On Thursday night, the basketball season came to an end for both of our sons. Max is in the 5th grade and Sam is in the 1st grade. Both of their teams finished the regular season 5-3, earning a spot in the end-of-year tournament. We had five basketball games this week between the two boys, and both of their teams were still playing until the next-to-last day of the season, which was fun.
From late August until late May each year, sports are a big part of our family’s life. Both of the boys play Fall, Winter, and Spring seasons. In fact, Sam is playing both baseball and basketball this Spring. Each season lasts from 10-12 weeks, with a couple of hours of practice and at least one game each week. Every game gives the boys a chance to show what they’ve learned, combining nervous energy, excitement, and the enthusiasm of kids playing sports they love.
The end of every season leaves me a little nostalgic, and in a reflective mood about just why we spend so much time and energy in youth athletics. Between the two boys, I’ve coached 21 different teams, each with its own set of personalities and quirks, strengths and weaknesses, and with varying levels of “success” in terms of winning and losing. But regardless of the record, every single season — even the toughest ones, in terms of wins and losses — every single season is an important building block in the lives of the kids who participate.
Because youth athletics is not about who wins the most games or who scores the most points. (I wish all the adults involved — coaches and parents alike— would keep that in mind at all times.) We’ve had undefeated teams. We’ve had winless teams. We’ve had every kind of win-loss record in between. But every single team we’ve been part of has learned and grown from the season, however it turned out.
Because youth athletics is about character formation. There are lots of ways that the character of children is formed, of course. It starts with the way we raise them at home. Church has an important role to play, which we’ll talk about shortly. School is certainly a vital component. But so are extracurricular activities — the scouting movement, learning a musical instrument, cheer and dance, and, of course, the many different sports that our kids play.
Youth athletics are about learning how to win with grace. They’re about figuring out how to face adversity with grit. They’re about learning sportsmanship. And teamwork. And how to work with others towards a common goal.
In sports, kids have to learn how not to worry about how the refs are calling the game. (Another thing I wish all of us adults could remember at all times.) And they have to learn how not to blame others for whatever bad breaks come along. The great Lou Holtz, my favorite coach of any sport, ever, once said: “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it.”
And all of these lessons, it seems to me, are built upon the same foundation. At this stage of their young lives, both of my boys have spent hundreds of hours practicing and playing team sports. Yes, to build specific skills like dribbling and shooting and proper defensive stance. But much more importantly, and much more to the point, they’ve spent those hundreds of hours developing the discipline that leads to character. Discipline that will help them in all aspects of their lives.
Which brings us to our subject for today.
This is week three of our Lenten sermon series on the concept of “covenant” in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We’re focusing on the various covenants that God has made with God’s people over the course of our salvation history. Because these covenants tell us a lot. They tell us about the nature of God. They tell us about the nature of our relationship with God. They tell us about how we should show up in our relationship with God.
In week one, we talked about the covenant that God makes with Noah after the flood. It’s a covenant that requires nothing of Noah, making it a covenant grounded entirely in the grace of God, thus revealing the gracious nature of God. Last week, we talked about the covenant that God makes with Abraham. We talked about how this covenant reveals an important trait that God’s faithful must bring to the relationship with God — trust.
Today, we turn to the Book of Exodus. We’re going to pick up the story of God’s people after God has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. God has led them to Mount Sinai, where God makes a covenant with them through Moses. Like the story about Noah and the flood a couple of weeks ago, chances are that, even if you don’t know all the details, and even if you can’t recite them verbatim, and even if you weren’t raised in the church, you know something about the Ten Commandments. We’ll read them now. This is the Old Testament lectionary text for the day…
[Read Exodus 20:1-17]
The Ten Commandments have long held a notable place in our faith history. They were contained in the ark of the covenant. They’re put on monuments and in court houses. There are special versions for children that are sometimes used to decorate babies’ rooms. They are a starting point for what we might call righteous living.
“The Decalogue,” as scholars refer to it, can be broken down into two sections. The first four commandments deal with our love of God. Don’t have other gods. Don’t make idols. Don’t swear false oaths in God’s name. Keep the sabbath.
