Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 27, 2019
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Let’s talk about everybody’s favorite Houstonian - Jose Altuve, second baseman for the Houston Astros. He’s become a type of folk hero. He caught the last ground ball and threw the last out in the 2017 World Series. He stepped to our plate with everything on the line on multiple occasions, and saved our bacon.
Now, Altuve is five foot six, which is awfully petite for a professional ball player. And five six might be generous. When some scouts from the Astros organization came to his native Venezuela for a try out, they told him that he was simply too small to play in the big leagues. Like Goliath scoffing at David, they wanted nothing to do with this diminutive second baseman.
For many boys, there comes a moment in our lives when we realize that we will never play professional baseball. I remember that moment in my own life, it was soul crushing. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten over the disappointment. But for Jose Altuve, being turned down once didn’t mean a thing. He came back the next day and proved his mettle. [Note - I misread an article about this episode in his life. Here is the original sentence that was preached on Sunday, though I do not think it changes the overall nature of the sermon. Shout out to Tim Colby for correcting me! "He spent the whole next year working harder, training harder."] Like a Disney movie that never happens in real life, our short statured, Zacchaeus sized, Altuve was signed by the Astros the next day [year] and the rest, as they say, is history.
So let’s talk a little bit about discipline. Discipline. It’s not a word we use too much in the Christian life nowadays, and that’s to our detriment. In truth, we ought to learn much about our faith from our sports heroes; and I’m not talking about the after game testimonials and Christian rock concert. No, it is their discipline, their training, their single minded purpose that we ought to learn from. Imagine for a moment if you trained yourself to follow Jesus as hard as Jose Altuve trained to sign for the Astros. And I’ll let you figure out which one is more important. One gives you the crown of righteousness, the other is a children’s game played by grown men.
This is a bit of what’s going on in our reading from second Timothy. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me a crown of righteousness.” In the first century, athletic competitions were common, the Olympics being the most popular. Paul is quite aware of these games, recognizing that the two most popular events of the day were wrestling and running. And as any athlete knows, in order to compete to the best of your ability, you have to train yourself. You have to exercise, eat right, get your mind ready for whatever it is you are about to do. The competitor who walks onto the track without having first prepared themselves for the race has already lost.
And the disciple of Jesus who has failed to practice their faith every day, the Christian who refuses to train, will be woefully unprepared for the trials and temptations of this life. Yes, the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is a gift from God, no doubt about it. An unearned, undeserved, unlimited gift given to us by God without any strings attached. This life with Jesus is a gift of perfect love given in perfect love. And yet, we do not know how to live in that love unless we practice it, every day. Sure, Jose Altuve is a gifted baseball player. But if he did not go to batting practice day by day, he would not be playing in the World Series today. Yes, God loves you without any strings attached. But you won’t be ready to live like it unless you discipline yourself every day.
Now, the Church has given us a series of disciplines to practice our Christianity. You get that now, right? “Practicing” your faith is a real thing, not a metaphor. And like Jose Altuve going to fielding practice, our practices as Christians are fairly obviously - going to church, week by week. Saying your prayers, every single day. Reading or listening to the Bible every day, by yourself or with your family. Serving the world, not as a one-off but as a habit, a ritual, a routine of pouring out yourself as a libation, an offering to God and to others. And yes, I’m going to say it - offering your money to church and charity is one of the disciplines of the Christian faith. Again, I’m not talking about the spur of the moment decision to donate a few bucks when they catch you at the HEB checkout line. No, I’m talking about a disciplined, intentional decision and method of offering your money to the mission of God. Y’all get this, right? That’s the real point of turning in a pledge card. The real point to pledging is to keep us honest, to hold us accountable. A pledge campaign is only partially about raising money for the church. A pledge campaign is mostly about the church providing you with an opportunity to discipline yourself in your walk with Jesus. Giving money away is a spiritual practice, it’s a spiritual discipline. It’s one of the ways for us to fight the good fight, to run the race, to follow Jesus.
We live in a volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous world. We cannot change that. But what we can do is change the way we respond, to respond with the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. And it takes discipline to get there. The only way we grow in faith is by practice. You are not going to wake up one morning and suddenly, miraculously, loving God and your neighbor. But after a lifetime of practice, of disciplining yourselves, then you’ll find that you’ve been loving God and loving your neighbor all along. It’s just like my little league coach has told me - practice makes perfect.
Which takes us back to Jose Altuve. After all his hopes and dreams in Venezuela; after all the hours upon hours of blood, sweat, and tears he poured into baseball, he finally got to play in the big leagues. The discipline and the training paid off. Or had they? He played for the Houston Astros, at the time, the worst team in baseball. He played for three straight seasons in which the ‘Stros lost 100 games.
Think of Saint Paul - he fights the good fight of faith, he runs the race, and what does he get for his training? He’s executed by the Roman Empire. We could think of many saints and martyrs of old like this. There Constance the Episcopal nun and her companions. They stayed in Memphis, Tennessee during a yellow fever outbreak to treat the sick when everybody else had left. What did they get for their discipline? They all died. Think of the faithful clergy and lay people in the Soviet Union, who stuck to their prayers and discipleship when all the odds, and all the power was against them. What did they get for it? Siberian prison camps, torture, and death.
In this earthly pilgrimage our discipline of sacrifice is just that - a sacrifice. And compared to the martyrs of old, compared to the faith of Jesus, compared to their discipline and training, I am more than happy to turn in a little pledge card and to give my money. It almost feels too easy compared to what they went through for our faith. It feels that I could, and that I probably should, do more. Again, we are invited into a New Beginning with God, envisioning all the new ways that God is inviting us to greater depths of faith.
Now, of course, this World Series still hangs in the balance. But even then, the message is instructive. Our discipline in the Christian faith is not about winning or losing. Our discipline in the Christian faith is about diligence. And commitment. And joy. That is the icon of who we are as Christians. We train, we fight the good fight of faith, we run the race, we follow Jesus not because we expect some great reward - but because we know it’s the right thing to do. We should not expect to win a World Series ring - we should expect to be crucified.
Our Lord himself, faithful and true to the end, in perfect love, was handed over to the cross. And through the cross, through his losing, through his death, God is giving you the courage to pick it all up again. Even when the world has told you that you’re too short, or not good enough, or not smart enough, or not rich enough, God comes back, day by day, and invites you to train again. Because every day, every season, yes, even every pledge campaign, is a New Beginning. A new opportunity to fight the good fight, to run the race, and to follow the Lord Jesus.