09/12/21 “Running the Race”

Hebrews 11:29-35, 39-12:2

My husband Marc loves auto racing and, as a dutiful wife, I’ve accompanied him to races from time to time. For a number of years, we had tickets to the Brickyard 400—the stock car race that takes place at the Indianapolis Speedway, home of the Indy 500. We had great seats to watch those cars go around—and around, and around, and around. I was always amused by the fans who stood up by their seats, yelling and pointing down the track, as though the drivers needed help knowing which way to go. With apologies to any of you who are race fans like my husband, I have to confess that I find these races about as interesting as watching paint dry or grass grow. Once, I actually fell asleep at the Brickyard—the roar of the engines providing the white noise for my nap.

At some point, Marc decided that we should join our local chapter of the Sports Car Club of America. He wasn’t prepared to subject his own car to the rigors of racing around a track or to invest in one just for racing. But, the SCCA sponsors all kinds of races. So, Marc suggested that we try doing some road rallies together.

Now, those were races I could enjoy! They didn’t just have you running in circles. At the start of the race, we’d get a set of directions and instructions, and we’d set off on a journey. There’d be all sorts of clues and problems to figure out, and we got to travel on some roads we’d never driven on before. It was fun! We actually won once or twice, but that didn’t matter. The journey itself, the challenges we met on the way, and the opportunity to do it together were the real attraction.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “road rally” as “a race for motor vehicles, usually over a long distance on public roads or rough terrain and typically divided into several stages.” We may not often think of our faith journey as a race. Indeed, the prize of eternal life isn’t something we have to compete for or earn.

But, the image of a road rally is a pretty good analogy for the journey we’re all on, both as individuals on the road to perfection, and as a congregation seeking the route by which we can best serve God in this place. Our faith journeys take place over a long distance—in time if not in miles. We make them, not just in the privacy of our hearts, but we live them out in the public eye. Some of the terrain we cover is difficult to navigate. Like a road rally, our faith journey will cover many different stages. It leads us toward a particular destination, and there is a prize to be had.

The Hebrews of our passage today were on this same journey. We’re not sure who “the Hebrews” were. The title of the letter seems to be an addition to later copies. But the contents suggest that the author was writing to a congregation of Jewish Christians.

We also don’t know who wrote the letter. Tradition gives Paul the credit, but there are many clues that suggest it was written by someone else. The author says early on that the truth of the gospel that’s affirmed in the letter was declared first through the Lord and then shared with the author by people who had heard it from Jesus. Paul took great pains to make it known that he had seen and heard Jesus in person, so it seems unlikely that Paul would have said he’d heard

the gospel secondhand. Scholars have no shortage of possible authors, among them Luke and Timothy, Silas and Apollos, Barnabas and the Bishop Clement of Rome, or even Priscilla, who with her husband was a leader of the church in Corinth and later in Ephesus. Regardless of who wrote the letter, he or she knew the congregation well and could speak to this struggling community with authority.

And this congregation needed that, because they were encountering some road hazards on their faith journey. Like races that take place on public roads, the Christian faith is lived out in the public sphere, and that can take a toll. For reasons that aren’t specifically named, the recipients of the letter seemed to be in danger of drifting away from the faith they had embraced. Living as Christians meant turning away from the norms and customs of their society. It may be that the social, emotional, financial, and political pressure from living so differently from their neighbors had begun to wear them down. Although they hadn’t shed blood for their faith, some had paid a high price. Some members of the congregation had ended up in prison. Some had suffered abuse and hostility. Some had had their property confiscated. The rest must have felt the threat and fear of the same things happening to them.

There may have been other road hazards as well. They may have been growing weary of waiting for Jesus to return. These Jewish Christians may have missed the forms of worship that had been so meaningful in their past, and the security that came from being part of an established and accepted faith. It was becoming more difficult to remain faithful. Alternate routes were starting to look appealing. The author of the letter didn’t consider them so far gone as to be totally lost, but he or she saw that they were in danger of making some serious wrong turns.

Making their way as Christians was proving to be a bumpy ride, and the letter is a kind of roadside assistance. Like the maps and instructions that road rally teams receive, the letter offers direction. It offers safety tips. It offers a clear description of the prize offered to the participants and encouragement not to give up in the pursuit of it.

Throughout the letter, and at the beginning of our passage, we find examples of people who had persevered in their faith while facing great trials and danger. The journey that the Hebrews—and we—is one that has been traveled before. Others have done it before us. This is encouraging! When we grow weary, when we’re ready to abandon the race, we can look to those who came before us as our examples. And, they’re not merely our examples. They’reour team mates. They’re making the journey with us.

Road rallies are typically run by teams. Marc and I were a team; he was the driver and I was the navigator. In our faith journeys, we are also part of a team. We have our brothers and sisters in the faith who walk, sit, eat, worship, and serve beside us now. But we also have a larger crew supporting us, made up of all those who have gone before us in the faith. That crew includes the people whose stories we find in Hebrews and so many more. Some we know from Scripture. Some we know from the history of the Church and the wider world. Some we know because they were our own family members and friends. They make up the cloud of witnesses that envelops us on our journey.

