Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost – John Brittingham
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Like most middle-class Americans, I harbor questions about my physical appearance, guilt about my eating habits, and perpetual questions about whether or not these jeans make my thighs look fat. And like many others, I have had the kind of abusive, on-again-off-again relationship with exercise that makes for the best Lifetime Television for Women Movies (The Devil and Diet Soda or maybe Treadmill of Death 2: Born to Run).
See, I used to think that I was allergic to running. It wasn’t that I didn’t like running or that I thought it was hard. It was simply that I was allergic. And like most good nerds with allergic reactions to pretty much everything, I puffed on my proverbial inhaler and stayed inside to read.
I had seen what running did to people. It raised their heart rate. It made them sweat. It made them wear weird things like synthetic, reflective clothing and sneakers so colorful they’d make the Amish blush. I had seen running, and I chose to stay inside and read.
But something changed for me. I felt the need to run. The need to get over that allergy to an elevated heart rate and sweat and actually move myself. Perhaps it was the thought that I’ll be 30 in October and that I’m supposed to do adult things now (whatever that means) like take care of myself. Perhaps it was spending a summer in Georgia where I had to walk everywhere and getting used to such locomotion. Whatever the reason or cause, I started running. I started dealing with the elevated heart rate, with the sweat, and even with the overly complicated single-purpose running shoes and weird clothing.
I say all of this because our Epistolary reading for today includes one of those great “Christian athlete” verses about running the race before us with perseverance and winning a prize or something. Maybe Gatorade. One can imagine, at this point, the endless iterations of running or tackling or jumping or hustling or breast-stroking (as it were) one’s way to the heavenly prize of good sportsmanship or community or something like that. For some, biblical coaching techniques might be what is needed to get over the hump (although we’ve got Tim Tebow as a great counter example) or get one out of thinking that they’re allergic to exercise and actually start running. But for others, it might be the case that such biblical admonitions are more of a turn off, the kind of pithy colloquialism that gets little more attention than an “ah yes” or a raised eyebrow.
I can really identify with that last part. Much of life in our little corner of Christendom, or what’s left of it, is filled with pithy admonitions towards spiritual living so trite and kitschy that it ends up being the religious equivalent of complicated workout shoes and unseemly spandex accoutrements. And our corner of the universe is also one that prizes intellectual accomplishment, cognitive achievement, and well-worded recollections of spiritual contemplation over the activities of the body. If you’re good at those things, or at least adequate, you can very easily justify an allergy to otherwise than cognitive activity as the necessary cost of intellectual excellence. And, if you surround yourself with big brains and soft bodies, it can be especially hard to see running as anything worthwhile when your peers are not doing it.
But this is the beauty of this famous passage from Hebrews. The author tells us that this need to run and run well is not something we do on our own. No, the author of Hebrews tells us, we run the race because we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are a part of a larger story, a history of those who persevered.
The passage begins with an explanation of how the great deeds of all those saints gone before were accomplished. “By faith”, the author of Hebrews tells us, “the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.” By faith the walls of Jericho fell after 7 days of circling the city. And by faith Rahab was saved because she helped some Hebrew spies in their clandestine activities. The names could go on and on, listing every great biblical hero to ever cling to a Sunday School felt board. This, it seems, is the point. It is by faith that these saints conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
You can practically see the spirit-filled coach pacing in front of his young charges, playbook rolled in his hand and shouting, “You just gotta believe!” But here’s one of the things about this catalogue of Great Hebrew Men and Women–who they are and what they did is so very intimidating. I mean, the writer of Hebrews says that, “of them, the world was not worthy.” How do you even begin to measure up to that?
Measuring up is something that I think about a lot with running. For the longest time, it seemed like the only people who would go running were either waifishly thin cross country types, yoga moms, or 40something dads dressed up like coaches. I didn’t see people who looked like me exercising in public. I mean, how many yoga moms do you see running and your first thought is “I wonder what chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow she’s listening to today?” It’s just as bad if you go to the Annex. There, the only people you see are student athletes and old people. Basically, you can’t go inside to workout or go outside to work out without feeling thoroughly embarrassed by Sports Dads and Old people. Why even start when you’re just going to look like a doof?
