Finishing the Race

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.

I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal.

Indeed, only a handful of runners who entered, say, the Hartford Marathon a couple weeks ago had any chance of actually winning the race. The vast majority of runners simply tried to finish the race. Twenty-six point two (26.2) miles stretched ahead of them, and their goal was to cross the finish line; the number of people who crossed ahead of them mattered not at all.

I love this about marathons. Not enough to want to train for one, mind you, but the fact that all but .001 percent of runners couldn’t care less about winning makes the race about something other than competition. It makes the race about committing to practice, striving to be your best, and then running at your own pace, perhaps with a friend beside you so you can support each other during the tough miles.

Sounds like the life of faith, doesn’t it? It should. In today’s letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul uses the image of the race to speak about his walk with God. Looking back over his life, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

I have finished the race. Notice that Paul does not say that he won the race. Even Paul, who we might be tempted to put in that elite class of runners, has no illusions about the race he has been running. The life of faith is not a race that can be won. It is only a race that can run.

This stands in stark contrast to most things in our lives. Most things can be reduced to competition in some way, shape, or form. Jobs often turn into a competition, which revolves around climbing the corporate ladder, instead of simply focusing on doing good work. School becomes about GPA and class rank, instead of simply learning for learning’s sake. Even relationships can turn into competitions, especially when arguments devolve into defending a position at all costs. Too often, such behavior makes one member of the couple feel like a winner and one a loser. But in truth, both lose.

Then there’s the election going on right now – a zero-sum competition, if I’ve ever seen one. The baseball playoffs are heading towards the World Series; the Red Sox felt the painful nature of knockout competition quickly this year, sad to say. And of course, we have the concept upon which we base the theory of evolution – survival of the fittest, a competition which leads some creatures to thrive and others to fade towards extinction.

We are so surrounded by the the fervor and omnipresence of competition that it would be so easy to slot our Christian lives into that same space. We could easily compare ourselves to other Christians; we could easily fall into the trap that the Pharisee in the Gospel falls into and see ourselves as better than others because we tick a certain checklist of Christian boxes.

But Paul’s words to Timothy tell a different story. I have finished the race. There’s nothing about winning in Paul’s summary of his walk with God. There is no way to win this particular race. There are elite marathoners, but there is no such thing as an elite Christian. We’re all just folks, and God loves us anyway.

If Christianity, the life of faith, following Jesus – call it what you will – is not about competition, is not about winning, then what is it about? Here we can take a page from the marathoners like my friend Jeremy who are just trying to finish the race in a time they set for themselves. Our race is about committing to practice, striving to be our best, and then running at our own pace, perhaps with a friend beside us so we can support each other during the tough miles.

Marathoners go on increasingly longer and longer runs while they train, and they do so over a period of time. They dedicate themselves to this practice in order to be their best on race day. In the same way, we engage in Christian practices in order to see, name, and celebrate God’s presence in our lives and the life of the world. We read the Bible, we pray, we gather to worship, we go out to serve. This is our practice for the race that we are always running, truly the race of a lifetime.

Marathoners strive to be their best, not to win, but to challenge themselves. In the same way, we strive to be the best versions of ourselves because that is the version God designed us to be. When we live from this place of authenticity, when we allow our God-given identities to shine out from our souls, then we blaze with God’s fire, we become beacons of God’s love to a hurting world.

Marathoners run at their own pace, often running with a friend whose speed matches their own. In the same way, we follow Jesus together. We find others whose feet are marching down the same path as ours; we support each other during the tough miles; we take the uphill climbs as one, encouraging each other to reach the top even when we don’t think we can run another step. We finish the race together. And together we discover Jesus has been running beside us all the time, matching our pace.

“I have finished the race,” says Paul to his friend Timothy. These words are neither boast nor brag. They are the same words my friend Jeremy and so many other runners say after 26.2 miles. And when they say these words, they shine. There was no competition. There was just a long jog that ends with a feeling of contentment, a feeling of peace, a feeling of joy. Thanks be to God.

* Ten points to the first person who finds the reference to Joss Whedon’s universe in this sermon.

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