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Today should be called rhetoric Sunday! In all three of our readings this morning, we have preachers at the top of their game. It is impossible to read these three snippets of scripture without imagining them preached in booming voices. Our reading from Hebrews today has a particularly pleasing cadence. The author is describing the exploits of the heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures and he writes they “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”. Yes! It makes my day seem very pale in comparison. “I woke up on time! Ate some toasted oatmeal! And dressed myself in matching clothes!”
The writing in the letter to the Hebrews can seem overwrought, but the author’s tone makes sense when we understand his intention. The author, as far as we can tell from the little information the letter gives us, is writing to a group of second generation Christians. They love Jesus, but they are running out of energy to be Christians. They have expected Jesus to come back for years and he has never showed up. The novelty of this new religion is wearing off and the reality of day to day living has set in. To top it all off, the authorities are beginning to crack down on Christianity and they are frightened. The author of the Hebrews is exhorting them to hold on, to keep the faith! He is their coach and their cheerleader.
The Letter to the Hebrews develops all sorts of theological ideas, but the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is all about faith. This faith is robust! This faith has legs! This faith has teeth! This is the faith of Gideon, Samson, Rahab—heroes of the faith. The metaphor the author uses is that of a race. Like a race, faith takes training and an enormous amount of effort.
Now, you all know that our wonderful rector is an accomplished runner. He runs several times a week and has run several marathons at respectable paces. Well you may not know that your assistant rector was a runner, too. More specifically, she was a runner from the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2006. My brief endeavor as a runner came about because of my next door neighbor and close friend, also named Sarah. Sarah was the kind of person who did whatever she set her mind to. Sarah was going to train for the Charlottesville 10 mile race and somehow she talked me into training, too.
Let me tell you, training for a race is no fun. We ran several times a week, in increasingly large distances. On Saturdays we woke up when the sun did and met trainers in downtown Charlottesville. They would yell things like, “Now, run at your fastest pace! Now, slow down and run at a comfortable pace! Now, back at the fast pace again!” The problem was, I only had one pace. Eleven and half miles a minute. That was my fast speed and that was my slow speed. If I did not know Sarah was waiting for me those Saturday mornings, there was no way I would have gotten out of bed for that torture!
We ran a 10K a few months into our training to get used to a race environment. Sarah took pity on me and ran at my pace. We were really slow. We were so slow that eventually we were the last two runners. We were so slow that they started pulling up the cones marking the outline of the course before we got to them. We were so slow that eventually the police car trailing the race pulled alongside of us and said, “Ladies, you can run in the middle of the street if you’d like. We’ll follow you.”
But we did not quit. Thanks to Sarah’s constant encouragement and occasional bullying, I kept training. I did not get any faster. My form did not get any more elegant. My knees and shoulders did not get any less sore. But on April the 1st, 2006, I ran that ten mile race. The crowds lined up on sidewalks cheered us on and helped me to go that much further. With Sarah’s coaching and the crowd’s encouragement, I hobbled to the finish line.
The metaphor of a race for our faith is apt. Faith takes a lot of work. Faith takes encouragement. Faith takes discipline. But like training for a race, we are not alone.
In the race metaphor, Jesus is our coach. Jesus has run the race ahead of us, knows what to expect, and runs by our side telling us when to speed up or slow down. Jesus encourages us when we are frustrated and gives us a boost when we are ready to give up. Hebrews says that Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our faith. He shows us how to follow God—even if it leads to a cross. Jesus shows us what it means to be faithful, what it means to have an intimate relationship with God. When we lose our way, we can read the Bible and be reminded of Jesus’ faithfulness, which will help us to be faithful. And when we can’t live up to the kind of faith we want to have, Jesus’ grace covers us, helping us to cross the finish line.
The crowd that cheers on the racers is the cloud of witnesses. The cloud of witnesses are the Saints that surround us—David, Samuel, the Prophets—and the millions of ordinary people of faith who have and who are running the race before and with us. When we read a biography of Augustine, or Dr. King’s letters, or read the notes in the bibles of our own faithful grandmothers, we are encouraged that people have been living in our complicated world for millennia and have been able to follow God no matter what the circumstances.
We in the church are part of this cloud of witnesses, too. We are each other’s cheerleaders. When one of us cannot pray, we pray for her. When one of us needs to talk through a theological issue, we listen. When someone is discouraged in his study of the bible, we encourage him. We need each other to live lives faithful to God.
Where the race metaphor breaks down is that in a physical race, the goal is to win, to beat everyone else, to be first. The wonderful thing about God, is that even if we are the very last person in the race of faith, hobbling along after everyone else, we still get to cross the finish line and get welcomed into the Kingdom of God. Faith looks a lot more like a race in the Special Olympics, where participants have no problem stopping to help a runner who has fallen, or linking arms so runners can cross the finish line together. Faith is a race, but it is not a competition.
Our culture treats religion and spirituality as if they are private, personal, individual activities. But in the Bible, faith is always a community activity. God appears to individuals, but only in their roles as representatives of their communities. One cannot truly be Christian if one is not in Christian community of some kind. But our community is not limited to the people with whom we attend church. We are in community with Christians all over the world, and with those who have gone before us. Every Sunday in the Eucharistic prayer we say, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.” That company of heaven is all the believers that have gone before us, who have already run the race and have achieved their prize. When we gather to receive communion, they gather with us.
And it is this image that helped those early Christians hold on. Those early Christians held on to the faith, they finished the race, even when threatened with imprisonment and death. And now they are part of that cloud of witnesses that urges us to hold on, to have faith, no matter how difficult that may seem.