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Sermon for Ordinary 20 - Proper 15 - Year C
Hebrews 12:1-2,12-17
"Keep It Going"
- Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett -

READING:  Hebrews 12:1-2,12-17 
SERMON :  "Keep It Going"

Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett

    The following is another in our summer series of guest sermons.
    Rev. Ross Bartlett is an United Church of Canada clergy person 
    located in Halifax, NS.  This sermon was first shared on our site 
    in 1998 while Ross was located in Kingston, Ontario.  Ross first 
    preached this sermon in 1992 - hence the Olympic References.  
    These illustrations can be easily modified.

I imagine that, over the last couple of weeks, most of us have seen at
least some portion of the Olympic Games.  I didn't catch very much of the
Games but one image that sticks with me is that of the women's marathon. 
For those of you who missed it, these women ran something like 29 miles in
80 degree heat.  But that wasn't all.  The first 24 or so miles were
relatively simple - please note the word relatively.  But to get to the
finish line they had to run up a mountain, after already having run those
24 miles.  Penny and I kept looking at one another asking, "what makes
someone do that?"  But that event put me in mind of another occurence a few
years ago at the Boston Marathon where a woman by the name of Ruiz cheated. 
At least most people think she cheated.  I remember an NBC reporter
sticking a microphone in her face and saying, "M'am, you're either the
fastest runner in the world, or you are a fraud.  Can we talk?"
Do you ever feel like a fraud?  Ever felt that way?  Ever felt that somehow
you've gotten into the wrong place at the wrong time and if people could
really see inside you and know the struggles that you have they wouldn't
show the kind of confidence that they seem to?  If you've never felt like a
fraud you should try doing why I do for a living.  After all, you know
something about yourself, you know about the trouble you're having with
other people or relationships or the questions you're struggling with.  And
there are all these people expecting that you're going to help them find
some word of hope and light for their lives.  That it works, as often as it
does, is one of the surest evidences I know of for the grace of God.
But I think we all struggle with life from time to time.  Sometimes we
don't feel as good, or as clean or as true as we do at other times.  We all
have high and low moments in life.  Sometimes when we see the looks of love
or trust or expectation that others send our way - spouses or children,
employees, friends we may feel like frauds, unable to live up to their
expectations.  And we don't always react well to that.  When it feels like
we're losing control of the situation or everything's changing on us we
sometimes react with misplaced anger, violent words and deeds which are out
of place or we sink into depression and despair.  Well, this morning I hope
to give you (and me) a reminder of some things that may help when it seems
like our race in life is turning into a fraud; or when we've stumbled and
we aren't sure how to get back up; things we can use instead of
inappropriate anger or despair.
Throughout scripture you'll find imagery that reflects an athletic
competition.  It's quite common for various writers to compare our lives
with various events in the stadium.  But here, in Hebrews 12, you find an
image that doesn't occur anywhere else.  Our reading begins "therefore". 
It's a good general principle when you're reading your bible and run across
the word "therefore" to go back and find out what the "therefore" is there
for.  And what do we discover?  The writer is referring to that roll call
of the saints that we looked at last week.  A whole lot of people who stood
up and kept going in faith.  That's what the "therefore" refers to - their
faithfulness, their steadfastness in the life of faith.  Remember what we
said last week:  the measurement is faithfulness, not success.  That's very
important.  The other interesting thing about this passage is that the
author is focussed, not on the field, but on the stands.  And the imagery
at this point is of Moses and Miriam, Jeremiah and Abraham and Sarah and
Rahab and Jacob in the stands, cheering us on.
Remember who some of these people were.  We talked last week about Rahab. 
Jacob was a liar, a man you wouldn't put in your business, a man you
probably wouldn't want as a friend.  Jacob is in the stands saying, "I know
how guilty you sometimes feel.  Keep going."  Moses is there.  Remember
Moses, he didn't want to have anything to do with God, kept making up
excuses to avoid going to Pharoah.  Moses is there too, saying: "I know
what it feels like when you think you're inadequate for the job.  You don't
have the words and you don't have the energy.  But keep going."
And the crowd in the stands doesn't end with the bible.  The saints and
martyrs and believers of the church.  They're all there.  Mary and Martha,
Chrysostom and Augustine, Martin Luther and Julian of Norwich, Suzanna
Wesley and John Wesley.  So the first point that I think may help you is
this: the principle of historical affirmation.  Don't forget the past, the
people who have kept the faith in difficult circumstances; the people who
have found the inspiration to keep going when it was tough.  Don't forget
the past, it will help you in the future.
A second  point is choice of focus.  When the writer of Hebrews uses the
word "looking to Jesus" it doesn't just mean glancing at something.  There