Driving on a foggy day, enveloped in mist, is usually a dicey proposition. It’s scary not being able to see where you’re going, and even the most familiar roads look strange. But being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses is a source of encouragement. Their stories make the road before us more familiar, not less. We can draw on their experiences for guidance and inspiration. We can lean on their stories to give us strength for our own. This is what the letter writer wants the readers to know—that they are following a long tradition of others who experienced challenges and trials, but who persevered.

Perseverance is really what the entire letter to the Hebrews boils down to. The journey of faith can be hard. The road can be rough, and the terrain unfamiliar. As in a road rally, things may start out smoothly enough. Then, all of a sudden you run into a detour, or a road that’s impassable, or obstacles that keep you idling in one place. You start to suspect that maybe you didn’t understand the directions as clearly as you thought you did, and you start to doubt. You start to doubt yourself. Maybe you even start to doubt the one who gave you the map.

Many, if not most, of us started out learning about our faith as little children in Sunday School. We absorbed the stories without question. We did the things we were taught to do, and most of the people around us did them the same way. But then we moved into the wider world. We met people who didn’t do things the way we did, or think the same way we did. They challenged us with questions about what we had simply accepted as the truth. We saw the evil in the world and started to wonder where God was in the midst of it. We got some pushback when we tried to be faithful to Jesus. It can make the journey of faith tough going.

We experience some of that as a congregation, too. Zion has had its share of rough terrain. Disagreements resulted in church splits. Illnesses and the deaths of beloved members took their toll. It takes a lot of effort to keep things going with smaller numbers of people to do the work while remaining relevant in the world. Confronting questions about what we accepted so easily as children can be tiring. This stuff can wear us out. It can make us want to find a nice roadside rest where we can just stop for a while.

Whether it’s during our personal journeys or the journey we make together as a congregation, the challenges can make us want to throw in the towel and concede the race to the forces that just seem too strong, the burdens that just seem too heavy, the questions that just seem too troubling. The Greek word that’s translated “race” is a good one. The word is “agon.” It sounds like our word “agony.” It can mean some kind of sporting event, like a race. But it can also mean any kind of struggle. That’s what we’re engaged in as Christians, even in our nation where, until recently, Christianity was the default belief system for most people. Thanks be to God that we don’t face the persecution that the Hebrews did, or that many Christians in other parts of the world do today. (And no, you can’t claim persecution when Starbucks comes out with its holiday coffee cups.)

But, the more we try to live Christ-like lives, the more of a contrast there should be between our lives and the real, lived values of the world around us. Never mind the values that are merely given lip service. Our lives should stand out as ones that stand against the ways and beliefs that keep so many poor, uneducated (or unequally educated), sick, hungry, homeless, and unheard. Our lives should stand out as ones that stand for the dignity of all people. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to be what theologian Gerhard Lohfink calls “a contrast community”—a community whose way of life mirrors God’s kingdom in contrast to the ways of this world. That’s a hard job.

In response to the weariness the Hebrews were feeling, and to the weariness we may ourselves be feeling, the letter encourages perseverance. Again, the Greek word is so rich in meaning. In this one word, we’re encouraged to be patient. We’re encouraged to be constant and steadfast. We’re even encouraged to endure with joy and with hope.

So, how do we do that? First of all, the author says, “get rid of all the stuff that weighs you down and slows you down.” Clean out the trunk, sweep out the back seat. Ditch the doubts. Toss the temptations. Hold on to the things that can help you persevere—the things that give you hope and strength: the example of the saints. The Scripture that gives you direction. The cloud of witnesses that accompanies us.

But most of all, keep your eyes on the prize and the One who holds it. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter 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.” Look to Jesus, who is our way and our map and our destination. Look to Jesus, who offers us the prize of salvation, not because we run the best race but simply because we join him in the race.

As in a road rally, this race will have various stages. As Methodists, we believe that grace leads us through these stages. Before we even sign up for the race, God is drawing us close. When we realize that we need God and the gift of salvation in Jesus, we are justified—made right with God. As people newly born, we begin the stage of being sanctified—the stage of becoming more Christlike until that day when we are perfected in love, a stage that will have its own fits and starts, periods of making good time and periods of U-turns and detours and restarts. The good news about this race is that, we don’t have to wait ‘til the race is over to receive our prize. Throughout the journey, we hold the prize in our hands—the eternal life Jesus secured for us.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews wouldn’t have known anything about road rallies, of course—unless maybe there was an ancient equivalent with chariots. But I think he or she would have seen the similarities between road rallies and the race we are encouraged to run and to persevere in. We run our race in view of others, who will learn from us what it means to follow Jesus. We never run alone but have a cloud of witnesses to guide and inspire us. The race is long, and sometimes it takes us over difficult terrain. But always, we keep our eyes on Jesus, who is both our way and our destination. We keep our eyes on Jesus, who is both our prize and the prize-giver. We keep our eyes on Jesus, and we find the strength and the hope we need to persevere as we continue to run our race. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young