RUNNING THE RACE
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
(Hebrews 12:1-3, NRSV)
“Jacob Burgess, 41 years old from Port Washington, New York. You are an Ironman!” These shouts of acclamation come from only a few feet from where we are standing at the finish line. Over the loud speaker amidst the celebratory scene, a man named Mike Reilly proclaims this new identity to each athlete as they cross the final line. Mike Reilly, the official voice of the Ironman worldwide is a member of the Ironman Hall of Fame, the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame and the Running USA Hall of Champions. He is the only person to have been inducted into all three. It is an extraordinary moment for an athlete to finally hear their name called by the top celebrity of the triathlete world. It was no doubt a moment we will never forget. As many of you know, our family traveled to Lake Placid NY in July to cheer on my husband, Jacob in his first full Ironman triathlon.
The finish line area is crowded with loved ones waiting in hopeful anticipation. Upbeat pop music, loud cheers and the sound of cow bells fills the air as athletes make their way to the end of the race. The spectator bleachers are a sea of homemade signs, carefully created by kids of iron parents and spouses. My favorite one is held by a mother with a baby on her back and a toddler at her side. On it, it reads, “In 104.6 miles, I get my husband back.” Another more inspiring one reads, “Pain is temporary. Results posted on the internet last forever.” Ours was more of an encouraging notion that simply read, “Go Daddy Go. We love you.”
For more than two hours we sit at the finish area and soak in the excitement of each runner’s final steps as we await Jacob’s arrival. The race day has been long and grueling. The day begins with a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and finishes with a full marathon – 26.2 miles. It is now thirteen hours in, and so we sit and we wait. We watch with tears in our eyes as people of all ages and from all over the world take their final steps to victory. Some fall to the ground in pure exhaustion, their bodies devoid of energy. Some kiss the line at the finish. Some look to Heaven as in a moment of Holy gratitude. Some throw their arms up in triumph. Some sweep loved ones off their feet with exuberant embraces of joy. Some weep. The finish line is a deep well of emotion. And inspiration abounds.
In our scripture lesson this morning, the author of Hebrews compares our life of faith and our pursuits of the Holy to that of a race. Some attribute the apostle Paul as the author of Hebrews, especially in the Eastern church. Most scholars live in the mystery of its authorship, noting that the letter of Hebrews is more of a sermon than a letter, dismissing its Pauline structure. Nonetheless, the author aims to help build the body of Christ and to encourage God’s people along the journey of faith. Hear once again these words found in our Holy text. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
Our three days during the Ironman preparation and race encourage me to look more deeply into our life together as a church family. We sit in a large tent for one of the many athlete meetings, surrounded by hundreds of people. We are gathered to learn the scope and rules of the upcoming race. But, it feels a lot like Church. The scripture passage from Hebrews keeps turning over and over in my mind as I sit among the crowd gathered.
The race director stands at the front podium and welcomes everyone to this special moment. There is a palpable excitement in the air. There is a shared goal and sense of purpose within those gathered. “Rule one”, he says with sincerity, “Athletes help each other.” For the next several moments, he describes an array of situations that might occur within a race. He gives somewhat of a homily around the central fact that the most important thing is helping each other along the way. “Watch out for one another,” he commands. “Be kind and considerate along the path, for the day is long. Look out for those around you who may be struggling.”
As people who follow God’s way of love, we too are called to help one another. Being a part of God’s community means watching out for those who are struggling along life’s way. It means sensing the world through a lens of love and compassion. It means lifting others up when life is defeating. It means helping people find their footing in life once again. It means removing barriers for those who live on the fringes, so that the journey for them might be just and fair. Athletes help each other. People of God seek those in need and respond in compassion.
Athletes encourage others when things fall apart. People of God hold one another when tragedy or pain sidelines us along the way. Around the ten hour mark of the race, the kids and I began our mile walk to the end of the race area. On our venture through the thick crowds, we witness a tender moment between a woman athlete and her friend. She is on the ground weeping. It is evident she is unable to continue the race. From a distance we hear her cries. “It’s just not fair. How can this be?” Her friend, who is next to her on the ground, holds her in a tight embrace. We hear her say, “Remember who you are. You are more than just this one day. We will get through this.”
People of God walk with one another when life abruptly pushes us to the side. People of God encourage, hold, sit with, and lift up those who feel the journey is too painful. People of God tap into a mysterious love beyond our knowing to fuel another’s heart – even if but for a moment. There is a popular quote trending on social media platforms recently. It is so simple, yet so profound. It simply says this, “Everyone is going through something. Be kind.” As people of God, may we continually look for those on the sidelines of life. Might we be a presence of love. A presence of kindness, so that others might find their footing once again.
Through the decades, this faith family has served as a lighthouse of sorts to many of us. We have found a safe haven and home here with one another. Here, we are lifted by prayers and words of peace. Here, we are encouraged and held when the unthinkable and the unjust happen and we lose our way. In one of her writings, author Anne Lamott shares a story her pastor told in church one Sunday – “When she was about seven, her best friend got lost. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until finally she saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘you can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.’ And that is why I have always stayed so close to mine [Lamott continues] – because no matter how I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their … voices, I can always find my way back home.”
“Last rule”, the race director proclaims to the crowd as we are now sweating and fidgety amidst the afternoon heat. “Gratitude. Gratitude is the key to this event. There is no way you would be here today, he says, without the love and support of your family and loved ones. Think about their contributions to your training. Think about all the ways that they have helped you reach your goal to get here today. It would not be possible without them. You can’t do this alone. Thank them. Be grateful for them. Let gratitude for those in your life propel you forward to the finish.” he exclaims.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” As people of God, we give thanks for those who have come before us, for those who come beside us and for those who will come behind us. As people of God we reflect on the many lives that have been a part of our faith story. We give thanks for those who have lifted us up, who have prayed for us, who have mentored and encouraged us along life’s way. As people of God, we hold this gratitude in our bones and allow it to move us forward in love and in service. Gratitude is the key to life together.
Life’s race is long and it’s grueling. We need each other. Might we be on the lookout for those along the sidelines and help them find their way. Might we find those who struggle and lift them to a higher place. Might we run life’s race with gratitude and open hearts. May we remember daily the small graces that have brought us this far. May this gratitude propel us on to life’s ultimate finish line. For at the end of our life’s journey, might we hear Jesus (The ultimate race director) declare to us, “well done, good and faithful one. Well done.” For this is the ultimate finisher identity. A life well lived in love. AMEN.
You call us,
Wanderer of seashores and sidewalks,
inviting us to sail out of our smug harbors
into the uncharted waters of faith
to wander off from our predictable paths to follow You
into the unpredictable footsteps of the kingdom;
to leave the comfort of our homes and accompany
You into the uncomfortable neighborhoods we usually avoid.
As we wait,
in our simple, sometimes crazy,
constantly uncertain lives,
speak to us, Spirit of Grace:
of that hope which is our anchor;
of that peace which is our rock;
of that grace which is our refuge.
We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution. We pray that where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy. We pray for those separated from family and loved one’s this day. We pray for those who live in fear on a daily basis, might they sense your ever encompassing peace.
We pray for our church family.
We seek to be faithful as we live out our lives. Draw us closer to you. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
~ from a worship order prepared by Rev. Bob Gibson for the London Conference of the United Church of Canada. http://www.londonconference.ca/
 Hebrews 12: 1-3, NRSV