Have you heard any of these names recently?
Gerek Meinhardt, Kim Rhode, Maggie Steffens, Mijain Lopez, Caterina Ibarguen, Yulimar Rojasand Paola Longoria.
They represent some of the finest athletics in the world, about 5,000, who participated in the 2019 Pan American Games, in Lima, a multi-sport event which was held in Lima, Peru from July 26 to and concluded last week on August 11, 2019. How about that amazing Simone Biles, who landed a triple-double at the US Gymnastics Championships?
It is estimated an elite athletic trains anywhere from four years to 10 years plus, depending on the sport, to become a top hopeful. The athletic trains his or her body up to seven hours a day, five to six days a week. The athletic follows a regimen of plenty of sleep, a nutritious diet, and condition their mind in positive, motivational thinking as well.
An athletic doesn’t make it to or any serious competition on their own. They need excellent coaches and teammates. They need fans, or a supportive network that believe in them and are there for them to cheer them on. They need the moral and financial support of family and sponsors. Athletics who aren’t funded by a government agency or corporate entity must go to gofundme sites or depend on the largesse of friends and family. It isn’t easy to follow that dream to the medal.
Our passage today from Hebrews talks about the gold medal winners of faith – this passage is often called the “the hall of faith” fame. From the people of Israel crossing the red sea; to those unknown persecuted individuals who wandered the deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground and everyone in between. There are the judges who fought invaders and defended the ways of God: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthath; there’s King David who united the kingdom, and the seer Daniel who stood up for the faith against foreign rulers at the risk of his life, and many more.
These people, these individuals found themselves in times of trial and tribulation. Their faith was tested. Imagine the people of Israel, called to leave everything behind them; facing the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s Army closing up behind them, with no choice but to trust God to make a way. Think of David spending all those years in the wilderness escaping the clutches of King Saul, and later fleeing his own son, the rebellious Absalom. Yet David remained faithful to God in these dark times. These are athletes of faith.
What our passage from Hebrews speaks to us today is to a race of faith to which we are all called. Not many of us can swim, participate competitively or even leisurely in gymnastics, or archery, volleyball, basketball or diving or biking. Yet as members of God’s family we are called to the race of faith. We have each been given a gift that we are called to exercise and train. We are to put our faith into practice—not just five hours a day, but all day, for as long as God want us. We are called to train like the best of them.
Very few of elite athletics even get medals. Yet those athletes go to the games, train hard, for something greater. Something pushes them on, to break records, to endure even harder, to push themselves to the limits of what is capable. That drive is in us too. To come close to human possibility. We are called, like the great cloud of witnesses to live a life of grace and witness that Jesus, the author and pioneer of our faith, models, and the Holy Spirit coaches us daily to follow. We must run with perseverance the race of faith
We are called to struggle with our faith. We are called to care for our families, for our communities in the face of violence, to struggle in a divided community about carrying for immigrants, carrying for our own poor, all the while trying to find our way to peaceful co-existence. What a race we face.
That’s why we come to church, read the bible, pray; to bring a bag of groceries in for the food pantry it is like a backstroke in our exercise of faith. When we bring school supplies in for needy children, it is like a perfectly executed high jump, because we exercise the race of faith. When we offer a bottle of water or buy a sandwich for a homeless man or a stranger, it’s like performing a triple lutz. This is because a race of faith has its eyes on the prize.
Byron Pitts, black journalist, co-anchor of Nightline on ABC, and author of Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges and Be the One: Six True Stories of Teens Overcoming Hardship with Hope, faced a lifetime of challenges. As a child he stuttered terribly and struggled academically. He had to go to remedially classes and was teased cruelly. At 10 years old Byron still couldn’t read. His mother spent hours every night on schoolwork. Keep your head up. We’ll just work harder. We’ll pray when we start and pray when we get tired and pray when we’re done” his mother said. It is ironic to remember that, according to today’s New York Times Magazine devoted to articles on African American contributions and history in the United States, that black Americans are the only group in our country once barred from learning to read and write.Young. Byron would pray everyday, “God please help me read.”
By the end of the sixth grade Byron improved. He worked harder and harder in Junior high and high school. He was determined to go to college. His proudest moment was when his mother dropped him off at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Byron soon felt out of his league again, He English Teacher said, “I’m sorry but you are not Ohio Wesleyan material. I think you should leave.” Byron went numb. He went to get the forms to withdraw from school. Papers in hand, he sat down on a bench and started to cry, dream shattered,
“Young man, are you OK?” said a middle-aged woman passing by. Stuttering, Byron told her “I don’t belong here. Everything poured out, how stupid he felt.“That’s nonsense. Promise me that you will speak to me tomorrow before you make any decision to drop out.” It turned out the woman, an English professor, committed to working with Byron 3-4 hours a week.” Never settle for less. Push harder” She reminded him. Another speech professor worked with Bryon on his stutter. The professor encouraged Bryon to work on the college radio station. He never stuttered on the air. Bryon discovered his vocation to Broadcasting.Over the years Bryon earned that God had watched over him. God, he prayed, I am going to trust you and your purpose for me. Not my plan but your plan. Byron got a dream job working for 60 minutes. Thus, began a career to tell stories to help people, inform them and inspire them.Like the stories in Hebrews 11, we are encouraged to keep running, to persevere, no matter where we are in our race. Obstacles are par for the course. Life is full of challenges. God has a race for each of us, a plan for each of our lives. We are called to be a part of the living cloud of witnesses, like Byron’s mother, and professors, who gave of their time to help. Let us remember that we too have great crowd of witnesses who are cheering us on, praying for us. The church saints who are now members of the triumphant body. Our family members and loved ones who have gone one, to cheer us on. The Pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus went the course to the cross and emerged victorious. And He’s there waiting, too cheering us on, to finish the race. Let us push harder, never settle for less. Amen