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. Hebrews 12:1-2
I have always looked forward to the Olympics. The combination of those sports that girls like to watch with stories of athletes from foreign countries and then those pursuits you find hard to imagine making a life of (curling, for instance), that combination is irresistible. Friday morning on the Today Show, there were many, many pre-Olympics interviews, and I had a hard time turning off the TV to get started on my day’s work. I wanted to hear more about swimmers and gymnasts and basketball players. It always fascinates me to hear the stories of people who are so disciplined in their physical lives. Even a more casual runner has a lot of work to do to be in the right shape at the right time. We have a friend who has been training for a half-marathon, and he has a sort of countdown chart on his refrigerator reminding him how far he has to run each day in order to be ready to fun the half-marathon later this fall.
The first Olympics I remember vaguely were in the summer of 1968, in Mexico City. I mostly remember that there was some controversy about the track athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute from the medals stand. My radical nature was already in place at age seven, as I found the explanation of what they had done “wrong” to be ridiculous! But the first Olympics I really paid attention to were the Summer Games of 1972, when I was eleven years old.. I’ll always remember Olga Korbut on the balance beam, and Mark Spitz with his seven medals—and the masked Palestinian terrorists on the balcony of the Israeli team’s apartment building.
1972 was the last year an American won the Marathon. Frank Shorter went into the race knowing that the course for the Marathon was the only competition venue that could not be secured. If terrorists were going to act out during those games again, it would likely be along that course. In writing about that experience, Shorter stresses that he had a determination to just go on, despite the bad things that had happened and the fear of what might happen next.
Shorter’s story reminds us that there is more to it than the physical preparation. There is an inner component to swimming the 100 meter freestyle or hurling the javelin or hand springing across the mat or running the marathon. The athletes have to “get their psyche on,” in whatever way works for them. Swimmers shave their bodies—even those who wear the new full-length swimsuits. It’s part of their ritual. It makes them feel different for the big event. The young women on the American gymnastic team described listening to music or praying before a meet. Some of them said they just tell themselves it’s a practice session! The captain of the women’s Judo team described getting centered with meditative breathing. However they do it, these athletes have to find their spiritual center in order to do their physical best. And those that do it well will be the heroes of these games, their images familiar to the eleven-year-olds of today when they are grown-ups.
Today’s epistle lesson refers to a number of old-fashioned heroes, men and women of the Hebrew Bible who stood up to what must have seemed undefeatable obstacles. Through physical prowess or intellectual strength or unbelievable patience, they stood faithful before enemies human, animal, political and spiritual. They believed that in God’s time all would come round right, as we sang last week in the hymn, “Simple Gifts.” They believed that God would make this world a better place, in time, even if not in their own time. They had faith. In the quote in the bulletin today, David Bivin writes, “Biblical faith is not so much belief in someone or something as persistence. It is ‘hanging in there’ in spite of the circumstances. But faith is also the recognition of our dependence on God.” So sticking with it is important, but that’s not all there is to it. We also have to recognize our need for God’s help in remaining faithful. That makes sense, because our faith is about being in relationship with God, and so of course we can’t get there by ourselves.
What kind of tests of faith do we experience? Most of us don’t get to face the really dramatic tests, not most days. The recipients of the letter that we call Hebrews probably lived in Rome, sometime in the latter half of the first century. We know that much because the theology of the letter is too developed to have appeared earlier than about the year 60, and beginning around the year 95 it was being quoted in other writings. A generation, or maybe two, had been born since Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He had not returned, as many people expected he would do soon, to set things to rights in the world. The author of Hebrews, whose name we don’t know, developed this complex letter that is really more of a sermon to try and give hope and sustenance to a persecuted community of believers. We know that early Christians in Rome worshipped in secret, and that those who were revealed were likely to be killed for their faith. It wasn’t so much their belief in Jesus that got them into trouble, but rather their rejection of the Roman gods.
Hebrews is full of unique words and unusual phrases. In Hebrews 12:1 we read, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” “Clings so closely” is just one translation of a word coined by the author of Hebrews, and there are those who think a better translation is “easily distracting.” We might read it, then, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that is so easily distracting.” That’s a great way of describing sin, because really sin is whatever puts our focus on anything other than God and what God wants us to be. Sin is a breakdown in our relationship with God.
The question for us is what in our own lives is easily distracting when we are trying to live a life of faith. Our own society has its common idols and gods. We may not have a pantheon of supernatural beings with which to compete, but there is no question that in our society we idolize athletes and pop stars. And it’s more than that. We also idolize money. We idolize certain kinds of cars and houses and other marks of success. Perhaps it is all about success. And it’s about a different kind of success than finishing the race described in the scriptures. We may not be putting our lives at risk, but when the stakes are lower, we may be putting our faith at risk. It’s not the quick sprint to the finish that the Christians of the first century expected. We are running a marathon. Each of our lives is a race, and we are responsible for keeping in spiritual shape, keeping in mind that our goal is a faithful relationship with God, our Creator, our Loving Parent, the First and the Last.
Here’s the good news, if you’re feeling out of shape and not ready to lace up your spiritual running shoes, if you can’t even find your pedometer and can’t remember where you left your water bottle. You are not alone. Not only are we surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, ready to cheer us on and pass us the divine Gatorade when we are thirsty, but we also have an exemplar in Jesus. Hebrews 12:2 calls him the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He started something new, in other words. Something had changed. The reality was different than that of our heroic ancestors. God was no longer distant. Salvation was no longer in the future. In Jesus, God had walked among us, reassuring the world that each of us is loved and forgiven in our own time. We just need to be in the race. And the race is not about beating anyone else. It’s about keeping our feet moving toward God. Jesus did that. He faced his fate in Jerusalem, turning toward the finish line of this race without knowing how things would be. I do believe that. It counts for more if he did not know; and if Jesus was nothing else, he was authentic. He kept going, he stayed on the course, and he did not turn away to save himself. He kept going to save us all.
We run the race faithfully when we live as Jesus wanted us to live. We do it when we keep the lines of communication open with our God, through prayer and worship and awareness of God’s presence. We do it when we show caring for those who are less fortunate than we are. We do it when we show love for our families and our friends. We do it when we remember to love our enemies. We do it when we use our money in a way that honors those values. We do it when we use our time in a way that honors those values. That’s true for our individual lives and for our life as a church. Here we are surrounded by support, from the cloud of witnesses that felt called to build a church in this place, and from the people who run beside us today. We are not alone. We are not alone.
Let us with perseverance, then, keep running the race together, listening for the roar of the crowd of ancestors who believe that God is working for good in our world, today and always. Amen