Readings Ecclesiasticus 10.12-18; Luke 14.1, 7-14
Preacher The Revd Alan Sykes
Citius, altius, fortius are the three Latin words that make up the Olympic motto. And I’m sorry to disappoint you if you thought you’d put the Olympics behind you. Not in this sermon, I’m afraid.
Now, if you have a smattering of Latin, you’ll know that citius, altius and fortius are what they call comparative adjectives which mean, respectively, quicker, higher and stronger.
And that seems an appropriate motto for most Olympic sports, even – at a stretch – for beach volleyball and synchronised swimming. If you can call them sports, that is.
And you could say, more or less fairly, that those three words symbolise our human striving for things to be better, for us to be better than we have been so far.
Continuing the Olympic theme, we still have the flags in church that we put up for the Olympics. At the back we have the Olympic flag draped over the balcony of the bell chamber – five connected rings each of a different colour – blue, yellow, black, green and red.
I found out the other day that there is no country that doesn’t have one or more of these colours in its national flag.
At least there was no such country in 1913 when the flag was designed – for that very reason in those five colours. Many countries have come into existence since and produced new flags but it’s probably a fair bet that all their flags have at least one of those colours.
Those rings also symbolise the five continents in the Olympic movement. Poor old Antarctica doesn’t get a look in – not even in the winter Olympics. So, fundamentally, the Olympic flag is a symbol of unity. Unity is an Olympic ideal and who could argue with it?
But does that ideal sometimes degenerate into a mere search for prestige and status?
At first glance Jesus seems to be playing the status game in our gospel, only in a slightly more subtle way than we normally play it.
He seems to be giving the following advice: if you’re a wedding guest, don’t go for the best seats. Play a more canny game. Sit in a seat below where you’d like to be and the chances are that the host will summon you to sit somewhere more prestigious. So you end up being where you wanted – somewhere prestigious – while at the same time preserving the appearance of humility. Perfect!
Well, that’s the sort of game that people do play but it’s not what Jesus is driving at in this parable. It would be extremely odd if he were. He’s using the language of shame and prestige, humiliation and honour because that’s the kind of language that his listeners will understand, but really he’s talking about something else entirely.
The only prize of infinite value is union with God. That’s what Jesus is talking about.
Human status and human prestige are worth nothing in comparison. They’re actually dangerous and they’re dangerous because they deflect us from the path of union with God. They tempt us to trust in something other than God.
And if we trust in our own superiority, we will ultimately be disappointed. And on that fruitless road we will have worshipped an idol – our own prestige – and so neglected God.
It’s not that God is a jealous God in some kind of human sense. Although that phrase ‘a jealous God’ is used quite often in the Old Testament, we shouldn’t take it too literally. God just knows that idol worship won’t get us anywhere worthwhile because it severs us from him. It’s a law of the spiritual life.
Our first reading said this:
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord: the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
Forsaking the Lord leads us to human pride and human pride leads us to forsake the Lord – the ultimate vicious circle.
Pride is a word that has various shades of meaning, not all of them bad. We’re talking here about the pride that has its source in egotism, in the desire for superiority.
So let’s go back to the Olympics – and sport in general.
I speak as someone who loves sport. But it seems to me that these days sporting success has been elevated for many to the status of a substitute religion. Sportsmen and women have been elevated to the status of demi-gods. Maybe I listen to Radio 5 Live too much, but it does feel to me that something unhealthy is going on in the minds of many people – spectators and participants alike. I don’t of course mean every spectator and every participant.
Baron de Coubertin is the person most associated with the re-establishing of the Olympic games in the modern era and, famously, he once said that ‘the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part’. That’s the well-known bit, but he went on to say: ‘the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well’.
Winning has become everything when in fact it is next to nothing. Winning has become everything to such an extent that, all too often, it is worse than nothing. Winning is in danger of becoming a form of idol worship. The quest to feel superior is in danger of taking over our humanity.
Citius, altius, fortius – human beings are by nature strivers. We strive for things to be different. Striving seems, perhaps literally, to be in our DNA. Other animals don’t really strive in the same way. They strive to eat and to reproduce but apart from that they seem to be quite happy to be what they are. Who knows what goes on in another creature’s mind but that’s the impression they give.
Pure striving, as it were, is good but egotistical striving isn’t. It separates us from each other and from God.
Think of those Olympic rings – joined together as a symbol of unity, the unity of human kind.
I don’t think it has happened quite yet but there’s a danger that the obsession with winning gold medals will divide people more than it could ever unite them. It can easily become just another way of feeling superior, another way of dividing people.
Union is what the Olympic movement is really about and it’s what the Christian faith is really about as well. There is no union with God for us human beings without union with our fellow human beings. The two go hand in hand or they don’t go at all.
So let’s be on the look-out for those forces that tend towards disunion and separation. Sometimes they may lurk in places where they’re simply not supposed to be – even at the Olympics.