Saturday, August 18, 2007

Finishing the Race

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

The saying goes: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." It’s a saying you hear before a tough race or game or a big decision. It’s supposed to be a word of encouragement when things seem too difficult and you’re thinking of giving up.

Marathoners especially know what it means to keep going when things get tough. Running 26 miles that seems insane – at least to a non runner like myself. I do well to run a couple of blocks. Now my brother is a bit crazier than I am and he’s training to walk the Portland Marathon in October. From what I hear the training is hard, but the reward of finishing is great. It’s a sense of accomplishment that no one can take away from you.

The image of the marathon runner stands behind this text from Hebrews. The story of the first marathon, the one ran by the courier who brought the good news that the small Athenian army had held off the great Persian army at the plains of Marathon. It was a famous dash that inspired a race that continues to this day. That runner, unlike most, collapsed and died after he gave his message to the people, so he didn't live to see the reward.
Running a marathon takes perseverance. If you finish the race and gain the reward, you’ll have to endure suffering. What’s true of the marathon is true of life and it’s true of faith. Life can be difficult and it often requires much from us. I’m not ready to run or even walk a marathon, but as a person of faith I must ask myself, what does it mean to run to finish the race?

I. The Witnesses and the Pioneer

The Christian life isn’t necessarily an easy one, but the blessings are great – if we finish the race. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews begins by rehearsing the stories of God’s saints, the heroes of the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, and then on through Moses to all the other great saints. Our author tells us that they all remained faithful, even though they didn’t live to see the reward. This cloud of witnesses, however, lines the raceway and shouts words of encouragement to us as we continue a journey they’ve already run. Having persevered themselves through great hardship, they show us the way forward.

Running in front of us is Jesus, who is the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith. He has endured suffering in ways we can only imagine, and yet he continues, ever vigilant, knowing that the way forward will require everything of him. In fact, he’s already crossed the finish line and he calls out to us and beckons us to follow in his steps, so that we might receive our crown, even as he has received his. Yes, the way forward leads to the cross, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote and lived, grace is costly, because it costs us our lives.

II. The Difficult Journey of Faith
Christians are, the letter to Titus says, a "peculiar people." (Titus 2:14 KJV). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be called peculiar. But being a Christian means being a bit different, for as Jesus says we’re called to walk a narrow path.

This is why the Christian walk requires perseverance. We will be tempted to give up the race, because it’s not an easy one. The good news is that we’re not running this race alone. There’s that great cloud of witnesses that has already run the race, and they stand alongside us and shout encouragement to us. And up in front of us is Jesus, the lead runner, who blazes the trail for us.
People ask me: Do you have to go to church to be a Christian? Now, I suppose you can be a Christian and not be part of a community of faith, but I don’t know why you’d want to try doing this alone. My friend Diana Butler Bass speaks of moving from being nomads to being pilgrims. Nomads try to go it alone, while pilgrims take the journey of faith together in community. As we join together in the practices of faith, practices like study, worship, discernment, prayer, and hospitality, we grow in strength and in endurance, and together we can finish a difficult but rewarding race. The writer of Ecclesiastes says it well:

"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help." (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

And if two is better than one, then surely three is better than two. Isn’t that one of the messages of the Harry Potter series? Harry discovers that he needs the help of Ron and Hermione, and many others, if he’s to fulfill his destiny. So, it’s in the company of the faithful that we’ll finish the race.

III. The Church’s Journey

A group of us will be meeting Tuesday evening with Don Shelton, our Regional Minister, to talk about what we’ve done in the past year, but more importantly we’ll talk about what will happen in the coming year. Two years ago I began a three-year transitional ministry. My calling was to help you discern your calling as a congregation and begin the journey forward. We’re now in the final leg of this initial journey together, and so in the coming months we must discern together whether I will be continuing on with you or not. Although we’re tempted to cut the process short, if we don’t finish the race we won’t reap the benefits of the journey..
The journey forward won’t be easy and we’ll be tempted by promises of easy fixes. We’ve accomplished much in the past three years that I’ve been here, but there’s much more to be done.

And so, in the coming months you will select a search committee to discern who should lead you on the next leg. It could be me, but it could be someone else, because even as you begin your search, I must begin my own search for God’s leading. Yes, the way forward will require much of us, but if we persevere and finish the race, we will be rewarded.

While I was at the General Assembly, I participated in a workshop on Congregational Transformation. This workshop focused on becoming a missional church, a church that has an outward rather than an inward focus. It’s less concerned about the institution and more about the community outside the church walls. It’s a way of being church that seeks to be the presence of Christ in the community and in the world so that the world might be transformed, even as we’re being transformed. It’s not an easy path and it will take patience and perseverance if we’re to cross the finish line. Indeed, we’ll have to jettison some stuff that holds us back if we’re going to finish the race. But this is our calling.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2007