Have you ever watched five-year-old kids playing soccer for the first time? If you haven’t, you should find an opportunity to do so. They are so much fun to watch, because they’re just playing for the fun of it. At that age scoring isn’t an issue. There is no sense of one team winning and the other team losing. The kids learn to kick the ball towards one end of the field or the other. And they run. They do a lot of running. All the kids, regardless of team, chase the ball up and down the field. That’s the fun part. They just love to run, and if the ball happens to go where it is supposed to, great. But what is really fun is the running.
When I was a little kid, I liked to run. I didn’t run with any purpose, other than it was fun. I was a child on the go. My mother used the word, “busy,” to describe me. I was constantly doing something, and running was often the quickest way to get from one activity to the next. Back then, running felt good. There were a lot of kids on my street, and we were always playing games like hide and seek, freeze tag, kick-the-can, etc. Running around in those games, I never worried that I was a fast or a slow runner. I didn’t care if I was caught or if I was ‘it.” I loved to play. I loved to have fun. And I loved running. It was fun.
When I got older, especially when I hit adolescence, running stopped being fun. I still liked playing games, but running went from something you did just because to something you had to do for points and grades. With adolescence came physical and hormonal changes, and I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – run as fast as other kids. I was generally one of the slower runners. That shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when we had to run the mile in gym class and our times were tracked, you didn’t want to be a slow runner. There were physical standards that you had to meet. Other kids noticed who was a fast runner and who wasn’t. Running became more about the competition than about the joy. I still had to run, but it no longer felt good.
A few years ago, I tried to start running for exercise. I do a lot of other exercising, but I really wanted to complete a 5K. However, I soon discovered that running at an older age presented a brand new set of problems. I was not as self-conscious about how I looked running as I was when I was a teenager, but I quickly remembered that I was not a teenager in a whole of other ways. Back in the old days, I would not wake up the next day after a run stiff and sore, practically unable to move. In my childhood, I didn’t worry about bone spurs or other foot problems. I never considered the reality of charley horses waking me up during the night, or shin splints. I felt immune to the tiresome ailments and aches and pains that pop up as you get older. When I was a kid, I ran without worrying about the effects of running. It wasn’t for exercise. It wasn’t to compete. It wasn’t for a grade or to measure up. I just ran to run.
It would seem that over the years I have developed an antipathy toward running. So why would I choose to preach from our passage in Hebrews? It’s one thing to talk about the heroes of faith, but the last two verses we read are about running; not just any kind of running, but running the race. The preacher in Hebrews seems to be making the analogy that this is a foot race of faith. We run it because we look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” who went before us.
An initial reading of these verses suggests that our faith is a race we either win or lose. That is the struggle that I have had with these verses, and it is one reason why I considered preaching another passage. It would seem that the preacher is exhorting the Hebrews and us to win this race, win no matter what. The problem that I have with that is not what the preacher said, but with the way these words are interpreted. If faith is a race we run, than is it a competition? Are there winners and losers? Do those who run fastest win the greater prize? Do they reach heaven first? And those who can’t run as fast or can’t run at all? What happens to them? There doesn’t seem to be a consolation prize.
The trouble is with that word, “race.” It has so many connotations. We talk about life as a “rat race.” The world seems to thrive on competition. Business is a competition. Education is a competition. Climbing that so called ladder to success is a competition. If I reach the top first, I win. Our whole model of success is based on the belief of there being winners and losers. Surely no one wants to be considered a loser, right?
Yet I’m not convinced that this idea of a competition is what the preacher had in mind when he offered these words. Preacher and scholar, Tom Long, wrote in his commentary on this book that the preacher was preaching to people who were exhausted. They were trying to be faithful, trying to keep going, to keep believing, to keep trusting. But their energy was flagging. Some may have been falling away from the faith, because they were just too tired to go on.
So, as we read last week and today, the preacher lifts up example after example of people who ran the race of faith before them. They endured hardship and uncertainty. They trusted God, even when it seemed foolish to do so. Some were tortured. Some of the faithful were mocked and flogged. Some were imprisoned. Some suffered grisly, brutal deaths because they refused to be anything but faithful. There are so many examples of faith that the preacher wants to list, but he runs out of time. There are too many of them. But here’s what he wants his congregation to understand. All of these faithful people endured. All of them ran the race, and they didn’t stop running. They ran and they didn’t give up. They ran, even thought most would never see the promise of faith fulfilled – at least not in their lifetime on earth. But still they ran. They ran the race, and now they are the “great cloud of witnesses.” I get the sense that the preacher saw this great cloud of witnesses sort of as divine cheerleaders. They ran their race with faith and perseverance, and now they cheer on the next generations of runners.
It’s almost as if the race of faith that the preacher describes is not a race where some win and some lose. It is a relay race. Those who have gone before pass the baton of faith to the next set of runners. Each generation takes the baton from the one that has gone before. That baton keeps being passed on and down from faithful to faithful to faithful and so on.
It would seem that running the race of faith is not about winning or losing, it is about finishing. Sometimes I think I would rather give up and lose, than finish. Finishing takes endurance. Finishing takes perseverance. Finishing requires putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how exhausted I may be.
And yes, being faithful, remaining faithful, can be exhausting. There are days when I would gladly stay in bed, leisurely read the paper, go to brunch. That’s not just on Sundays either. Being faithful is not just physically exhausting. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Being faithful requires mindfulness and intention. For me, being faithful means that I have to really think about what I do and what I say. Am I being the person God created and called me to be? Am I responding to others as Jesus did? Am I living out my faith, I mean really living out my faith – not just in word but in action?
It’s exhausting. I want to trust that God’s got this; that I am moving in the right direction. But as I said last week, there is too often a dearth of signs affirming that. Sometimes being faithful is exhausting.
How fortuitous that this passage falls in the middle of the summer Olympics. I know it may seem that I’m against competition, but it has been exciting seeing the amazing athletes competing in the different sports this past week. And I am exceedingly proud of the Americans who have won medals – especially those in swimming and gymnastics. I have to be honest, watching the women win has been incredible, but all of it has been exciting to watch.
But one thing has made these Olympic Games are different than in other years; for the first time refugees of different nationalities have competed as one team. They carried the Olympic flag and marched to the Olympic anthem. They are athletes from different places in the world, with one thing in common: they had to flee the country of their birth and now live in no country. They are not only without home, they are without nation. The Olympics did this to highlight and emphasize the plight of refugees, and that the world has not seen a refugee crisis like this since World War II.
If there are people who understand exhaustion, it is them. If there are people who understand perseverance and endurance, it is them. Some swam to flee the danger and violence in their country. Now they swim at the Olympics. Some ran to flee that same danger and violence. Now they run in the Olympics. These are people who understand that it is not about winning or losing, it is about finishing.
That’s what we are about today. This race that we are running is not a competition. Running this race does not meant that if the Presbyterians win, that must mean the Baptists lose or vice versa. No, this race we are running is about finishing. We are just trying to run faithfully, to run with trust, to run with hope. Yes, we are exhausted at times, and it would be easy to give in and give up. But we hear the words of the preacher, and we see cross in front of us, and so we keep running. It doesn’t matter if we’re fast or slow, what matters is that we endure. What matters is that we persevere. What matters is that we finish. There is joy in the finishing.
Let all of God’s children, all of us who are called to run this race, say, “Alleluia!”