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Heart of a Champion
based on Corinthians 9:24-27
by Rev. Thomas Hall


You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.

I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.

Recently our city’s professional sports team made the playoffs. What a religious experience. The Iggles, as we affectionately call them-needed but one more win to earn them a ticket to the National Championship game. The final week bordered on hysteria. Fans showed up at diners, management meetings, and city hall clad in green and white. The mayor of our city even had a wager going with the mayor of the opposing team’s city: whoever’s team lost had to do "jail time" in the other mayor’s city. The sports page in USA Today looked like a worship bulletin with its section-"Key Areas of Concern." The city even held a pep rally in downtown square-everyone wearing the green jerseys of their favorite athlete.

They lost the game. But my fanatic friends revealed something about the national psyche: our country is obsessed with sports. Whether the Olympics, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Tour de France, or World Cup, sports gets our attention. Great athletes hold our respect-Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, or the Williams’ sisters-we vicariously enjoy the greatness that these champions have achieved. And I think we spoof ourselves into secretly thinking that with a few more pushups, a few more tucks and nips, we too could have become athletic greats. We’ve become a little like ancient Rome-a little flabby as we sit in the stands and watch others sweat it out.

Paul must have been a die-hard fan just like many of us. In fact he wrote our lesson today from a big sports-crazed city. Corinth was about six miles from the Isthmian Games and he would have been in Corinth at the time the games were held. Could be that several athletes were members of the Corinthian church.

Paul is in his own right an athlete. He left one of the most powerful messages to the Church that compares the world of sports with the world of the Christian. He says that we are all in a race; the moment we become Christians we are ushered into the greatest race of our life.

Coach Paul picks two qualities from the Games of Isthmus: eyeing the prize and paying the price. Paul says, "I don’t run aimlessly, don’t box as beating the air." Can you imagine the starter’s pistol sounding and the runners all darting off in all directions? That might happen in a turtle race, but it doesn’t happen in professional sports. And the boxing image refers to a boxer who, before the match, expends all his energy in an impressive show of power to the spectators so that he has used his energy up before the bell even rings to begin the match!

Where’s our focus as Christians? What compels us, motivates us in Christian life? Paul says that athletes went to all the effort of training and careful diet and discipline just to win a garland of flowers. Actually, truth be known, years before Paul arrived on the scene-beautiful and ornate flowers were woven into a garland for winning athletes. By Paul’s day, however, Josephus says that celery strands were woven into the wreath that adorned champions’ heads. Paul sees these wilted pieces of celery and that contrasts for him the great difference in what drives Christians: a reward that will never tarnish or wilt.

Roger Bannister was the first runner to break the four-minute mile. And he did it at a time that no one thought it humanly possible. In the 1952 Olympics Bannister placed a disappointing fourth place. He said to his coach after his run, "I’m through. I’m going back to my studies." His coach looked him straight in the eyes and said, "Roger, you’re the only one that can do it. Roger, you can do it."

He said at the time he didn’t believe his coach and returned to Edinburgh. One night as he was studying, he got to daydreaming and imagined himself breaking the four-minute mile. He began a touch regimen of eight hours of study and four more hours on the track. Five months later on a cold blustery day, he trotted down to the track. He turned to his pacer, Chris Chataway and said, "Chris, today I’m going to break the record."

First lap: .57 seconds. Second lap: 1.58 seconds. Third lap: 3:00 minutes. As he was finishing the third lap, he says that his head was throbbing and his lungs felt like bursting. But when he made the final turn and saw the tape, something inside him snapped and he realized that he could do it. He sprinted the last 50 yards and although it seemed like an eternity, he hit the tape at a world-record of 3:59.4 seconds.

When we see the prize-it’s much easier to pay the price. What drives your life? What is the goal toward which your life is turned? Here’s what Paul say at the finish line:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord will award me on that day.

Paul knew that what he was running for was at the finish line. Nail prints in outstretched hands and a voice urging him on: C’mon Paul, give it all you’ve got!" Paul was so focused on the prize that he ran like no one before or since has ever run. Jesus himself is our goal who urges us to run the race with diligence.

Paul noticed how athletes were willing to pay the price in view of the prize. In Paul’s day, athletes trained for ten months in order to compete in the Games; their diet was strictly monitored and they had to train under a tough schedule of physical preparation. Any athlete who took shortcuts got a one-way ticket home. So Paul wrote to the Corinthians that every athlete in training is temperate in all things-they restrict themselves, treat their body roughly, discipline themselves by hardship.

We have a young lady in our congregation from Uyu, Nigeria; she came to America speaking only Ibibo and without parents. As Imo cleaned houses she listened to television newscasters and slowly gained command of English. She managed to work her way up to the top of her class in a large New York high school and then enrolled at Swarthmore College.

Having never participated in any sports, one day Imo went down to the track and decided to run. She would be down on the track early in the morning and after school in the evening and sometimes in-between. Four years later Imo became the toast of United States Track Coach Association after winning six gold medals at the Centennial Conference indoor championships. Imo went on to set school records in the 55-meter dash (7.2 seconds), the 200 (25.51 seconds), the long jump (18.25 feet), and the 400 (58.34 seconds). Sports Illustrated picked up her story along with other national sports writers. But her congregation remained her greatest fans. Standing up to sing one Sunday morning Imo said, "I have not had parents near me my whole life. So God has sent you to be my parents. And when I sing, ‘His eye is on the sparrow’-I am that sparrow that God has watched over."

Lance Armstrong knows what paying the prize is all about. He begins his book with these words:

I left my house on October 2, 1996 as one person and came home another. I was a world class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank. I was one of the top riders in the world and my career was moving along a perfect arc of success. I returned a different person, literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.

Lance goes on to describe how a cancer that was found in a tiny part of his body quickly spread through and threatened to end his life. Yet, Lance refused to give up. Looking back he says, "Cancer made me stronger." Still a survivor, Lance Armstrong has gone on to become a four-time winner of the grueling 3,350 kilometer Tour d’ France. It’s not about the bike; its about the prize he pays in training to be the best of the best in his field. "Everything hurts," he says, "your back hurts, your feet hurt, your hands hurt, your neck hurts, your legs hurt, and of course, your butt hurts."

Such athletes inspire the human spirit. If athletes go to this length to become the best, Paul might ask us how much more we be inspired to do and live our faith as Christ-followers?

Paul the coach. Paul the spiritual athlete. The guy knew how to endure. How to channel setbacks into a winning game plan. He knew what paying the price was all about. Looking back over his life he recalls . . .

Five times I received the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pummeled with rocks, three times I was shipwrecked and I survived for 24 hours in an open sea . . I have been in danger from rivers, bandits, people who oppose the gospel, and false friends.

So here we are. In a specific time and place. In a particular vocation. But actually we’re on the playing field in a huge stadium that spans the ages. The stands are packed with fans who watch us run the race. The great crowd of witnesses urge us on to see the prize and pay the price so that we too, we finish the race and hear from our Coach, "Well run, though good and faithful servant." Amen.