"A Reflection on Golf and Grace"
Romans 15: 1-7
1 Corinthians 9: 19-23
Twas a hot, muggy August noon tee-off, the start of the 1986 Col-Fin Specialty Steel 10th annual customer appreciation golf outing. The venue: the prestigious Beaver Valley Country Club, over-looking the scenic confluence of the Beaver and Ohio Rivers. Over eighty golfers were gathered from across the eastern U.S.; from Chicago to Boston; from Bangor, Maine to Jonesboro, Arkansas; mostly low handicappers, a few scratch players; maybe a handful of medium to high handicappers just brought in to make the others look good.
1986 was only my third season of playing golf. It was the first year my boss would allow me to
play in this distinguished event. But the fact of the matter was this: I stunk at the game. My four-
some included John Loufman, who used to be a meteorologist in Pittsburgh before coming to
Cleveland; Tito Francona, father of Indians coach Terry; and a Japanese buyer from Nippon-
Koshua Steel Corporation by the name of Reki Akido Takeuchi, who insisted we just call him “Sam.”
It was decided by the event planners to try something special for the 10th anniversary outing.
So on the first tee was set up a video camera capturing everyone’s opening drive. It would then looped on big screen throughout the hour and a half of cocktails prior to dinner that evening. You talk about pressure to perform!
We were the 12th foursome to tee off the front nine, so I had plenty of time to contemplate my first shot. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Tito was first up. He grinned for the camera, then proceeded to crush the ball off the tee; a good 260 yards. Next up was Jon Loufman, a guy who’s
accustomed to being on camera. Crack! A little fade toward the tree line, but still on the fairway at
about the hundred yard marker. Then came my turn. Perspiration was running down my arm into
my golf glove. My legs twitched as I carefully lined up my shot. The insides of my glasses were
fogged. I took a smooth, slow back swing, coiled my trunk like a python ready to strike, and down I
came with one of the mightiest swings of my short golfing career. Had I actually hit the ball, Tito
and Jon would have been eating my turf. Something about golf. When you take your eye off the
ball – fogged lenses or not -- good things usually don’t happen. I knew what I had done when I
didn’t feel that sweet, familiar thwack against the face of my driver. My other clue was the sound
of the uncontrollable laughter of a Japanese man rolling on the ground behind me. But I was on
camera. I had to save face. So I placed my flattened hand over my eyebrows as if to shield the sun
in order to see where my ball was coming down. That probably looked about as silly as whiffing the
ball since the sun was behind me.
Well, guess how the rest of the afternoon went? By the time we got Mr. Takeuchi (I mean Sam)
composed, and made it to the 7th hole, the score card read: Tito Francona – 31; Jon Loufman-- 33;
Sam Takeuchi – 37; Larry Lalama – 52. For those of you who aren’t golfers, 52 strokes after seven
holes is beyond abysmal. For some reason, I vividly remember the 8th hole. There on the side of
the fairway – about 200 yards down the course – stood Tito, Jon and Sam waiting for Larry to take
his sixth shot on the hole. It’s amazing how folks can speak volumes simply using body language. I,
by the way, was not invited to play in Col-Fin’s 11th annual customer appreciation golf outing.
A fact of life regarding the game of golf is that, generally-speaking, better golfers are none too
patient with, sympathetic toward, or supportive of poorer golfers. It’s rare to find a skilled golfer in
a foursome walking or riding back to the struggling one and offering genuine support and aid. Usually, the poor golfer searches for his or her errantly-struck ball in the high grass or woods, all alone.
That may be the way it is on the golf course. But that isn’t the way it should be in the body of
Christ, the church. Quite the contrary, we’re to support one another; assist one another; encourage
one another; enter into one another’s struggles when invited or needed. We who are among the
strong are to help carry the burdens of the weak. We whose faith is steady are to lift up those
whose faith is shaky. That was a key issue for the apostle Paul in the earliest days of the church. He
saw that an emerging problem among Christian brothers and sisters was a lack of sensitivity of the
strong toward the less strong. In fact, Paul perceived a degree of pompousness, arrogance, and self-
importance within the body of Christ, the church.
The occasion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church was his response to news that there
was growing strife and controversy among its members: debates about marriage; arguments over
leadership; lawsuits brought by Christians against Christians; disagreements over eating food supposedly sacrificed to idols; demands on and rejection of Gentile Christians by Jewish Christians; open immoral and unethical practices. These were indeed important issues which needed to be
addressed. But Paul perceived in these complaints an attitude underlying: I adhere to the Law better than you; I live by higher moral and ethical standards than you; I know the Scriptures better than you; I’m stronger in my faith than you. Granted, there were those in the church who were perhaps practicing a higher level of morality, or living a more righteous life [at least on the outside], or did have better grasp of the Scriptures, or who were further along in their faith development or spiritual journey than others. Using an analogy from the game of golf, there were some scratch and low handicap Christians who were on or near the green, while others struggled to stay in the fairway.
