I have always been fascinated by the piety which surrounds sports in our culture. To hear some commentators talk about steroid use by prominent baseball players, for example, you’d think they’d been betrayed by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dalai Lama. People routinely talk about athletes as role models, but as I remember the star performers of my high school and college days, only a few of them were people I would want to imitate as ethical leaders. I’m not sure I want to have even Rowan Williams as my role model; but I know for a fact that I never want to be like Jose Canseco. Don’t get me wrong: I like sports, especially baseball and college basketball. But I would never buy a product, vote for a candidate, or hold an idea because an athlete had endorsed them.
But I think I’m in the minority in our culture. Witness all the breathy language we heard this past week about the Olympic torch. Early in the week, when protesters had disrupted the relay in Paris, the NPR announcer said, in earnest tones, that the torch had actually been extinguished four times! But then he quickly added that the Olympic officials said we should not confuse the Olympic torch with the Olympic flame which is kept separately and would never be allowed to go out. Am I the only person in the audience who wants to raise a hand and observe, “Who cares?” So what if the Olympic flame goes out? Yet care some folks do care, because the torch protests on behalf of Tibetans and China’s own citizens have been greeted with some fairly pious pronouncements about the sanctity of what they call the “Olympic spirit.” And here is where what I call the “piety of sports” becomes relevant. Many of those offended by the torch protesters are actually saying something you and I in the church hear all the time-- words to the effect that sports (like religion) should have nothing to do with politics. But the Olympics are inextricably involved in politics: the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Olympics are all political uses of the games as attempts by repressive regimes to legitimize themselves. And if you’ve ever seen the half-time show at a college bowl game or a Super Bowl, you know that we Americans are not above using sporting events as occasions to bolster nationalistic feelings of our own.
I begin a consideration of the saint we remember today, William Law, with a meditation on sports piety because Law was the author of the eighteenth century spiritual classic "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life" and was a man who, for all his so-called “piety” knew something about bad values and the interaction of religion and politics. William Law was an old-fashioned High Churchman who, on the accession of George I, would not take the oath of allegiance to the new monarch and so became a “non-juror” and had to resign his Cambridge fellowship and all possibility of earning a living in the Church of England. For most of his life, Law was a household tutor and later school headmaster. Though he achieved prominence in England through his writing, he was never able to support himself by working in the church. He was, in other words, a pious (or what we would call today a “spiritual”) person who understood that piety usually has political implications. Given his Tory sympathies, he might not have joined the torch protesters, but he certainly would have understood their motivations.
I’m probably one of the few people in the Episcopal Church who can claim actually to have read "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life": for a while in graduate school I thought I might like to write my dissertation about it. Then I read it. And though I hold it in very high esteem (as did Samuel Johnson and John Wesley among others) I wonder at times if the folks who made William Law a saint have actually read it themselves. It is tough going. It’s not a hard read, but it’s bracing: Law was what we might call an ethical rigorist: he held that Jesus meant the Sermon on the Mount literally and that human beings were called to seek moral perfection. When John Wesley finally gave up following Law, he wrote him that his counsels were “too high for man.” James Boswell complained that "A Serious Call" would make us “Asceticks upon the Monastick plan.” Not only that: as Law got older he began reading the 17th century German mystic Jakob Böhme, and by the end of his life he had pretty much left institutional orthodoxy behind. Here is what he said in a later book, "The Spirit of Love":
Religious Practices [like this one right here, right now] are then only parts of true Religion, when they mean nothing,seek nothing, but to keep up a continual Dying to Self, and all worldly things, and turn all the Will, Desire, and Delight of the Soul to God alone
Warning to prospective takers of the General Ordination Exams: as they say on television commercials, “Do not attempt” this kind of thing on your own. It's a high wire act. William Law was the kind of priest we will put in our saints’ calendar but will neither employ nor read very carefully. It is not surprising that, as he aged, his theology of the church got a good deal lower and his theology of individual spiritual union with God a good deal higher. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “We suffer as much from the church as for it.”
What does all this add up to? As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” [Matthew 6.1] We live both in a culture and in a church which are confused, I believe, about what makes for an authentic piety. In our culture, we project a lot of meaning onto things like Olympic torches, national flags, and sporting events. In our church, we have become rather rigorous in doing what Jesus warned against--practicing our piety before others–witness the exfoliation of public “spiritual” movements and practices in our church in the last 30 years. When you go to an ordination or job interview, everyone will ask you about your spiritual life. But when is the last time anyone has asked you about your moral life? What William Law’s life and example should remind us of is this: a deep piety will always express itself in action. William Law held highly principled views about the proper oath of allegiance to the English monarch, and he was willing to sacrifice his livelihood and career on behalf of those principles. Yes, of course, he is revered for the depth of his own personal piety, however impossibly rigorous it may seem to us today. But let’s remember that he called us not only to a devout but also a holy life, one where our deeds will match, to the greatest possible extent, the words which we address so piously to each other and to God.
We turn now to our own intercessions and then to the Great Thanksgiving. As we utter our concerns and hopes for ourselves, each other, and the world, may we, in the spirit of William Law, express not only our desires for them but our intentions to act on their behalf. It is this spirit that animates those who question the sacredness of the Olympic torch. It is this spirit that calls us, separately and together, to aspire to both a devout and a holy life. Amen.