Luke 12:49-55

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

So, more and more of you are seeing me out running these days. The long runs are the best, because they give Leanne a nice break during Ian’s naptime. They also seem to be the most noticeable to the rest of you, because they’re the ones that take me all the way out toward Mt Iron, far from my house. I have a run that long on the schedule once or twice a week from now until the beginning of October, when I’ll be running in the Whistlestop Marathon in Ashland. (The scheduling flexibility of this job is a big help when it comes to training for a marathon!) I just sent in the registration, so now it’s officially happening.

I’ve always enjoyed running, as a solo activity or with other people. I was on my high school cross country team, and I thought seriously about running competitively in college. Except for an odd couple years in divinity school, I’ve always been a runner. And a distance runner at that: I get more competitive once we get past the first three or four miles. Then again, I’ve never tried 26.2 – I’ll let you know whether I’m back down to “average” by then.

As a distance runner, when I hear the author of Hebrews tell me to “run with determination the race that lies before us,” I know what he’s talking about. He’s talking about perseverance, endurance, slogging out the miles one stretch of road at a time. There’s that saying, “life is a marathon, not a sprint.” That’s usually about pacing and not burning yourself out, but it also prompts me to do a gut check, to see if I’m really in it for the long haul. The finish line isn’t anywhere soon, so we all have to set our sights on the next landmark and run there. And then, when you get there, find the next landmark and run to it. Do that over and over for a few decades, then see where you are.

That’s exactly how I run (I’m not as thoroughly practiced about the rest of life). I pick a landmark, like a noticeable tree or a curve in the road, and I run to it. As I’m approaching the landmark, around the time I’d have to turn my head to look at it, I find another one farther down the road. By the time you get to a curve, the curve itself no longer obscures your view, and you can see ahead to the curve after that. As you approach that one, you can see farther ahead still, and so on until you get to the finish. The finish line is the only landmark you actually reach. All the others, by the time you get there, they aren’t your landmarks anymore.

“Run with perseverance the race before you.” This is the other side of what we said last week about Abraham and being content with the knowledge of God who guides and accompanies us along the way. The author of Hebrews has told us about all these amazing heroes of faith, how they trusted in the promise even without receiving for themselves what had been promised. But these examples are to keep us running, keep us moving. Never arrive at a landmark, thinking it’s the destination. The destination is always with God, always at or somewhere beyond the end of this life. All the same, we’re called to run the race. Not to teleport ourselves to the end, but to take the steps along the way by faith.

The examples, the heroes and champions of faith, are there to keep us running. They’re running alongside us, standing at the finish line or along the road to cheer us on. We’re all running this race as if on our own, but God is with us, within us and through the cheers of these many people who want us to do well. We’re not on our own after all, and it’s so much easier to keep running if you’re not on your own. Duncan kept me running when we first came to Virginia, and Ian helps me follow through on my runs now. Knowing that someone else is planning on being with you tends to improve the follow-through.

Having people cheer for you along the way helps too. Many of this “cloud of witnesses” have reached their goal ahead of us, but apparently they’ve turned right around and gone to line the course. Boy, does that help. About 80% of the way into a race, you’re in need of a pick-me-up, and having someone cheer you on can do it. It’s nice to have people you know, but course volunteers and other people’s friends can do it too. My favorite is when people stand out on the driveway in their slippers, cheering for the road race while they go out to get the newspaper. (There’s a sermon in that moment, I’m sure of it.) You’re all welcome to cheer for me on those long runs this early fall, but don’t take it personally if I’m too tired to smile and wave back. Just know that I appreciate your support as always.

When I get out on the course in October with 800 of my closest friends, I’m sure I’ll hear voices. I’ll hear some of your voices, and I’ll hear friends and family as well. I’ll hear my high school cross country coach, without a doubt. And most of those people won’t be there physically, but they’ll still be encouraging me. Just knowing that they’ve seen me run will help. Some “witnesses” are visible, and some are just there.

This is how it is with fans at a road race, and this is how it is with the saints. They’re there with us, perhaps physically but always spiritually, guiding us by their examples and supporting us with their love. They do this because, as Hebrews points out, their journey of faith is never complete until their love is poured out on the next generations. The saints show us how to run, and they encourage us as we go.

So, who are your saints? I’m thinking of specific people, not Paul’s very Protestant idea that the whole church is made up of saints. That’s fundamentally and indisputably true, of course, but Hebrews is about something more concrete. This is about the saints as “witnesses,” people who can and did testify to the way a life of faith can be lived. Figures of great spiritual power, like David and Samuel, and people who amounted to very little according to this world’s way of keeping score, but who did so faithfully. Who are those examples in your life? Who are the people who showed you what faith is? Who else, even if you never met them, has lived their faith in a way that speaks particularly to you?

I think of my great-grandmother, Beulah. We called her Grandma B. She never talked to me about faith while she was alive, but my mother has told me about how Grandma B would stand at the piano every day and pound out the old Southern gospel hymns, feeling every note from her head to her toes. She was joyful and kind to boot, but first of all she knew her God.

I think of Henri Nouwen, who left prestigious teaching positions to live with developmentally disabled adults in the L’Arche community in Toronto. He invented the term “downward mobility” to talk about how the spiritual life is to lead us into service. More than coining the phrase, he lived it.

I could think of others, but you can too. Who are your saints? Who are the people who reflect the light of God into your life in a way that shows you more clearly where you’re headed and how to get there? Speak their names, hold their images in your head, give thanks to God for them. Give thanks for this cloud of witnesses.

Amen.

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