Sunday, July 29, 2012

Winning Isn't Everything

   Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin
are generally remembered for their controversy.
Hosted by Hitler’s Nazi party,
the original intention was that no Jews or blacks
be allowed to participate in the Games;
at the threat of international boycott,
the organizers relented.

But there’s a little known piece of 1936 Olympic trivia
which has recently caught my attention.
It seems that two Japanese athletes—
Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe—
tied for second place in the men’s pole vault.
Rather than continue 
to compete against each other in a jump-off,
the two drew lots for the silver medal.
Nishida won, and Oe took the bronze.
But when the pair got back to Japan,
they had their medals cut in two and then joined together
so that each had a medal which was half silver and half bronze.

For the next few weeks,
the eyes of the world will be fixed on London
and the Olympic Games now underway there.
The Olympics would not be the Olympics, of course,
without competition…but—as stories like that
of the Japanese pole-vaulters remind us—
competition is not their ultimate purpose.
The purpose of the Olympics is not the awarding of medals—
though it is right for us to celebrate excellence and achievement;
no, the purpose of the Olympics
is to bring the world closer together:
first by uniting athletes across competitive borders,
and then by better uniting their nations
in mutual understanding and respect.

If strict competition isn’t the ruling principle
even of the Olympic Games,
then maybe there are some of the other areas of life and society
where we need to reexamine our purpose and priorities.
I think of global economics,
where the gap keeps growing between rich and poor;
where nearly a billion people go to bed hungry each night
while there’s more than sufficient food to feed the world.
I think of national politics,
where the focus has shifted from what’s best for the country
to who wins and who loses—no matter the cost.
I even think of the Church,
where conflicts escalate on so many issues
ranging from liturgy to lifestyles.
But for all the struggle to come out on top,
why does it seem we’re not getting ahead—
in fact, that we’re loosing ground?
Is this what it means to take first place?

Consider how that little boy
brought forward by Andrew on the mountainside
could have easily looked at his little lunch and said:
That’s mine!  I earned it.  I brought it.  Get your own!
But instead, he placed his few loaves and fish in Jesus’ hands
and watched a miracle unfold:
not only that there was more than enough food to go around,
but that, by sharing this simple meal,
a ragtag crowd come from all over
had been changed into a community
reclining on the grass to picnic together in this out of the way place.

“I urge you,” Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians,
“to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received.”
He’s encouraging us to be the very best!
But Paul here doesn’t advocate a fiercely competitive spirit
where triumph comes at great expense to others;
rather, he’s summoning us to a humble striving
that preserves unity and strengthens the bonds of peace.  

Just imagine how different our times would be
if we each did our very best every day—
not for our own glory, but for God’s!

In 1936, a world on the brink of war
desperately needed the example of two Japanese pole-vaulters,
telling it that there’s something much more important than winning.
In 2012, when so many things still divide us,
the world very much stands in need of the same message.
May this message come not only from the Olympic Games,
but even more from those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ:
who have in common one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Continually brought closer together in one body by the Eucharist,
may our increasing unity give living witness
to the one God and Father of all.
Yes, we may need to lay aside some of our competitiveness…
…but let’s not neglect to go for the gold!