“Running the Race” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! We got a bit of a patchwork reading from 2 Timothy this morning; this was my doing, not Jan’s. You may have heard this passage read at funeral or memorial services, and indeed it was intended to be words of final instruction from the Apostle Paul to his friend and protégée, Timothy. I don’t think it makes these verses less meaningful to know that scholars are pretty certain that it was not written by Paul. It was a common practice in the ancient world to write things pseudonymously, that is, to borrow the name of a well-know and well-respected person in order to give your work a wider readership and more credibility. Of course, that kind of attribution would never fly in the 21st Century, but it would have been accepted and embraced in the 2nd Century.
It is a practice at Creekside to remember and give thanks for those who have fought the good fight and finished the race and gone to their reward, but for those of us who are still here, the question we need to address is What does that mean? What does the race look like for me? Some of you know that I had been a runner for years. For that statement to be true, you have to apply the broadest possible definition of “runner” as one who runs, and not someone who is lean and swift. However, some of my best friends and some of the people whom I admire the most are those whom I have run with over the years. I have lots of stories, but here is one of my favorites: For the past 20 years or so I have met with a group at Goshen College. A woman friend invited me to join the group years ago, and then dropped out shortly thereafter. The group has changed over the years, but for at least a decade we ran a 4.7 mile course from the parking lot south of College Mennonite Church past the hospital, up the Goshen Millrace and back past Parkside School down 8th Street to the church. On this day, I was running with four guys and we had crossed SR 15 and were headed down the sidewalk toward the college. Those sidewalks aren’t wide enough for more than two people; I was running and front and there were two pairs of guys behind me. Elementary kids were out on the corner waiting for the bus, and one little girl got so excited when she saw us coming that she shouted, “C’mon lady, you can WIN!” So of course, I raised my arms and sprinted toward her and gave her a big high five. We turned the corner, and Freeman, who is kind of curmudgeon, said “It isn’t a race.” I said, “That’s lucky for you, because if it was, I totally would have won.”
For a runner of my caliber (which on a scale of 1-10 is about a 4), winning is out of the question. Winning was never the point. Moreover, if we characterize the Christian life as running a race, surely the people who run the best race are not those who finish the soonest, and therefore have the shortest life. I believe the kind of race that the author of 2 Timothy is talking about is characterized by perseverance. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon. The goal is to finish well, whatever that means for each of us. One member of that running group I talked about earlier, Joe, passed away a year and a half ago, and I had the privilege of officiating his memorial service. I used this text because, in later life, after he turned 60, Joe was a tri-athlete. He did Ironman competitions: that means a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run, the same day. Triathalon courses have a 17-hour cut-off. Just completing the course is an accomplishment: sometimes Joe was finishing the run in the dark at about 16 hours and 50 minutes.
I don’t know what “keeping the faith” means for you, but I have seen what it means for some members and friends of this congregation — and not only those who have passed away. For Mary Schmucker, keeping the faith meant her faithfulness to her church and her church family, whether it was showing up every week to pour coffee, or writing a check each month to Creekside. Those were ways that Mary showed her faithfulness, even past her ninetieth birthday.
For others, faithfulness may be staying home from church to take care of a loved one who is homebound, or staying home and watching on our LiveStream because of your own health. We each of us have a different race to run and a different fight to struggle through. Physical contests are waged individually — if someone helps you across the finish line, you are disqualified. But the author of 2 Timothy knows that the Christian life is not like that. Verse 17 and 18 say “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength . . . The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom” The author is looking toward the end of the race, the appearance — or re-appearance — of Jesus Christ, the righteous judge.
We are coming to the end of the Christian year. As we enter November, we are invited to prepare for the reign of Christ: we do this be proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord of time and eternity, and that He is Lord of All. We may also be at the end of a Christian Era, in the United States and other places in the Western world. It was sobering to be in Scotland and England this summer and to see beautiful church structures in ruins. Cathedrals which were in the heart of bustling cities had been cared for and had many more tourists on weekdays than there were worshipers on Sundays. This is not only a European phenomenon. The Pew Research Center notes that since the 1990s, large numbers of Americans have left Christianity to join the growing ranks of U.S. adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The Center estimates that in 2020, about 64% of Americans, including children, were Christian. Projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070.
The reality is there are an increasing number of people dropping out of Christianity, and an increasing number children and young adults who have never started. They never had a church family, and have no context for what that means. They have never been exposed to the saints whom we remembered and named this morning: the people whom we were able to look to as role models and mentors who showed us what it is like to run the race. It is a tough course we are running, not just personally, but as people of faith. We cannot do it alone.
Jesus Christ is the answer: to many questions, but to this one in particular: what does the church have to offer? How can we fight the fight and finish the race and keep the faith? These things have never been easy — not for the Apostle Paul who was beaten and shipwrecked and imprisoned, not for us who have been ignored because we just aren’t relevant to modern life, or because the church has covered up abuse. Whatever race we are running, it is the strength of Christ which will keep us on the course and will get us to our goal. We remember those who have run the race before we got here and take inspiration form their witness and perseverance. They, too, finished because of the strength of Jesus. We keep the faith when we acknowledge our weakness and our reliance on Christ. We keep the faith when we confess that we are not the source of faithfulness. We may stumble and fall, but the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, and Jesus never lets us go. Running the race is not about ‘winning’ by finishing first, or with more stuff than other people. Running the race is about staying the course with the strength of Jesus Christ. We could not keep on that path, with its dangers, toils, and snares, were it not for the sacrifice Christ made to redeem us and lead us home. We thank God for the example of those who have gone before us, and pray that we too, may keep the faith and claim the crown of righteousness which the Lord has kept for all who believe and run the race with Him. Keep the faith. God bless you.