Smells Like Team Spirit

Sermon Delivered on August 12, 2012 
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

In 1991 a brilliant and troubled artist let out a cry for help that became a short lived anthem for a generation of apparently apathetic teenagers who were raised in excess. Smells like Teen Spirit was both a pun and a rallying cry. It was a canary screaming garbled speech about those who were united through feelings of meaningless. The canary screamed before 9/11, before the term “school shooting” existed, and during a time of relative peace when I naively believed that our nation might have an entire generation live and die without partaking in the game of kings known as war.

What a different world it is today, and how I wish that we had the things to complain about now that we did then. I guess everyone who lives long enough says that at some point. Perhaps that longing for something more perfect is why we enjoy the Olympics so much. Competition is pure – or at least it can be. Perhaps that is why the Olympics have always held such promise of peace and hope. Perhaps that is why every developed civilization has had games of some form to settle disputes and demonstrate power.

The Aztecs settled wars through violent competition. The Romans held sway over life and death with the turn of the emperor's thumb. The Greeks, of course, hold the original tradition the modern games are derived from. Representatives of city-states competed to demonstrate dominance, alliances were made and broken, and Hellenistic culture with its art, philosophy, and religion was bolstered and spread.

I must confess that I have watched more of the Olympics this year than ever before. Of course that’s because there are more opportunities to follow events and athletes than ever before with streaming video of recaps, interviews, and live feeds of everything from Beach Volleyball to Speed Walking. And that doesn’t even include social media!

One could quite easily become obsessed with the triumph and hardship of these men and women of valor. There are so many stories that take place in a matter of seconds that yet preach volumes more than I can ever hope to. Even so, it’s important to remember the inherent risk in a theology of competition.

The biggest problem is the concept of redemption. Over and over again the commentators celebrate and condemn athletes and teams for their efforts to redeem themselves. Beyond that is the idea that some athletes suggest that God cares more about a particular performance than about the famine that continues to sweep across the Horn of Africa, or a family mourning the loss of a child.

With these risks in mind, I cannot resist lifting up some of the ways in which I believe these games affirm the proclamation of Christ that we have already received today. The letter to the Ephesians is somewhat of a reminder of the rules by which they are to play, but more than that it is a description of identity. This letter was not written to outsiders, or to encourage them to evangelize. This letter is somewhat of a “come to Jesus” moment where the Ephesians are being reminded of who they are and whose they are.

The author, whom scholars presume to be writing in the tradition of Paul, is not just concerned about individual behavior, but rather he is concerned about how they know themselves through their relationships. You’ve heard the campfire song, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” He is saying you will know you are a Christian by the way you all relate to one another.

He tells them, "Don’t let the sun go down on your anger." I have rarely heard that said except to married couples. This text makes no mention of marriage! This text is about being a group of people who sometimes tick each other off, but in the name of Jesus we better find a way to come to agreement or else we simply aren’t following Jesus. Worse yet, we are creating a space of hospitality for the one who is most opposed to the purposes of God. Wow. Who invited that guy? Truth be told – each of us could claim that one at times.

But wait, there’s more. Christian thieves must stop stealing. Duh. But not because it is wrong to steal. They are to stop stealing so that they can have something to contribute for the poor. Likewise, those of us who – as a dear friend once counseled me – love to hear the sound of our own voices need to keep quiet unless we have something helpful to say. Speak the truth in love all day long, but if it does not move us toward the greater good then it actually grieves the Holy Spirit of God – no matter how true, correct, or prophetic the words may be.

Now here comes the big whammy – love like Jesus. Imitate God like a child imitates her parent – just like Jesus did. And our sacrificial living – as a community – will be like a pleasing aroma to God.

The smoke of sacrificial fire has always been said to please God. That is, with the exception of the prophet Amos – who denounced sacrifices that replaced sacrificial living. I guess the sacrifice can have the same limitation as competition. It is not the sacrifice that redeems. Only God can do that. The sacrifice can only and will ever be in response to the action of God.

Jesus was having his own, “Come to Jesus,” moment with the Jews about this very thing. He wanted to show them how to experience redemption and they wanted him to compete with Moses on the Prophetic High Dive.

