Saturday, July 30, 2016

Running the Race: A Sermon on Faith and the Olympics

I am not a sports fan, but we had fun with this reading from Hebrews and the Rio 2016 Olympics. This is a sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.

Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (NRSV)
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.  

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. 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. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

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.

Sermon: Running the Race
As we pray, we're going to stretch this morning. We are really getting into the Olympic spirit, today, folks. But prayer of the daily sort can be a kind of spiritual stretching anyway. You are reaching for God, asking God to change you. You are opening yourself to God, to possibility. If you don't pray, just like if you don't stretch, that does not mean you will not be successful, or that you won't experience God. It just means it can be a bit more painful, right. So today, we will pray with our bodies, stretching our spiritual muscles as we prepare to hear the word God has offered to us:
Patient teacher, (reach up toward the ceiling)
you know the weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, (cover head)
so we ask you to help us lay aside all that keeps us from you. (lay aside)
Wrap us up in your presence anew, (hug self)
open us to your Word, (one arm stretched forward)
and move us along the race set before us. (wave hands)
Amen. (reach up toward the ceiling again)
Now, I should admit that I am not a fan of running. Jerry says that he doesn't think there ever any reason to run unless you are being chased. I'm not even sure that is true. I have a friend from seminary who started running after she had children to set an example for them, to show them how to love their bodies and their potential, and she posts daily motivations and meditations about running. One she posted this week said, “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” That has stuck with me all week. Hasn't made me start running, but has gotten all tangled in my reflections on the Olympics, on the encouragement in Hebrews to run the race set before us, and ultimately on faith. What if we looked at this race of faith as more of a celebration of what God can do, rather than to focus on the weight and sin that clings to us?

The community for whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was written were bowed down under the weight and sin that clung to them. They had undergone some serious persecutions for their faith, not like martyrdom or anything, but imprisonment and confiscation of property. In ancient Rome, you could refuse to worship the state Gods, but only if you were Jewish. Though we don't know for certain, the way the author writes, he seems to worry about this community converting from Christianity to Judaism.1 The author of Hebrews sense confusion and also demoralized people and so begins writing this explanation of faith and who Jesus is. In our particular passage, we see encouragement. We see that “we can have realistic faith for our future because of what God has done in the past.”2 This is the celebration! We celebrate what God has done and imagine what God will do.

The Olympics is full of stories of encouragement. That's the only reason why I watch what little I do--- for the stories. Usain Bolt is a favorite for NBC to talk about. He's charismatic, larger than life---this is an actual picture of him.3
Picture by Cameron Spencer
He crosses himself before he runs, but the way he does it, you wonder if he's really seeking to show God's glory or if it's like a lucky talisman for him. The story I wanted to share today, though, is not about his faith, but about how he trained last year with Brazil’s three-time Paralympic champion
Terezinha Guilhermina ahead of the ‘Mano a Mano’ event. The Paralympics is just like the Olympics but for people of varying physical abilities. Terezinha, for instance, is blind, but boy she can run. She just needs a guide to help her stay on the track and in the right lane. “Athletes and guides are usually linked together by a tether, which must be made of non-stretch material, tied around the wrists or held between the fingers.”4 For this one particular race, Usain Bolt was her guide.“It was a dream come true,” she said. “He was a little uncertain at the start, afraid that I might fall over or that he would run too fast.”5 Usain Bolt uncertain is probably a funny image, but his participation in the Paralympics brought it a lot of respect and attention it already deserves, and Terezinha felt very honored by his willingness to participate.

Before hearing about this story, I had not known anything about guides in racing. Actually I know painfully little about the Paralympics, but the more I find out the more fascinated I am. In reading up on guides in running, I discovered:
The tether [that holds the athelete and the guide together] poses similar challenges to running a three-legged race, so getting the right pairing is crucial – the guide should be similar in height to the athlete so they will be able to match stride patterns as well as synchronising arm and leg movements. The guide will set up the athlete comfortably and ensure their hands are placed correctly behind the white start line. A good guide must be able to keep pace and also have the potential to run faster than the athlete, and it is important that they are not prone to injury. Using verbal cues, guides will instruct and motivate their athletes as well as making them aware of any bends. They can also have a crucial job in raising the levels of cheers from an audience.
This sounds much more difficult than what Usain Bolt does by himself, doesn't it? A lot more coordination is involved. Team work, but also servant leadership. Because here's the other crucial thing about being a guide: “Guides must not cross the finish line before the athlete, or the athlete will be disqualified.”
From Getty Images

And this image of a guide got me thinking back to our scripture today. The writer of Hebrews imagines the journey of faith as a long-distance race that does not begin and end with us, but really begins and ends with Jesus. “Jesus is the one who runs ahead, sets the pace...”6 to our writer. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we read in scripture. The examples our lesson opened with today are from the Old Testament, and some from the experience of the ancient Christians, but they all center in this fact that Jesus has run the race for us already. Jesus is victorious already. So even in our struggles, we should have faith because we know Jesus has gone on before.

But I love the image of a guide to help us stay on course, as well. That is my hang-up personally. Sure, I know that even if I am grieving or grumpy or frustrated, God has ultimately been victorious. Jesus has already run the race and faced what I have faced and worse! I can look at the big picture of the universe and know that God is at work and is doing wonderful things. I have that kind of faith. But I struggle with the kind of faith to get me through the day sometimes, you know? And that is where I see that Jesus has not only won all the Gold Medals there are to win and is waiting at the finish line for us with a nice cup of water and whatever else people want after running a long race. Jesus has also come back to run beside us, not dragging us to follow his lead, not aggressively keeping us in our lane, but lightly guiding us, helping us to stay on course. And Jesus will remain beside us even if we insist on going off course, always trying to guide us back. If we have a false start, so does Jesus. And when we go to cross the finish line, Jesus is just behind us, cheering.

Which is less comforting than it sounds. Think back to the guides in the Paralympics. Running in tandem with someone is harder than running alone in many ways, at least in the immediate moment. Faith, too, is harder in the immediate moment. You have to be open to communicating. You have to pay attention. And your focus can't just be on the big picture, but on the steps it takes along the way.

Let's just look to the first example our scripture this morning gives us: By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. The Exodus itself was an endurance race. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, enduring oppression and violence, until finally Moses, with help from siblings Miriam and Aaron, took up his calling to speak God's truth to Pharaoh until Pharaoh let the Hebrews go. Every step of the way, the Hebrews complained. They saw miracles--- the parting of the sea! But still they complained and let fear control them, creating idols, doubting God's provision. Where was this faith the author of our scripture today talks about? Where was the celebration of what God can do?

Well, it was there. In that one step in front of the other as they passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. God was beside them as a guide, and in moments here and there they perceived it! Just by putting one foot in front of the other.

Faith to run this race is not about constant assurance and constant trust. It is about trusting enough to pick up your feet and move anyway. For Jesus has already run the race, and he is our guide at the same time, matching our moments and helping us stay on course. So let's run with perseverance. Amen.

1Bart D. Ehrman, “Christians and Jews: Hebrews, Barnabas, and Later Anti-Jewish Literature,” The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 419-420.

2David E. Gray, Pastoral Perspective on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Proper 15, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 356.


4Eleanor Lees, “Paralympics 2012: the guide runners,” The Telegraph, 8 September 2012, accessed 20 August 2016,

5Rio 2016 and NPC Brazil, “Usain Bolt runs as guide for blind Paralympic champion Guilhermina in Rio,” 19 April 2015, IPC Athletics, accessed 20 August 2016,

6John C. Shelley, Theological Perspective on Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Proper 15, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 356.

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