I hate running.
For a while in grade 5, I joined the cross country running team at school
to try to prove to myself that I could be sporty.
Then I had an asthma attack that landed me in the hospital for a week.
Since then, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do LESS
So a Bible passage like the one we just read
that uses the metaphor of
“running with perseverance the race marked out for us”
isn’t really a contender for my “life verse.”
But I do like watching other people run.
And swim. And do gymnastics. And play beach volleyball.
Yes, like many of you, I’ve dusted off the TV and had it tuned into CBC all week.
And I swear to you I didn’t pick this passage because of the Olympics.
It was one of the lectionary passages for last Sunday,
and I only realized later that it would coincide with this sporting event,
which, given a 3-year lectionary cycle, and a 4-year summer Olympic cycle,
is a coincidence that happens only once every 12 years.
(That math is courtesy of my wife Danice.)
I thought it was quite coincidental that this passage about running the race
happened to line up with the Olympics,
but then I realized something even more surreal:
it’s likely that in this passage,
the author of Hebrews was actually referencing the Olympic games.
The Ancient Olympic Games had been happening for several hundred years
by the time the book of Hebrews was written,
and by that point the Olympic foot-race was the most famous competition
in the entire Greco-Roman world.
So people’s imagination for running and racing was shaped by the Olympics,
and strangely enough that’s still the case 2000 years later.
I can’t think of very many other biblical cultural references
that remain as relevant now as they were then!
Now the writer of Hebrews is anonymous,
but I agree with many scholars that Priscilla, one of Paul’s friends,
is a very likely candidate for author of Hebrews.
So here I am in 2016 reflecting on this passage while watching the Olympics,
and imagining Priscilla watching the Olympics 2000 years ago
and drawing on that inspiration to write this passage.
(Though I’ve discovered that she could only watch them
before she was married,
and married women were banned from watching them
because the men all used to race completely naked.)
You’ll remember that Priscilla uses this image of running
after listing off a full chapter’s worth of Bible heroes.
These are the Olympic champions of faith.
Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Jacob. Samson.
And Rahab. I love that she includes Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, don’t you?
She also lists their accomplishments:
knocking down the walls of Jericho, setting people free,
conquering kingdoms, enduring the lion’s den.
It’s like an inspirational Sunday School review.
Until you get to the end of the chapter,
when it just gets kind of… scary.
Instead of listing achievements,
she starts listing ways people suffered, were tortured and killed:
Flogging. Stoning. Getting sawn in two.
She’s likely referencing the bloody Maccabean revolt
that happened between the time of the Old and New Testaments.
She calls all these people the “cloud of witnesses” around us.
Heroes and martyrs.
Those who lived and died for their faith.
Those who believed and obeyed and persevered.
How do you respond emotionally to a list like this?
If I’m honest, I look at these saints of Hebrews 11
in much the same way as I look at the Olympic medalists:
with a mix of admiration, intimidation, and jealousy,
and a firm belief that they are in a different category from my couch-potato self.
Last time I checked,
no one is asking me to build arks or threatening to kill me for my faith.
I wake up, go to work, come home, binge-watch the latest Netflix series, and go to sleep.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
This is not a hall-of-fame, list-worthy life.
Most of the time I feel more like a spectator than a racer.
Or maybe you hear that list of faith heroes |
and feel disqualified from the race,
cut from the team in advance.
You’ve tried to hold on to faith,
but you just can’t muster it or fake it anymore.
Or you feel disqualified because you keep cheating,
you keep hurting yourself and others,
you keep falling into the same sins, the same old ugly patterns,
You don’t feel like you deserve to run anymore.
Or maybe you’ve grown apathetic;
you don’t see the use in exerting yourself since you’re already “saved.”
You’re guaranteed a place regardless.
Or maybe you’ve been running for a while,
and now you’re running on empty.
It’s lonely and tiring, it really doesn’t feel worth all the effort
to live this counter-cultural life of faithfulness to God.
You’re on autopilot, just going through the motionsbecause you feel like you have to.
I understand these reactions, and have experienced most of them myself.
They’re especially tempting under current conditions.
It’s been a hot summer.
My sister likes to quote Naomi Klein –
“climate change makes for a hotter and meaner world.”
It’s easy to get lazy, apathetic, self-pitying, or just plain exhausted.
But this week, I read Priscilla’s whole letter to the Hebrews,
and over and over again, she told us to encourage each other.
Keep each other’s hearts from hardening.
Spur one another on to love and good works.
So even though I hate running,
in honor of Priscilla and her excellent letter,
I’m going to channel my best running coach today.
I invite you to access the soundtrack of your imaginations,
and push play on whatever song tends to get you pumped up.
Beyonce’s “Freedom,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” or the more traditional “Eye of the Tiger.”|
This is my Hebrews-inspired pep talk, and it’s as much for me as it is for you!
Friends, it’s time to run.
Maybe I read too much apocalyptic science fiction,
or too many articles about Trump and climate change and war,
but I think this world might soon be in dire need of some runners,
some people who won’t give up, won’t give in,
won’t lose hope or lose the plot.
It’s time to run.
It’s time to do the hard work of letting ourselves be transformed.
Or as Priscilla says, it’s time to graduate from drinking milk to eating solid food.
Our run starts with the next step.
The next right thing.
The next small act we do with great love.
Like keeping our promises when it feels like dying.
Participating in our churches even when everyone pisses us off.
Giving a gentle answer on a heated Facebook conversation.
Showing hospitality without thinking twice.
Being the first to apologize or lose the argument.
