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Lewis and Clarks Excellent Adventure
February 9, 2003
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9 and follow along as I read verses 24-27. Hear what the spirit says to us.
24 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.
25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.
26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air;
27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Amen. The word of God. thanks be to God.
The Excellent Adventure
According to an A & E Travel company brochure, "Thomas Jefferson called it one of the greatest adventures in American history, and historians from filmmaker Ken Burns to bestselling author Stephen Ambrose have endorsed this sentiment with recent tributes. Here is your opportunity to participate in the 200th anniversary of the epic journey with an escorted tour of the historic route. The adventure of a lifetime awaits you!"
The "adventure" referred to here is a tour of the Lewis & Clark Trail, lasting 16 days and costing $2,362 per person, not a bad deal considering that 200 years ago, the entire Lewis & Clark expedition, involving 33 people and lasting four years, cost only $2,500!
The creation of the 3,700-mile Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in 1978 made the story accessible in a way that history rarely is. Millions of people have followed Lewis and Clark's footsteps and oar-swings since the trail opened. Ambrose's book [Undaunted Courage] attracted tens of thousands of new fans to the tale. The expedition's various appeal - ecological, patriotic, diverse, literary, thrill-seeking - gives it traction. More and more Americans read directly from the captains' journals, whose blunt, direct and oddly beautiful language makes the story live. And the United States is a country that loves road stories, and there is none more vivid or exciting than Lewis and Clark's. [David Plotz, "Lewis and Clark: Stop celebrating. They don't matter," Slate.com, August 16, 2002.]
This is the bicentennial year of the expedition, and numerous celebrations are planned to both commemorate the trip and emphasize the traditions and heritage of the Native Americans Lewis and Clark met along the way.
Corinthian Food Fight
It has been just under 2,000 years since the apostle Paul spoke of his own adventures, and referred to his life and ours as a race. The race he was thinking of may have been the marathon of Greek tradition, or a sprint on a well-defined course. In any event, it was quite different from the journey undertaken by Lewis and Clark.
The apostle Paul had founded the church at Corinth. Then he had gone on to other places to continue his missionary endeavors. He wrote 1 Corinthians because he heard about troubles they were having in the church.
Our scripture passage is in that section of 1 Corinthians dealing with the issue of whether Christians should eat meat from animals sacrificed to idols (which is chapters 8-10). We need to understand something of the overall message of this section.
In Paul's time, edible portions of sacrificed animals were a common source of meat in the market. Paul says Christians are at liberty to eat such food, because, as he says in 8:4, "we know that no idol in the world really exists." Thus, it is all right for Christians to eat meat left over from sacrifices because the sacrifices were not to a real God. On the other hand, Paul acknowledges that some Christians, as a matter of conscience, believe that eating such meat is idolatry.
Faced with this division among the Corinthian Christians, Paul offers counsel that emphasizes the unity of believers. The starting point for unity is Paul's recognition that exercising liberty to eat and observing scruples against eating are equally valid, and equally right actions concerning the consumption of meat from sacrifices. But Paul lays an extra measure of responsibility upon those who exercise liberty, encouraging them to "take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block" (8:9) to those who for reasons of conscience choose not to eat meat from sacrifices.
The essential moral issue, then, is not a matter of eating or not eating. It is a matter of upholding all members of the body of Christ. Sure, Corinthian Christians in principle are free to eat sacrificial food. But if doing so causes a falling away from Christian commitment either by offending the religious sensibilities of some or by tempting others to revert to idolatrous ways, then liberty is misapplied.
Accordingly, in 9:19 Paul emphasizes that even though he is "free with respect to all," he makes himself "a slave to all" in order to "win more of them" to the gospel of Christ. The principle of personal freedom is trumped by the priority Paul places on loving and helping others.
With that in mind then, we can see that in 9:24-27 Paul articulates a need for self-control in pursuing Christian freedom comparable to that exercised by athletes preparing for competition. Paul's use of athletic imagery certainly stems from the Greek games that we know primarily today as the Olympic games. The discipline Paul calls for is illustrated in several respects throughout this passage.
The word from which "run" is translated in 9:24 and 26 likewise carries the connotation of hard-striving exertion, even to the point of exhaustion, in attaining a goal.
