Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Running This Race

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Hebrews 11:29-12:2


In a church in another time and place, a new family started worshipping with us.  After about three Sundays,  the woman in the family came to me and said, “I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to listen to your sermons and not be bombarded with athletic metaphors.”    That was how I learned that one of my colleagues in town was very fond of sports imagery in his preaching.    That woman was right.  Sports are not my usual go-to material for preaching.  And it was nice that she appreciated that.  But I’m aware that it works in reverse as well.  Some of you might enjoy a good athletic analogy every once in a while.  If you do, then I’m glad you’re here.  Today’s sermon probably has a few years’ worth. 

This passage in Hebrews is one of my favorite texts.  It describes the life of faith as a race.  The author is playing the role of a coach, encouraging those who are running the race now, by reminding them of others who have run it ahead of them.   One commentator says “Imagine a race, staggered over time, that no one can finish until the last of the participants has entered.”[1]  Those who have taken their turn are gathered on the sidelines and near the finish line.   They’re watching a race that is still going on, in the time of the New Testament and in our own time.

The words of the coach come to us, “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.” 

What does it mean to run this race with perseverance?  Perhaps like me, you watched some of the Rio Olympics this month.  If anything can inspire me to use sports metaphors,  it’s the Olympics.  So let’s imitate the writer of this letter and see what we might draw from the example of some Olympic athletes.

One of the first things I notice about the passage in Hebrews is that it says “let us.”  Let us run this race.”  We might think of running as a solo sport, but this is addressed to a group.  It seems there is something communal about the race of faith. Runners can encourage one another, pushing each other to run faster and sometimes, just to keep running.

In Rio, two women were close to each other in the pack during the 5,000 meter race when one tripped and they both went down.   Abbey D’Agostino from the USA got up first.  Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand was stunned to find herself on the track.  She said, “I went down, and I was like, ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’ Then suddenly, there’s this hand on my shoulder [and Abbey saying], ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this.’[2]

It became evident that Abbey had the more serious injuries.  When she fell again, it was Nikki’s turn to help her up.  And Nikki hung back to run many of the remaining laps at Abby’s slower speed.

Both women did finish the race, although Abbey left the track in a wheelchair.   Nikki said, “I’m so grateful for Abbey for doing that for me. . . I’ve never met her before. . . Regardless of the race and the result on the board, that’s a moment that you’re never, ever going to forget for the rest of your life, that girl shaking my shoulder like, ‘Come on, get up.’”[3]

In many ways, we each run our own race of faith.  Hebrews lists the names of many individuals.  But at the same time, we run with others.  Sometimes we encourage a fallen runner.  Other times, we feel a hand on our shoulder and maybe someone we have never even met before says, “Come on, get up. . . We have to finish this.” 

* * *

I heard about Yusra Mardini well ahead of the Rio Olympics.  You probably did too.   Yusra was already a talented swimmer, training in her home of Damascus with the support of the Syrian Olympic Committee.  She kept training, even when bombs destroyed the roofs over her swimming pools.  Finally, at 18 years old, she fled with her sister Sarah, travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying for Greece.  

They set off in a boat meant for 6 people, but carrying 20.  Thirty minutes out on the Aegean Sea, the motor began to fail. Yusra, her sister Sarah, and two others jumped into the sea and swam, pulling the boat in open water, eventually reaching Greece.  They were the only ones on board who knew how to swim.  The other two swimmers eventually gave up, exhausted.  Yusra said,  “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”[4]

Yusra and Sarah saved their own lives and the lives of everyone on board.  It seems this race we’re running has high stakes.  “Let us lay aside every weight and run with endurance.” Is it too much to believe that our lives and the lives of others could actually depend on it?

Our model for this race is the one who endured the cross, Jesus the Christ.  Hebrews 12:3 reads, “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

In this race, there are fellow athletes, setting a high bar for competition and sometimes like Abby and Nikki, helping us to keep going.  There are cheering onlookers.  But not everyone is on our side.  Don’t lose heart --remember that Jesus also endured hostility.

When President Obama was asked about his favorite Olympic moment, he spoke of Jesse Owens.  Owens, of course, was a star at the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin.  Hitler had hoped that the German athletes would dominate the games and show the world the superiority of the Aryan race.  That was the atmosphere of hostility where Owens won 4 gold medals and set three world records and earned the respect of many Germans. Even though Owens said he was not interested in politics, the race set before him was on a world stage with political implications.

Near the end of the Rio Olympics, an Ethiopian named Feyisa Lilesa won the silver medal in the Marathon.  As he crossed the finish line, he put his hands over his head in an X.  It was a protest against the Ethiopian government’s treatment of his people, the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group which has long complained about being marginalized.   According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since November.  For months, Oromos have been using the same "X" gesture that Lilesa, 26, used at the finish line.  He did not return to Ethiopia with the rest of his teammates, saying that he was afraid that the government would imprison him or execute him. He is concerned for his wife and children, for other relatives already imprisoned. [5]

Consider Jesus who endured such hostility, and do not lose heart.”

There are so many important, inspiring, great stories from the Olympics.  Just as for the readers of Hebrews, there were so many great stories from their history.  This is the end of a long roll call of faith heroes, people who did amazing things. 

