Sunday, August 14, 2022

Sermon: “Runner’s Low”, Luke 12:51-56/Hebrews 11:32-12:2 (August 14, 2022)


When I was in high school, I fell in with the wrong crowd. Oh, I don’t mean the type of kids who ditched class and broke rules; not THAT kind of wrong crowd. A different kind. The kids I hung out with all got good grades and were on good terms with school administration, but on more than one occasion, I felt peer-pressured into something I didn’t want to do: joining the track team. They were all runners, and not being on the track team made me a bit of a black sheep within my friends group.

At one point, maybe in my Junior year, I finally gave in and joined the team. They never cut anyone, and I figured I might be able to handle an event that involved shorter-distance running, maybe with hurdles to break up the monotony a bit. So, I decided to give it a shot. The first thing the team did at practice was to warm up by running together for 15 minutes. I ran for about 5, told my new teammates that I needed a bathroom break, and hid out in the library for the rest of the time. I didn’t go back the next day.

I should have known that my tenure on the track team was doomed from the start. Running didn’t feel the same to me as it did to my friends. They were always talking about the “runner’s high” they experienced when they hit their stride, and how it made the tougher parts of running worth it. Needless to say, that was NOT a feeling that I was familiar with. I was much more prone to “runner’s low”, which is a thing I made up for the purposes of this sermon. “Runner’s low” is that feeling of desperation that you feel when running for any extended length of time, the sensation that your lungs or your heart or your legs are going to give out at any second, the phenomenon that makes running for one minute feel like hours, and the certainty that every moment of running is unquestionably the worst moment of your life.

I’d never experienced “runner’s high”, but by that point, I was already very familiar with “runner’s low”. Although I generally avoided running like the plague, the school district sadistically forced me to do it at least once a year when we ran the timed mile in P.E. Even the knowledge that it was coming made my stomach drop into my shoes. But my friends, the ones who VOLUNTARILY joined the track and cross-country teams, never had the same experience. For them, it was no big deal, just another part of the day. I sometimes wondered if the mile was actually different lengths for each of us, given how quickly they were able to complete it and how well they were still breathing after they finished.

Needless to say, I have some big feelings about the exhortation in Hebrews to “Run with endurance the race that is laid out in front of us.” It strikes me as a particularly interesting metaphor for a life of faith, given how vastly different the experience of running can be for different people. For someone like one of my High School friends, the image of running a race surrounded by a cloud of witnesses probably sounds energizing, exciting, and fun. Meanwhile, for someone like me, it sounds exhausting, painful, and embarrassing. But as it turns out, that’s exactly what makes it the PERFECT metaphor.

The reading starts off by recounting Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets’ experience of faith: they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, escaped the sword, and found victory in war. Even if faith wasn’t always easy for them, they were rewarded in a way that made it well worthwhile. They clearly experienced “runner’s high” during this race that Hebrews describes. In contrast, however, others faced taunting, whipping, imprisonment, poverty, oppression, and many other trials just for trying to live faithfully. Although they ran the same race, THEIR whole experience was “runner’s low” from beginning to end.

These people are also a part of the cloud of witnesses that the letter describes. It’s more than just a crowd of “track stars” cheering you on; it’s others just like you, for whom running a mile also feels like a form of torture. Those who have run the race, suffered deeply, and FINISHED. Because that’s the REAL goal of the race Hebrews describes. A life of faith is not about being the best, accomplishing the most, or even enjoying the run. It’s about keeping at it and FINISHING, no matter what. It’s less like a track and field event than it is running the mile in P.E. – it doesn’t matter whether you come in first or last, whether you walk or run it; it just matters that you persist until the end.

For some of us, that STILL feels like an impossible task, but that’s the good news of the gospel: through Christ’s resurrection, we have been assured victory over death and sin. No matter how long it takes or how difficult it is, we WILL get to the finish line. But knowing that we’ll finish doesn’t excuse us from running. Christ’s victory doesn’t mean that we’re done. You know the kids who used to run one lap of the mile and then sit down in the middle of the field to pick dandelions? We can’t do that. If the divine promise is that we WILL finish the race, how can that promise be fulfilled if we don’t even run? No matter how difficult it is, no matter how long it takes, persistence in living a faithful life is our part of the deal.

Even so, some of us still might be tempted to try to get out of it, to get a doctor’s note that says, “Please excuse so-and-so from running the race of faith; they’re not feeling well.” After all, there are plenty of people who find both faith and running easy; surely, THEY can do the hard work, and I can just cheer for them from the sidelines. But that ignores the fact that, whether or not we like it, we’re already in the race. We already feel a longing for connection with the divine and with one another; we already recognize the deep needs of the world; we already sense our responsibility to act in Christ’s name – that’s why we’re here. Just as we see clouds forming in the sky and know that it’s going to rain, we see the world around us and know that the kindom is coming – and that we’re a part of the team bringing it about. It’s too late to back out. We’re already on the track, and the only faithful thing to do is to keep going until the promise is fulfilled.

Now, all this may be true, but none of it makes this race any easier to run for those who are struggling. The choice to uncompromisingly follow Jesus is often a difficult one. At any given point, while a person’s mind may be determined to keep going, their heart is pounding painfully. While their legs keep propelling them forward, their lungs are crying out in protest. Even though they want to run the race, they’re full of doubt and fatigue. Jesus points out that pursuing the gospel will cause divisions even between family members, but it just as readily causes internal conflict and turmoil. At the same time loved ones are asking, “Why are you running this race, anyway? What are you getting out of it? Don’t you know how foolish you look?” your exhausted body and spirit are asking the same sorts of questions. Why am I putting myself through this? What’s the point? Why didn’t I choose an easier path? Runner’s low threatens to overwhelm you.

We know the answer, of course. Because whether or not the journey is rewarding or painful, whether we experience runner’s high or runner’s low, the goal is worthy of pursuit. God doesn’t keep track of our failures and successes, the times we’ve sprinted and the times we’ve walked; all God cares about is that we don’t give up on our faith. That we make it to the end of the race and claim the prize that Jesus literally lived and died for: our redemption and reconciliation with God.

We can do it. There is no doubt about that. With every lap we complete, there are more and more members of that cloud of witnesses cheering us on: some who finished the race quickly and easily, some who struggled with every step, even some who gave up for a while before getting back on track. All of them stand with Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfector, urging us forward towards the divine promise. No matter where you are in this race, whether you’re currently basking in runner’s high or are questioning whether you can go on, keep putting one foot in front of the other in this life of faith. You are not alone. You can do this. Every step you take brings you that much closer to the kindom that God has promised all of us.

Who knows? Maybe your perseverance in the face of difficulty is exactly what someone else needs to see. Maybe your endurance will be the thing that inspires them to join you in the run. And THAT, friends, is a greater achievement than any first-place ribbon could ever be. Amen.

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