Let me illustrate with a baseball trivia question: Who is Clint Courtney? Clint never came close to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is doubtful that his picture appeared on any bubble gum cards. He was not a legend in his own time nor in his own mind. Clint played catcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. During his career he earned the nickname of Scrap Iron, implying that he was hard, weathered, tough. Old Scrap broke no records - only bones. He had little power or speed on the base paths. As for grace and style, he made the easiest play look rather difficult. But armed with mitt and mask, Scrap Iron never flinched from any challenge. Batters often missed the ball and caught his shin. Their foul tips nipped his elbow. Runners fiercely plowed into him, spikes first, as he defended home plate. Though often doubled over in agony, and flattened in a heap of dust, Clint Courtney never quit. Invariably, he'd slowly get up, shake off the dust, punch the pocket of his mitt once, twice, and nod to his pitcher to throw another one. The game would go on and Courtney with it - scarred, bruised, clutching his arm in pain, but determined to continue. He resembled a POW with tape, splints, braces and other kinds of paraphernalia that wounded people wear. Some made fun of him - calling him a masochist. Insane. Others remember him as a true champion. [Jon Johnston, Courage - You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books/SP Publications, 1990), 35-36.] That is exactly the kind of running, the kind of exertion to exhaustion that Paul is talking about.
In 9:25, self-control is exercised "in all things" - it is an all-encompassing commitment.
Joseph Pfeifer is a deputy chief of the New York City Fire Department. In an interview with Fast Company magazine (September 2002), he talked about heroism. He said, "It's about doing an ordinary thing at an extraordinary time." He said, "It's what those 343 firefighters who died on September 11 did, including my brother. I know now that when he was coming down from the 30th floor of Tower One, he stopped on the 10th floor and told the captain of Engine 7 that his crew needed to switch to the other set of stairs that led out directly into the lobby. About 30 seconds after they evacuated the building, the tower came down. My brother didn't make it out." Joseph Pfeifer added, "You don't run into a burning building if you don't believe that your essence is being a firefighter, if you don't believe that you can make a real difference in someone's life."
That is commitment. That is discipline.
Paul talks about a focused commitment, which he underscores in 9:26 by writing that he does not run "aimlessly" nor does he unproductively "box as though beating the air." Rather he subjects his body to a strick discipline for a purpose. This discipline is not theoretical. Note that in 9:26, Paul shifts to the first person singular. "I do not run aimlessly." He recommends a course of action to the Corinthian Christians that he practices himself. He is not saying, do as I say. He is saying, do as I do.
The rewards of athletic discipline may seem meager--all that effort for a wreath. But remember that, according to the Olympic ideal, the goal of the athlete was not to be rewarded with monetary compensation, but to be recognized for excellence in a worthy athletic endeavor. The victor's wreath was greatly valued specifically because it signified that its recipients had conducted themselves honorably.
Sometimes this ancient Olympic idea of victory is still preserved today. When you think about the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, you probably don't think about Paula Barila Bolopa. Paula was the women's 50m freestyle swimmer from Equatorial Guinea. She had also never been in a 50m swimming pool until she arrived in Sydney to compete. How did Paula qualify for the Olympics? She can barely swim across the pool and does not even get her face wet when she swims freestyle. She had never stood on a starting block before the Olympics. In fact, Paula did not even have a swimsuit when she arrived in Sydney. She was invited to participate in the competition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC has a program that reaches out to athletes from developing nations who might not otherwise have the opportunity to join in the world-famous games.
Why would Paula travel to Sydney to compete in an event she had no possible chance of winning? It took Paula more than three times longer than it took the women's freestyle gold medalist, Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands to finish the 50m.
Perhaps sometimes it isn't about winning. When Paula finished her heat in 1 minute and 3.97 seconds, the crowd gave her a deafening round of applause. "I got very tired at the end, but the crowd urged me on," Paula said in a recent Sports Illustrated article. ["Undaunted courage," Radical Games Web site, copyright 2001, girltech.com. Retrieved August 21, 2002.]
That is what the Olympics is really about, or should be about.
For those who claim Christ, our most worthy endeavor is the cooperative effort of seeking to love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves. Unlike training for an athletic competition, the goal of the Christian discipline Paul expects is not to strive against others, but to strive for the sake of others - not to honor ourselves, but to conduct ourselves in ways that honor others. Christians are people who have already been honored by the saving love of Jesus Christ. Having been honored, we are now ready to share that honor with others.