 I heard about a child at a Jewish preschool.  I’ll call  him Sammy.  Sammy’s father is a plastic surgeon who specializes in pediatrics.  One day at preschool, the teacher was talking about the great heroes of their faith – Moses, Samson, Joshua, Esther, and so on.  The teacher said that those heroes were like popular superheroes, like Superman.  Then she went on to say that even today we know some superheroes in our own lives, like Sammy’s dad who is a superhero because he helps children who have been hurt to be all fixed up again.  Sammy seemed very anxious about this comparison.  In a few minutes, he went up to the teacher very quietly, tugged on her arm, and in a worried voice he said, “Teacher, my Daddy can’t fly.”[6]

The danger in talking about Olympic athletes and ancient faith heroes is that we might start to think that they are different from us.  That they really can fly or that they have a super-human abundance of faith and courage and endurance.  And so, we need to remember how very human and weak and flawed, and normal these folks are.  Without naming names, I’ll just remind us that there were doping scandals and blatant sexism and very unfriendly rivalries at the Olympic games, not to mention the filing of false police reports.  The Olympic athletes are inspiring precisely because they are mere mortals like the rest of us.

And so are the Biblical heroes.  A timid Gideon required not one, but two signs from God before he took action.  Some might have considered Jepthah a great warrior, but he made a deal with the devil and exchanged his daughter’s life for a military victory. Moses was a murderer.  King David was an adulterer and a murderer.  Rahab was always known as a prostitute.

Every one of these people “had issues.”  Just like we do.  And yet they are commended for their faith.  Their lives, the good, the bad and the ugly, can inspire us.  Not because they’re perfect, but rather because they weren’t perfect and yet, they were faithful.  They kept on running the race, in spite of fear or hardship or personal failings.  And now, they are among the great cloud of witnesses.  Those in the grandstand, those on the sidelines, those waiting for us to run our race.

Did you see it in Rio?  Members of the refugee team, watching and cheering for Yusra Mardini, because who better understands the circumstances that brought her to that pool than those who have taken a similar journey.  And former Olympians, like Nadia Comenchi, watching and cheering for Simone Biles and the next generation of gymnasts.

Also there were parents and siblings, like Aly Raisman’s whose empathy was evident in every picture.  They anticipated with her, moved with her, feared for her.  They could not have been more present with her, from their place on the sidelines.  And when she could not contain tears of joy at her finish line, neither could they.

I wonder what happens at the end of the race of faith.  I wonder how often someone from the cloud of witnesses is there to coax a runner across the line, to receive them at the end of a long journey? 

It happened like this in Barcelona in 1992:

Derek Redmond is a British runner.  He is winning his semi-final heat when his hamstring tears.  He hears a popping sound and feels it go.  Just like that.   I cannot imagine.   He stops running, hops on one leg, then falls onto the track.  The EMTs start toward him.

Meanwhile, Jim Redmond, sees his son in trouble and races down from the top of the stands.  He has no credentials to be on the track, but all he can think about is getting to his son. 

As the medical crew arrives with a stretcher, Derek waves them away.  He lifts himself to his feet and very slowly, starts hobbling down the track.  The race is long over, but he’s acting like he is going to finish it.  On one leg.  In great pain.

Slowly, the crowd, in total disbelief, rises and begins to roar. The roar gets louder and louder. One painful step at a time, his face twisted with exertion and tears, Derek limps onward, and the crowd cheers him on.

Jim Redmond finally gets to the bottom of the stands, leaps over the railing, avoids a security guard, and runs out to his son. Jim reaches Derek at the final curve, about 120 meters from the finish, and wraps his arm around his waist.  "I'm here, son," he says softly, hugging his boy. "We'll finish together." Derek puts his arms around his father's shoulders and sobs. 

To the cheers of 65,000 witnesses, they finish the race.  A couple of steps before the end, Jim releases his grip so that Derek can cross the line by himself.  Then he throws his arms around Derek again and says “I’m the proudest father alive.” 

I wonder how often that happens, when runners cross the finish line of faith and take their place among the cloud of witnesses.  “I’m the proudest father alive” reminds me of “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into joy.” 

Sister and brothers, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  Let us run it together, helping each other across the finish line.  Let us run with endurance, knowing that the stakes may be high.  Let us remember the example of Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured hostility and the cross.  Knowing that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run this race.  Amen.


[1] Gary E. Peluso-Verdend et al, New Proclamation Year C: Easter through Christ the King, (Minneapolis:  Fortress, Press, 2006), pp. 168-169

[2] http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-oly-rio-2016-runners-abbey-d-agostino-nikki-hamblin-1471369602-htmlstory.html

[3] http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-oly-rio-2016-runners-abbey-d-agostino-nikki-hamblin-1471369602-htmlstory.html

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/yusra-mardini-rio-2016-olympics-womens-swimming-the-syrian-refugee-competing-in-the-olympics-who-a7173546.html

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/08/21/this-ethiopian-runner-just-won-silver-in-the-marathon-and-then-he-led-a-protest-of-his-government-that-could-land-him-in-jail/

[6] As told by Kate Matthews at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_august_14_2016