Rev. Will Conner
Last week we began our message series on faith. And in it we explored a definition of faith that combines an inward hope and outward action. This week we are exploring another aspect of faith, and as I tell you about it, I have to let you know that I’ve never been particularly athletic. When I was a kid I guess I tried a few sports, baseball, golf, football, but nothing ever stuck. I was pretty self-conscious about this too. It’s no secret that I’m a big guy, and I’ve always been tall, so people were constantly asking me if I played basketball or football. Aside from the occasional game of horse in the neighborhood, I couldn’t figure out the whole dribbling and running thing.
The one sport I guess you could say I was pretty good at was swimming. For several years I swam competitively year round. I remember long practices. I recall a “race” where I swam a mile. At the time I was probably in the 5th grade, and I guess all I could say is that I finished. By the time I was in the 7th grade I didn’t swim year round, and only was on the swim team in the summer. But I was still one of the fastest guys on the team, and was always competitive at our meets. Of course, this was my one athletic achievement, and let’s just say I didn’t stick with it.
Because of all this, too often sports analogies are kind of lost on me. But sometimes the stars align, the universe is just right, and there is no way to escape a good sports story. This week is one of those weeks. After all, we are in the midst of the quadrennial worldwide ritual of the summer Olympics. When I watch the parade of nations, though, I can’t but recall The Hunger Games and the parade of minors about to compete to the death. I guess that’s not what the Olympians are doing. Not only are we in the midst of the Olympics, our scripture lesson this morning also focuses on athletics. So here we are, the world and the bible teaching about sport, and an incredibly lacking-in-athletic-talent preacher.
So instead of listening to me, let’s see what the Bible has to say about sport.
Hebrews 12:1-2: So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, 2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
I like the way the King James Version of the Bible translates this, it says, “run with patience the race.”
If the race is a metaphor for life and the life of faith, I like this idea of patience. Because I think it really hits on the fact that athletics and life is hard. Things don’t always come easy in sport or in life.
I think about a race like the Tour de France. This race is a 113 years old. It’s a 21 day race that takes cyclists and fans around France on a 2,200 mile journey. There is nothing about this race that is easy. It’s grueling. Hot sun, beating rain, miles and miles of mountain climbs, high speed crashes, muscle pain, not to mention there has to be some boredom during these long days. These cyclists masterfully compete and it’s easy to be amazed by their ability.
And then in the Olympics, I think it is incredibly easy to look at people like Michael Phelps. A man who holds multiple records in swimming. A man who makes swimming look easy and almost effortless. His body glides through the water over and over again to victory.
Of course Phelps isn’t the only athlete to make their sport look effortless. A writer named Angela Duckworth was researching what it takes to be great, and she interviewed Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 gold medalist in the 100 meter freestyle from the US. A year before Michael Phelps was born Gaines was winning medals.
In this interview, Gaines estimated that he swam the equivalent of around the world in the years leading up to his Olympic victories. That’s about 20,000 miles. He was asked, “Do you love practice?” He replied, “are you asking me if I love getting up at 4 in the morning, jumping into a cold pool, and swimming laps looking at a back line on the bottom, at the very edge of my physical ability where my lungs are screaming for oxygen and my arms feel like they’re about to fall off? No, I don’t.”
Sometimes life seems as if it is grueling as 4am practices in a cold pool. You try to get ahead, but you are working at the edge of your physical ability and you are screaming for relief, screaming for a vacation. It’s times like this that it is easy to give up.
Life is the single mom who is struggling to make ends meet. No one knows her story, but when she takes her toddler shopping at Walmart late at night people look at her funny and whisper about how bad a mom she is since her kid isn’t in bed yet.
Life is the man who puts all of his energy into his job. He completes a project of which he is very proud and shows it to his boss who tells him good job. The next week he is called into his boss’s office. Perhaps a bonus? Perhaps a raise? But he leaves with the news that the company is downsizing and he no longer has a job.
I think about my life and I wish that I was more athletic. That I had a story to tell when people asked if I played basketball or football. I wish I could carry on a conversation about stats and semi-intelligently place a sports bet (which, as a UM pastor I would never do).
Sometimes life just doesn’t work out as we want it, and things are just difficult.
When we watch the Olympics we see the athletes that are at the top. Those competing for goal, silver, or bronze. But we don’t see those that worked hard and didn’t make it. We don’t see those that were one second two slow from qualifying. If I had just done that extra workout, they think, perhaps I would have made it.
