Sylvania United Church of Christ
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The sermon for week August 14, 2016

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Olympic Trials

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Four years ago this past week, Ellen, our two boys and I spent a week on a lake in Indiana. As it turned out, our vacation happened to coincide with the first week of the Olympics. Because we were on vacation we had the time to spend hours watching sport after sport. We thoroughly enjoyed that week, living vicariously as spectators. We all agreed that four years later we would schedule a similar trip so that we could once again spend hours watching the Olympics. Four years later, we scheduled another trip to spend a week on a lake. But this time instead of being in Indiana, we were on a lake about four hours north of Toronto, Canada. We were returning to a place our family enjoyed going to for a number of years a decade or so ago. As we were driving on the way there and listening to the radio, we heard hours long stories of one Olympic athlete after another. Hearing those stories of the Olympic athletes we remembered the agreement that we had made four years earlier. But this time, instead of being in Indiana, we were staying on an island with no electricity, which meant no TV or internet access. There would be no Olympics for us. How would we survive?

Thinking about the Olympics and because of the focus on winning, one country engages in a practice of doping its athletes just to win in the medal count, officials and athletes alike disregard the issues of infection and disease caused by polluted waters, the timing of the lectionary text from Hebrews on this date got me thinking about our own faith journeys and the themes of running, winning and being a spectator.

Let me first comment about being a spectator. The Olympics are designed it seems as a spectator sport, whereas the Christian faith is not a spectator sport. With the Olympics, as a spectator, we can get emotionally involved and root on the athletes, celebrate their skill level and ability, knowing full well that for most of us our level of fitness and athletic ability is a so minimal that all that we can do is be a spectator. That works for the Olympics. It does not work for our Christian faith. Being a Christian is not a spectator sport. As Christians, our calling is not to sit back and watch others practice their faith. Our forebears in faith taught us that each one of us is called in some way to be a minister, a bearer of the Good News to the world. Among other things, our calling is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the grieving, house the homeless, and welcome the stranger. God’s call on us is to use the special gifts that God has given to each one of us. One cannot do that as a spectator.

For instance, our worship services on Sunday morning are not intended to be a spectator sport. As worship leaders, are goal is not to have you leave today saying wasn’t that a great service, (that’s spectator language), our goal is for you to leave here today ready to go out into the world with renewed energy to put YOUR faith into practice and by doing so bring the “Beloved Community of God” a little bit closer as you make a difference in the world in which you live. A spectator faith will not change the world.

Now a comment on winning. It is interesting that the writer of Hebrews does not speak of winning. This writer only speaks about running the race. I would argue that too much emphasis is given to winning. I suspect that many of us can recite a quote that Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, made about winning. He is quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” As it turns out, he regretted ever making that statement. Shortly before his death when asked about this quote he is reported to have said, “I wish I’d never said the damned thing. I meant the effort…I meant having a goal…I sure as hell didn’t mean to crush human values.” As an ordained pastor serving in this time and place, I have become acutely aware that one of the most significant faith issues you and I face is living in a world where success is adored, where we are taught that our accomplishments determine our sense of self value, where it is all about climbing ladders, keeping up with the neighbors…etc. etc. When we fall into believing and living this type of life, what happens is we may gain the world but lose our soul. This may work for a period of time. As long as we have wealth, good friends, and good health, we can be lulled into believing that this is all one needs. When those things fail us, and they will fail us, we will become miserable unless we have developed a life of faith life. If we focus our life’s energy on finishing with the most toys, having the perfect family, or having the perfect body, I argue that we have not used our life’s energy well. It is not so much about winning as it is about running the race well.

This life of faith is more like participating in a relay race than it is about running our own race. The writer of Hebrews gives an extensive list of many who have gone before us in faith. How they ran their leg of this faith journey laid the ground for those that followed to run theirs. (See the list in Hebrews 11…) The writer has his or her list. I have no doubt that if pushed, we each can come up with a list of those who laid the foundation for the faith journey that you and I are on. When the writer says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, he is so true. He lists those that we read about in scripture. There are others as well. Who in your past or present has guided your journey? I am blessed with a great cloud of witnesses who have laid the foundation for my journey of faith. This list includes my parents, my grandparents and likely the generations before them. I can think of a number of clergy that have been a strong influence on my life (numbered among those clergy is my friend and your former pastor, Bill Chidester). I can think of countless lay folk whose practice of faith became a powerful witness for how to lives one’s life. When I try to list these folks by name that have influenced my faith journey, I do not have enough fingers or toes to count them all.

Who has influenced you? Who has run this race before you and through their journey of faith has taught you some valuable lessons. Very much like a relay race, they ran their leg of the race and in so doing have set you and me up in a position to run our leg of the race. But I firmly believe that my leg of the race is not the last one. For this reason, I am called to run my leg well and if I do then I have set up the next generation, to run their race well. If this is true, then just as I have named those who set me up with a good foundation for my leg of this faith journey, then I need to be mindful as well that my task is also to set others up well for their leg of the faith journey.

If this is true for me then it is also true for you. Who will be following you, who will be taken your “faith baton” and running with it when your journey of faith is over.

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