Before they changed the route the Race for the Cure ran along the front of our church on Robinson Avenue. In my first few years as pastor here, Kathryn Dooley would help organize a church water station and the volunteers to run it. It was great to stand side-by-side members of this church passing out water and cheering for every participant, regardless of how fast or slow they were going. You could see the smiles of the runners (or sometimes walkers) that seemed to appreciate the encouragement. I was particularly moved by how many of the participants were running in honor or memory of someone they loved that had been impacted by breast cancer. I loved that our church was there to cheer them on.
I believe this is the kind of picture the writer of Hebrews had in mind when they penned our focal passage for the morning. He saw us as runners on this great race of faith and wanted us to know that we were not in this race alone. You heard the passage read earlier in our worship service, but let’s take a closer look at it together. The passage begins; Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Eugene Peterson sees this great cloud of witnesses as all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on. I can see their faces. They are the men and women who helped birth the church despite profound persecution. They are the men and women who walked these halls and who ministered in Christ’s name over a proud 121 year history. They are the men and women who taught me in Sunday school, who sang in choirs, who encouraged me and helped me to see Jesus and then taught me to walk with Him. I see the face of Judson Cook who prayed with me and encouraged me. I see the face of Marine Hicks, who loved and cared for others with gentility and grace. I see Caleb Spady, who while still a boy brought a witness of strength beyond his years. I see Max Lyall, playing powerful songs of faith. The list begins here, but hardly ends here. It is a great cloud of witnesses that can testify to the power of their faith and to stories of God’s faithfulness. Your list will be different than mine, but claim a moment to look at your cloud of witnesses – those who have loved you, shaped you, and now cheer you on in your life of faith.
So there they are cheering for us – but wait, there is a problem, sometimes we are so loaded down with baggage it is hard to run the race. (Pull out suitcase, makeup kit, small satchel, and rolling ice chest. Use them as props as you speak.) We pack away grief and guilt, aggravation and frustration, secrets and shame and our bags get heavier and heavier. We add the weight of overwhelming obligations and schedules packed so tight that we can hardly breath. We pack away our moments of envy, or feelings of insecurity, our quiet rage, and our self doubts and our baggage seem to multiply out of control. So there we are loaded down. You know the feeling, wanting to move forward boldly with God, but seemingly stuck where we are. The cloud of witnesses cries out, “Throw off everything that hinders you and is weighing you down. You have go light. You have to be nimble. Sin will spring up link vines and ensnare you – sin can be like quick sand that pulls you down – all that baggage will make it impossible. Throw everything off you can and run!”
Just a couple of weeks ago we played host for the Ride for Refuge. Your response was amazing. You rode, you volunteered, and you pledged your support to some very important Kingdom causes. Do you remember the clothing the bike riders wore for the Ride for the Refuge? They were sleek and smooth, aerodynamic so even the wind would cut across them as they shot across the course. Do you remember what they were riding? Their bikes were stripped down; no basket up front or baseball cards attached by clothespins on the spokes. They do not want anything to hinder them. There is a race to be run. “Go light” I hear the cloud of witnesses calling, “and run the course that God has marked out for you.”
The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that we have someone to follow who can show us the way. Our passage continues; Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Peterson’s contemporary version words it this way; Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. I love this picture – of running the race of faith with Jesus showing me the way. Sometimes the path can be confusing. When I come to a folk in the path, do I take a right or a left? Do I follow the well worn path or do I try to follow Jesus down this lesser used more difficult path? Jesus seems to be calling me forward. Doesn’t he know that it is easier to run with everyone else – not to challenge myself too hard – but to run the race nice and slow? I hear the cheers of the cloud of witnesses. The call me and you to keep pace and move onward with Jesus. They tell me he made the course and knows where he is taking me. They remind me that his path was not easy and that the race may get hard – but the finish line carries me - and carries you - to the feet of God. They just keep cheering. “Go light and run the course that God has marked out for you….God was faithful to us. God will be faithful to you.”
The writer of Hebrews is a fellow runner on this race of faith and encourages us along the way. He tells us; When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (A blend of verse three from the NIV and The Message.) He knew that there would be times we would get tired – tired of running –tired of struggling to do the right thing – tired of doing things God’s way when sometimes it would be easier to do otherwise. He knew that sometimes we would be tempted to lose heart – to give up or give in – to just quit. This race of faith is long and challenging, but our fellow runner points us back toward Jesus. He tells us that when we are tired and ready to lose heart to remember Jesus’ story and the race he ran for us. There were a lot of obstacles and a lot of opposition to Jesus’ grand redemptive mission that makes it possible to go to God in the first place. Let Jesus’ story energize you. Don’t let the obstacles or the failures you encounter stop you. Remember why you run. You run this race of faith because of the love Christ has for you. You run this race of faith because it invites you into the very presence of God. You run this race not on your own, but through the power of God. It is not a race of misery, but a call to joy – real joy! The cloud of witnesses join him, echoing out, “Go light and run the course that God has marked out for you….God was faithful to us. God will be faithful to you.”
Today we remember those who have run the race before us and we claim their witness for our lives. Let their stories of faithfulness remind us to let go of all that hinders us, to be wise to see the sin that can entangle us, to follow Jesus all the way to the feet of the Father. Get ready; there is a race to run. Run the race boldly, following Jesus wherever it takes you, Run the race with passion, knowing that it calls you to joy. Run the race without apology and let your witness touch all those around you. Run and do not grow weary or lose hope. Run, keeping your eyes singled focused on Jesus. Run, but know you do not go alone. Let’s go together.