Winning. How many witticisms surround the idea of winning. Long before Charlie Sheen tried to trademark the word, it had well invaded our social consciousness. Winning isn’t the most important thing; it is the only thing. As a society, we place great stock in winning. Think of the scandals playing out in baseball right now. How many of the players who took the punishment from MLB are really ashamed by their actions? How many are going to pay any significant penalty for their willingness to cheat? How many Brewer fans will feel dirty if Braun leads them to a World Series in the years to come? I realize the Yankees are the Devil’s team (yes, I married into a Red Sox family), but is any Yankee fan wanting to distance themselves from the World Series Win A-Rod helped secure, a World Series in which he was the MVP? What if he comes back and leads them deep into the playoffs this year? I understand, they will rue that $136 million they still owe him in the years to come, but few Yankees fans will be clamoring for the team to vacate any of its victories.
Wanna talk football? This being Big Ten country, we have no respect for the bending of the rules that occur Southeast of here, do we? I mean, our athletes all go to class, they never sell gear for money or tattoos, and we are absolutely shocked to learn that they have lived a life of privilege. I mean, they are never supposed to get arrested when they do things they shouldn’t, right?
Well, at least Track and Field is clean, right? Unless you are paying close attention, you may not be aware of the number of Americans who were caught cheating on the Blue Track in Des Moines at the National Championships a few weeks ago. They all apologized. I have not heard that Nike or Adidas dropped any of them as sponsors. Maybe those decisions are to come . . . or not.
Thank God we still have cycling! At least we have one clean sport, right?
And if we are going to talk winning and winners, we also have to think in terms of losers. For every victor, there is a loser. For every “mentally tough” player or team, there is someone or a team that “choked” or came up short. For every Steeler or Cowboy dynasty there is a Vikings or Bills team regretting failure. For every Cardinal World Series win, there is a Cubs season. For every Michael Johnson, there is a Mary Decker.
People are laughing, but it is a rueful laugh, is it not? We recognize that society cares more about winning than anything else. The athletes and their teams have figured this out as well. They apologize for “lapses in judgements” or “not following the rules to the letter” or “not paying close attention to what was entering their bodies.” The press pays attention for a few days and moves on, and we forget and forgive, and cheer when they get back on the stage. And we wonder why more than two million high school athletes admitted to using PEDs. We wonder why there are cheating scandals in academics. The youth watch us adults and see us cheering every effort to succeed. It is no small wonder if they engage in cheating. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Not surprisingly, our message in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not so much concerned about winning. It is, instead, more concerned with enduring or persevering. We talked last week about the fact that Sarah and Abraham did not inherit the fullness of God’s promises in this life. In fact, they died before their family really swelled in terms of numbers and before they came to possess the Land. Had Abraham been able to look a couple generations into the future, one wonders what he would have thought about his family, numbering about seventy, heading to Egypt and slavery. Uhm, Lord, the Land that you promised is behind them--they are going out of the Land You promised. I know, his faith would likely have caused him still to trust God, but it reminds us of the twists and turns his family faced waiting on God to honor His promise.
The author continues to remind us of the pitfalls of life in the midst of faith. The generation that saw the Sea parted and the Egyptian army consumed never inherited the Land. Samson did not live to see the havoc he wrested upon the Philistines when God granted him that last breath of strength. Barak, a man whom we should credit as being an inspiring military fighter in Israel’s history, perhaps second only to David, and who secured about forty years of peace for Israel by killing Sisera, lost his opportunity for glory because he trusted Deborah rather than God. Lucy for him, she was appointed judge by God. Gideon could have fit in here well. To say that he felt unworthy to be called a mighty warrior is a gross understatement. And, he fathered a son on a concubine who would later kill all seventy of his half-brothers in a short, successful attempt to rule.
I could go on and on, but you should begin to get the idea now. Life is often hard. Life often testifies that God is not in control. Unnamed saints in our letter today were tortured and ridiculed. As we reminded ourselves last week, part of the reason that we gather and celebrate what we Anglicans/Episcopalians call the liturgy of the Word is to remind ourselves of those who have come before. Each of those named by this author experienced some blessings from God. Sarah and Abraham experienced wealth and a son. Noah was saved during the flood. Rahab recognized that Yahweh truly was God, but prior to her deliverance at the hands of Israel, she never turned aside from her work as a prostitute. On this side of the grave, as the author reminds us, we get only a partial experience of God’s blessings.
You and I know this. How many of us in desperate need of provision have received a miraculous provision? Perhaps the provision itself was not noteworthy, but the timing was! How many of us have experienced healing after a serious battle with disease? We have a number of cancer survivors among us. Is there any disease that terrifies us more than cancer? Yet some among us are sought out as drivers by doctors and the staffs for those patients without drivers or means simply because we can testify that one can be healed of that dreaded disease. Anybody here know any addicts that have been given the strength and grace to avoid the alcohol or drugs or whatever that caused them to risk everything? How many of us have been in relationships where repentance, true amendment of life, led to restoration of broken relationships? How many of us were the ones who needed to repent to allow the healing of those relationships to begin? Like the lives of those about whom we read when we gather around this table, our stories help others see God at work in the world around them.
