The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15
August 14, 2016
The Rev. Glenn Chalmers
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
This Sunday in August finds many of us taking a a break from business as usual.
It is a time when so many Italians are enjoying vacation. So much so that we may find our special restaurant or favorite nightspot closed. It is a time when the usual news cycle also seems to take a break. Our attention is diverted away from the world’s struggles and problems and focused elsewhere for a time – on the athletic contests in Rio.
With Rome and the summer Olympics in mind, I couldn’t help but focus on today’s reading from Hebrews.
“Therefore,” our lesson reads, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’
Running a race as a metaphor for living out our faith is found not only here in the Letter to the Hebrews, but is an image scattered throughout the New Testament. That should not be surprising. Racing and athletic contests had strong roots in ancient Greece. They were commonplace in the world of the early Christians here in Rome. The nearby Coliseum and the Circus Maximus easily come to mind.
Here it is not only this metaphor for faith that seems readily understood, there is also the description of what we might call the spiritual athletes of the faith.
Our lesson puts it this way: “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…”
Again, here we do not have to go far to appreciate the faithful perseverance of those early Christians. Whether it is in relics or in the names of churches themselves or in sites marked where specific persecution and martyrdom took place, we find ourselves at ground zero of what the writer of Hebrews is conveying.
We are surrounded – both literally and figuratively – by a great cloud of witnesses that have come before us. By those who have endured…who have persevered…who have finished the race.
Like them, we are encouraged to overcome obstacles, to persevere in the face of hardships, to not give up when we are tired and weary. Like the fellow runners before us, we are cheered on to finish the race.
But what kind of race are we running?
Two stories help convey what it isn’t and what it is.
Two men were out in the woods on a long hike. Things were going along very well as they ambled along – until they found themselves coming face to face with a giant menacing bear. They ran. And so did the bear.
As they tore down the trail, one of the men stopped and sat down on a log. He took a pair of sneakers out of his backpack and was putting them on in place of his cumbersome hiking boots. His friend was aghast: “Why are you stopping? The bear is going to catch up with us!”
“Well,” said the man quickly putting on his sneakers, “I figured out that I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”
That kind of competitive, me-first kind of race is not what the author of Hebrews had in mind. It is not an individual contest to see who comes out on top.
It is more along the lines to what happened several years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics. Nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. As the gun went off, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with relish to run the race to the finish and win.
All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry.
They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back – every one of them. One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him; saying, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line.
Everyone in the stadium stood and cheered.
Our faith is less a 100 yard dash and more like a marathon.
The author of Hebrews is like a good coach – encouraging us to keep going even in the face of obstacles and hardships, to never give up.
So when our knees are weak and our hands drooping, when we feel worn out in the journey of faith, wondering whether we can hold on and hold out, we can hear again this message from Hebrews. We remember the contest. We remember that we are not alone, but find ourselves in very good company.
So, fellow runners, let us race on and never give up.
[The photo illustrating this sermon shows a story from the Rio Olympics last week:
During a women’s 5,000-meter heat today, New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin tripped and took Team USA’s Abbey D’Agostino down with her. And in a move so professional and genuine it is warming even my tiny, icy blogger heart, D’Agostino helped her competition back to her feet and told her they had to finish the race. “This is the Olympic Games,” she told Hamblin… “We have to finish this.” – ]