For those of you who have winced each time I’ve used a sports analogy to make a point, you may want to head over to Church House, now. But, as you heard in our reading from Hebrews this morning, the Epistle, itself, uses a sports analogy, so I feel I am on good ground to go there this morning. Incidentally, I won’t be mentioning a particular professional team, so Pat, you can relax. (The last time I mentioned her favourite team, they lost terribly). I’m not sure what that says about my preaching, but in the interests of parish unity, I won’t go there.
There weren’t a lot of believers in the early Church- they were outnumbered by all those around them, but they knew that they were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to faith and they felt uplifted by that fact.
In some ways, I think, there’s nothing more intimate and personal than faith. But I wonder if it isn’t also true that in some ways we believe because others believed before us? I’ve spoken before about the Anglican three-legged stool: scripture, tradition and reason. As you’ll recall, the second leg of the stool is tradition, which means the understanding and faith of all the great minds who’ve gone before us- the great cloud of witnesses. Their faith helps to form our faith, often in ways of which we may only be dimly aware.
At key moments in my life I’ve met believers whose faith has inspired me, and deepened my faith by their example. Their life seemed authentic to me. But I also saw that in some ways they were like me, with questions and struggles like mine. And yet, they believed deeply and surely in God’s love.
I think arguments for or against faith might be a bit like particles and antiparticles in physics. They mutually annihilate one another. Almost every intellectual argument you can make in favor of God has its opposite argument that someone else might make. That’s why discussions about God’s existence generally end up as a draw.
But with the example of the lives of believers, as opposed to their arguments, things are different. The existence of a person can’t be refuted in the way an argument can. For me, at least, their way of living raises the question: “If faith in God has shaped the life of that person- and made it authentic- can’t that same faith give authenticity and meaning to my life, too?” I’m not talking about standing on the street corner and yelling Bible verses at passersby. Or proudly and perhaps smugly advising people how often you go to church. Jesus warned against the Pharisees showing off their piety, and of course, he also meant that warning for all of us. I’m thinking more of the person who quietly, unobtrusively visits a neighbour who’s sick, or offers a ride to Sidney to a person who’s walked onto the ferry; the person who seems always content with their life, happy in their relationships and joyful in their interactions.
We all know people like that- who can light up a room just by being there. That’s the example of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us from every age; people whose lives were determined by their faith in God and who, through their selfless love of those around them demonstrated the deep and lasting effect of that faith.
And here comes the sports analogy: the author of the Letter to the Hebrews compares them to sports fans in the stands of a stadium.
They’ve already finished their race. But they don’t lose interest in those who are still struggling and running. They urge them on and applaud them. I think that’s how our witnesses support us in our faith journeys.
In today’s Epistle, the writer of Hebrews encourages us to persevere in our life of faith, no matter what difficulties we face. He says, “Since we’re surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that’s set before us.” The writer’s saying that you’ve begun a good thing in becoming Christians, and he urges you to finish strong in what’s been started in you.
A few days ago, I was chatting with a friend about the Olympics. I said I was always in awe of the long-distance runners and he told me he liked to run. He said he wasn’t fast, but participated in marathons because they gave him a great feeling of accomplishment.
In marathons, he said, normal folk like himself get to compete in the very same race as the best runners in the world. As he put it, he’d never find himself on the same tennis court with Roger Federer. And he’d never step up to bat against Randy Johnson. But, when he ran the Toronto Marathon, 12,000 other runners lined up at the same starting line. In that number were runners who held the best marathon times in the country as well as people who were running a marathon for the very first time. They all ran the same course. They all passed the same cheering crowds.
Then he told me that when the elite runners were crossing the finish line he was probably about half way through the course, wondering if he could actually make it. But the beauty of the event was that for many of the runners like him, just finishing the race was the goal. Their time was a very secondary consideration.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews asks us whether we’ll finish the race- in faith- the race that’s our life. Will we persevere? Or will we run off course, or give up? He warns that the race is hard. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, if we follow him, if we stand up for what’s right, we’ll likely experience conflict.