The final six commandments deal with our relationships with other human beings. Respect parents. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet your neighbor’s family or stuff.
But while the Ten Commandments hold a notable place in our faith history, it’s important to remember that there are 603 additional laws that follow those first ten. The Ten Commandments are the beginning of the Law of the Covenant given to Moses, which comprises a comprehensive set of rules for living, rules that remain an essential part of Jewish piety still today.
For example, when we were in Israel in January, our guide called our attention to the sabbath elevator in each hotel. Pushing buttons is considered work for strictly observant Jews. Which would be a violation of the fourth commandment, to keep the sabbath. Sabbath elevators are configured with a special sabbath mode. From sunset on Friday evening to sunset on Saturday evening, they stop on each floor, thus preventing the occupant from violating the commandment not to work on the sabbath. Our guide said to avoid these elevators on the sabbath, because it takes forever to get to your floor.
By the time of Jesus in the First Century, many rabbis taught that the Law could be summarized by Micah 6:8 — “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” During his ministry, Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest. He answered that the Law could be summarized as loving God and loving neighbor.
Because you see, the Law of the Covenant with Moses — those 613 commandments, beginning with the first ten that hold such an important place in our tradition — are not the point of our relationship with God. Rules don’t exist for their own sake, certainly not in our faith tradition. Instead, the rules help show us the boundaries. They help us understand God’s will for our lives and for creation. They’re about character formation. And they help us develop an important trait that we should bring to our relationship with God — discipline.
On Thursday night, after our last basketball games of the season, the boys wanted to go to McDonald’s for dinner. And while I was looking over the menu, I got an unhappy Lenten flashback from my childhood years. We Catholics were not allowed to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. One day on a family excursion, we stopped at McDonald’s for lunch, which was a rare treat. Waiting for our parents to come back to the table bearing quarter pounders with cheese, we were horrified when mom set Filet of Fish sandwiches in front of us instead. Because it was a Friday. In Lent. Filet of Fish sandwiches have been my fast food nemesis ever since.
But the idea of giving something up for Lent is one important way of practicing discipline during this season of preparation for Easter. Lent is a time to remove the obstacles that hinder our relationship with God. Giving something up is a symbolic gesture that can be part of this character formation. For example, each year I give up sweets, and I fast one day a week.
Rather than focusing on food, some folks give up social media for Lent. Another idea is to add a devotional practice as a spiritual discipline. Such as reading a devotional guide. Or reading through the psalms. Or committing to a particular prayer practice. Or giving up one meal a week and donating the money we would have spent to a charity that feeds the hungry.
Like the Law of the Covenant with Moses, these practices help us develop the discipline of faithful living. A discipline that helps form our character, and helps us live out God’s will for our lives — loving God and loving neighbor. It reminds me of one of the coaching philosophies of perhaps the greatest college basketball coach of all time, John Wooden, who said: “Discipline yourself, and others won’t have to.”
Of the 21 teams that I’ve coached so far, only two have been undefeated. And only those two have finished in first place that particular season. But every single one of those teams has served an important function in developing character.
You know, some folks criticize the fact that in modern youth athletics every kid gets a “Participation Trophy.” (That’s not true for every sport, by the way.) The insinuation is that we’re coddling our kids. That we’re not teaching them about true competition. That we’re not teaching them that life has winners and losers, and that the sooner they figure that out the better.
It probably won’t surprise you that I’m not a fan of that critique. First of all, because it incorrectly assumes that we’re not teaching our kids to be competitive. Any visit to a local gym, soccer pitch, or ball field on game day will quickly reveal just how seriously everyone involved takes the games.
But more to the point for today, that criticism misunderstands why we put our kids in athletics in the first place. Taken to its logical conclusion, that critique implies that only the team who wins their last game has spent all that time and effort in a meaningful endeavor. Which of course is not true. It’s the discipline that our kids develop along the way that matters. And it seems to me that developing discipline is worthy of encouragement and celebration.
Friends, on this third Sunday in Lent, may we consider those things that form our character as God’s faithful. And as we continue our journey toward Easter, may we devote ourselves to the discipline of seeking God’s will for our lives.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.