Sermon: The Olympiad 21Aug2016


Hebrews 12:1 – 12

2 Timothy 4:7

Rev. Tom C. Oak

 

Have you all been watching the Olympic Games? I think they’re wonderful; it’s exciting to watch the world’s greatest athletes compete against each other in pursuit of the life-long dream of being called an Olympian. It truly is an amazing and glorious human spectacle.

I think it was Bear Bryant who once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”

Stories were already being done weeks ago naming select so called “Olympic hopefuls” over and against other athletes, even to the point of going predicting how many Gold Medals they would win and in what events. Focusing on the potential winners and giving back page coverage to the “also-rans”.

And, at last count, the United States has won more medals than any other country, which is a real tribute to the strength and character of some of our nation’s most talented young people, and their discipline and dedication to their sport.

But often that kind of media focus overlooks the true heroism of these young athletes and the commitment that it takes each one of them just to get to the Olympics. In my book, what’s truly inspiring about so many of these fine athletes is their grace, courage and perseverance in the face of adversity.

And, I find this to be true with nearly every Olympic Athlete from American track star Jesse Owens who overcame the great odds of a severe childhood illness and pervasive cultural prejudice to this Olympiad’s darling  female gymnast Simone Biles.

Reading about the individual stories of some of our Olympians through the years, and then watching them succeed in ways that go far beyond national pride or winning Olympic gold, led me to discern three Olympic Principles in operation along the way.

The first Olympic principle is: “Believe in yourself and your capacity to achieve your dream.”

Simone Bile’s early childhood was marred by the instability of a mother addicted to drugs and alcohol. After Child Protective Services stepped in, Simone and her little sister were ultimately adopted by her grandparents, who gave her back her childhood and subsequently introduced Simone to gymnastics. In an interview, Simone told the reporter that, once she realized that no longer had to be the one to solely take care of her little sister, she embraced her new activity and quickly began to excel at the sport.

Or take American cyclist Kristin Armstrong who, at the age of 43, is one of the oldest female cyclists to ever grace the Olympic stage. Kristen put her cycling career on hold in 2009 to start a family.

When she announced that she would be competing at the Rio Olympics, she did so amongst many cynics who suggested she was too far past her prime. Kristin celebrated her 43 birthday by winning Gold in the women’s individual time trial. This wasn’t the first time Kristin beat the odds: a former world class triathlete, at the young age of 27 Kristin was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips and told that her career as an elite athlete was over. Instead of giving up or giving in, Kristin began to focus exclusively on cycling and this year won her third Olympic Gold medal.

These are just two of many, many such stories of young athletes who overcame great personal obstacles to succeed.

Though tragic life circumstances may overtake you, though those around you may be harbingers of gloom and doom, though life may look its bleakest, don’t give in and don’t give up. God has placed within you truly amazing abilities and an inner strength that can overcome any adversity.

Believe in yourself . And believe in your dream. Forget the hype. The world might tell you that you can never win; you’re out of your element; you’re over the hill; you’re too old or too slow, too small or too weak; you’re not handsome or pretty enough; you don’t have enough money or talent or people to get the job done; to be a winner. But don’t believe it!

Which brings us to a second Olympic principle: “Believe in God. Believe that God wants to help you to succeed in all that you do.”

Through the thick and the thin of it, through all the ups and downs whether you come in first or last: Hold onto your faith.

In 2011, American gymnast Gabby Douglas wasn’t even sure she was going to go to the Olympic Games. Her parents’ marriage crumbling, Gabby was discouraged and despondent. “Maybe I should just forget about the Olympics,” Gabby told her mother.

But in spite of the turmoil her relationship was in with her husband, Gabby’s mother encouraged her daughter not to give up her dream: To believe in herself, To hold onto her faith. She did. And she dazzled the world with her pluck and genuineness. Gabby smiled at the world and the world  couldn’t help but smile back at her.

When asked how she dealt with all the stress and pressure of this level of competition, she answered that she prayed a lot and had some `special’ scripture passages that she recited. And though the “Flying Squirrel”— as she’s been lovingly dubbed by her teammates —  has had many ups and downs (literally) during these  Olympic games, she was on spot the night it counted most and won gold in the women’s all around gymnastics. At sixteen years old, no less.

And, upon winning that event, pointing her finger toward the heavens, her beautiful witness to the world was: ‘I give the glory up to God, and God rains blessings back down on me.”

