So the Winter Olympics ended last night, and we Allens will miss it. Did you all watch much this year? I have read the articles about lower Olympic viewership, but I can tell you that decreased interest has not hit our house on Gilbert Street. For the last three weeks, Mike Tirico and Scott Hamilton and Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir have narrated every supper, homework session, and weekend pizza night we’ve shared, and we have enjoyed every minute of it. See, I’ve never been snow skiing, and other than an undergraduate semester on exchange in Orono, Maine, I’ve lived my whole life in the South. My inexperience with winter sports lends mystery and magic to the snow and the ice and the goggles and the gear…and though I follow speed skating, curling, and snowboarding only once every four years, the human stories behind the athletes rarely fail to move me.
Growing up, I would cheer for the youngest competitors, but the older I get, the more I cheer for the Sarahs and the Abrahams, those aging athletes whose greatness has earned only almosts on the Olympic stage. You may recognize this video of Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins who won the women’s team sprint freestyle race in cross-country skiing. This event looks wild – like someone dropped a box of colored toothpicks onto the snow – but it’s an impressive combination of endurance and grace. The American pair, donning the deep-blue, almost purple suits, must each run two laps at-a-time on this brutal course, until both skiers have completed six laps, totaling ten kilometers. The “track” includes flat, uphill, and downhill sections, all of which you will see in the abbreviated replay.
Kikkan Randall is the only mom on Team USA. She will turn 36 this year, and Pyeongchang marked her fifth Winter Olympics. Before this year, she had never medaled. Let’s watch together the end of the race…[i]
“Stride-for-stride! Push-for-push!”…How could anyone not get goosebumps watching that victory. Before last week, I hadn’t ever heard of this relay, much less of these women, but – man, oh, man! – Missy and I screamed and cheered when they crossed the finish line like they were our sisters we’d followed our whole lives. Preparing for this morning’s sermon I watched this video[ii] a half-dozen times, and I cried every at every single finish.
I invite you now to segue with me from Randall, Diggins, and the Winter games, to Eric Henry Liddell and the Summer Olympics. You may remember Liddell as the Scottish runner featured in the 1981 Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire (now playing behind me).[iii] In the Church’s calendar of saints from which we draw most of our readings during the 7:00a Lenten services, last week we remembered Liddell. As customary, we remembered the saint on the day of his death – February 21 – and his story is both beautiful and brutal, the famous film capturing only a glimpse of his heroism.
Born in China to missionaries in 1902, at six-years-old his parents sent him to a boarding school back in England, literally half-a-world away. Liddell would study there in Blackheath until enrolling at Edinburgh University, where he distinguished himself as an athlete before qualifying for the VIII Olympiad in Paris in 1924.
At the Olympics, Liddell not only won the gold medal in the 400 Meters race, he set a new world record. Building on that success he won bronze in the 200 Meters, and he was a heavy favorite for the 100 Meters, his best event. However, organizers scheduled his preliminary heat on a Sunday, and, he chose not to run rather than break his commitment to keep a weekly sabbath.
Following the Olympics, Liddell graduated from Edinburgh. “In 1925 he returned to northern China near where he had been born, and he began work as a missionary. Ordained a priest in 1932, in 1934 he married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries. Together, the couple had three daughters.”[iv]
As our Episcopal Church’s Holy Women, Holy Men (the compendium of biographies for the common of saints) recalls, “because of ongoing conflict between China and Japan in the 1930’s, Liddell and his family endured significant hardships. In 1941, after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the British government advised expatriates to leave the country. Florence Liddell took the children and fled to Canada. Eric Liddell and his brother, Rob, stayed on and continued their work.
“In 1943, Liddell was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where he won the respect of his captors. Survivors remembered Liddell for his ministry, not only among his fellow prisoners, but even among their aggressors. Eric Henry Liddell died a prisoner in 1945, shortly before the camp’s liberation.”
Lord, have mercy, what an incredible, impossible witness of sacrifice:
. all his parents sacrificed for their servant ministry in China, including sending their children to grow up so far away;
. all Liddell sacrificed for his athletic success, the training and the rigor, the kinds of human stories behind all of the amazing athletes we’ve watched compete these last three weeks;
. all the glory he sacrificed to keep his faith commitments, walking away from a gold medal on the world’s stage, leaving awfully meager my own Lenten temptations;
. what he and his brother sacrificed for the sake of their own missionary work, and what his wife and children sacrificed for the same;
. and the abiding convictions for which he ultimately gave his life.
How could one sacrifice so much? From where does one draw his strength?
In today’s Gospel appointment, Jesus rebukes Peter: “‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus continues, addressing his disciples and the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’”
“To sacrifice” is to seek God’s blessing by an offering, as in the presentation of an animal from a herd or the “first fruits” of a crop. In these ancient examples, the faithful would take a measure of what they had, and, by asking for God’s blessing on that portion, they understood their whole flock or their whole field to blessed. In the ancient Roman formula, do ut des, or “I give, so that you may give.”[v]
In the context of Eric Liddell’s sacrifices or our relatively meager Lenten sacrifices, we customarily think of “sacrifice” in terms of suffering and loss, just as Peter heard Jesus’ Passion prediction. However, “to sacrifice” is to make sacred – to receive God’s blessing – and that act and experience of blessing is not a necessarily a narrative of pain, but of pleasure.
My good friend, Barkley Thompson, serves as the Dean of our Episcopal Cathedral in Houston, and he loves the story of Eric Liddell. Dean Thompson writes, “At one point in Chariots of Fire, Liddell’s sister asks him why, after winning so many medals, he still runs. Liddell’s response is an epiphany. He says, ‘I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.’
“That sentiment sets Eric Liddell apart from all the other runners: while they run for the medal, for the trophy, or for what they might receive in the end[, Eric…does not run to win…[for] running is winning. In the movie, the difference can be seen in Eric’s final Olympic race…Others have looks of pained desperation…[for] If they fail to finish – or if they come in second – they will feel they lost. But in the home stretch, Eric[‘s face is rapturous, for he] has already won. The prize is his as surely as he lives and breathes. Because he runs for God’s pleasure, Eric experiences victory in his races and in his life.”[vi]
Eric Liddell’s life is a sacrifice because he gives it for God’s pleasure. Liddell denies himself for a cause greater than his own victories, and while we and Peter might be tempted to set our mind on human things, let us be clear that Liddell’s story is not a narrative of loss, but of life, and not life only, but life everlasting – of glory, and not glory only, but eternal glory.
With hopes that we would offer the best of what we have been given for God’s pleasure and blessing, I close with the collect prayed on the occasion of Liddell’s remembrance:
“God whose strength bears us up as on mighty wings: We rejoice in remembering your athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, to whom you gave courage and resolution in contest and in captivity; and we pray that we also may run with endurance the race set before us and persevere in patient witness, until we wear that crown of victory won for us by Jesus our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.”