Sermon by Fr James, Trinity 14, Celebrating the Olympics
Being on holiday in France we missed out on much of the Rio Olympic Games. So since returning we have been catching up on some of the highlights. What an amazing result by Team GB. What an inspiration these athletes are and its worth pausing to celebrate the dedication they make in their lives to achieve the most extraordinary things. The explosive power required to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds; the balance, agility and grace of gymnasts and divers; the gritty endurance of long distance cyclists, swimmers and runners; the skill of archers, of horses and their riders in the equestrian disciplines. There is also the psychological strength required to perform at one’s best under intense pressure. Many would say this is the most important dimension. Perhaps this is what got to poor Tom Daley. Other athletes have talked about ‘choking’, allowing the pressure of the world stage get to them.
And then there are inspiring stories of overcoming in the face of adversity. I heard a story of a boy called Michael. He had a hard time growing up. When he was seven years old, his father walked out on the family. He had a difficult time at school, where he was bullied and where he struggled academically. Finding it hard to concentrate he was given medication. His teacher, unfortunately, said that Michael would never be able to focus very well and it was unlikely he would achieve very much in life.
Then something happened that changed his life forever. When Michael was eleven years old he went swimming. A man called Bob saw him swimming and thought that he had potential. Bob spoke to Michael’s mother and told her that her son could be a very good swimmer but this would mean total commitment. The story is, of course, about Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. His training regime includes weekly swimming 60 miles. That is 5,000 lengths of a 25 metre pool!
Then there is Rafaela Silva. She grew up in the City of God, a notorious favela in Rio de Janeiro, was introduced to judo at the age of seven, and became hooked. She started attending competitions, found herself improving, and was eventually selected for the national team. She won Brazil’s first gold the games, and this week rode back into the favela on top of a fire engine in a victory parade attended by thousands. One girl from the favela said this: “This means so much… We are very proud, because it’s someone who came from the same situation as we did… so then you think, ‘Wow, I can get there, too.’ ”
Now the Games are over, many of the most successful athletes will face the predatory breed of sports agents, who will be offering all sorts of temptations, from photoshoots with Hello! to invitations to roped-off areas at nightclubs. The celebrity circuit is a surefire way to make a fast buck while destroying long-term credibility.
But they may also face other challenges. After the excitement of the Games, the medal hung up at home, many athletes will be reflecting on existential questions. They have focused day in day out, for years, on a goal and now that they have achieved that goal… what next? Many previous Olympians, on returning home, have expressed a sense of deflation.
Reflecting on this theologically, it has strong intimations of that well know phrase from Augustine – ‘my heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee’. Throughout the centuries we have known that there is a deep longing many of us have for that certain ‘something’, the longing for heaven, the desire for God, which only God can satisfy. It’s a thirst which no number of gold medals will quench.
C. S. Lewis reflects upon a similar idea in his use of the German word, Sehnsucht. Lewis was convinced that the deep longing many of us have for that certain `something', that unnamed desire is the longing for heaven; the desire for God, as he says in Mere Christianity, which only God can satisfy. For Lewis, Sehnsucht is a God-given revelation of longing, a restlessness for God in Augustine's sense, but intense.
Lewis believed that Sehnsucht was a trumpet-blast from the far country. However, the satisfaction of this longing was possible only at the apocalypsis, when God will draw all things together in a dimension that is experienced as harmony, of peace, beyond the reach of pain and death.
We, of course, have to resort to metaphor, of poetry, of story, in an attempt to express the inexpressible. And Lewis does this this beautifully in The Last Battle, which we can see by the unicorn's joy when he comes to the inner Narnia: `I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.'
If that is our calling, our ultimate destiny, in the meantime we are called to live faithful lives. The spiritual life has often taken inspiration from sporting analogies, the most well known being about running the race of faith with perseverance (Hebrews 12.1). I often reflect with families, who we welcome for baptism, about the use of oil in the service. In ancient Greece, athletes used to rub their bodies with oil in preparation for a race, and children who are getting baptised are starting their spiritual ‘race’. This race is a long distance one – it’s certainly not a 100 meter sprint that lasts for a few seconds. Perhaps it is more like a steeple chase, which is long distance but has, like life, various obstacles to challenges us. It is a race that all Christians are on and it is no walk in the park. It’s a race that will include moments of triumph as well as failure, times of boredom and moments of exhilaration. It is a race that requires determination, courage, commitment – even, or especially, when we sometimes feel we want to give up. It is also a race in which we are never, ever alone. And it is a race which can transform our lives.
Andrew Walker, ‘Scripture, revelation and Platonism in C. S. Lewis’