Now, four years later, these Olympic games have handed Gabby a bitter disappointment. Even though she’s been under a recent barrage of petty criticism for not being enthusiastic and joyful enough for her more successful teammates, I think Gabby has responded to her disappointment – and the criticism – with a measure of grace and humility and equanimity and perspective that belies her mere twenty years of age.

In a recent interview Gabby said, “I [do] support them and I’m sorry that I wasn’t showing it [more]. And I should have but for me, it’s been a lot. And I’ve been through a lot. I still love the people who love me. Still love them who hate me. I’ve just got to stand on that.”

“For me,” Gabby went on, “when you go through a lot and you have so many difficulties and people against you, sometimes it just determines your character. Are you going to stand or are you going to crumble? In the face of everything, still stand.”  (from an interview in The Daily Dish by Laura Rosenfeld, August 16, 2016)

 

Whether in the throes of athletic triumph and the heady international acclaim that goes with it, nor in the midst of stunning professional defeat and widespread criticism in the press, Gabby Douglas has never lost her confident, positive sense of self, or the optimism of her faith.

I’d like to see some of those side-line media pundits and armchair quarterbacks show half as much poise and integrity as this young woman.

To quote John Steinbeck, “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.” (from The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights)

No matter what happens in life, believe in God. Because God believes in you.

One last Olympic principle: “Believe in each other.” Believe in the compassion of others and in the power of team work.

This happened many years ago at a rather different kind of Olympic Games many years ago. While I was a Paraprofessional at the Institute of Logopedics, I’d volunteer to help out at for the Special Olympics.

It was always such a big event for the kids. We’d all get so excited looking forward to it, spend weeks getting ready for it. And one very special event will always stand out for me. It was a fifty-yard dash. Six or seven contestants stepped up to the starting line, ready to give it their all.

Oh, by the way, each sprinter in this particular race happened to have Downs Syndrome.

We were not expecting the runners to set any world records; we were just hoping they would have fun and perhaps bolster their confidence a bit.

But when the gun sounded, they jumped into action, leaping towards the finish line as if the world depended upon it.

One of the bigger runners moved well out into the lead from the very beginning; it looked like he was going to win the race hands down. But then, about half way, he kind of got out ahead of himself, lost his footing and fell, flat on his face in the dirt.

The crowd gasped in painful disappointment, perhaps some even a bit embarrassed for this erstwhile Olympian. He looked up for a second at the other runners began passing him by, and then dropped his face back into the dust and just laid there.

No one standing on the sidelines knew quite what to do for him.

Then something amazing happened…a truly defining moment in Olympic history. The runner who had been in second place, ground to a stop a few yards past her fallen opponent, ran back to where the discourage racer lay, reached down, grabbed him by the arm shouting, “Come on, get up! You can do it! Come on! We’ll run together!”

The would be winner looked up, allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, and as the last of the pack raced by towards the finish line, brushed himself off a bit. Then he and his new found friend finished the race together in tie for last place. The cheers of the crowd were deafening.

The true Olympic spirit, I believe, is found not only with a group of women relay sprinters giving prayerful glory to God in the winner’s circle,  but also in two fallen runners picking one another off the track to finish the race together.

For the Christian, coming in first is not the most important thing; but rather finishing the race together.

U.S. Federal judge Sherman Finesilver advised, “Do not confuse notoriety and fame with greatness. Many of the titled in today’s world obtain their fame and fortunes outside their own merit. On the other hand, I have met great people in the most obscure roles in life. For you see, greatness is a measure of one’s spirit, not a result of one’s rank in human affairs. Nobody, least of all mere humans, confers greatness upon another, for it is not a price but an achievement. Greatness can crown the head of a janitor just as readily as it can come to someone of higher rank.”

Believe in yourself and your capacity to achieve your dream. God has given you a great personal dream. Don’t discount or ignore it or waste it.

Believe in God. God’s fervent desire is that you succeed in what you do, and God will be there every step of the way to help you make your dream come true.

Believe in others and in the power teamwork. Through Jesus Christ, we’ve been called into community and for a good reason. Because together we can accomplish things in our lives and for God that we could never accomplish alone. No one succeeds in life alone. We are called to help one another fulfill our dreams and so live life to the fullest measure.

How radically different life can be when we finally realize that we are all winners in Jesus Christ. No longer do we have to prove ourselves worthy, for God has deemed each of us worthy through Jesus Christ. No longer do we have to compete for God’s loving embrace, for God’s love embraces us all. And, then, finding ourselves lifted up by the arms of God’s love, we know that serving others and coming in last is no defeat or embarrassment.

Because you are always a winner, when you run with God.