This is not easy work. This is hard work. Paul calls it in His letters a struggle, a straining. The author of the Epistle likens it to a long race. If this author was a companion of Paul, he or she would have been reminded that our lives in faith are like marathons. I don’t know about you, but the thought of running a marathon is unappealing, to say the least. I get a taste of the struggle, the pain, the hurt associated with such an expenditure of energy in my longer rides, but I am constantly impressed by friends and even our bishop, who tackle long runs with excitement. If Paul were on earth today, I have no doubt he’d give me a Gibb’s-slap to the back of my head reminding me that such is the way we are called to live our lives of faith--with excitement, with an expectation of a runner’s high, and with determination. Certainly our author would agree with that last bit.
Faith requires determination; our author terms it persevering. It requires picking up the foot and putting it down again. That’s all we do--pick up our foot and take another step. If you have been out walking or running or bicycling the last few weeks, you may have noticed that someone or someones have been marking distances and directions on the roads around the Quad Cities. Somebody has been marking the trail to be followed. My guess is that it is for those who take their training seriously and want to practice running the race that they will run next month, someone is teaching them the path. Runners are trusting that the ones marking know the route and the distance. As we reminded ourselves in the Collect for this week, we, too, are trusting that we are following the right path. How do we know that we are? Because Jesus has marked the path for us! He has, to extend the metaphor, run ahead of us and now waits at the finish line encouraging us on, blazing a trail that we can follow!
And it is a difficult race in which we are competing. This race which we run is both an individual effort but also a kind of relay. Right now, you and I carry the baton of faith. We face life and all its vicissitudes carrying that baton that has been passed to us by the generations that came before us. And we carrying it knowing that others will come after us. At some point, assuming our Lord does not return before then, we will pass that baton to the next generation of faith. Our witness, our faithfulness will cause others to participate with us. They will share with those coming after them how our perseverance, our determination to follow the Lord, inspired them and led them to join this race.
Better still, as we are running, there is a crowd cheering for us! If you have ever played a sport, you know the lift that comes from cheers of the crowd. Commentators call it a home-field advantage. As you and I are running this race, those who run with us and those who came before cheer us on. Those who have reached the finish line want us all to join them! There is no hope that we pull a hammie or sprain an ankle. There is no secret hope that we will fail. As much as we are inspired by their witness, this cloud of witnesses is encouraging us. Their stories of perseverance, just like a crowd’s cheer for the home team, inspires us to endeavors seemingly beyond us. We hear their stories and realize that they are really not much different from us. What truly separated them from the world around them was their unwillingness to quit. Like us, they were called to a persevering faith, a faith unwilling to give up on the Lord because He never gave up on us! And so, determinedly, they lived the lives to which their Lord called them.
And waiting at this finish line, in the midst of the cheering crowd, is the Lord. Jesus has completed this race already. As we cross that finish line we call death and pass from glory into glory, He stands there ready to congratulate us, to hug us, and to give us His winning time! Perhaps an easy way for us to understand imputation of His righteousness is to think in terms of sports. He posted the winning time, and He assigns that time to us. His gold medal becomes our gold medal; His world record time is assigned to us! It is a gold medal or world record which is shared by all who entered the race. Thanks to His effort, we are all winners precisely because He won this race that was set before Him. He perfected our faith. Where we stumbled, He strode confidently; where we gasped for air, He experienced the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and where we are tempted to give up because of the pain, He refused to surrender and struggled even to the point of sweating blood. And like a proud parent or great coach, He stands at the finish line ready to congratulate us, ready to embrace us and celebrate our determination. He does not praise us for winning; He praises us only for enduring! Well done, good and faithful servant.
Knowing the struggle that is still before you, aware of the and agony through which you must still pass through as a marathon runner does the “wall,” how do you train and prepare yourself for the road ahead? Is gathering with other men, women, and youth of faith something you try to work into your schedule? Is the study of that cloud of witnesses who have come before you one of those things you “will get around to, one of these days?” Seeing how the author describes the life of faith, why are we complacent not to “train” properly for the obstacles and experiences we know we will face? Is it hubris, pride? Is it the Midwestern work ethic in us gone a bit bad, subverting us into thinking that we can somehow affect our salvation? Or have we, like the world around us, come to place too much emphasis on winning? Have we forgotten that our Lord asks us only to endure faithfully, trusting that He will see us through life’s snares, the traps of the Enemy, and even the shadow of death? Brothers and sisters, as we ponder that question and consider whether to take yet another step toward that finish line and toward our Lord, pause for a moment and listen for the cheering. Our Lord, and all those whom He has saved, are excited that you have joined the race. He and they long for us all to swell the throng and cheer those that follow on to that line as well. And here’s, perhaps, the most radical understanding of our author’s point today: nobody has to lose! When we compete in this world, there are winners and there are losers. In our race to the Lord, though, there are no losers, only victors and saints. How will you finish this race? Uplifted by Him and that crowd, soon to swell its throng? Or will you risk failing to finish on your own?