No matter how good of an athlete you are, you can’t win every time. No matter who you are or what you do, life has its difficult seasons. For some people it seems they never get a second chance or can never get ahead. If you are alone during this difficulty, things seem so much worse. Even when all outward appearances make it seem as if you should look good and be happy, if you are alone or isolated depression or even addiction can still rule the day.
You know, if you look at those Olympic athletes, they are not competing alone. They are competing amongst cheering fans, team mates, and coaches. When we look to Jesus and the our teaching in our scripture passage today, we see that faith and life is also supposed to be a team sport.
I want to read to you a few verses prior to what we read earlier. What we read earlier calls us to run the race of faith and life. What we are about to read shows us that we don’t run this race alone. In fact, what I am about to read is a retelling of everyone who has also run this race and is now cheering us on in the arena of life.
3 By faith we understand that the universe has been created by a word from God so that the visible came into existence from the invisible.
4 By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice …
5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he didn’t see death, …
7 By faith Noah built an ark to deliver his household. …
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a new place …
11 By faith even Sarah received the ability to have a child, …
20 By faith Isaac also blessed Jacob and Esau concerning their future. …
21 By faith Jacob blessed each of Joseph’s sons …
24 By faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter when he was grown up. …
29 By faith the Israelites crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land, …
30 By faith Jericho’s walls fell after the people marched around them for seven days. …
31 By faith Rahab the prostitute … welcomed the spies in peace. …
32 What more can I say? I would run out of time if I told you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.
33 Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.
36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
Following this we read what we read earlier: So let’s also run with patience the race.
In a lot of ways this scripture passage is like the Olympics. With each Olympics there is an amazing opening ceremony. I really enjoyed watching Brazil’s opening celebration. You had a very beautiful and expressive show that started with the story of creation until modern Brazil. It told the stories of the multiple groups that have come to call Brazil home. Following this you have the parade of nations. Where each representative county proudly introduces the best athletes. After this wondrous display of storytelling, the games begin.
The preacher in Hebrews is doing something similar. He doesn’t have advanced video projection or choreography. But he does have the ancient stories that go back to creation. As a commentator during the Olympics might talk about the history of a country’s athletes or go on and on about the Tongan flag bearer, the preacher says:
Remember the stories of the faithful people that have come before. Remember people like Abel. Remember Abraham. Remember Noah who saved humanity from the flood. Remember Moses who got run off from Egypt but then stood up to the ruler and told him to set the Israelites free. As they were fleeing they were trapped by the Red Seas, but in a dramatic change of events the crossed it as if it was dry land.
Then there is the story where these people are given the city of Jericho. The walls of the city crumbled without bloodshed. Then there were others, some named and some unnamed. But all these people tell the story of our faith. With the stories we open up the ceremony, we enter the arena, they are our great cloud of witnesses. These are the people that cheer us on, the stories that call us forward.
Then, as if an announcer saying, “Let the games begin,” he says, “run the race that is laid out in front of us.” He says you have such a great crowd of witnesses cheering you on, throw off any extra baggage, any sin that throws you back and run the race. And by the way, you aren’t alone. Jesus is the one setting the pace, he’s running out ahead, leading path. So look to Jesus and run the race.
Just as Olympians have fans, and team mates, and coaches, so do we. All those that have gone before us. Those names lifted up by the writer of Hebrews. Perhaps there some more names in your list—I think about my 5th grade Sunday School teacher Lettie Willingham (she is in my list). I think about my pastor growing up, Dennis; he had his own struggles, but now he is part of my great cloud of witnesses cheering me on.
Who can you name from your life? Your grandmother? A school teacher? A friend? These are the people who cheer, and say you can do it.
Then we have our team mates. Friends we are on the same team. We rely on one another. We do this faith thing together. Often we think that faith is just a personal thing; you know something that is between me and Jesus. It’s a very American thing to imagine faith to just be a personal thing. But you see, just as team USA marched into the area carrying the flag together—Each day, we carry one another in prayer, in encouragement, and in actions.
And where would an athlete be without her coach. Jesus is our coach. But he is not just a coach. He has gone before us and run the race, and is helping us forward in our lives. Jesus is the one who makes it possible for us to even do this. Without Jesus we could couldn’t walk, much less run, much less live out the hope that we have in faith.
There is no race that is not difficult. This is no season in life without it trials, but we do not do life alone; we do not do faith alone. We do life together; we do faith together. We do life with Jesus; we do faith with Jesus.
So with Jesus we can preserve when things get though. With Jesus we can keep going while life tries to stop us. So friends, Look around you, remember those who are cheering, listen to and look to Jesus, your coach, and together “Run with patience the race.”
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.