Preached by Canon Richard Lindley, using Hebrews 12.1-17, at Mattins on Sunday 12th August 2012, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.
And so the amazing Olympics draw to a close, and the Paralympics soon begin. What success and triumph there has been.
Imagine being a competitor. 80,000 spectators look on. You’ve trained hard, with early rising, exercising, and running every day. Now, stripped and ready, the moment has come. Your eyes are set on the end of the course. The pistol is fired, and you’re off. The crowds roar their support, the race ends, and – winner or not – you know you’ve done your best and run your heart out. Especially with delightful people like Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, who’ve raced the race, who’ve done their best, and who’ve won. But also the other athletes, like the hapless Bulgarian hurdler who fell at the first fence and rejoices in the name of Vania Stambolova.
So how more topical can we get than with this morning’s New Testament reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews? It could have been specially chosen for the Olympics, which it wasn’t, since it’s part of the continuous cycle of readings in the lectionary.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 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 as pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . ..
The writer, who was probably not St Paul, despite the ascription in the Authorised Version, was probably writing to an educated group of Jewish Christians, most likely in Rome, between spates of persecution in the first century. The great cloud of witnesses, or spectators, is the numerous believers whose faith has led to persecution or death, and we can take it to refer to all those who’ve suffered similarly over the centuries and still do in some parts today. The stadium is full of them – 80,000 and more. We are the competitors, and our efforts are under their scrutiny, and hopefully win their applause.
But, even though conscious of our audience, we can’t afford to look around to wave to our friends. Our eyes will remain fixed on the target – on Jesus, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’, who has run the race with grace and aplomb and won the ultimate medal.
But first we have to strip off. It’s no good trying to run with an overcoat on, or even a summer track suit – though we can rejoice that one or two Muslim women have made a good showing in these Olympics in their all-over attire. But ‘lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely’ says the writer.
British Cycling’s ‘margin gains team’, as they are called, have the job of checking every detail. They’ve even been weighing the sweat in cyclists’ shorts to try and find a way to eliminate extra weight. So the challenge for our Christian lives is to assess what is surplus to our requirements and holding us back, little things as well as obvious things.
Is it, for instance, an over-attachment to money and an unwillingness to share? Perhaps you know the story of St Lawrence, whose day was yesterday. A deacon in the church in Rome in the 3rd century, he was faced with a demand from the Roman prefect to hand over the Church’s treasures. His response? He assembled the city’s poor, and announced, ‘These are the Church’s treasure’. It infuriated the prefect, and cost him his life, roasted alive on a grid-iron. But at least he had his Christian priorities right. The poor came before wealth.
Or could it be that what is weighing us down is some old resentment we secretly enjoy wheeling out from time to time, to comfort ourselves, or even to recite to other people? Is it time to move on?
Canon Michael, in this month’s Newsletter, writes:
Cutting loose from anything we do not need can be painful and sacrificial. But it is always necessary. That may mean something about the past that we have not resolved. It might mean particular status we have never achieved or once had. It might also mean someone we have tried to love and never quite reached. We need to travel light. Any other way slows us down and makes the final destination a vision we shall never achieve. What needs to go? With God’s help, make the change. The feeling will more certainly be of release. Going forward, we have more energy and determination.
And so, as we strip off, the race begins.
Of course,for some athletes it will be in the Paralympics. The letter to the Hebrews puts it like this:
Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Healing in the 21st century can take surprising forms. What about the South African Oscar Pistorius, who is competing in both sets of games. Is it stretching things too far to suggest that, with his artificial feet and his amazing triumphs, a kind of healing is being achieved, emotional as well as physical?
In fact, some need of healing may be what many of us need. We all carry psychological, if not physical, baggage from the past. It may be from birth, or childhood, or school, or the knocks and battering of life.
This may be part of the unnecessary clothing we have to shed to race effectively. But it may also be what drives us on, as with Oscar Pistorius and the paralympians, who find ways to overcome disadvantage.
And so the race is for all of us, whether in our Olympics, or in our Paralympics, or even more modestly if you’d like to join us in the Ride and Stride walk on 8th September – see Pew News for details.
But, in one respect the imagery breaks down, because in our race there’s no single winner or even just three medallists. Some commentators have decried the over-emphasis there’s been in the Olympics on medals, especially golds. So what a delight to see Tom Daley’s huge joy at gaining a bronze in last evening’s diving. And indeed, what a triumph on the part of every athlete who even gets into the Olympics.
Similarly, in the Christian race, everyone can not only take part but can win. To win is to reach Christ, the target of our lives. His is our profound example to follow, and our aim is unity with God through Jesus – forgiveness, peace and delight.
‘But who has won?’, they all asked after the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland. The Dodo thought for a while, and at last replied, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes’.
So, the moral of my tale? We’re in the arena. We’re trained and ready. The crowds are watching and waiting to cheer. Strip off. Be healed. Follow Christ. Christ is our target, our goal, even our finishing line. You can reach him. But I say again, ‘Be healed’. The prize awaits – all golden! The ultimate prize, more important than any other.