are any number of Greek words that could be used here.  But this specific
word means that, although you're aware of other distractions, you choose to
look directly, to look intently at something in particular.  The writer of
Hebrews is suggesting that we should choose to look at Jesus.
There was once a king who decided to hold a great race.  And all the young
men of the kingdom entered.  The course began and ended in the king's
courtyard and the prize was a bag of gold.  As they ran the race the
runners were surprised to find a great pile of stones blocking their way,
but they managed to climb over or around it.  Finally all the runners but
one had crossed the finish line but still the king did not end the race. 
Finally a lone runner stumbled through the gate.  "I'm sorry I'm late, O
king, but you see I discovered this pile of rocks in the road" and here he
held up a bleeding hand, "and I injured myself removing them.  But O king",
and here he held up the other hand, "underneath I found this bag of gold." 
"You have won the race", said the king, "for that one runs best who makes
the way safe for others."
That's the reason for "keeping our eye on Jesus, the author and perfecter". 
For he has run the race too.  Choosing how we live can make a great deal of
difference.  Now I'm obviously not talking about pathological depression
for which professional help is needed.  I talking about the choices we can
all make.  Simple ones.  You can choose to wake up and say "Good morning
Lord" or "Good Lord, it's morning".  Makes a big difference.  You can avoid
the places, situations and people that get you into trouble or cause you to
do things that you feel guilty for afterwards.  Try, if you can, to cut
down on the number of things on which your honour depends or which cause
you to get your shirt in a knot or which set off your fuse.  Don't set
yourself up for failure.  For example, we've learned that with a two-year
old in tow things just don't happen as quickly as they used to.  Some
seniors tell me that as the years pass they don't move as quickly.  We can
do one of two things.  We can get annoyed and depressed at ourselves or we
can learn to allow more time, or to expect fewer accomplishments in a given
period of time.  Another aspect of our choice is to remember that it is
your race through life; your race of faith.  The worst thing you can do is
look over at someone else's race and envy them, either for their prestige
or apparent ease - it's your race.
A third point is that of divine precedent.  Hebrews 4:15-16 says of Jesus,
that he can sympathize with our weaknesses because he was like us, tempted
in all things, yet without sin.  With this fact in mind we know that the
one on whom we focus not only has been there before but understands what we
are going through when we bring our struggles and our failures, as well as
our joys and successes to him.  That's what the Incarnation is all about. 
As C.S. Lewis put it, God entered time and space on this planet that Jesus
might walk our roads as we must, be lonely as we must, be tempted as we
must, die as we must.  Jesus came, not just to keep you from being lonely
but to feel lonliness as you know it; not just to keep you from being
afraid but to know the fear we feel; not just to keep you from dying but to
die as you and I must die.
During the 1968 Olypmics in Mexico City a few thousand spectators remained
in the Olympic Stadium waiting for the last of the men to finish the 28
mile marathon run.  An hour earlier Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia had crossed the
finish line looking as fresh as when he started out.  Since then the
runners had come in, each looking worse than the previous one, to be carted
off to the first aid station.  As the fans were get ready to leave they
heard from the marathon gates the sound of sirens and police whistles.  A
lone runner, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania was the last man to finish
the race.  His leg bloodied and bandaged he winced visibly at every step as
he hobbled the 400 meter circuit around the track.  The spectators rose and
applauded him as if he were the winner.  Crossing the finish line he walked
slowly off the field without even acknowledging the cheering crowd.

In view of his injury and having no chance to win a medal someone asked
him why he bothered to finish the race.  Why didn't he just quit?  He
replied: "My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race.  They
sent me 7,000 miles to finish it."  Akhwari knew for whom he was running. 
He knew that it was important for all those people who were counting on him
that he finish well.  He didn't have to win; he didn't even have to place. 
But he knew for whom he was running and that kept him going when every
logic of the world said quit.
Can I ask you this morning, "who are you running for?"  What is it that
keeps you going in the race of life?  Chances are, if you're only running
for yourself you'll be tempted to quit in those painful stretches.  Jesus
who has run the race before us, runs it now with us.  With all who will
accept his companionship and help.  And thousands upon thousands of the
great and the small, the famous and the unknown of Christ's people fill the
stands, urging us on, willing us to complete the course we have started. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen

copyright - sermon by Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett 1992, 1998-2004
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 1998 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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