I want you to wax nostalgic with me for a moment. Remember the "good ol’ days" when people cooperated with each other rather than competed with each other? My memories are often filled with athletics—an arena of competition, but even then there was cooperation. For example, remember when a high school athlete could play three different sports if he, or she, chose to do so? Remember when, like at my high school, the basketball coach was also an assistant football coach? The baseball coach was also the athletic trainer for football? Remember when each sport had its distinct season and the coaches all encouraged you to participate in other sports when theirs was not "in season?" And not just in athletics. Remember when the drama teacher encouraged you to sing in the choir also and both teachers worked together and encouraged such participation? What happened? Where did we lose that spirit of cooperation?
I blame it, at least in part, on what I call the "trickle down effect." Again, sticking with the arena of sports which is the classic example, but not the only one, someone recognized that professional athletes were at the top of their game and they, with rare exceptions, focused their time and energy on one sport. If that was good for them to be their best, then it was good for college athletes. And the three, or even two sport athlete in college went the way of the dodo bird. Then, someone recognized that the one sport athlete in college excelled at his or her sport because all their time and energy was focused into that one sport—and if it was good for the college athlete then it surely must be good for the high school athlete. And that philosophy "trickled down" to the high schools and the three, and even two sport athlete in high school began to disappear. And it’s trickling down to the junior high school level. God help us when it trickles down to elementary school aged athletes.
And, as I said, it’s not just athletics. Our oldest daughter, Megan, was interested in high school in helping with the drama program. She wasn’t thinking acting in plays, but helping behind the scenes with set design and makeup—using her artistic abilities. However, because she wasn’t able to fit drama class into her class schedule she couldn’t participate. Surely you’ve experienced something similar. "I’m sorry Mrs. Morganstern, but unless Beatrice attends French Camp this summer she won’t be able to go on the Paris trip." The spirit of cooperation has left us and we are left with a spirit of competition.
Think about all the ways it has crept into our lives. Driving, for example. Nowadays, when we drive we compete with other drivers for our space on the road. And the result is road rage. I was stunned to learn how much that has entered into my life. Sometime last summer, as gas prices continued to climb, I decided to try riding the bus to work. There are some problems in doing that, mostly being here without a car should I suddenly need one, but I was stunned to discover how relaxing the ride home on the bus was. No competing for space as I’m preparing to make the turn at Union and Alameda Parkway, just calm and relaxed as someone else drove and I read something. I’m thinking about leaving my car at the church and riding the bus to and from work. It would probably add 10 years to my life! And I consider myself a calm and courteous driver!
We compete for our positions in line at the movies, or at a Rockies game. Kim and I recently had tickets for the Rockies-Cubs series, which always draws a good crowd, albeit half the stadium is made up of Cubs fans. The lines entering into the stadium were long—and we joined in with everyone else in trying to find the shortest and fastest line. If you’re familiar with the entrance gates near home plate—20th and Blake—we were lined up beyond where the statue is, almost to the corner of 20th and Blake. And, of course, later arrivals would come sauntering up and try to blend into the line further ahead of us, accompanied by cries of "Hey, the line’s back here!" including our own voices joining in. One group of three or four tried it right in front of us and Kim actually said, "We’re standing in line here!" To which someone in this group replied, "So are we." To which I actually replied, "Not in this line you’re not!" I could just see a fight breaking out over that! Of course they were Cubs fans so they deserved it! No! Where did we lose the spirit of cooperation and replace it with a spirit of competition…and the grumbling that accompanies it?
And where has it entered into the church? In some ways the grumbling has always been there. Look at Israel in the Exodus when things got dicey in the wilderness. Grumbling and quarreling going on in chapter after chapter. There’s always been grumbling. But that doesn’t make it ok. Especially in the church, as Paul reminds us. The problem with grumbling is that it robs us of our joy—a fun outing to the Rockies-Cubs game becomes testy in the stupid competition for a place in line, Beatrice’s enjoyment of French becomes tedious in the stress of giving it top priority in the competition for her passion and interest. The problem with the grumbling that comes in our competitive world is that it robs us of our joy. And, worse yet—particularly in the church—it is a poor witness. Who wants to be in a church where the prevalent attitude is one of grumbling? Who wants to become a Christian when the dominant activity one observes in Christians is grumbling?
