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The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2012
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Sermon: "Your Primary Race"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Epistle:

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Your Primary Race

The presidential primaries are upon us, which means that very soon, we’re going be bombarded with a constant barrage of candidate commercials. If you think it’s bad now, just wait until our primary comes along in May. Each commercial will be telling us why a particular candidate is the best thing since Abraham Lincoln, while his opponent is a budding anti-Christ. We’ll hear the debates, analyze the promises, catch the slogans, and watch as candidates try to one-up each other with memorable sound bites, flag pins, and hundred dollar haircuts. Candidates will travel via trains, planes and, increasingly, on customized buses that ostensibly put them in touch with the common folk they meet on the way from one primary to the next. 

It's no wonder that political campaigns are more popularly known as "races." Every candidate is always on the move somewhere in search of votes with the finish line being the Oval Office. The presidential race, for example, has historically been viewed as a kind of horse race, with the media handicapping the field and voters casting their bets on which candidate will win and provide their particular population segment and point of view with a windfall. Indeed, the metaphors for presidential campaigns come almost exclusively from the worlds of racing and boxing. 

For instance:
The most popular candidate is always called the "front runner," and if he's way ahead, he's in a "one-horse race" or "lapping the field."

A close race, on the other hand, is one where the candidates are "neck and neck," and the election could go "down to the wire" after they "turn the corner" with the last primary or debate.

At a debate, candidates generally "come out swinging," looking to land the "knockout blow" to their opponent. Those who see they're not going to make it tend to "throw in the towel." 

The apostle Paul was fond of using racing and boxing metaphors too, especially when talking about the Christian life. The metaphors he uses in our Epistle lesson from I Corinthians this morning can teach all of us some important lessons about running our “Primary Race”, the race of our life. 

Here’s the first lesson that Paul would have us hear: Run to win. This seems obvious, of course, but for Paul, winning wasn't about achievement, status, or the shape of one's office. Instead, Paul understood that the ultimate goal of the race of his life was pleasing God and living in relationship with God. Here in our passage, Paul is telling us that his choices and actions are geared toward pleasing God in such a way that, in the end, he will not be disqualified (v. 27). Winning, in other words, means achieving the kind of character and producing the kind of conduct that reflects Christ’s ongoing presence in our lives. 

Paul's point is that offices and titles and money are "perishable" prizes, but you and I are invited to go after the prize that's "imperishable": a life that reflects the image, character and purposes of God (v. 25). In the end, that’s the only prize that matters! This race is the one that, more than any other, is to be run to win. That’s the first lesson to hear about our “Primary Race.”

Here’s the second lesson: Run with self-control. How do you win the prize Paul is talking about? Well, it's not really that much different from winning a competition of any kind. You have to work at it. "Athletes exercise self-control in all things," says Paul (v. 25). Runners and boxers have to train diligently in order to have the ability to reach the finish line. Self-control involves denying ourselves the things, attitudes and indulgences that could potentially keep us from running all out for the finish. Self-control is essential to winning. Indeed, Paul names it as one of the fruits of the Spirit; evidence indicating that we are on the winning track toward reflecting Christ in our lives (Galatians 5:23).

Lack of self-control, lack of the will to focus our lives in a particular direction, can derail even the most gifted person. The only way to achieve self-control is through discipline of the mind and body. This reminds me of the accomplished runner who was admiring his physic in the mirror one day. He noticed his wife watching him with an amused expression on her face. So he asked her, "What do you love most about me, Dear, my tremendous athletic ability or my superior intellect?" Taking just a bit of a pause she then responded, "What I love most about you, Dear, is your enormous sense of humor." 

When we practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, and daily acts of compassion toward others, we are orienting our lives full-time toward winning the prize. When we're exercising self-control, for example, we're able to put things in perspective and pray for and work with people with whom we may not always agree, rather than denigrating them; which is such a part of the current political climate. 

When we're exercising self-control, we listen more than we speak and view the world through the lens of God’s grace rather than the distorted lenses of those who would demonize. Training ourselves in self-control is our second lesson for our “Primary Race.”

Here is the third lesson: Run with purpose. Paul again taps the competition metaphors when he says, "So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air" (v. 26). Runners have a particular goal in mind and boxers eventually need to make contact with their intended target if they're going to be successful. We all know this is true physically. We know it is time to resume purposeful training when: we try to do a few pushups and discover that certain body parts refuse to leave the floor; our children look through our wedding album and want to know who mom's first husband was; we analyze our bodies honestly and decide that what we should develop first is our sense of humor; we step on a talking scale and it says, "Come back when you are alone."

Paul refused to allow the changing conditions of his life to sidetrack him from his purpose of preaching the gospel. He understood his life mission to be bound up in proclaiming the risen Christ and the good news of his grace, so much so that he was willing to persevere through the harshest of conditions, through tragedies, and the most difficult circumstances in his own “Primary Race.”

The beloved spiritual song, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," was written by gospel singer and composer Thomas Dorsey (not to be confused with Tommy Dorsey, of big-band fame). The inspiration came out of heart-rending tragedy, the death of his wife and son. Here's what Dorsey went through, in his own words: 

"After putting my wife and baby away in the same casket, I began to feel that God had done me an injustice. I didn't want to serve him anymore or write any more gospel songs. I wanted to return back to the jazz world that I once knew so well before. Then a voice spoke to me and said: 'You are not alone.' Everyone was so kind to me in these sad hours. The next week I went up to…Poro College, which had a beautiful and comfortable music room -- well equipped, and a good piano. There in my solitude, I began to browse over the keys like a gentle herd pasturing on tender turf. Something happened to me there. I had a strange feeling inside; a sudden calm, a quiet stillness. As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock." 

What followed were these words; a prayer of a runner who has fallen in the race, and needs the Grace of our Savior to go on: “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.” 

God has gifted each one of us with a particular mission within the Body of Christ. He has given each one of us the purpose of transforming this world as agents of his grace. And the Good News is that he doesn’t leave us to run our “Primary Race” in our own strength alone. He runs with us. He guides our way. When we falter, he pulls us back on course. When we fall, he pulls us back to our feet. When we lose heart, he pulls us back to him. 

After all the primaries and commercials and promises, someone will eventually win the race this November. While the candidates are running, let us be about the running of our “Primary Race” with self-control, with purpose, with Christ. That will make us all winners indeed! 

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