Running The Race

Rev. Erin R. Ostendorf-Snell

We love superheroes. Our culture has produced a variety of them: Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Batman, The Hulk, even Super Grover. The new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, was just playing in theaters earlier this summer, captivating audiences both young and old. For many, interest in superheroes (or super-heroines, as in the case of Wonder Woman) doesn't end with the close of childhood. I'm sure there were quite a few adults who couldn't wait to see the new movie. Encouraged by our craze for superheroes, manufacturers even produce all sorts of superhero accessories, from kids toys to even adult underclothes.

So why is our culture so enthralled with superheroes? Is it their superpowers? Superman, otherwise known as 'The Man of Steel,' is 'faster than a speeding bullet' and able to 'leap tall buildings in a single bound.' Spiderman has radioactive blood. He can climb right up the side of a building and swing on his super-strong spider thread. Maybe we like them because they use their powers to help others. They fight evil and they help stop crime. Perhaps we like them because they are selfless, strong, and brave. Of course, we know these superheroes don't exist beyond the comic books and motion pictures. They're fantasy.

However, we as a culture also have a fascination with real living breathing human beings who display great strength and skill. Some of the physical feats they perform seem almost superhuman. Sometimes it seems that they possess superpowers. The Summer Olympics have just ended and we saw many athletes doing incredible things from jumping a length of over 29 feet to lifting more than twice their own body weight - things you and I probably could never do no matter how long or hard we'd train. Our popular culture holds up these models for us - these superheroes and great athletes.

You may be wondering what this has to do with our Scripture lesson for today. Well...I want to point out that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, which was read just a few minutes ago, lists people who should inspire us, hopefully even to a greater extent for reasons both similar and different. The author of this letter writes about people of faith who did incredible things. Unlike the superheroes of the movies, these people of faith did marvelous things through God. It wasn't their own power, but the power of God working within them.

The author writes of Moses and the brave folks who followed him, 'By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.' He refers to Joshua, 'By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.' He goes on to note an important woman in Jericho, saying... 'By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.' There are so many great people of faith that he can think of that he writes, 'And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.'

You see, all of these accomplishments came to fruition because God was working through people of faith. They did not do such things entirely on their own. The author wants to encourage the early Christians he's addressing; that's why he lists all these great faithful people and these incredible acts. Yet, at the same time, he doesn't want the readers of his letter to think that faith is measured by success or that good things happen only if you have enough faith. So, he continues by describing others who had great faith, others who lived facing similar situations as did the original readers of his letter. He writes: 'Others were tortured, refusing to accept release…others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…they wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.'

Though the author of this letter is unknown, as are the specific people to whom the letter is addressed, we do know that it was written to a group of people who experienced much suffering. Scholars have made educated guesses related to this letter and can be fairly certain of some aspects of it. They are fairly sure that the addressees were located somewhere in Rome. They can derive from the letter that the church which is being addressed is facing a crisis. They were living under ridicule because of their faith. Some had property confiscated as a result. Others had been imprisoned. At that time, it was fairly dangerous and certainly unpopular to be followers of Jesus. These early Christians needed inspiration and that is exactly what the author of this letter passionately tried to do by reminding them of those who have gone before in faith. The author wants readers to do likewise, to be strong in their belief despite difficulties. The readers were very familiar with the stories the author alludes to - stories of Moses, and of Joshua, and of the prophets. Early readers could have identified with their strong faith in God, but might not have been able to identify with their success. They could, however, identify with those who suffered for their faith. The author reminds them of both types of faithful people.

Next the writer to the Hebrews continues to encourage them, by explaining how to continue in faith by the power of God. He uses the metaphor of an athletic event. Early Christians were familiar with such events and we, too, can understand this metaphor for the same reason. And the message is still very relevant for us today. The author writes:

'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 pioneer and perfecter of our faith.'

We as Christians, both then and now, are like athletes in a race, not a sprint mind you, but a long race. A race that represents our life journey of faith. A race that requires endurance. In the stands cheering us on are people of faith who have gone before us. From Abraham to Moses. From the prophets to the original readers of this letter. From Martin Luther to Rev. Michael Schlatter, the traveling minister who had much to do with the beginnings of our church in what was then a wild and sometimes hostile frontier in this very area. We are inspired to continue this race by the ancestors of faith we have learned about and those people of faith we know today. They are our 'cloud of witnesses,' the superheroes of our faith who encourage us to continue on.

We are surrounded by 'a cloud of witnesses' to support us on our way because the race isn't always easy. For the early Christians the race was really tough. And for us, there can be lots of hurdles or potholes. Scripture reads, 'lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.' What are the weights and sins that hold us back from our journey with God? Can we identify them? How do we avoid such obstructions to our journey of faith? Can we avoid all of them? What if we discover we've been carrying some weights? Well, this Scripture passage tells us…we must remember our 'cloud of witnesses.' They have faced similar troubles. Even Moses had things that initially held him back - he told God he didn't think he could lead his people. Was he held back by being unsure whether he was capable or was it that he felt too burdened by God's request? Are we similar? And aren't we sometimes distracted from our journey with God? With all that distracts us and vies for our time, do we forget we are runners in God's race? Do we run around in circles forgetting where we're going, forgetting to consult with Christ?

In the 1968 Olympic games, held in Mexico City, many competed in the men's marathon run. Some of you may remember those Olympic games. The spectators cheered for the runners as they completed the last section of the race - a lap around the track. All the runners came in, except for one. Lots of people left the stands, though some people remained. The man, John Stephen Akhwari, from the highlands of Tanzania, was somewhere along the course. As the lights were being turned off in the stadium, an hour after the first runner crossed the finish line, John Stephen Akhwari came stumbling onto the track. He ran his last lap slowly and painfully, his leg bloody and bandaged. Those left in the stands applauded enthusiastically, as though he were coming in first place. When asked later why he continued on the race knowing he would come in last, instead of just stopping because of his injury, he said that his country did not send him to Mexico City to start the race. He said, "They sent me to Mexico City to finish it." Despite his difficulties, he kept the finish line in his mind's sight. As he trudged along in pain, it was his focal point.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews explains that we need a focal point as we run our race, our journey of faith. The author is clear, this focal point is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Jesus was the first to attain faith's goal - and he makes it possible for us to do so. Our ancestors in the Christian faith looked to Jesus for guidance along the race. They focused on him in order to persevere through the difficulties on their journey. Let us follow the lead of faithful people of the past. Let us remember our great 'cloud of witnesses.' Remember, they are with us cheering us on, as it is our turn to journey through life here on God's earth. They are our inspiration.

Let us be fully aware that someday we will be ancestors to future people of the Christian faith. Will they look to the past and see us as people focused on Jesus? I pray that while we look back to our faithful ancestors for inspiration, we also look ahead realizing that our descendants will look at our lives of faith as inspiration for their journeys. Amen.

August 31, 2008

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