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Lenten Meditation: March 8

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

My first profession was sports broadcasting. I was bitten by that bug in middle school and pursued that passion through high school, college, and into my early adulthood. To me, sports are narratives played out in real time. All of the elements of a good narrative are there: conflict, heroics, failures, ironies, and even plot. Whether it is as slow as baseball or as frantic as hockey, the storylines emerge.

When I began my theological studies I developed questions about the compatibility between sports and the gospel. I realize that there is no greater heresy than to question the primacy of sport in this country. It does seem that competition—which is at the heart of sport—is an irreducible part of the human condition. We compete in everything—not just between the athletic lines but also in the assembly lines and the checkout lines. We covet market share, profit, besting the competition. We compete in business and in school, on the playgrounds and in the courtrooms. Even the church is competitive as we all hope to reach what few religious unchurched people remain.

But is sport—-competition—compatible with the gospel? What would Jesus think of our hyper competitive environment? Here I am not talking about competing for time on a Sunday morning—a time now meant more for little league than Sunday school. I am talking about the essence of human nature. Are we meant to be competitive ? What is the consequence of competition in the Bible?

In the beginning, Adam blamed Eve for the transgression. Cain slew Abel out of jealousy that Abel’s offering was better. When David was dying, much bloodshed occurred as his sons vied for the throne. War is not sport, but I am sure that the Babylonian army understood their conquest as a victory in competition.

Our reading for today eavesdrops on two disciples who are arguing about which one of them is the greatest. This is in bad taste generally, but especially so as the argument comes shortly after Jesus tells them of his impending death. Aware of this competition, Jesus calls his disciples together and shares with the that, in the kingdom, things are turned around. The leader is the servant. The last is the first. There is no “greatest” for all are equal. That is not a good locker room speech.

Jesus went to his cross humble and scorned. He rose quietly. He returned in speech, not with a sword.

Subsequent centuries would look at his death and find there victory. Victory over sin. Victory over death. Jesus won the competition.

But Jesus never competed. He preached, healed, taught, loved, cared, and felt deeply. He knew he didn’t need to compete because he was of God and in God and God has no competition, only love and mercy and a desire for justice.

We will never eradicate competition from the human experience, just as competition was not eradicated from the biblical witness. But we should remember that being better than is not a witness of the gospel. Winning is not the goal. The gospel should convey to us that we are already as good as and have already won—because Jesus saw to that in his death and resurrection.

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