As you probably have noticed: the Olympic summer games in Rio are currently happening. The top athletes of the world compete in every imaginable and unimaginable sport. This sporting event has a much greater significance to many athletes than any old world championship – there is a certain myth and awe surrounding the Olympics, maybe because it happens only every four years, and many athletes experience it as a special honor to participate. And, as we could see over the last 10 days, the athletes are giving their best, and everyone, of course, hopes for a medal.
If you watched the opening ceremonies, you may have realized that, this year, a special team is competing under the flag of the Olympic rings: for the first time in its history, a team made up of refugees is participating in the games. 65 million people are currently displaced on this planet, mainly because of war and strive, and these 65 million are represented by 10 athletes from the Middle East and Africa; it’s a gesture of solidarity of the International Olympic Committee, and it is meant to raise more awareness about the current global refugee crisis. Six of the refugee athletes will compete in various running events, two are competing in Judo, and there are also two swimmers.
What these ten athletes have in common with all the other athletes: they are in Rio to give their best, and they have trained long and hard to get there – even though their training conditions may not have been ideal, and even though they may not be as good or fast as the top competitors. Most of them escaped harrowing circumstances, literally living through the kind of apocalyptic scenarios Jesus describes in today’s gospel: with consuming fires, the constant threat of weapons, and, especially in civil war areas, divisions between family members and neighbors.
But despite all obstacles, those athletes stuck it out and doggedly worked to become better athletes. In one case, this was literally a life saver: Yusra Mardini, a now 18 year old swimmer from Syria, fled the country in 2015 together with her sister, also a swimmer. Like many, they were smuggled across the Aegean Sea to Greece; 20 people were packed into a dinghy approved for six. At some point, the motor broke down, and the boat began to take on water in the choppy sea. Mardini, her sister, and another refugee who could swim then jumped into the ocean and pushed the dinghy for 3 hours, until they safely reached the Greek island of Lesbos. Eventually, Mardini reached Germany and was able to continue to swim with a German club. She then was selected by the IOC to compete in Rio.
Mardini competed in the 100m butterfly and even won her first heat. In the end she was ranked 41st in that event, 12 seconds slower than the gold medal winner. She also swam the 100 m freestyle and came in 45th, again about 12 seconds slower than the winner, but I wonder how many of the other competitors have ever applied their skills in such a selfless way as Mardini. In my eyes, she is a winner.
I think it is quite interesting that the image of athletics, and more specifically the image of running a race, is used several times in New Testament in order to describe Christian life, a life in the faith. Now Jesus himself doesn’t use the image – foot races, or competitive sports for that matter, were not a part of traditional Jewish culture. However, those missionaries who then went out into the various places of the Roman Empire encountered a culture of competitive sports. Long distance running, after all, originated in Greece – that’s where the name Marathon comes from. And the first Olympic Games took place in antiquity, honoring the gods of Mt. Olympus. So missionaries in the Graeco-Roman world found a great way to explain what life in faith is all about to the folks in this culture – that it is very much like running a race, and not just a 100 yard dash, but a race that demands endurance.
The Apostle Paul uses the image of running a few times in his letters; and, as we saw in today’s lesson, the author of Hebrews uses the running theme as well. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
In antiquity, runners, as athletes in general, were admired. For even though someone may have been born with the right pre-requisitions to be a good runner, it still took lots of regular practice and a proper diet to become a top athlete. In short, being a top runner took a lot of discipline – no staying up and partying until the wee hours, for example.
And of course this is still the case today. We admire top athletes, because we know how much it takes to be one. Now these days of course there are all those allegations of doping and the use of performance enhancing drugs, but still, you could dope me all you want, for example, and I still wouldn’t win a race. It still takes a lot of preparation, it still takes a lot of perseverance, and it still takes a lot of discipline to be a top athlete.
Running the race of a life in faith in that sense is very similar to running a long distance race. Yes, we all have been given the gifts of being good faith runners. We are all baptized, we have been given God’s love and grace and forgiveness. If you will, we all have the right body type, or maybe better, the right soul type to be good faith runners. But even Jesus’ closest followers were called disciples. Disciples have to stick to a discipline. We need to be prepared to run the race – we need the right nourishment – a good coach – and we need commitment and practice, practice, practice. And this discipline includes, but is not limited to, prayer, worship, being fed with the bread of life at communion, charitable work, work for justice, the study of God’s word. At the same time, like every good athlete, we should avoid certain things that we know are not good for us: malice, greed, gossip, laziness, also known as sloth, selfishness, and, and, and. For a complete list of things, I refer you to the letters of Paul. And in all this, we are not alone, because God is our coach, giving us everything we need to succeed, if we only listen and try to improve.
And just like being a top athlete is not only a matter of the body, but eventually becomes even more a matter of attitude, a matter of the mind, faith discipline at some point becomes to engrained in us, that it is a matter of the mind, a matter of the soul, and just a way of life – a life in faith, a life in God.
Our goal is obvious. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before you, looking to Jesus as the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith. Or one could say, we are to never lose sight of Jesus, who sent us off on the race, and who is there to welcome us, and who is there to make our faith complete. With Jesus as our focus, with God’s kingdom of peace and justice as our goal, we know what we are running for.
On our race, we are not alone – we are surrounded by great cloud of witnesses, running with us, or cheering us on along the way. And so, with our focus on Christ, we are pounding mile after mile, experiencing exhaustion and exhilaration and everything in between, setting one foot in front of the other, no matter what happens around us.
As Jesus points out in today’s quite uncomfortable gospel: there are roadblocks and mayhem along the way. It is not an easy run. Even though it may look easy when we watch certain runners, and how gracefully they set one foot in front of the other; even though other athletes, like the swimmer Yusra Mardini, make it look so easy – those athletes face their challenges, and that is especially the case for those athletes who currently compete as the refugee team.
And it may be an example for us: to keep running, or swimming, or practicing in any other way, and to not let fear or anxiety distract us from our goal – the kingdom of God as promised through and in Jesus Christ. May we be undeterred by chaos and danger we encounter in this race we call life. May we run the good race, living our life in faith, not in order to gain fame and fortune for ourselves, but for the sake of our neighbor and all creation.