The crowd that had been following him in earnest had suddenly become adversarial. No longer were they the faithful followers who wandered around the Sea of Galilee like some ancient version of ragtag Deadheads looking for wisdom and a dream they could still believe. Jesus draws a line in the sand and they have to decide whether or not to get on board with the messianic proclamation of Jesus or not.

First off, he tells them that they don’t really understand who Moses is. Moses was not the one who conjured up manna and quail. Moses was God’s faithful servant who still could not save the generation who ate manna, for none of them entered the promised land.

Next, he tells them that they do not know him. He is not “Joseph’s boy.” He is the bread of heaven directly from God. Not only that, but the ones who come to him the ones that God gave to him. This is all setting the stage for the real question – which is, “How are we supposed to eat your body and drink your blood? That’s nasty.” But, we’ll get to that next week.

The jagged little pill for today, however, is the fact that salvation and redemption come from God. It is not something we can do. We can – and should – make amends with each other and with God (apparently before sundown is a good time). We need to confess our need for forgiveness, but not in order for God to forgive. We confess these things for ourselves, so that we can see what God has already done. We confess and we make amends because we need to see and experience grace and forgiveness in order to offer it to someone else. We need an experience and an example to follow.

I think the place the Olympics and the Church – the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God – most overlap is through the examples they set. Not that any of us expects to compete in Rio in 2016 (though there was a 71 year old equestrian from Japan this year), but rather the fact that men and women from across the globe have come together to demonstrate faith in their God given abilities, mutual forbearance in team competition, and the opportunity for one person to stand and be counted as a nation of people.

There were thousands of Olympic moments of courage and grace, of tenacity and teamwork, of trial and accomplishment: The Fab 5 gymnasts, Gabby Douglas telling a reporter that reciting scripture calms her nerves, Aly Raisman’s floor routine tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre, Danell Leyva trusting his father’s training and earning a bronze medal, and the list goes on.

I have to admit, though, one of the most prophetic moments for me was the exchange of bibs between Oscar Pistorius of South Africa and Kirani James of Grenada after a qualifying run for the Men’s 400 meter race. Pistorius is the first double amputee to qualify for the Olympics. He is an international inspiration for those with disabilities. James was favored for that race and many others. He runs to promote the needs of his country and to give hope to its citizens. He lives – by choice – in the orphanage he grew up in. And so the greatest honor was given to the weakest competitor when James asked Pistorius to exchange their identifying bibs.

It was so simple – so pure. It was a small act barely caught on film that demonstrated what it means to be human and what it means to be a part of something greater. And I bet those sweaty men smelled very good to God.

There’s a reason the scriptures and our traditions of faith speak of the aroma of a sacrifice. Smells trigger memories. Just the mention of fresh cut grass or fresh baked cookies or a well chlorinated pool can bring back certain memories or evoke certain emotions. In fact, some say that any time you are showing a house for sale you should bake some cookies in the kitchen before the prospective buyer arrives.

Aromas indicate activities, and sometimes the more valuable activities have the worst smells. Paul, or someone like him, tells us to live sacrificially just like Jesus. And that can get kind of messy sometimes. Yet, we have been called by God to come to Jesus. Yet, we have been invited – even commanded – to consume Jesus in order to become more like him.

Here’s the thing about that. I don’t think we can make that happen by pretending to “do what Jesus would do.” But I do believe that when we take in the realty of forgiveness that we become compelled by the actions that God is still doing.

A man demonstrated this for me in restaurant several years ago. I had already printed his check when he asked for some coffee, so I did not add it to the bill. He demanded that I add it, and when I complimented his integrity he said, very simply and humbly, "It's not me but Christ who is within me." Wow. It's just that simple.

We do this all the time. As a community, we participate in what God is doing through simple acts of recognition and kindness. It happens from hospital beds to store rooms and from the sanctuary to the Elve's workshop upstairs. Sometimes all it takes is the exchange of a name and the recognition that everyone is valuable in the eyes of God. We can do that! In fact, that’s what we do best. It’s who we are. It’s what we do, and to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!
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