The writer of Hebrews, like a good coach, gives four pieces of advice about how to finish the race. He says that to finish the race:
We need to recall who surrounds us;
We need to remove what weighs down on us;
We need to rely on the strength within us; and finally,
We need to remember who goes before us.
Recall who surrounds us: Hebrews tells us that “we’re surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” In his metaphor, the epistle writer wants us to picture ourselves as athletes in a stadium. As we strive toward our goal, to finish with faith, in peace and in holiness, we run surrounded by people who are cheering for us.
The people in the stands are people who’ve demonstrated faith — faith that persevered- people who by the grace of God overcame great obstacles and finished the race. These are people of the Bible, the men and women of the Church throughout the ages, and people known personally to each of us, whose witness encourages us.
They’re witnesses, not just spectators. I think there’s a huge difference between the two. A spectator watches you go through something. A witness is someone who’s gone through something similar himself or herself. In Greek, the root of the word that we translate as “witness” also gives us the root for the word for “martyr”. Witnesses know what it costs- they know what it feels like- to be going through the race we’re undertaking.
We have witnesses cheering us on, not just spectators; people whose testimonies of the strength that God gave them can, in turn, give us strength and courage. We have witnesses rooting for us, weeping with us when we stumble, calling to us when we wander, urging us to finish the race. So, as we run, we need to remember those who are with us. Our witnesses.
Our coach also tells us to remove what weighs us down. Have you ever seen a track star running a race wearing heavy work boots, or carrying a backpack full of bricks? Hebrews says, “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”
Too often, I think, we carry on our shoulders or in our hearts the almost unbearable weight of attitudes and actions- past behaviors and present entanglements- that we wish we could set aside. God’s telling us that we don’t have to keep carrying those burdens.
We can set those weights down. God’s ready to take them from us.
God’s ready to forgive and heal whatever we’ve let get between us and God, whatever has come between us and other people, whatever wrongs we do to ourselves. So, we need to set aside whatever weighs us down as we run the race.
Our coach also tells us to rely on the strength within us. We’re told to “run with perseverance the race that’s set before us.” When the going gets tough, when the road’s difficult, when every stretch seems like another steep hill to climb, we can rely on spiritual resources within us — spiritual resources we develop in gathering with other Christians, in hearing and reading God’s word, in participating in the sacramental life of the church.
The Greek word that we translate as “perseverance” can also be translated as “patient endurance.” Endurance is one thing. We can endure and still whine and complain at the same time. Patient endurance, on the other hand, might look like praying for ourselves and for others. It might look like encouraging others even in the midst of difficulty. It might look like saying something kind, or saying nothing at all, when something unkind comes more readily to mind. Or it might look like giving generously of our time and resources, even when we’re not sure what’s ahead and our first inclination may be to think of ourselves.
Last week, hours before the congregation showed up for our outdoor service, the Lion’s Club was at the park cheerfully setting up chairs and tables for us. Their joyful giving was, to me, a wonderful example of that kind of generosity of spirit. So, we’re called to rely on the strength within ourselves.
And most important of all, Hebrews reminds us, we need to remember who goes before us. In our Great Thanksgiving prayer -which we say each week at the Table- we remember the saints and martyrs, apostles, and prophets, and all the children of God who have gone before us. And then, as the writer of Hebrews puts it- we remember to look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who… endured the cross, disregarding its shame- and who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I truly believe that we can and will finish the race strongly in faith if we look to Jesus, if we keep our eyes focused on him, trying our best to live as he has taught us, not being distracted by other things along the way that can cause us to lose our direction or footing and stumble.
Jesus has gone before us, has shown us the way that will lead us to finish the race. If we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him, I think we’ll not only make a good beginning in faith, but we’ll finish the race with joy to spare.
In the race of our life, we have people cheering us on. Like a marathon, it may be a long, hard race, but I believe, in the end, this is the race that’s the most important and most fulfilling of all. We have someone willing to take on our burdens. We can train for patient endurance. And we have a guide who leads us and who won’t abandon us. So my prayer for each of us, this week and always, is that we keep running until the prize is ours and we hear God say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” That’s a gold medal worth striving for.