Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
Preached on September 18, 2016
Scripture: Philippians 3:12-16
Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest human. He has won the gold medal in the 100-meter sprint for the last three Olympics. Even though I’m not a track fan, watching him sprint for 10 seconds is breathtaking. Where winners are determined by inches, he wins by feet. At the 6 second mark it looks like the wind pushes only him to the finish line. He makes it look so easy. In the prelims in Brazil, while all the other runners were straining, pressing to the finish line with faces contorted with effort, Usain Bolt actually turned his head and smiled at the finish line camera. It’s like the other runners are listening to a soundtrack of Beethoven and he is grooving on Bob Marley (another Jamaican.) This man was born to run, from his fabulous genetics, his will to win, and even his name is “Bolt.”
Now here is the rest of the story. Jamaicans dominate Olympic sprinting. At Rio, Elaine Thompson won the women’s 100 meter for Jamaica. In Beijing in 2008, Jamaican women actually took the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. No other country has done that in track. 19 of the 26 fastest 100 meter times are run by Jamaicans. How does this tiny island nation of 2.8 million people, smaller than Minneapolis, churn out amazing sprinters? Its not simply DNA, since West African DNA is all over the Western Hemisphere. There are over 100 million people of West African descent in Brazil and the United States, so why are Jamaicans so fast? It’s a fairly simple answer, and one that can help us think clearly about our future as a church as we run this race that God has set before us.
This simple answer is culture. A unique set of historical circumstances has created a culture where sprinting is highly valued, honored and celebrated. A recent NY Times article written by a Jamacian sociologiest Orlando Patterson at Harvard, makes a good case for culture. Lets start the story with Arthur Wint, another remarkable Jamaican. In 1942, during the London blitz by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Lint gave up his dream of being a doctor, and left medical school to be a pilot. He was in the Royal Air Force till 1947, when he went back to medical school. In 1948, he was the first Jamacain to win a gold medal in the 400 meters, and when he stopped sprinting he went back to Jamaica to be a physician. Wint was the first international hero from Jamaica, and he is part of the national story. He went on encouraged track and field athletics and the island created institutions that value running from elementary school to the Olympics. And more sprinters went on to win, decade after decade. The Annual Champs track meet in Kingston, Jamaica is the Super Bowl and World Series of the island.
Arthur Wint’s journey would not have been possible without a major public health project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1920s, just when he was born. The program focused on hygiene, clean drinking water and mosquito control. Jamaica has been a rare poor country to have the life expectancy of wealthy countries. You can’t have good sprinters without clean drinking water and nutrition, which most of the world still lacks.
Orlando Patterson also says Jamaicans are “combative individualists,” who are proud, confident, self-reliant and, to be blunt, in your face. Usain Bolt does not just win a race, it is a chest thumping, bicep flexing spectacle, meant to crush the will and soul of all opposition. If you don’t like it, run faster. So the main point that struck me is that while Usain Bolt is a physically gifted runner, with a strong drive to win, he is also the product of a culture that supports, celebrates, rewards and values sprinters, to the extent that this tiny island dominates the short sprints.
This is a powerful lesson for any organization that wants to be vibrant and successful. Know what your core reason for being is, and make sure your culture, values and practices are aligned to produce that outcome. This is true for sports, politics and even church. If a church says the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and has no contradictions, and tells us all truth including science, that creates a culture. It is not a culture that produces environmentalists or free thinkers. If your tagline is “God is still speaking” then you are more likely to create processes where you have conversation, dialog and exploring together what God might want from us.
If you say Jesus is the only way and those who don’t worship him are going to Hell, you don’t host many interfaith services. If you are a church that says you welcome all people, regardless of race, gender identity, who you want to marry, whether you are a believer, questioner or questioning believer, if you say that long enough, you create a culture of openness. So Jamaica produced Usain Bolt and Bob Marley. Let me ask you, what is our culture here at First Churches creating now? What are the outputs that you see?
This section of the sermon had some open conversation from the congregation. You can hear the discussion on the audio podcast with the link below. People focused on issues like an openness to diversity, caring and Christian education for our children. In each we talked about what we do to create that culture. Tune in below this paragraph!