Aug. 14th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Running the race set before us. Normally, this image would evoke in me those who nobly lace up their shoes (think of the movie Chariots of Fire); or the exciting power and speed and teamwork of the relay race (think of those Olympic athletes we cheer on). This week I had a different image flash into my mind. Maybe it is because the lectionary paired it with the delightful, uplifting image of Jesus’ vision of Luke 12— all out disruption and war. The image that came to me was: high school.
Some people say that high school was the best time in their lives. I remember it as close to hell. There were the cliques that made a rigid caste system. There was the dark, scary forest of the cafeteria. But, of all the things I disliked about high school, one tops the list—The Presidential Fitness Test. This was a time, every fall when we would have to, in front of our whole gym class—see how many sit-ups we could do in a minute; see if we could do pull ups on a high bar, and the bane of my existence, run 600 meters.
I always came in last. I even spent the whole summer before my senior year, going out for runs, building up my stamina, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. It didn’t help. So the idea of running the race, if it is like the 600 meter is not one that I relish (unlike some of you—I’m thinking of you and your marathons Ozzie!).
And why is Jesus preaching such gloom and doom? This summer we have been marching our way through Jesus’ discussion of what it takes to be a disciple. We have talked about the action/compassion of the GOOD Samaritan. We have heard about the importance of sitting still at the feet of Jesus. We have lifted up Jesus’s answer to the question of prayer.
We have even spent two weeks being instructed about how to set our priorities (sharing what we have and what kind of treasure we should seek to begin with). If you were taking the course called “Discipleship: how to do it” you might feel confident that you too could walk this path, with God’s help.
And then comes this image of family being torn apart. Of chaos and the breaking of what seemed indestructible. And Jesus’ poke in the ribs that we should have seen the signs. We see them in the clouds when it is going to rain. We see them in other aspects—but now no?
Part of me wants to stand next to Peter who at another part of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus was imparting a difficult image (his crucifixion and death), Peter got into Jesus’ face and said, “That won’t happen.” And got the rebuke “Get behind me Satan.”
What welled up in me (from the running image and these words about struggle) was the idea that a life of discipleship has moments that are hard. Moments that are grueling. Moments that sap every bit of strength from you. Moments when you don’t win the battle, even less the war. Moments that will feel as bad as that 600 meter run for me. We don’t often talk about those moments of faith. Because it often doesn’t feel like faith at all. Faith is paired with hope and love. Faith is treasure after all, and treasure is something good. Treasure is something worth selling everything you have (as Jesus tells us in the parable of the wonderful pearl). The kingdom is worth your very life. You need to have positive statements to get people to follow you down that road.
But Jesus also has his eyes wide open. He can see the inevitable clashes with the powers of his day—religious and political. He wants to prepare his followers for the tough days that will lie ahead. Not just for his tough days, but after that, their tough days.
I looked up the Presidential testing on google and discovered that it was based on military training (modified, of course). It was thought, even back in the 50’s that kids were getting “soft” and needed to be prodded into battle readiness. Maybe Jesus is doing a similar thing. He knows that as faithful people we will encounter difficulties, crises of faith, life decisions, medical diagnoses, job changes, moments when our lives will be turned upside down. In other words, life isn’t a bed of roses for anyone. And followers of the way essentially paint a target on their backs (more in some times and spaces than others). But for everyone, says the writer of “Pilgrim’s progress” there are times when we sink into a “slough of dispond” (in other words, a deep bog).
Buck up, Jesus says. Don’t be surprised when the challenges come. I mean, he started out his ministry wrestling with the devil for goodness sake. I don’t know how many of us would have had the fortitude to continue after 40 days and nights of THAT. Jesus is giving us a crucial piece of information—discipleship is no walk in the park. There are times when it is a battle royal with yourself and everything and everyone around you. No wonder Paul instructs us to “Put on the armor of Christ”.
And here is where I think we have been done a disservice to our fellow followers. Jesus doesn’t mince words with us—there are enough times when he warns us. But we don’t want to hear. The church doesn’t want to hear. Even the Bible, those who wrote it and edited it, want to gloss over the tough spots. Take our reading from Hebrews this morning. It is glorious—that image of the cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before, running the race in their time, passing the baton on to us.
