Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 ; Hebrews 11:29-12:2
But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one. ~Brandon Sanderson, Science Fiction and Fantasy Author, his book, Oathbringer.
The metaphor of life as a race is one of the most enduring and powerful in the New Testament. It’s something most of us can understand; running is a basic human activity- although one I do not find pleasant. If you see me running in the neighborhood, you should probably start running the same direction, as I’m probably being chased.
The fun thing with metaphors is that we can play with them and learn new insights through their careful application. Although our New Testament authors often compared the trials and travails of life as a marathon, holding up perseverance as the value to be celebrated, I think this is only partly true.
I believe that scripture readings like todays from the Book of Hebrews, our history, and many of our own life experiences tell us that life is closer to a relay race. This metaphor has power because it speaks to many things we know; we do not live in isolation, we are connected, as a relay runner is, to our families, our friends, our communities, our churches, and other groups. We train together, learning from each other how to do the weird and strange and wonderful work of being alive.
The metaphor of the relay race also reminds us that our lives are connected not just to those immediately present with us in body, but also those who came before us, and those who come after us. There are generations who came before us, who paved the way for the work we do now. Perhaps we call them the ancestors who dreamed about us, the communion of the saints who join us every month at the communion table, or perhaps even in, the words of Isaac Newton, who said, “if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
This is a lesson that we forget at our own peril; the work that we are called to- the work of loving our neighbors, the work of building a just world, the work of faith, is work that started before we were born, and will continue long after we are gone. Part of our job is to, like a relay runner, receive the baton, run, and then pass it on to the next runner, the next generation.
In a world that threatens to overwhelm me consistently with the myriad problems we face, this perspective helps keep things in well, perspective. It reminds me that the work was going on before, that there is still work to do, and that it will continue after I am gone. It is not my job to save the world singlehandedly. It is my responsibility to recognize the work that has already happened, to take on the work when and as I can, and when the time comes, to pass it on to those next in line.
That sense of connection, that connection to the past and by extension, to something larger than ourselves is at the heart of our scripture readings today, especially our second one, which will be the focus of our time together.
Hebrews 11 is one of the finest chapters in the New Testament; Hebrews, as I mentioned, is more readable to us than many of the other writings in the New Testament. That’s partly because it is not a letter, like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians or the Romans, but a sermon, and given its writing style and word choice, Paul was probably not the author.
The rest of the sermon uses some imagery for Jesus that we see nowhere else in the New Testament, especially that of Jesus as the new high priest of the temple.
This section is something like a hall of fame: a list of heroes of the faith that everyone should know; in case any of those names are not familiar: Rahab sheltered Hebrew spies as they scouted the town of Jericho and is counted among Jesus’ ancestors in the Gospel of Matthew; Gideon, Barak and Jephthah were military leaders whose stories you can find in the book of Judges. I will note here Barak’s inclusion comes at the expense of Deborah, the judge he served and a rare female ruler in the Ancient Near East.
Samson was the last judge, and we should at least remember him for his hair. Samuel was the prophet who heralded David, a figure of great faith and horrible flaws; indeed, these heroes did not represent perfection, but rather courage and faithfulness. They acted with confidence- literally with faith.
For our author, these people were the ones who held the baton in the relay race and ready to pass it to us. He reminds us that they never really got to see the full measure of their work. For our author this is because the fulfillment of the Hebrew people is Jesus and they did not get to see Jesus.
I have a slightly more ecumenical view of things; the Jewish religion as practiced now is not the Christian faith without Jesus, but its own tradition that we share a common ancestor with. But the point remains, no matter your view of Jewish Christian relationships; the work of faith; of loving our neighbors, of seeking a world full of justice is never really done and fully completed.
The history of our nation and its struggle for civil and human rights tells a similar story. Some beloved figures were deeply flawed, perhaps irreparably so, either in their racism or sexism or view of the indigenous, yet they did play a part in these stories. They did run the race, and at least attempted to pass the baton.
Yet, our scripture reading reminds us of a fundamental truth about this relay race; once the baton is passed, it is ours to run. “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
Our history, our ancestors, the communion of the saints, the giants whose shoulders we stand on, are to be like comforting blanket, not a set of shackles. They inform us, they inspire us, they do not inhibit us. We are to look forward toward Jesus, not backward.
The United Church of Christ Constitution tells us that it is up to each generation to make the gospel its own. We are to look to Jesus, to inspire us to that work of faith. This reminds us that the end goal of faith is not the air conditioning in the sanctuary, even though it is the subject of many of our prayers. The end goal of faith is not the size of our bank accounts, the number of Instagram followers we have, or even the size of the church we worship at.
The goal of our faith is Jesus, and communion with him, and through that, with all of creation. Keeping our eye on the prize, seeing that end in light of our own experiences, our own ways of being in the world keeps the gospel fresh, and transforms our churches from graveyards to empty tombs.
The flip side of this, of course, is that at some time the time will come for us to pass the batons. It will be time for us to slow down, to manage the transfer of power and knowledge and leadership, so that those behind us might finish their own legs of the race.
When it is time to pass the baton, the work will not be done. Far from it. But it is not our job to finish the work of faith; we are not the saviors of the world- Jesus is. But it is our job to take on the work; loving our neighbors, making the world more just and free, and drawing closer to God. And it is also our job to pass it on. Pass it on to our descendants, that they might have their own vision of the gospel, and meet Jesus in their own ways.