Sermon 6 Epiphany Yr B

6 Epiphany Yr B, 15/02/2009

I Cor 9:24-27

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Running the race to win”


A head coach and assistant coach are in conversation. The head coach says: “Frank over there is a slacker. He’s so slow my grandmother could run him down.”

   The assistant coach comes to Frank’s defence and asks: “Well coach, you know one thing Frank does fast, real fast, faster’n anybody else on the team?

   The head coach replies: “No, what’s that?”

   And the assistant coach answers: “He gets tired.”

   Sports and athletics. Training for marathon races. Running races to win. Life at times seems like a sports game. We are athletes. We train for the marathon race of life. We step onto the field and run the race to win. Problem is, like Frank in the joke we get tired too fast.

   I don’t know if you’re like me, but a favourite all-time movie of mine is Chariots of Fire. “Failure,” they say, “is the path of least persistence.” In the movie, runner Harold Abrahams is devastated by losing a race—the first one he ever lost.

   He tells his girlfriend, Sybil, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.”

   Sybil shoots back, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”1

   “If you don’t run, you can’t win.” Runners like Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddle look so graceful. Eric and Harold run with such ease—or so it seems. Yet, when we go with them beyond the winner’s circle; behind the scenes; what do we discover?

   Harold and Eric and folks like them win races because their training is rigorous. An Olympic gold medalist trains for years. Every single day folks like Harold and Eric run, work out, push themselves to their limits. Harold, Eric, and we as fans may bask in the moment of glory when the gold medal is hanging around their neck, and the media broadcasts the win around the world—savoring each second of victory. However, we forget that without the years of tough training such moments of triumph are impossible.

   Whether we’re talking to the world’s best athlete, musician or even preacher—they’ll tell you that to be the best you need to practice, practice and practice. We know that’s true in our lives too. We can cook world class lefse by making it over and over again. We can ride a horse well by training often. We can learn how to speak a new language by repetition—how boring it is to go over those flashcards and drill ourselves every day. Yet, after weeks, months and years of practice, voila! the day comes when our vocabulary is good enough and we can actually engage in a meaningful conversation.

   In today’s lesson from I Corinthians, the apostle Paul speaks in athletic language. He tells us the life of faith is like running a marathon race. In an Olympic marathon, many runners compete, but there’s only one winner who gets the gold medal. Here in a way Paul’s metaphor breaks down. Why? Because as Christians we’re not really competing with each other—at least I hope we’re not. In Jesus’ eyes, we’re all equals through our baptism. You and me, every Christian is on Christ’s winning team—we’re all winners.

   Once upon a time, in the old days, life was pretty clear-cut, divided up into winners and losers. Some would win every time, while others would lose every time. Today there is a lot of emphasis away from competition; even games are created to cooperate and work together rather than compete. Now, for the most part, this emphasis can be healthy, and boost our self-esteem. Nevertheless, in every life, including yours and mine, we face failure. Failure all the time is not good or healthy—we all know that. Yet, on occasion, failure is good and even healthy. Why? Because it humbles us, keeps us human, and more compassionate towards others who fail. Sometimes failure is also our best teacher. Our mistakes hopefully teach us what we need to do to be successful in the future. On the other hand, winning all the time is not healthy or good either—we all know that too. Winning all the time can make us prime donnas. We can live life as if we must be on centre stage in the limelight every day. Moreover, our pride in winning can become our downfall by making us erroneously believe that “we did it all, we are gods and goddesses, indispensable, immortal. We earn our salvation.” 

   Paul is correct our life can be like a marathon race. In order to stay in the race, we train. The training is constant. We practice, practice and practice some more. The endurance test some days is hard. Other days we find it boring. Yet other days working out hurts like Hades. Do we feel like practicing every day? Not likely! Is the endless repetition ever fun? Well, yes, maybe on the odd day. Until a day comes when the practicing does become easier, we’re finally “in shape.” We discover then that it’s true, total health involves our body, mind, soul and spirit.

Jesus speaks of his followers as disciples. You remember that in English disciple and discipline are closely related words. As Jesus’ disciples, our calling is to be disciplined. A few weeks ago, our city was saddened by the death by exposure of Mark Fillip, a homeless Hatter. We learned from our newspaper that his life had become wasted on addiction to drugs—even though, in his younger days, he skipped two grades in school and was offered scholarships to Yale and Princeton universities. How tragic that his life was wasted in part because of a lack of discipline. No matter how gifted and intelligent we are—without a focused life we are in danger of wasting what the LORD has given us.

We are disciplined not only if we practice. We need the right kind of training, and for that, we need a plan. Planning our training takes as much discipline as the rigors of practice. The old adage is true: “God is in the details.” A step by step plan helps us to get “in shape.”

So, keep the faith. Stay in the marathon race. You do that by reading and probing the Bible in depth. We connect with our LORD by daily conversations with him. We build community by showing up every week for worship. Your faith blossoms as you feed and drink on God’s word and sacraments. We reach out in mission to others by volunteering. You support the larger church with generous giving to organizations like Canadian Lutheran World Relief and On Eagles Wings, and several more. Don’t give up; don’t become complacent or lose your enthusiasm. Christ our Saviour loves us all. Do your family members, friends and neighbours know he loves them? Have you told them? Keep telling them. Jesus wants you to share his Good News. Like the apostle Paul, give it all you’ve got! Keep your faith in shape to win the marathon race. Rely on Christ for strength every step of the way. You, I, all of us will cross the finish line—each of us are winners in Christ’s presence forever. Amen.    

 1 Emphasis online at <>.