Participation Trophies

2 Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 17 But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am enjoying the fall, with its strange temperature spikes, cool evenings, breath-taking colors, and pumpkins, pumpkins, everywhere. Over the last few years they have put pumpkin in every conceivable food, from pumpkin spice lattes, to pumpkin-flavored Twinkies, to pumpkin bread, and of course, the classic pumpkin pie. They have even started putting pumpkin in some non-edible products. I saw a picture this week of “pumpkin spiced Clorox.” Let’s just say that maybe it isn’t wise to make Clorox smell delicious.

Sonya, the children, and I picked up a couple of pumpkins to have for decorations at our home yesterday. Unfortunately, one of the children dropped their pumpkins, shattering it into pieces. But it was okay, because I know how to fix pumpkins…with a pumpkin patch.

Today we will be talking about racing. I’ve never been much of a racer, not in my car, and not on foot. But you don’t have to be a runner to know how it works: the first one to cross the finish line wins. And no matter where you finish in regard to the rest of the group, if you aren’t first, you lose.

Now over my lifetime I have heard a lot of debate about something called “participation trophies.” Are you familiar with participation trophies? There are some leagues and some races, usually ones for children, where every child receives a trophy, ribbon, or medal at the end. Obviously, this is different from grown-up races, where there is only one winner, and then first, second, and third-place losers. The argument against the participation trophy is that it doesn’t prepare children for the real world where not everyone gets a trophy, either metaphorically or literally. If you show up to work late, fall asleep at your desk, play on your phone all day, and just perform poorly, they aren’t going to give you a raise, a promotion, or even “employee of the month” recognition. You don’t get a “participation trophy” for just showing up to work. If everyone wins, then why bother putting your best effort into something? Shouldn’t the trophy be reserved for the winner?

I want to say that I understand that argument in athletics, and I can go both ways on this discussion. But when we consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus, we aren’t competing with one another for a trophy. Instead, we are helping one another finish the race. And in this race, everyone who finishes gets their own participation trophy. We all get a crown.

Our text this morning comes from the very end of Paul’s second letter to his young disciple, Timothy. We have been looking at these two letters for a few weeks now, and next week I hope to swing back and address one part of 1 Timothy that we conveniently skipped over, the first two verses of chapter 6, which deal with slavery. Oh yes, we saved the most challenging for last.

As we look at today’s passage, we can see that there is both a sense of triumph and sadness in Paul’s words. Paul is believed to be writing this letter from his prison cell, awaiting execution. He has reason to be a little down. In verse 6 he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.”

I find it interesting that Paul considers his life a drink offering, a “libation,” according to some translations. Elsewhere, Paul talks about being living sacrifices to God. With a traditional meat offering, the animal was slaughtered, some of the fat, the skin, the intestines, you know, all of the good stuff, was burnt and sent up to God. Then the priests would eat the meat, and who doesn’t like a good barbeque?

But a drink offering was different. A drink offering requires taking your finest, most expensive drink—we are talking about Pepsi or Coca-Cola, not that Big K stuff—and doing what with it? Pouring it on the altar. The finest drink is…wasted. At least with a burn offering, the priests and perhaps others got to eat some of it. But when Paul describes his life, he compares it to a drink offering. Yes, it was all done in the name of and to the honor and glory of God, but Paul feels like nobody else benefitted from it. That’s the state of mind Paul is in while he sits there in the prison cell writing this letter.

The lectionary skips over a few verses, perhaps because they don’t seem to add much to Paul’s argument. I want to look at those verses right now because they help us better understand why Paul is feeling a bit down. Verses 9-15:

Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 12 I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.

14 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. 15 You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.

How sad is that? Demas has deserted Paul, Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus has gone to Dalmatia, where one can only assume they have large white dogs with black spots. Alexander has done harm to Paul. And now he is cold because he doesn’t even have his coat! I feel bad for Paul.

But it doesn’t stop there. Paul continues in verse 16, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” That “first defense” is Paul’s trial, where he was first sentenced to death. He went through that alone, and I am amazed that he has the strength to ask God for their forgiveness!

We all know what it feels like to be deserted by the people we love, by the people we think love us. Sometimes it feels like it is us versus the world, like nobody is there to support us. Paul wasn’t the first to experience this feeling, and he won’t be the last. Jesus’s friends left him at his worst hour. And I bet that many of us can think of times when we needed someone, and they weren’t there.

