Olympic spiritual ideals: Aiming higher to be stronger in spirit and faster to bless

The Olympic Flag flies in front of "Christ the Redeemer" statue during a blessing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro

Every four years our attention is drawn to a much wider selection of sport than we usually see. That is one of the reasons I like the Olympic games and the 31st Olympiad started on Friday in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Athletes from around the world have been training for years for this moment. Under the motto of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ they will aim to smash records and win those all-important gold medals, hopefully based on their skill and not enhanced by drugs. They have committed themselves single mindedly to hone their skills and are now poised for their moment to shine. Being champion is everything, and for many even coming second or third won’t count. The unofficial motto of “The most important thing is not to win but to take part” seems to have been archived, as has its other version of striving and the struggle mattering more than triumph.

There are many occasions when being focused for this level of competition is a life skill. Job selection by competitive interview will mean that because there is only one post, only one will be offered it and the others will not. Coming second still means you don’t get the job. At some levels there may be an element of discernment about who will flourish in the role and who will not, but that can feel little consolation if you are the one not offered it, and I’m not always convinced it’s the best method of selection. Time to slope off and nurse a bruised ego, or more seriously worry about how the bills will be paid.   There are other situations where it is more important to work together and for the project to thrive above our own glory. In fact there are more situations where that is the case, even when we may have a distinctive contribution to make based on our own striving to be faster, higher and stronger, however that translates as we develop the gifts we have. Team sports can prepare for working together to achieve a goal.

It is one of the often-overlooked aspects of natural selection that cooperation is an important feature of what makes us thrive and survive as a species. We have come a long way from a crude fittest wins and everything else is defeated. We protect the weak and vulnerable, recognize gifts in diverse ways, and this is an attribute that has been shown to be advantageous for survival and thriving. So just being the best doesn’t necessarily get us very far unless there is a point to it, a goal to be achieved. And of course the Olympics have their origin in honing skills for battle, for messengers running with letters and endurance tests. In battle winning means you live and coming second means you are dead. So it’s easy to see why aiming to be the best can matter. Some sports are less obvious. It was watching the jousting at the Heritage Festival last year that I suddenly realized what the point of dressage is as a military skill; dancing horses had previously struck me as being completely pointless. It is the ability to manouvre a horse in a tight space and that is a skill needed on a medieval battlefield.

So we have games that emphasise individual endeavour with skill being honed to the top of their performance and this being harnessed into team efforts so that together the goal can be achieved. It emphasizes tribal allegiances as we cheer our team and reveal the place our identity calls home. I will be cheering for the Union Flag and whatever I might think about Brexit, I wouldn’t cheer in the same way for the blue flag with yellow stars on it.  This year there is a team drawn from refugees so I can see me cheering for Team Refugee, to rejoice in the triumph over so much adversity.

Our Gospel reading looked at aiming for the treasure which counts above all others and being ready for moment (Luke 12:32-40): we strive for the prize or medal at the end. It follows on from last week’s warning about just hording money, or the fruit of the harvest, for selfish gain. And it moves us on to show that what we call treasure is determined by what our heart desires. The “do not worry” at the beginning refers to over anxiety about food and clothing, base needs in the hierarchy of needs. It is a call to move up the scale beyond shining things to what counts, to set our vision beyond the immediate and what the preacher of Ecclesiastes last week called ‘vanities’.

Reaching for the treasure of great price, the pearl of great price as another gospel story put it, clearly has a spiritual parallel. And we aim to live a life that shapes us for this, that prepares us for it. Our Collect this morning, the special prayer for this Sunday, fits with this. It prays that we will be given such grace that running the way of God’s commandments, shaped by God’s ways, we will be made partakers of the heavenly treasure. There is in this the notion of shaping, training and preparing; living life as a preparation for the Kingdom of God, a spiritual twist to the Olympic ideals. We aim to live in anticipation of it, so that the values of justice, living with truth and love and thankfulness for the gift, will shape how we try to be and become.

There are so many struggles that confront us in this, and many of them come from inside ourselves and our own mental maps. Some come from the assaults of the temptations and other ways of looking at life we encounter. There are many fears at the moment of who is dangerous and who is not, and it is easy to think our security lies in building barriers to all who would come near us in case they are dangerous. That kind of fortress may seem protective but it offers a picture of closed relationships, inhospitable rejection and one where love finds little room to flourish. And we know that living in love rather than hatred and in hope rather than fear is a far more fruitful state. Time and time again, over the centuries, liberation from oppression has come from the dominance of love rather than the imposition of hatreds and fears. Loving and hoping, hospitality and embrace change and transform people and situations for the better in ways violence and hostility can never match. This can require being vulnerable, to risk love, where hatred and fear would close the door. In Christ we see that self-giving, open and hospitable love is the true way to peace and wholeness.

The summer is a time with more space in it, not least because the heat demands that we slow down from the rushing around. In the slower pace we have the chance to take stock and let the air freshen up. We aim to breathe more deeply and dream in sunny places. Watching different sports, as with the Olympics, can give the mind chance to think differently, to be renewed in grace. Aiming higher to be stronger in spirit and faster on the draw for blessing is not a bad way to live a spiritual Olympic ideal.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 7th August 2016

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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