I preached this morning at our church in Guilford. My text was Hebrews 12:1-2. Here’s what I had to say.
I am not a runner.
I never have been. When I was in eighth grade, we had a school-wide track meet in which everyone was expected to participate. I signed up for whatever race it was that we only had to run one lap. As I rounded the last turn–in last place–my mother said I blew a bubble with the gum in my mouth. In tenth grade, we were in Texas and had to participate in the President’s physical fitness program–this time I had to do the hundred yard dash. I tied for last place. After we finished, I learned that the boy I tied had a permanent leg injury.
Like I said, i am not a runner. So there is a touch of irony in the fact that our scripture this morning is about running the race that is set before us. After spending a whole chapter describing people who had been faithful to God, the writer of Hebrews turns to say it is our turn to run. Listen for the word of God in our passage this morning.
Our passage begins with the word “therefore,” which means it is dependent on what came before it, even though it’s the first verse of a new chapter. Hebrews 11 begins with a definition of faith–faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see–and then gives a concise history of some of those whose lives were marked by their faith in God: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon; the list is not exhaustive. We could name Ruth, Naomi, Rahab, Hagar, and even then there would be others. The list ends with these words:
Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
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 author and goal 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.
If the writer of Hebrews had known Americans would be reading their words, I’m not sure they would have used a race as the primary metaphor because when we hear the word race our first response is to ask, “Who won?” We are bred for competition. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
But this race is not about winning. A better connection is to think of something like the Relay for Life, which is a twenty-four hour fundraising event for the American Cancer Society. Teams work together to keep someone on the track for an entire day and night to both raise money for and show solidarity with those have cancer.
The race of faith is a relay of life, if you will. We are running with all those who have come before us; we are running for those who will follow; we are running together right now. Our task is to finish our leg, to be faithful to our calling, and to be mindful of all that connects us.
To run well, we have to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” I notice the writer doesn’t say, “Lose weight,” though that might be helpful advice. Instead, they say. “Lay it aside.” And they make a distinction between the things that weigh us down and the sin that clings so closely. To elaborate on that, I want to tell you a story I have told some of you before.
When we were living in Boston, I went back to Baylor University for Homecoming and learned my father had preached that day on campus. I did not hear the sermon, but a friend told me that he had used me as an illustration. My father said, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem you can fix. A predicament is something you have to learn to live with.” He paused. “I used to think my eldest son was a problem. Now I see he is a predicament.”
At his funeral, I told that story and then said, “I learned he was a predicament, too.” We had years of struggle, but we were both able to heed the advice of the text and lay aside both the weights and the sins that divided us.
We have to learn the difference between what weighs us down, as in what things are done to us, and our sin–the choices and decisions we make that do damage to us and to others. When I think of weights, I think of the depression I live with, or my hearing loss. Over the years, Ginger and I have both used this passage in working with young people. When we have talked about the weights, inevitably some have come to find us to tell stories of abuse and neglect.
I don’t think the writer of Hebrews is being flippant when they say, lay it aside. The sense of the verb is like taking off a garment or shedding something. Some experiences in our lives leave deep and abiding wounds. Some conditions or situations with which we live are chronic. We all have predicaments that are not easily discarded. But looking at those who have come before us and had weights of their own, and looking around at those who run with us and share the weight we carry, let us not allow the wounds and weights to define us.
We can say the same about the pain we inflict on ourselves and others with both the things we have done and the things we have left undone. Our sins are not the last word. Don’t let them distract you, says the writer. In our smartphone world, we understand distraction perhaps better than they did. Lay aside our sin–can you hear that in the same tone as someone you love saying, “Put down your phone and pay attention to me”? We can ask for forgiveness. We can make amends. That doesn’t mean the consequences or the scars disappear necessarily, but, again, our sins do not have to be what defines us, or what distracts us.
We have a race to run and it requires persistence. Jesus is our model for how to hang in there. In his gospel, John tells the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night before he was executed rather than the Last Supper. John says of Jesus, “Knowing he had come from God and he was going to God, Jesus took a towel and wrapped it around his waist, bent down and washed the feet of the disciples.” Jesus’ sense of his source and goal—coming from God and going to God—let him lay aside the weight of the world as it came crashing down and offer love to his friends in a tangible way because he knew his death was not the last word.
The writer of Hebrews says Jesus is both source and goal of the race we are running, which is another way of saying we, too, have come from God and are going to God. We are running in a big circle, and, like those who have run before us, we can trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God anywhere along the way.
Therefore, let us run the race.
Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Many remember it as the games where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony. Some may recall that many of the athletes were affected by the altitude. The story i remember most is that of John Stephen Akhwari, a Tanzanian marathon runner who came in last.
Akhwari had muscle cramps early because of the altitude, but he kept running. About a third of the way through, he got caught up in a group of runners jockeying for position and he was knocked down on the pavement. He dislocated his knee and injured his shoulder. He kept running after they attended to him. The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished over an hour later. The medal ceremony was over when word came that he was still running and a TV crew went out to find him. He entered the Olympic stadium after sunset. Over three thousand thousand people stayed to watch him cross the finish line.
After the race an interviewer asked why he had kept going when he knew he was last. He answered, “My country did not send me five thousand miles to start the race; they sent me five thousand miles to finish the race.”
Though one of the ways we can think about the race metaphor is to think about our whole lives, the truth is that life is full of finish lines. We are entered in more than one event. When the race we are running right now is over, there will be another. You may feel like you are entered in several at once. Whatever the race, whatever we feel is at stake, we have come from God and we are going to God. There is not a step we take that falls outside of the love of God.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, since we know we have come from God and we are going to God, let us deal with what weighs down and repent and reconcile for the impediments we have caused and finish the race, following in Jesus’ steps, so that we like him can say, “It is finished.” Well, this one is . . . Amen.