extreme competition the world has ever known. The question is, are you ready to go to work?

The Olympic games begin this Friday. And after all the drug tests and gender tests (yes, they test for that, too), the athletes will be pushing their bodies beyond the limit. In the Bible, Paul wrote to the people who started the Olympic games, the Corinthians. The Isthmian games of Corinth were the inspiration for the modern Olympics. They were into this stuff. So when Paul speaks to them in the motivational language of sports and competition, it's like talking about Women's Basketball in Knoxville. The Corinthians know what he means when he says, “I punish my body and enslave it.”

Some of you know what Paul means in a very literal sense. We have people who enslave their bodies for the purpose of running a marathon, or biking up a mountain, or swimming the English Channel. God bless 'em. It's really inspiring for the rest of us to watch you work so hard. Some people have to get up hours before the rest of us just to get ready to come to church, because the daily acts of getting out of bed, getting dressed, getting breakfast requires more physical energy than the rest of us expend all day. God bless you. When Paul says, “I will punish my body and enslave it,” you know what he means.

The Corinthians understood this language, too. But there was a problem. Just as with us, there were too many Corinthians who wanted to stand on the sidelines and watch the athletes and say, “God bless 'em.” Our society has a lot in common with Corinth. Pat Summitt could just have easily have been writing to Corinth when she wrote, “In my opinion, too many people in this world are born on third base and think they've hit a triple. They think winning is a natural state of being.” The Corinthians liked being winners. The problem for them was exactly the same as the problem for us. They wanted to turn the Word of God into a spectator sport, a way to entertain themselves, a way to claim the gain without any of the pain. They wanted Bibles with no warning labels.

Hold on, there, Paul writes. “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.” Now, be very careful here – another warning label – and this is yet another thing that differentiates the Bible from all the other self-help books in the world – When Paul says, “Run in such a way that you may win it,” he doesn't mean you, as in, you (and you alone) go out and beat the other kids to a pulp. Paul means, “Y'all.” The King James' “Ye.” Plural. “All y'all” (together) run in such a way that “all y'all” may win it (together). Which merits another warning about how hard the Bible's going to make you work.

Most motivational books are about who? You. Most self-help books are about helping who? Yourself. A surface read of this passage might tempt you to believe Paul's writing about you becoming a winner. but in Paul's book, no one wins unless “all y'all” win. You that are strong have to motivate the weak to put down the potato chips and get off the couch. You who are strong in faith have to share your faith with those whom life's beaten up. So warning – if you (personally) aren't ready to go to work with all y'all, shut this book. Paul doesn't care if you (personally), if you're motivated; Paul cares that the church is motivated.

But motivated to what?

Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.

What does the imperishable wreath look like? Is it a crown of glory and angel's wings in the next life? Maybe. But not only. Listen to what he says next:

So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air.

Do any of you ever feel as though you're running aimlessly? Do any of you ever feel as though you're trying to beat against the air? This is, I think, a tremendous word of comfort and solace built in to Paul's motivational language. Paul must know how it feels to run around in circles. Paul must know how it feels to chase after the wind. If you told Paul, “But Paul, I get up and work and work, and drive here and there, and back here because I forgot something the first time, and Paul I feel like I'm just running on a treadmill, or worse that I've stopped running and it's throwing me off backwards,” - if you said that to Paul, I think he'd know exactly what you mean. After all, he was chased out of more churches than most of us have ever been in. The comfort between the lines is that Paul knows how the Corinthians might have felt, and the Bible knows how we feel sometimes, too. Sometimes we need to hear the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm. Or we need to know that Jesus is about lightening our burdens, instead of heaving more on our backs than we already have. Be still and know that God is God (and you're not), we need to hear the Bible say.

Paul's sports-motivational speech isn't about winning the perishable prize, the biggest house, or the corner office. Paul's motivation is to push us (all of us, together) to see the difference between running aimlessly and running with a goal. The Bible's goal is to make us stop and ask ourselves, and ask each other, too, are you (are we) running with God, or away from him? Are you (are we) running with God or running in frantic circles? If you're running with no point but your own, then for heaven's sake, stop! and do whatever it takes to whip yourself back in line.

This is extreme stuff. And it's no game. If you're veering off down some dangerous road, come back. If you've already veered so far you're afraid there's no way to get back home, stop. There's a church full of people who stand ready to help. If you're not sure which direction you're going, or if you're going at all, pick up the most dangerous – and consoling – book in the world, and get ready to go to work.