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Your Gold Medal

Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, February 7, 2010

Isaiah 6:1–13; 1 Corinthians 15:1–11; Luke 5:1–11


I love watching the Olympics. I love watching all those great individual sports: skiing, skating, whatever – one person strives and triumphs! And then the medal ceremony… seeing them look so very happy and moved as they stand on the top of the podium, the flag flies, the anthem plays… they get teary, and so do I.

And when the winner is interviewed, at the moment of triumph or after receiving the medal, what do they say?

Well, one thing you don’t hear too often is “You know what? I deserved it. I’m the best there ever was.”

No, many of them seem genuinely surprised and grateful, in spite of having worked hard for years to get there, and even if they’ve been the odds-on favourite.

Now raise your hand if you ever, in your childhood, fantasized about standing on that podium.

So what sport? For me, in grade six, it was bicycling. (Aina, you don’t need to say what sport, we can guess.)

And how many of us were actually seriously taking steps to get there? Like really training et cetera? I mean besides Aina. I know I wasn’t. I wanted to get there, I wanted to be great, but I didn’t really think about working for it. It was a childhood exaltation fantasy.

Now, those are common. Every kid wants to be discovered, to have that moment like when Harry Potter suddenly learns he’s a wizard. And that doesn’t end after childhood, either. Through adolescence – and often beyond – many people fantasize about being discovered and becoming famous, or about winning the lottery, or about this or that incredibly attractive person taking a liking to them, or or or… We hunger for exaltation, for a Harry Potter moment.

I had a Harry Potter moment, in fact. When I was in elementary school. I was an intellectually eager young guy. I just liked to read books and to read more and more, and get farther and farther ahead in class. So eventually they sent me for an IQ test. And when they told me the results, it was like being Harry freakin’ Potter. (Of course Harry Potter didn’t exist in the 1970s.)

But did I, like Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World getting to meet Aerosmith, cry out “I’m not worthy!”, or, like Isaiah or Paul or Peter – readings 1, 2, and 3 – declare myself unclean or unfit? Well, no; I was a kid. I lapped it up. Did I, like an Olympic medalist, recognize the hard work behind and ahead of me? What hard work behind me? It was an indication of aptitude – of what I could do. But I didn’t take it that way. I thought of it as something I was. I was a jee-nius! Whatever I thought was automatically brilliant! I could solve the world’s problems off the top of my head! And of course anything that threatened to undermine that self-image – anything that actually made me work – was to be avoided. Reflexively.

So, in other words, I took exactly the wrong lesson from it. I hadn’t worked for it, I hadn’t earned it, so I didn’t have the idea that it was something that entailed work. It took me years to learn how good it is to do something difficult, that requires hard work, and to succeed.

I mean, come on, eh! Harry Potter learns that he has to work hard – that with the gift comes a responsibility. And Peter, Paul, and Isaiah know from the very beginning that they will have to work hard. They’re full-grown adults. They know that they’re being handed something that they haven’t earned, and that it’s something they don’t see how they could possibly merit, and they’re clear that with this great moment of exaltation they are being assigned a very big work order. Isaiah has to go and be a prophet and tell a lot of people some things they really won’t want to hear. Peter has to go be a fisher of men – he has to go catch people. Paul, too. Look, the more you look at it, this isn’t a Harry Potter moment – it’s almost a Frodo Baggins moment: “Yes, you’ve been chosen to do something incredibly important that is also incredibly arduous and unpleasant – something that may well get you killed.”

What really interests me, though, is that while, as adults, we have ramified our exaltation fantasies and in general we know that to get to the top requires hard work, and that with exaltation – earned or, even more so, unearned – comes responsibility, when it comes to the kind of exaltation and responsibility in today’s readings, spiritual exaltation and responsibility, we tend to be remarkably far off message.

I mean, sure, we sing songs of praise and thanks. Every Christmas I sing in Handel’s Messiah, a couple of hours of praise and gratitude and general Christian values, and the place is packed for several concerts, but the song for your average Canadian – me included, and perhaps even more so than most – is not so much Worthy is the Lamb, more like Worthy, yes, I am. We just take it for granted.

Am I saying that in fact we are all miserable sinners and wretched, and so on? Well, yes and no. I’m not saying that we need to set up confessionals or we’re all going to hell. But I certainly am saying that none of us – not one of us – ever consistently, fully lives up to the principles that we hold to be most valuable, most important. Love, peace, generosity, understanding, treating all people as fellow children of God, as fellow knots in the fabric of the Holy Spirit. Not only don’t we, I don’t believe it’s even actually possible for any human being to do so. We are not made to be able to do so. We lack the fluidity of the spirit; we embody the resistance of the material, the self-preservation instincts of those who have bodies to look after, the limited perspective of a pair of eyes, a pair of ears, a brain. We will never be able to do it as well as required, and we have all spent much of our lives undoing it. And yet these principles that we hold so dear are our responsibility. We are called to love, to give, to share, to serve, to bring the truth of the love of God, the universality of the Holy Spirit, to the world, to all around us. And because we call ourselves Christians that responsibility is multiplied. We say we follow Christ? OK, put up or shut up. Show it in action.

And we are called to this task not only in spite of the fact that we are incapable and unworthy; we are called to it precisely because we are incapable and unworthy. We are doing this to learn. We learn by doing. We are doing this to create. You need something to be not there in order to create it. Love means going beyond yourself. We’re muggles who have to make magic. So much more interesting and valuable than someone who can do it with a wave of a wand.

Olympic medalists work for years and years to earn their golds, and only those who are both excellent and lucky get them. Imagine if they handed out the gold medals first, and then the athletes had to earn them.

Guess what. Here’s your gold medal. Now try to deserve it.

You never will. But it’s up to you to come as close as you can.



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