"Running with Perseverance the Race that is Set Before Us," a sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

"Running with Perseverance the Race that is Set Before Us," a sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

Aug 14, 2016

Passage:Hebrews 12:1-2

Preacher: The Rev. Claire Cowden

Series: Season After Pentecost

Category: Discipleship

Keywords: endurance, joy, perseverance, race


May the words of my mouth & the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock & our redeemer. Amen.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us 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 & perfecter of our faith.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us a vivid metaphor for understanding life in Christ, that of a race. But this race is not a typical one: it is not a competition, and those who do well are not restricted to spiritual athletes in top form.

The race that is set before us is simply the Christian way of life - a way of life that claims the totality of who we are. As Christians, we are not on a separate Monday - Saturday track, dropping in on the Sunday track once a week.

The Christian way of life undergirds, nourishes, and gives meaning & direction to all the possible vocations of life - as owner & worker, as volunteer & retiree, as spouse & parent, as child, as friend.

The Christian way of life enriches & shapes the totality of our lives— the roles & responsibilities that we live 24/7— to the degree we are willing to persevere as Christian disciples - to engage this race, this way of life - to struggle with it, and to stick to it.

The community of persons who first received & heard today’s letter were at risk of losing their way as Christians. Either the community as a whole or a number of its members suffered some kind of significant loss.
We do not know the nature of that challenge, but we do know the letter writer wanted them to take heart, keep moving, and not lose sight of their Lord & Savior Jesus Christ who offered them fullness of life -
joy in hardship; meaning & purpose in the midst of challenge; strength to get up, even if limping & bruised, and regain their focus on what is important & nourishing in Christian life.

Here the example of a contemporary runner may be instructive. I hope many of you have learned a bit of the story of Vanderlei de Lima - the Brazilian marathoner who lit this year’s Olympic Flame at the opening ceremonies.

De Lima ran in the 2004 Olympic Marathon. As he was running with a significant lead, seemingly out of nowhere, a bystander ran out into the street & knocked de Lima off course & into the shocked crowd.

De Lima, visibly shaken, resumed the race, but it took him some time to regain his composure, focus, and rhythm. But regain it he did.
He finished the race, winning the Bronze.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his finish was not so much that he came back to win the Bronze, but that his only awareness as he entered the Olympic stadium to complete the race, was JOY.
He was consumed with JOY - he had little awareness of anything else - not of the attack, not of aching muscles.
He was simply & completely elated in the running & in the finishing of the race.

We will all be knocked off course in our lives. Maybe the blow will come from outside of us, and we will have little or no ability to foresee & prepare or to prevent it. Maybe we will encounter devastating illness in our selves or in those we love. Sometimes we sabotage our own lives.
At one time or another, we will lose those we rely on & love dearly.

When we are knocked around in life, this passage from Hebrews offers a source of encouragement.

We are not left alone to figure out how to rise. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses… the faithful who have gone before us, who remain alive in God, and whose witness on earth & in heaven gives us strength & lights our way. This great, enveloping cloud includes the living members of the Body of Christ, such as are gathered here. We support, encourage, & light the way for each other as part of our life in Christ.

We are to lay aside every weight & the sin that clings so closely so that we can run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
In other words, when we are knocked around by the changes & chances of this life, we are not to lose heart…we are not to be so distracted by sorrow, anger, and disappointment that we either lose our attachment to Christ or allow our faith to stagnate.

The point is NOT to avoid grieving.  Grief is one of the gifts for healing we are given by God, and for it to heal us we have to move through it. But we must be willing to move through grief - not avoid it, not refuse it,
not seek to escape it - we must move through grief if our faith— if our engagement & participation in the abundant life Christ brings to us — is to grow into maturity.

Maturing faith, faith which bears fruit & is a well-spring of joy, is one of the glories of this life, whether we see & celebrate it in others or whether we know & feel it in our own lives. Maturing faith, faith which flourishes, is a glory for which each of us is gifted & to which each of us is called.

I think of another runner, Eric Liddell, known as The Flying Scotsman, who was part of Great Britain’s team in the 1924 Olympics. Liddell was a committed Christian, a missionary in China, and is remembered for his remarkable commitment & generosity to the people among whom he served.

You may recall his character from the movie Chariots of Fire. In that movie, as Liddell is trying to explain his vocation as a runner, he says, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.

You can see Liddell’s pleasure in old photos. At some point in every race & then on to the finish line, he throws back his head & runs with his mouth wide open, arms clawing the air. It was not classic form, and Liddel was ridiculed for his style of running, but his running was pure joy. His athleticism was one of the things God made him for, and he ran with everything he had.

Run your own race with your own style. Live your faith with gusto & feel God’s pleasure. Fall & fail from having lived life with zest, then allow Jesus Christ & this Body of Christ to nurture you through your grief & on to your healing, onto the kind of joy that can be known only in & through challenge, in & through sorrow, in & through the kind of endurance which does not stagnate, but seeks growth & maturity… the kind of joy that sets you & others free & which brings everyone you encounter along in its wake. Amen.

Eric Liddell, July 1924; photo from

New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th Ed., NRSV (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews in the series The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 1993).