Patiently planting and harvesting the fruits of the Spirit.
It’s time to run.
It’s time to practice disciplines that rewire our brains.
Meditation. Contemplation. Solitude. Silence.
Intentional gratitude. Paying attention.
Creating new neural pathways so that we instinctively respond in Christ-like ways,
even when we’re stressed, provoked,
pushed to our limit by those long uphill climbs.
It’s time to run.
It’s time to discover what faith really means.
Not just asserting the reasonability of some theological axiom.
Not just believing things in our heads, but in our bones,
so that our bones can take over even when our heads are cloudy.
This chapter is not really about faith but faithfulness,
Running on the Way even when we aren’t certain, even when we don’t understand,
even when the path ahead isn’t clear,
remaining radically open to a future beyond our control.
It’s time to run,
time to throw off every weight that slows us down.
Remember, those first Olympians were so concerned about aerodynamics
that they stripped all their clothing off.
I’ll spare you the demonstration,
but following Jesus in this race means we’re going to have to strip down.
What’s slowing you down these days?
What are you clinging to that you’d be faster without?
What’s in your hands, what’s strapped to your back?
What are you afraid to lose?
Is it safety? Control? Dignity? Property?
Maybe your comfortable cynicism?
Ask for help to strip these things off. You don’t need them.
Are you weighed down by the sin that clings so closely?
If so, don’t get bogged down with regrets or guilt or self-pity.
Don’t spend precious time looking back and beating yourself up.
Just ask for forgiveness and let it go.
You might have to do this over and over again. It’s ok.
Just let that weight fall off of you, get up and run again.
This is the spirituality of starting over.
No one is ever disqualified. No one falls too far behind.
It’s time to run.
The race is going to take us along different paths.
Whether the path is through Hong Kong or Winnipeg or the heart of Toronto,
I know one thing: if we’re following Jesus,
the path we run will lead us down to the bottom and out to the edges.
We’d love to take a detour, to take the high, easy road, but that’s not possible.
In the very next chapter of Hebrews,
Priscilla tells us to follow Jesus outside the camp, to the Roman killing field of Golgotha,
to join him in bearing the disgrace of the cross.
If we’re going to run on this path, we need to count the cost.
We’re going to become martyrs whether or not anyone kills us,
because we’re going to face and master all the things that enslave us:
namely, our fear of shame, our fear of failure, our fear of death.
We’re going to learn to count everything our world values as rubbish,
to lose our lives so we can receive them back as gifts
and give them away to the world
without needing to protect or defend them.
We’re going to learn to be free all the way down.
It’s time to run free,
time to burn our draft cards,
time to renounce our service to the powers, principalities, institutions, corporations.
time to do things that don’t compute,
time to get involved in some holy mischief.
time to laugh and sing as acts of resistance.
To laugh and to sing,
because this run is NOT the grim-faced, stoic,
“doing my holy duty” type of run,
No, we follow a Savior who faced death for the joy set before him.
This run is unabashedly hedonistic.|
We have so much joy awaiting us in this new creation
that it spills back over into the present
and fuels our muscles for the race.
We run heads back and hearts full, like Olympian Eric Liddell from “Chariots of Fire” ran.
And when we lose that joy, when we become driven instead by fear or guilt,
We’ll spend more time with our fellow runners until we find the joy again.
Because thankfully we’re not called to run alone.
We’ve been given a whole team to lean on.
We can help each other, we can strengthen feeble arms and weak knees.
We can freely admit our needs, even letting ourselves be carried at times.
Thank God I have you folks to spur me on!
And there are others on our team who aren’t physically present here
but are cheering us on as well – can you hear them?
We need to listen hard for the cheers of that cloud of witnesses.
Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rahab.
Saint Francis and Saint Patrick and Saint Teresa,
Romero and King and Mandela and Gandhi and Milk,
Sojourner and Rosa and Harriet
Marley and Seeger and Mahalia,
Iggy and Rameses and Adam.
There’s this great unbroken chain of witnesses stretching back through time.
And we’re part of that. We’re part of them.
In some supernatural way, they too spur us on in this race.
So let’s run, friends.
Let’s keep our ears open for the cloud of witnesses.
And what’s even more important,
Let’s keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,
the Pioneer and Perfector of our faith,
he’s out in front and also bringing up the rear,
Christ before us, Christ behind us.
He’s the one fighting against the wind at the front of the pack,
forging the way ahead, kicking aside any rocks that might get in our way.
And he’s also mercifully at the back of the race,
the perfector of our faith,
like the anchor of the relay,
making up for all losses,
gathering all the ones who’ve wandered off the path,
ushering us forward to the finish line.
He knows this race backward and forward,
because he’s the only one who’s actually finished it.
With our eyes on him, we won’t lose our way.|
It’s time to run.
And when we finally enter the stadium with that cloud of witnesses,
we’ll be tempted to assume that death is our finish line,
but it’s not.
All those witnesses died without receiving what was promised.
So death can’t be the finish, or their hope would be in vain.
They’re waiting for us to arrive.
We all need to be there together to share in this promised reward.
And when we all get there,
I picture those cheering witnesses making their way out of the stands
and joining us on the track for that final lap,
which we’ll run together as one holy, perfected people,
rallying behind our Savior, our High Priest,
following him into the long-awaited Sabbath Rest of God,
the New Creation,
the source of all our hope and joy.
So keep running.
I’ve got your backs.
And deep in my heart, I believe it will be worth it.
As my good friend Priscilla said at the end of her letter,
May the God of peace equip you with everything good for doing his will,
and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.