“Running Through the Rivers”
Isaiah 43:1-2; Hebrews 12:1-2
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
November 5, 2017
I walked into the room and immediately began to question my choice of scripture. We were at Countryside, a nursing home where we have led monthly worship services for twenty years. I had chosen this reading from Hebrews 12, hoping my nursing home musings would inspire fresh ideas for today’s sermon on our stewardship theme, “The Giving Team.” I looked around at the fifteen women waiting for us. There were a couple in wheelchairs, one with a cane, and at least ten with walkers in front of them. I wondered how they would identify with a scripture about running a race.
I hadn’t even brought a Bible, just this scripture printed out. Short of telling Cindy Sweeney to make one up on the spot, we were stuck with it.
“So,” I asked at the beginning of my meditation, “does anyone here like to run races?” The kind-hearted lady with the thick Irish brogue laughed and answered, “Well, when we were wee ones, we would run all over the place.” I relaxed. I invited them to imagine that we were all going on a run through the woods together. They entered into the spirit of my invitation, and we laughed about rocks and forks in the road, steep mountains and water bottles.
After the service, I thought, “Well, if the Countryside congregation can leap into a pretend race, surely the Edwards Church congregation can.” So this morning, I invite you to use your imaginations for a few minutes.
Imagine that we are entered in a race, a charity event for an organization we are passionate about–an organization that values genuine inclusion, tries to break down barriers, encourages resilience and healing, cares for people in need and for the planet. We have entered this race as a team; our score will be the cumulative total of all our times. We have been training–sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups, and with the whole team once a week.
The day of the race arrives. After our yoga stretches, we set off. Of course, there are folks from other teams running too. We smile at them and then, with a little friendly competitive kick, pick up the pace.
Before long, we turn off the street onto a path through the woods. It is a beautifully maintained trail–someone spent a lot of time and effort to create it. The path has been there awhile; it has those old stone carved directional signs.
As we jog along, Buddy trips on a tree root. Fortunately, Joanne is beside him and catches him before he falls. Len is behind them and sees the whole thing, so he stops by the side of the path to point out the hazard to people running by–no matter which team they are on. He knows there is more to the race than beating his own personal best.
Newly aware of the dangers on the path, we found ourselves looking down as we run through the woods. Noah gets frustrated–what’s the point of being in the woods if we’re staring at the ground. “Look up,” he calls out. “Look at the leaves–reds and yellows and oranges.” Beth chimes in, “See how they shimmer in the sunlight.”
And so we look up. We remember why we are here. We find a new spring in our steps and, without intending to, we pick up the pace….until we come to a steep hill. A few eager racers sprint to the top; the rest of us plod along, wondering if we will ever make it.
Word spreads down the slope. At the top, we learn, Terry and Richard and Tanya have pulled energy bars out of their backpacks. They’ve handed them to the kids who raced up to the hill–Myka and Asher and Kate and Jake and David. They are passing out the bars. Spurred by the promise of renewed energy, we keep going until we reach the summit. There we savor our snack and gratefully jog ahead on blessedly flat ground.
We round a corner and come to a river. Usually it’s just a little stream. Last week’s storm, though, swelled the banks. How will we get across? After a brief community consultation, Brandon, Rick, Heather, Alexia and Kelvin, some of our tallest athletes, volunteer to wade in. They spread out along the crossing, establishing themselves as posts. The rest of the team wades in, assured we can grab hold of multiple hands along the way.
The race goes on. The sun dries our wet running shoes. Joe and Ruth and Marge and Scott are among the first to reach the finish line, but they don’t wait there. They circle back to stand along the path and cheer the rest of us on, until everyone has crossed the finish line. Imagine the feeling as you leap across that line, encouraged and supported by your friends.
We don’t know whether Team Edwards will get a trophy, for it takes awhile to tally the scores. We aren’t overly concerned, though. We understand that this race isn’t really about the finish line.
We know that the author of Hebrews isn’t talking about running a physical race. He or she is using running as a metaphor for the life of faith, lifting up the combination of exhilaration and challenge that running evokes, the need for guidance and perseverance along the way. And we are not talking today about a literal cross-country race, but a metaphor for the life of our church.
Our imagined race points to some of the essential qualities of our church. We are a team. We are not all alike and we don’t all believe exactly the same things. We do share core principles that guide our way.
This team is not only composed of the people sitting here today, but includes those who have gone before us–the saints who helped create the pathway on which we run, the cloud of witness that surround us with the wisdom they have imparted.
We help one another out–catching each other when life trips us up. We point out dangers on the path, sometimes letting go of our desire for individual achievement in order to foster the well-being of the group.
When we get caught up in the worries of life, we remind each other to look up, to open ourselves to wonder at the beauty of creation, to acknowledge our gratitude to the One who created us all.
Periodically we face a major hurdle, a river that is raging, an illness that is threatening, an injustice that is horrifying. Stopped short, we remember two promises of our faith. The first promise is that God will be with us when we pass through the waters. The river, Isaiah assures us, will not overwhelm us. The second promise is that God treasures human beings so much that God chooses to work through us. We are the body of Christ–God’s hands and feet and heart at work. And so, praying for strength and creativity, we try to figure out how we can work with God to help our fellow runners pass through the raging waters.
When we climb the steep hills of life, we dare to trust there is nourishment at the top, and we work together to make sure everyone gets enough to sustain them.
Finally, we cheer each other on. We celebrate each one of us striving to do the best we can with the gifts we have been given.
The church as a Giving Team, running a cross-country race for a good cause. As is true with most metaphors relating to the Christian faith, this one has a twist. Our scripture from Hebrews alludes to that twist, calling us to look to Jesus as our pioneer, our guide in this race. The reading reminds us that Jesus’ path did not lead to the glory of a trophy, but instead to the cross. Through his teaching and his life, Jesus turns our definitions of winning and losing upside down.
The race we run together is not about winning trophies. It is not about personal achievement or even accolades for our church. It is about service. This race is about glorifying God by caring for all God’s children and all God’s creation. It is about singing with our immigrant neighbors and honoring our veterans. It is about hosting a multi-faith, multi-cultural thanksgiving service. It is about mulching leaves for compost and crocheting prayer shawls for our friends. It is about treasuring our children and celebrating the questions our teenagers ask, about creating new styles of worship to welcome new seekers. It is about slowing down enough to listen to a stranger and to wait for the still small voice within; it is about speeding up to act with urgency for justice. It is about challenging ourselves to give with ever-increasing generosity.
Let us run this race together–cheering one another on, holding each other up, working together to pass through the raging waters of life, offering nourishment to all on the journey, following Jesus on the path of new life. Amen.