The same seems to be true of faith. When we’re surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, able to leap tall buildings in a single faithful bound, it can be so very intimidating that you don’t even want to start. But then, as I was reading this passage this week, a thought occurred to me. Even Moses had to take a break so he could have a wee. Rahab probably had bad hair days. The priests probably got chided every now and again for passing gas in the temple. These people were far more ordinary than we might think. Faith might not be this great goal towards which we strive heroically. It might actually be something like simply getting off of one’s posterior and walking to the store instead of driving for 2 minutes. Faith might be more like realizing that nobody looks good in spandex and old t-shirts and that even the most Adonis-like people smell like a stinky armpit after working out. Faith might be something much more like Bill Murray’s famous line in What about Bob?, “Baby steps off the bus, baby steps across the street, baby steps onto the porch.” Maybe faith is making yourself available to the embarrassment of doing what God calls us to do…presumably going around closing the gaping mouths of lions.
Perhaps making yourself available for what God calls you to do is what throwing off every weight and the sin that clings so closely means. It seems like the sort of thing that any reasonable person would do–purging oneself of every hindrance. If you’re running, you’re not going to throw on a pair of jeans and work boots and fill a backpack with books. You’re also not going to eat a steak and drink half a gallon of milk. No, reasonable people put on something loose and light and some overly-complicated sneakers and then maybe drink some water and stretch. All of this, however, is predicated upon the recognition of two things: What is weighing us down and what kind of race we are running.
Keeping light and loose seems like it should be obvious and in the spiritual realm (to use Kierkegaard’s terms–you didn’t think we could talk about faith at St. Paul’s without mentioning Kierkegaard, did you?) one can run through any number of checklists about what not to do when running the spiritual race (don’t get credit cards, go to community college, only listen to Christian music, don’t own headphones, etc.). If you’re running a particular kind of race–say, a spiritual scavenger hunt–then these checklists seem like a good idea. But if you’re not running a spiritual scavenger hunt, if say, you’re just trying to live in love and peace with your neighbors, then paying attention to all of these do’s and don’ts is rather tedious. Worse, it might be wrong.
Too often in the Christian life, it seems like we fall back upon commonly accepted understandings of what and what does not constitute a sin or a hindrance in our run of life. Too often, we look to socially accepted interpretations of the values exemplified by Jesus and not to Jesus himself. What type of life did he live? What kind of race was he running? I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t shop ‘til you drop. For Jesus, the perfecter of our faith, his race ended with nothing less than a cross. It hurt, man. Far more than any spiritual scavenger hunt would. But Jesus knew the race he was running. He didn’t merely state conventional wisdom wrapped up in pithy phrases. He said things like, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Things that hurt. Things that demand we pay attention to more than just what conventional wisdom would dictate.
Knowing the kind of race we’re running means thinking about why we’re running, where we run, and where we’re running to. More often than not, it appears to me that people are chiefly concerned with what they’re running from, namely, age and eventually death. We run from suffering, from the fact of wrinkles, gray hair, and saggy bodies. I mean, c’mon, we’re Americans (most of us), this is what Americans do. So we obsess about the right overly complicated shoes (New Balance, because I hear they’re made in the States) to go with our specially designed socks (some guy in North Carolina developed these special organic cotton socks that actually turn sweat into kinetic energy) and our level of carefully sculpted beauty. We run from the fact of our own finitude (Heidegger in a sermon, God forbid).
We run from it and, like good Americans, we try to buy our way out of it. So knowing what kind of race we’re running and what is actually hindering us can oftentimes look very similar to the attempt to be good, ethical people. To be obsessive about running in a very bourgeois way (i.e., specialty socks and complicated running shoes) is to be complicit in the kind of race that hinders all of us. This is not to say that one, I am exempting myself from such complicity—far from it—or two, this means we shouldn’t run at all (run used here in both literal and figurative senses). What I’m trying to say is that we need to pay far more attention to the kind of race we’re running, to the conventions we’re embracing, to the structures that govern the where’s and why’s of our life’s running.
This is what is so striking about Jesus’s final lines in the Gospel reading for today: His beef with us is that we’ve not been paying attention. We say things that are true but meaningless. Simple facts that do not matter to us. We cling to conventions because the hard work of paying attention is demanding. Thus, we don’t know how to interpret the times we live in. We don’t know how to see what kind of race we’ve been running.
This is also why the example Jesus set for us is so important. Convention is comforting until the world changes around you and you’re running in work boots when you should be in cross-trainers. The example Jesus sets for us is one of enduring the suffering of the cross, disregarding the shame of it, and finding his rightful place at God’s right hand. The path we follow is one where we have to endure the metaphorical suffering of metaphorical elevated heart rates and metaphorical sweat, disregarding the shame of ugly gym shorts and cheeky t-shirts, and finding our place in the race set before us. We are called to run, allergies be damned, called to endure, called to disregard shame. But we are also called to find our place, find our way out of complicity in the conventional races of the time and run with perseverance the race God has set before us.