In the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, the greatest event was a race up and down mountains. Speed was not the most important issue, because the runner ran the race with a flaming torch. The winner was not necessarily the first person to reach the finish line. It was the person who crossed the line with the flame still burning.
The moral of this story: We need to run the race of live in such a way that we do not put out our flame. For Christians there is a furether moral. We might be later in crossing the finish line, not only because we are protecting our own flame but also because we are lighting the torches of others whose flames have gone out. Winning, as someone has said, is about finishing well, not just finishing first. For a Christian to finish well, we do not just keep our light burning. We help others to keep their lights burning.
The Fog of Uncertainty
Paul argues that to win a race, we must run "in such a way as to get the prize," we must undergo "strict training," we must run with purpose (not "aimlessly"), we must run efficiently (not "like a man beating the air"). Add to this, however, the Lewis and Clark adventure, and we have another approach to the same lesson Paul is teaching: Life is a journey.
Like every journey, it is accompanied by some uncertainty. Not knowing what exactly was out there, Lewis and Clark set out anyway. They were given a map, but it was a bad one, which is why they drew a new map as they went along - much like the way we find ourselves living life - stumbling along into uncharted territory, drawing new maps as we go.
Just when we think we have life figured out, something different happens. Just when we have all our affairs in order, the unexpected disrupts everything. Back in the nineties, many people were looking forward to early retirement based on the explosive earning of their Internet stocks. Today some of those same people have jobs at McDonald's.
Lewis and Clark stayed alive to their task on the long journey west because they knew how to deal with the unknown. It was not the hominy and bacon or pan-fried catfish or "simple meat soup" that kept them going. They had faith that they had ample resources to make it through the fog of uncertainty, and that someday they would walk in the sunlight of victory.
Of course, after Lewis and Clark completed their journey, thousands of second-generation travelers did so as well - using the map they drew. This is not unlike our own experience in following the time-tested "maps" we have for walking the journey of faith. Our map is the Word of God which, as the psalmist points out, is a "lamp" to our feet and a "light" to our path (119:105). The Bible is our map. The Bible is our answer to the uncertainties of life.
The Help of Others
William Clark and Meriwether Lewis also accepted help. Without relying on the advice of others, they could not have survived. So they enlisted a guide to help them. They relied heavily on Sacajawea. Without her, they knew they would not reach their destination. Sacajawea knew more about where the explorers were going than they did. Thanks to her, they were able to send back to Jefferson a treasure trove of artifacts that he placed in a personal museum--such things as horns, dressed skins, utensils, a great painted Mandan buffalo robe, a Chippewa knife scabbard, a Winnebago flute, Crow tobacco pouches and a Sioux dress.
Lewis and Clark made friends along the way. As the expedition made its way west, the travelers presented medals (Jefferson called them "marks of friendship") to Native American chiefs and warriors to assure them of their peaceful intent. The medal depicts two hands shaking - a sign of friendship.
The Christian life is not one that can be lived in isolation. We can't make the journey without relying on others to provide guidance, companionship and tips about their own experience on the same landscape. We are foolish to attempt to do so, and impoverished if we do. We need others just as they need us.
Lewis and Clark relied on a compass. At first they attempted to simply follow the rivers. After the rivers failed them, they resorted to a simple compass. The expedition's surveying compass, purchased by Lewis in Philadelphia and used over 28 months and 7,000 miles is now in the collection at the Smithsonian Institute.
We may be in uncharted territory, and we may be running a race we don't quite understand. But we have a compass: Jesus Christ. Christ is the one who sets our direction. When we line up with him, our lives have purpose and meaning. Lose that compass, and we lose our way.
An old sailor was having a very hard time figuring out the new computer that the company had installed on his ship. He was especially miffed at the young computer guy that the company sent out to teach him this newfangled machine. After some training that was pretty much ineffective, the computer guy left.
The captain said that he looked very seriously at the computer for awhile, then he slipped outside and took a reading with his compass and piloted the ship to port. The computer guy said in his report that it was his good training that enable to captain to pilot the ship. The captain said it was just his old compass.
Our compass is Jesus Christ. It may be an "old compass," but if we keep in the way it points and run the race with courage undaunted, we will get home. Amen.
Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Jones, Landon Y. "Iron will," Smithsonian, August 2002, 96-107.
Kirn, Walter. "The journey that changed America," Time, June 30, 2002.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 4/22/03