I didn’t read what led up to it—a recitation of some of these witnesses, and their lives of faith. Except that it is a photoshopped description. Let’s just take Abraham for example. This man of great faith (and he was that) heard God’s call to leave home and go to a distant land, and along the way there was the promise of a son. Now for those of you who have read the whole story (or at least the parts that we have) in what we call the Old Testament know that this man had large sinkholes in his great faith. Let’s just remember that Abraham didn’t trust enough that God would protect him when he went into a country, and so he married his wife (who he called his sister) to the king. And he did this more than once! Not to mention the taking of a slave woman Hagar to make sure he had the promised offspring—a scheme concocted with his wife Sara who then got so jealous that she had Hagar and Ishmael left behind in the midst of the desert with no water or food. In other words, Abraham (and Sara), for example, had moments when the race wasn’t going well, and they went off course. Why don’t we hear about that in the book of Hebrews?
I think we humans want to build up our heroes. We want them to be more than we could ever be. And that inevitably leads to heartbreak, because they are just as human as we are—with all those pesky flaws and failures. I think this is a terrible mistake: To leave out that a life of faith, a faithful life, is not clear sailing all the way. Jesus didn’t try to cover up the reality that all of us eventually live. That things happen. That we are not always going to be our best. That life isn’t always going to be following the yellow brick road. That we will face disappointment and discouragement and outright hostility and forces beyond our control as well as that all too human thing of making mistakes.
That is not the time to throw up our hands and say, I’m walking away from God. (I love the image from the PBS series “Grantchester” where the very prim and proper and always so faithful housekeeper at the rectory, Mrs. C, stomps into the church, stands at the front looking through the stained glass window and yells at God about her life. She has done everything she knows how to do, lived right, prayed. And here she gets cancer. And God has done nothing. “Since you have turned your back on me, I turn my back on you” she yells and she pivots and stomps out.). No, when the times get tough is exactly the time when we have to dig deep. That is the time to use what resources we have as we have been making ready, as Jesus commanded us to do last week.
All that exercise of faith in action, of sitting at the feet of Jesus, studying, of a strong prayer life, of mending our priorities, that isn’t for when life is going ok. It’s for when life isn’t. But we sometimes, like the writer of Hebrews, want to put our light, our life, under a bushel, to hide from others the difficulties we face, the rough spots we have fallen into, the mistakes we have made. And we miss out on the comfort others can provide. The opportunity to let others pray for us, let others carry us, let others do for us. It is a humbling experience, I know. But it brings with it an acknowledgment of the truth of life. We can’t do it all on our own. Or at least, life all alone is more shallow, and less colorful, less joyful, and less true to life as a disciple.
I wonder, How different would that 600 meters have been for me if it hadn’t been an individual race, where you got scored on how fast you ran compared to everyone else? What would it have felt like if I had been able to run in a pack, urged on by those who felt strong in that moment, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses instead of feeling so alone?
Running. There is a race set before us. I see the clouds gathering on the horizon for our country. I know there are those who are battered by storms in their own lives, right now. Jesus knew days, times like this would come. He didn’t promise what the outcome would be. He gave us a blueprint to fall back on. But we need to remember the fundamentals he has been teaching us about how to live our lives.
--Holding onto our faith and hope while being active in fixing our world.
--Being honest with one another about our struggles and temptations as well as our successes and accomplishments.
--Choosing our treasure wisely.
--Clinging to the promises we have been given:
that we are beloved,
that God is right beside us, no matter what,
and that, in the light of eternity, God’s kin-dom, God’s realm, God’s vision shall become reality.
In the meantime, let us get our faith ready, let us clothe ourselves with Christ, and let us grip tightly the hands of our brothers and sisters, here with us now, (as well as those from the past—that great cloud of witnesses) and run the race
not the one we choose,
but the one set before us.
With God’s help, may it be so. Alleluia, Amen.