Sermon: Running Our Race

Excerpts from Hebrews 11 and 12

A few weeks ago, I went to my first cross country meet ever, to watch Patrick run.It was a beautiful October day. We were in Castro Valley, at a school up in the hills with this amazing three-bridge view of the Bay. What’s not to love? 

Well, the cross country course, as I found out later. It was by far the most challenging course of the season. I heard one runner from Alameda High, who had already completed her run, say to her friends as another run was about to begin: “They have no idea what awaits them.”

Soon enough, a voice came over the loudspeaker, “Varsity boys, your race begins in 15 minutes.” Patrick and his friends walked to the start line, and the parents and other team members took their place along the sidelines. It was fun to watch all the boys do their various warm-up, psyche-themselves-up exercises. Patrick and his friends were talking and laughing, nervously it seemed to me, jumping up and down, practicing their starts. I noticed it was starting to get hotter out.

And then, the loudspeaker again: “Varsity boys, ready.” They assembled, muscles tensed, waiting for the gunshot.  They were staring right at this big hill that made up the bulk of the course — the hill they were going to have to run up three times during their race. I imagined the various things they might be saying to themselves, based on their personalities.  “I got this.” Or: “This is going to be hell.  I hope I don’t pass out.” Or both. 

And then, the gunshot, and all the runners — almost 100 in all — moved together, as if they were one big organism. Those of us on the sidelines cheered: “You can do it!” Within seconds, the runners had reached the woods at the base of the hill, and disappeared from our view. 

A minute or so went by, and then the first runners appeared about 2/3rds of the way up this big hill.  By then, several of the boys had begun pulling away from the pack. These were the stars, the ones who would be competing with each to win the race, the ones who would likely be getting cross country scholarships to college. And then came most of the rest of the racers, some of them running in clumps with their teammates, some of them running alone. We cheered all of them, until they disappeared again on the other side of the hill.  That happened a couple more times. The runners would reappear, we would cheer, and then they would be gone again. 

Finally, the crowd moved together toward the finish line.  The first runner emerged out of the woods  and began taking the sharp U turn that merged the cross-country trail onto the track. One parent beside me said, “Someone is going to take that U turn too fast and fall.” I looked down and saw that the ground wasn’t level — it had lots of divots and bumps.  I couldn’t imagine being so gassed and having your legs feel like wet noodles and then having to navigate that sharp, hazardous turn at the end. To top it off, all the runners began accelerating as they hit the turn and really poured it on on the straightaway leading to the finish line.

I could see the exhaustion and exertion on the faces of the runners as they went by. Their hair was matted to their heads with sweat, every muscle — even the ones in  their foreheads — were straining. They were clearly laboring (in pain) and still, at the end, they dug just a little deeper and ran even harder.  As the runners went by — they were now all running by themselves, not in a pack — voices in the crowd would call out each name, “Go, Gabe. You’re doing such a great job. You’re almost at the finish line!” Other people waited for them on the other side of the finish line, beckoning them on.

These young men, who had been running so fast just seconds ago, would cross the finish line and it was then that you could really see what they had been through. Many stood for a long time afterwards, leaning forward, their hands on their knees, panting, sweat pouring off their noses and chins. Some were sprawled across the grass, and they laid there for a long time without moving. Some crumpled as they crossed the line, and teammates or parents caught them. 

This whole time, I found myself strangely moved, on the verge of tears most of the time. I feel on the verge of tears even now as I tell you this story. As Jerome and I walked back to the car, I told him about my emotional reaction to the meet and said, “I have no idea what that was about.” He said: “It’s because it’s a metaphor for life.” And, yeah, duh. That was it. All those young people, almost ready to launch into the adult phase of their life, ready to begin running their race, excited and nervous about what awaits them, not knowing what awaits them. And then the exertion of it, the energy it takes — the way we try and strive. And most of the time — perhaps never! —  you’re not the star. You’re not even close, but you’re there running anyways, in the race. And it’s beautiful and thank God we have legs that move, but it’s also hard, and sure, sometimes it’s flat and we’re feeling strong and sometimes there’s another hill to climb and so soon after the last one, and we wonder if we can do this. Sometimes, we’re running with others and sometimes we’re running alone, and sometimes people are cheering us on and sometimes it’s just us and the sound of our own breath and our feet hitting the path.

And then, at the end, when you’re tired and your body is almost giving out, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it gets harder. Those of us who have accompanied dying people know the labor involved.  And you dig deep and summon every last bit of energy you have to take yourself across that finish line, and there’s people cheering you on from the sidelines, and there’s people on the other side of that finish line, beckoning you. And one last labored breath, and you’re across. 

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. Hebrews 12:1

Because this is it. This is our race, now. There’s no practice runs or do-overs. We’re running up that hill — some of us for the first time, some for the third time. And, in fact, this race is a relay race, one that began when human life first emerged on this planet. Our ancestors passed that baton down through thousands and thousands of generations and now we’re the generation holding it. 

We have spiritual ancestors, also — some may also be our biological ancestors — and they have passed a baton of faith down to us. That’s what the author of Hebrews is getting at, I think, with this litany of those who came before us in the faith. There’s this backlog of people who lived their life nobly, with purpose, who walked in the way of righteousness — that is, right relationship— and they have now passed this baton of faith down to us. Tag, we’re it! Now we’re the runners. 

So what keeps you from running this race well? What weighs you down? What makes you sluggish, what saps your energy for the race? Is it doubts or fears? Wounds that need to be healed? Conditioning you need to do? 

And what about those sins that cling so closely? Sin is being in wrong relationship — with ourselves, with God, with each other or with creation. Where are you in wrong relationship? Because that wrong relationship is tripping you up on this race; it’s a divot or a bump in the course that could cause you to fall. 

These are big questions, important questions because this is it, my friends. This is our race now. And we’re running it at a time of unparalleled challenge in the life of humanity. That hill is really big. We will need even more stamina and perseverance.

But we got this. We have so many people running with us, and we have so many people cheering us on. We call those folks cheering us on from beyond the finish line the “communion of saints” and I very much believe in them and feel their presence almost every day. We’re about to name some of them soon. So, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set before us. Amen.