Max Lucado illustrates this point in his book, Facing Your Giants, when he writes about participating in a half-Ironman triathlon:
"After the 1.2 mile swim and the 56 mile bike ride, I didn’t have much energy left for the 13.1 mile run. Neither did the fellow jogging next to me. I asked him how he was doing and soon regretted posing the question. ‘This stinks. This race is the dumbest decision I’ve ever made.’ He had more complaints than a taxpayer at the IRS. My response to him? ‘Goodbye.’ I know if I listened too long, I’d start agreeing with him.
I caught up with a 66-year-old grandmother. Her tone was just the opposite. ‘You’ll finish this,’ she encouraged. ‘It’s hot, but at least it’s not raining. One step at a time…don’t forget to hydrate…stay in there.’ I ran next to her until my heart was lifted and my legs were aching. I finally had to slow down. ‘No problem.’ She waved and kept going.
Who would you rather run with? Why would we think people are any different in how they might evaluate us as a friend? A colleague? Or as a church? Paul understands the poison of grumbling is that it is such a poor witness. Who wants to be around that? Instead of the poisoned witness of grumbling, Paul wants us to "shine like stars" among those whose spirits are lagging because of the wear and tear that competition and grumbling have brought to their lives.
One preventative against grumbling and complaining is to be intentional in thinking about all that we have to be thankful for. Keep in mind that these words of Paul encouraging us to work for good in our lives and to do so without grumbling or arguing come in the midst of Paul’s reminders of all we have—being united with Christ, the comfort of Christ’s love for us, Christ’s Spirit present with us, and the example of Christ’s own humility before us (2:1-11 from last week’s sermon). Being intentional in recalling, restating all we have through God’s mercy and grace goes a long way toward removing the damaging spirit of competitiveness and complaining that is so detrimental to the body of Christ.
I want to leave you with an image that might inspire a more cooperating spirit in each of us. Perhaps you heard about it this week, or saw it in a news report somewhere. It comes from a women’s Division II college softball game in Washington state. Central Washington University was hosting Western Oregon University in a series that would determine which school would represent their conference in the playoffs. Western Oregon was batting in the top of the second inning of a scoreless game when Sara Tucholsky came to bat. Sara is pretty small, listed at 5’2" in the program which usually adds an inch or two to a player’s stature. Sara had never hit a homerun—not in high school and not in college. But, in one of those magic moments that often happens in sports, she connected on the second pitch she faced and knocked the ball over the center field fence. Imagine her excitement—two runners were on base so her homerun gave her team a big 3-0 lead, let alone it being her first homerun ever. The excitement must’ve gotten to Sara a bit because in running out her homerun she missed touching first base. When the firstbase coach hollered at her to come back and touch it, Sara planted her right leg, turned to go back and twisted her knee. She collapsed to the ground in pain, managing to crawl back to first base. Now, the rules of softball state that no teammate or coach can assist a runner around the bases. Literally, they cannot touch the runner. The two options for Western Oregon were for Sara to somehow manage to hobble her way around the bases, or replace her with a pinch runner in which case her homerun is nullified, she gets credited with a single and only two runs score instead of three. When the coach asked Sara, without touching her(!), if she could manage her way around the bases, Sara replied "no." So, the coach was about to call for a pinch runner when a voice called out to the umpire, "Excuse me, would it be ok if we carried her around the bases and she touched each bag?" The voice was that of Central Washington firstbasemen, Mallory Holtman. The umpire, I’m sure with a startled look on her face and in her voice, replied there was no rule preventing that. So that is what they did—Holtman and teammate Liz Wallace gingerly carried Sara around the bases, stopping at each one and gently lowering her to touch the base with her uninjured left leg until she touched homeplate and her own team could attend to her. Here is a picture from that moment.
It’s an image I’d like us all to carry with us. When life comes at us fast and hard and we find ourselves competing in a negative, damaging way—fighting for that open space in traffic, holding our place in line against all intruders, grumbling against any intrusions into our understanding of how things should work…or how the church should be—remember this image, and recall with it all of the things we have to be thankful for because of who we are…in Jesus Christ. Then look for opportunities to cooperate, not compete…and without complaint. Who around you—here at church, in your workplace, in your neighborhood—who around you could use a lift around the bases?
Let’s take a moment for silent reflection and consider what Paul is teaching us today on how we should live.