|4:45pm||Sunday Organ Recital - Paul Carr|
Sermon preached on the twelfth Sunday after Trinity (26 August 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
Ecclesiasticus 3: 17-29 Revelation 1
"The only safety after all lies in the lesson of the real Olympia – that the Games themselves are better than the race and the prize. St Paul tells us how insignificant is the prize. Our prize is not corruptible, but incorruptible, and though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share in the equal joy of the contest.”
These are the words of the Right Reverend Ethelbert Talbot, Bishop of Pennsylvania, in London for the 1908 Lambeth Conference, the worldwide Anglican Communion’s four yearly conference of bishops, which, of course, coincided with the staging here in London of the Olympic Games of the same year. He preached here in St Paul’s Cathedral at a service to which Olympic athletes and officials were invited.
The great architect of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, was in the congregation and Bishop Talbot’s words were not lost on him. Speaking at an official Government banquet five days later, he referred to the special service at St Paul’s and said, "The importance of these Olympiads is not so much to win as to take part. ... The important thing in life is not the triumph but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well.”
And, while none of us, I’m sure, would begrudge the euphoria expressed by many an Olympic gold medallist at their victory, many of us will have been struck by the humility of the competitors from whom comes little bombast but much camaraderie and team spirit. The embracing – just past the finish line – of the gold winner by those who have come fourth, fifth, sixth must indeed be what the Olympics and Paralympics are all about. "... though only one may wear the laurel wreath, all may share in the equal joy of the contest.”
What Pierre de Coubertin said at that government banquet on a July evening here in London in 1908 has become the Olympic Creed and appears on the scoreboard at the Opening Ceremony of every Olympiad:
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”
Words inspired by an address here in St Paul’s Cathedral 104 years ago and, here tonight at an opening service for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the address will be given not by a bishop this time but by a Paralympian Gold Medallist, the admirable Tanni Grey-Thompson – whose courage in adversity and whose resulting achievements are themselves a very sermon fit for a pulpit.
And all of these ‘wise saws and modern instances’ are infused, it seems to me, by the breath of humility. Our first lesson this morning from the Book Ecclesiasticus teaches that God is glorified by the humble – and that the greater you are the more you must humble yourself.
The way in which great athletes subject themselves to awe-inspiring training routines must leave little room for status or bombast and, while we all know that there are pretty wealthy footballers and tennis players, the vast majority of sportspeople can only dream of big sponsorship deals but they carry on regardless because they truly believe the creed that affirms that it is not the winning but the taking part that counts.
But how good are the rest of us at this business of humility? And, more pertinently, in the context of this act of worship, how good are people of faith at this business of humility?
If more than we can understand has been shown to us, how can we be so certain about things? If conceit leads many astray, why are we not more cautious about the airing of our opinions? Humility is the quality that encourages us to approach every issue on the assumption that we might be wrong – because a stubborn mind will fair badly at the end and be burdened by troubles.
Stubborn athletes seek what is too difficult for them and investigate what is beyond their power and, like the seed that fell on shallow ground, they rise quickly but soon fall away because they’re not grounded and have no root. Humble athletes seek and investigate – of course, because we know that there is no wisdom without knowledge – they strive and achieve but they do so safe in the assurance that it is not the winning but the taking part that counts.
And, if contemporary society has lost sight of that creed or regards it a weak and pathetic mantra, then let the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games redefine and epitomise that creed which has solid and well-grounded roots in godly faith and sound learning because it has much to teach all of us – not least the Church – about what it means to say, "My child, perform your tasks with humility; then you will be loved by those whom God accepts. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord. For great is the might of the Lord; but by the humble he is glorified.”
Let us pray: Almighty God, give us courage and perseverance to run the race that is set before us, in faith and hope and love, that we may follow the example of your Son Jesus Christ and enter into the joy of him who runs beside us when we triumph and lifts us when we fall. We ask this for the sake of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.