In response, Paul spends much of his letter speaking to the issues, and admonishing those who
were living small in relationship to their Christian calls. But in the 9th chapter, he urges by the
example of his own life that we should go wherever on the course we need to in order to help a
struggling sister or brother. Hear again what Paul says: “I am not anyone’s slave. But I have be-
come a slave to everyone, so I can win as many people as possible.” Although I am a scratch golfer,
I sacrifice my score in order to return to my hacker friend, and encourage and support him as he
labors along the fairway. He continues: “When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they
do to win them…… I do all this for the good news because I want to share in its blessings.”
What Paul is suggesting is that the church is at its brightest and best, not when the strong are
running out in front of the weak, but rather when the strong fall back and accompany the weak in
their weakness; the purpose of which is to make the weak stronger; to win them to Christ; to help
them become the very best disciples they can be. Put another way, the church is in the business of
making everyone on the course a winner.
Let’s switch metaphors for a moment. Two best friends – we’ll call them Tom and Bill – were
participants in a half-marathon. Tom was a well-respected runner who was a hands-down favorite
to win the race. Bill was once a fine marathon runner himself. But an automobile accident had
ended his running career and left him confined to a wheelchair. His wheels and arms became his
legs. The runners and wheelchair contestants started out together at the beginning of the 12K
course. But soon, Tom and the other runners were well out in front while the wheelchair competitors struggled to negotiate the steep hills and curves. Just over an hour later Tom neared the finish line; his closest competitor far behind. Suddenly, and to the shock of the spectators, Tom stopped about twenty yards short of the finish line and simply jogged in place. Over the next half hour or so, runner after runner passed him by and crossed the finish line while Tom was jeered and taunted for his seemingly senseless action. In time, the wheelchair participants began to approach and cross the finish. Then on the horizon, the silhouette of an exhausted Bill could be seen against the setting, late afternoon sun. As he came within about twenty yards of the finish line, Tom jogged to Bill’s side, lifted him from the wheelchair and set him on his belly on the ground. Tom then got down on the ground next to him, and both men proceeded to complete the course using only their hands and arms to pull themselves along. While few remained to cheer, they crossed the finish line together….both winners.
Paul writes at the beginning of the 15th chapter of Romans: “If our faith is strong, we should be
patient with the Lord’s followers whose faith is weak. We should try to please them instead of
ourselves. We should think of their good and try to help them by doing what pleases them.” In
the New Revised Standard Version, verse 2 reads: “Each of us must please our neighbor for the
good purpose of building up the neighbor.” We are to edify; to encourage her or him in faith; not
for any self gain, but entirely for the well-being of the other. This is challenging teaching because it
directs Christians – members of the body of Christ – to sacrifice in season our own good for the good
of others; to at the right time forfeit our own comfort that others be comforted; to finish late in the
race in order that another can cross the finish line… with dignity… with self-respect… a winner! Back
to golf, we’re called to sometimes leave our golf ball on the green in order to help someone who’s
struggling along the fairway.
Who do you know today who’s struggling? Struggling with issues of health; struggling with issues
of family and relationships; struggling with deep matters of their faith; struggling with their spirituality? Do you know someone who’s caught up in immorality or checkered living; someone who’s caught up in a bunker of self-destructive behavior? Do you know someone who is weak and tired from climbing the steep fairways of life and ready to lay down their clubs? Do you know someone who needs to borrow some of your strength; who needs to be lifted up; encouraged; supported? Are we strong enough to become weak for the sake of the weak, in order that they might find strength? These are some of the questions implicitly posed by Paul to the early church, and to all Christians yet to come.
Paul goes on to tell us why we should do it: because God through Jesus Christ does it for us. As
we read earlier from Romans: “Even Christ did not try to please himself. But as the scriptures say,
‘The people who insulted you insulted me.’” Paul writes more succinctly in his 2nd letter to the
Corinthian Church: “For you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet
for your sake, he became poor, so that by his poverty, you might become rich.” Paul further writes
of the epitome of God’s willingness to bear with the weak in the early part of Romans when he
writes: “While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly….. But God shows
his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
So our call as disciples of Christ – as imitators of Christ – is to the very antithesis of pompousness,
arrogance, self-importance and self-righteousness. In a Christian’s vocabulary should not be found
the spoken phrase [nor in his or her life, the unspoken attitude], “I’m better than you.” Rather, we
are to empty ourselves, supporting, encouraging, assisting one another; bearing with one another’s
struggles and weaknesses. And who of us doesn’t have them. We are figuratively to get down on
the ground next to our laboring sister or brother, and cross the finish line with them, making them a
winner, and we a winner too. That’s the way of Christ. He came from the green to the furthest
reaches of the fairway, and into the highest rough, to accompany us and help us complete the
course. As partners with Christ, we are to do the same for those in our foursomes as well.