Susan Johnson, a Marriage and Family Counselor, claims that when she meets with adults who are having problems, she can often ask one question that gets to the root of their struggles. She asks, “Was there ever a time that you needed them, but they weren’t there?” No matter what one spouse is complaining about, their struggles often can be traced back to a feeling of abandonment.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as independent people, strong and resourceful, there will be times when we need people. I feel like I can get by on my own pretty well, when everything is going as it should. But when I have issues, like when my back goes out and leaves me struggling to walk, struggling to get dressed, I know I can’t do it all on my own.

When a loved on dies; when you lose your job; when you get that diagnosis; when the verdict is read. Nobody should have to go through that alone, and the feeling of abandonment can drive a huge wedge between loved ones when we are not there for one another.

Yet Paul believes he was never alone. God was always with him. After Paul’s first trial, God saved him from the “lion’s mouth.” I don’t know if that is literal or metaphorical, but Paul was sentenced to die and was saved.

Paul does something kind of fun in the Greek; a little word play. When he says that none of his friends stood with him, the word he uses is “paraginomai.” But when God stood with him, the word is “parahistemi.” He contrasts “paraginomai” with “parahistemi.” You weren’t there, but God was with me.

As early as the book of Deuteronomy, we are promised that God will never leave us nor forsakes us. This promise is reaffirmed in the book of Hebrews. We have heard this all of our life, God will never leave us nor forsake us. I know it, you know it. Paul knew it.

Yet still, Paul is discouraged. And if Paul is discouraged when his friends desert him, I know that I am in trouble, because I am not as strong as Paul.

If we circle back up to the beginning of our text for this morning, we will find some familiar phrases. But now read them with the sense of abandonment that Paul was dealing with. Verses 7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

In spite of being abandoned by so many people, Paul can look back and say that he fought well, and he finished the race. For that, he knows that he will inherit a crown of righteousness.

When we see artistic renditions of the old Olympic Games, we generally see wrestlers grappling with one another, javelin throwers heaving their spears, and of course one of the oldest competitive sports, we see runners racing to the finish line. But where today’s victors receive a gold medal, the early Olympians received something of less value in my mind. They received a crown of branches. Those crowns would dry up, fall apart, and disintegrate over time. Only the king, the Caesar, was permitted to have a crown that would last forever!

Yet Paul, as he is nearing his execution, says that he will receive a crown of righteousness. But here’s the thing, he isn’t the only one who will receive a reward. Everyone who participates get a trophy, kind of like in little league baseball. Because in this race, everyone who crosses the finish line wins. It doesn’t matter who gets there first, it doesn’t matter when you start the race. What matters is that we fight the good fight, that we finish the race, that we keep the faith.

So if we all win, maybe we should do a little less competing with one another, and do a little more helping?

My sister-in-law, Cassandra, is a bit of a runner. She coached Middle School track and field and cross country up until she gave birth to my twin nephew and niece. She has run a number of long runs, marathons and halves, stuff like that. I’m told that within the running culture there is often a strong community. You meet other people at races, you chat while you catch your breath, share a Gatorade or a Powerbar, and you support one another.

Cassandra got to know some other runners, and they all started running together on a regular basis. And about five of these runners decided to do an ultramarathon together. This ultramarathon was an overnight, multiple-day, 100-mile race. Nobody said that these new friends were smart. Cassandra, being of sound mind and body, decided that should would not compete in the ultramarathon with her friends. But what she would do is something called “pace” them for a portion of the run.

There would be any number of ways that you could support a friend running an ultramarathon. You could come and cheer for them as they run. You could prepare snacks and drinks for them to consume along the way. Someone needs to set up their tents for the runners to stop and sleep for a few hours. Cassandra’s way of supporting these friends was to help them train, and to run the last leg of the race along with them. So while a few of the friends ran the entire 100 miles, Cassandra only ran alongside them as a pacer for the last 26.2 miles. It was her job to keep the ultramarathoners motivated, to encourage them along the way. She was there to help them when they fell, and after running 80-some miles, they were falling a lot! She said that one guy was just crying the entire time, they smelled really bad, and for disgusting reasons. But Cassandra was there with them through the roughest and most challenging part of the race. And though Cassandra didn’t run the entire ultramarathon with her friends, she did cross the finish line with them.

Here’s the important thing to remember. As we run this race we call life, there are many people who are out there looking to win, to get ahead, and to beat you at any cost. But we must not fall into those practices in the church. I’m not saying that we can’t be competitive at sports or when it comes to getting a better job. But when it comes to following Jesus, we are not trying to get across the finish line first. We are trying to make sure the most people possible are able to finish the race.

Cassandra wasn’t trying to win the ultramarathon. She wasn’t even registered for the race. Her goal was to be there for her friends to make sure that they finished the race.

Paul felt deserted as he ran his race. I wish that he could have had a friend like my sister in law.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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