Running the Race 5/28 '23
This is a Christian sermon about perseverance. Even if you don't subscribe to that faith, I hope that you will accept my encouragement to live and love to the best of your ability.
------------------- hic peribit, pax vobiscum ---------------------------
It is not surprising that the Bible should occasionally mention running. It’s something that people do, particularly under the influence of strong emotions like fear, or joy, or some other sense of urgency. When David fled from King Saul, he was running in desperate fear for his life. In the parable of the prodigal son, his father ran to him with overwhelming joy. On the morning of the Resurrection, the disciples were certainly fearful, and they may not have anticipated the great joy which would soon be theirs. But in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene finds the tomb to be empty, and runs to tell others. Then Simon Peter and the other disciple run to see for themselves. One detail of this narrative is rather unimportant to the story, but it’s very human. We’re told that the beloved disciple (who maybe had a bit of a competitive streak) outran Peter and waited for him at the tomb. This is mentioned three times, lest we forget who got there first. I imagine him waiting impatiently, thinking to himself “Did he name you Rock because of your speed?” Perhaps Peter thought that no one would know who reached the tomb first, but now everyone knows.
In the once ominous and now long-forgotten year of nineteen hundred and eighty-four, I was a runner. I joined the Bel Air High School junior varsity cross-country team. I no longer recall what convinced me to do this. Maybe someone thought I just looked like a runner – skinny kid, negligible wind resistance, “whoosh!” I did not go “whoosh.” I was always far behind the lead runners. There were only a handful of boys, though, on this team of slowpokes who didn’t qualify for varsity, and each team needed five finishers in order to have their results counted in the standings. So I stayed with it, for the sake of the team. My most memorable race was at Hereford, in Baltimore County. They had a very challenging hilly course, and I was hurting. My insides were so angry at what I was doing to them that I actually vomited in the middle of the race. When that was over, I left the unpleasantness behind me. I finished the race, finished the season, and that was the end of my cross-country career. So much for my heroic tale of perseverance, eh?
I decided to concentrate on a different competitive endeavor, the debate team. That also sometimes made me feel like vomiting, though thankfully that never happened in the middle of a debate. I actually did pretty well, and even won sometimes. What I may not have realized at the time is that the purpose of debate, like the purpose of running, is not really about winning or losing. The point of these activities is to be active – physically active, mentally active. The goal of a debate is to find the best answers to really hard questions. A good debater never says “You ignorant fool, that’s a stupid argument!” One says, “I understand what you’re saying, but have you considered this? How do we weigh the good points of this side against the good points of that side?” Similarly, a good runner never tries to push down their opponent. A good runner just tries to run better. A good runner tries to push themself to run faster than they’ve ever run before.
Our founding pastor, Eugene Peterson, was also a runner, and a far better one than I ever was. In that same year of 1984, Reverend Peterson ran in the Boston Marathon. He didn’t win, of course, but just to qualify for an event like that is a great accomplishment. Marathon runners, God bless them, are probably not doing it for fame or fortune. Can you name even one winner of the Boston Marathon? Nevertheless, thirty thousand people attempt it every year. Why? Perhaps the same reason President Kennedy gave for pledging to send Americans to the moon. We do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Fifty-four years later, the first moon landing still stands as one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements.
Physical, mental, and technological achievements are fine, but what about spiritual achievements? Here we might look to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was called by God to preach repentance and transformation to a disastrously misguided people. For this he was beaten, mocked, imprisoned, and thrown into a cistern to die. He was rescued, though, and lived to see the Babylonian Captivity of Israel which he had prophesied. He was greatly saddened and distressed by the times he lived in, but he never lost his faith.
Reverend Peterson’s book about Jeremiah is entitled “Run with the Horses”, because God warns Jeremiah that the early troubles he complains about are like footraces compared to horse races. I don’t have to tell you that running with horses is hard. They’re bigger than you, they’re stronger than you, and for most distances on level ground they can run at least twice as fast as you.
Yet in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, they have an annual event called the “Man Versus Horse Marathon”. It’s at least 20 miles in length, over rough terrain, and each horse has to carry a rider with them. So sometimes, very occasionally, perhaps on an unusually hot day, a human runner will finish ahead of the fastest horse. It was accomplished just last year by the felicitously-named Ricky Lightfoot.
Great things can be done. What great things can we do if we’re not athletes or astronauts or prophets? We can share our gifts and learn how to multiply their effectiveness in cooperation with others. We can share our stories and remember that everybody else has a story too. We can share God’s great love with each and every one of our neighbors. We can do all of these things without fearing inadequacy or being disheartened when our efforts fall short.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, when the disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s salvation in such a way that each listener could feel that they were being addressed personally. I do not claim this as my spiritual gift, but I am emboldened by the Spirit to attempt something similar.
Δόξα στο Θεό
God zij geprezen
Gloire à Dieu
Ehre sei Gott
Kami ni eikō o
Alabado sea Dios
Praise be to God!
Our salvation does not subtract from the importance of our mortal lives. There will be challenges, and obstacles in our path, but we are enjoined to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. We don’t need to worry about stumbling or being hurt. We need not concern ourselves with getting ahead or falling behind. We have someone on our side who is always right with us, encouraging us, and leading us toward our goal. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It doesn’t matter whether you run the race at a sprinter’s pace, a marathon pace, a jogging pace, or a walking pace. The end of the race will come soon enough. What we’re meant to do right now is to live. To live rightly, to live faithfully, to live fully. Run the race. Amen.