How many of you now or in years past, qualified to run the Boston Marathon?
How many of you intend to qualify for it in future years?
Yesterday I met a man who tried to qualify twelve times. Twelve times he failed. Thirteen is his lucky number. He is running this year. Talk about perseverance.
By any measure the Boston Marathon is special. It is not the fastest marathon. It is not the most difficult marathon. But it is the most storied.
It is also among the most prestigious. The Boston Marathon hosts the world’s finest distance runners. And, to run this Marathon (bandits aside), you must qualify.
There is something more that sets this race apart from all the rest: the spectators. Boston’s spectators are as celebrated as the race itself and a part of the legend. Over the course of 26 miles, Bostonians old and young proffer gifts of orange slices, ice cubes, power gel, popsicles, cups of water and water-filled sponges.
But none of that compares to this: among all the spectators at all the marathons of the world, we are the loudest! Lining the race from Hopkinton to Boston, we yell, scream, applaud, and high-five. In truth, we are more than spectators. We are an integral constituent of this storied race.
There is the first major spectator hangout at mile two: a biker bar. Harley bikers forego their usual, studied nonchalance. They throw their leather-clad dignity to the wind and cheer as loudly as any. I understand that their cheering actually compensates for the pong of stale beer and cigarettes through which the athletes must pass.
At the 12 ½ mile mark the athletes encounter the scream tunnel: a tunnel of sound, a tunnel of shrieks, authored by the 2,400 women of Wellesley College.
Then there is the four-mile series of rises that ends with Heartbreak Hill. Any number of runners have said that those hills would have broken them, defeated them, if it were not for the boisterous, supportive, encouraging crowds who line the route and by whose cheers the runners conquer both pain and fatigue … to carry on.
As the runners approach Boylston Street they are met by an Olympian-sized roar. The cheers of the crowd lining Hereford and Boylston Streets are both deafening and heartening. Runners are ferried across the finish line on a wave of sound and emotion.
On Monday there will be some 20,000 athletes competing in the Boston Marathon.
There will be some 500,000 spectators: twenty-five cheerers for each runner.
Runners: you do not run this race alone.
That is precisely what the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes about the Christian life. You do not run this race alone. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race … a marathon or an ultra-marathon.
He paints the picture of a great Roman coliseum filled to capacity. He points up into the stands and identifies some of the spectators …those who are cheering the runners on. Look! Abraham and Sarah are there! Moses and Miriam, Peter, James and John, Martha and the Mary’s! Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, John Bunyan and Joan of Arc! St. Patrick and C. S. Lewis, Saint Theresa of Avila and Mother Theresa of Calcutta! Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Niemöller! Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass! Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero! But so too are lesser known saints: your grandparents and great grandparents.
The coliseum is filled with those who have run the race before us … those who stayed the course, they have achieved their prize … who now, from their place in heaven, are cheering us on.
The Christian life is arduous. It is difficult. It requires much of us. More than we can manage alone.
When we start to flag, when we lose our legs, when our spirits fall, when we hit the wall of a terminal disease, when the hills of addiction are too steep, when grief gives us a body blow and we fall to our knees, when our courage fails in the face of an injustice, when we grow weary of doing good, when we are tempted to give in to hating our enemies rather than loving them …when we abandon the hard work of peace making and succumb to the world’s propensity for violence…when we encounter these hurdles—and we will—we are not alone. Those who have gone before us are coaching us, urging us, companioning us, cheering for us.
We do not run this race alone.
Today we baptized two infants: Tatum and Mason. I know their parents. These two babies are in the hands of good, good parents … parents who love them; parents whose entire lives are devoted to protecting their children, guiding them, supporting them … parents who are doing and will do everything in their power to protect these babies from harm or injury.
But you know and I know that as much as they want to and as hard as they will surely try, Tatum’s parents and Mason’s parents cannot protect their children from life: from pain, from grief, from illness, failure, death.
But here is what the Christian Church promises them today on the day they are baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ: every day of their lives the saints in heaven are praying for them, cheering them, supporting them. Every day of their lives they can count on the Church Triumphant—they who have finished the race—cheering them, companioning them …. And one day (may it be a 100 years from today), Tatum and Mason themselves will cross the line, they will have run the race …until they too climb up into the stands and, side by side with their great grandparents, cheer on the next generation.
We do not run this race alone.
There is a couple here today who have run six marathons together. They are in Boston this weekend for their seventh. But, what I want you to know is this: that all those marathons aside, they have achieved an even greater feat … this couple is celebrating 25 years of marriage. That is no small feat of endurance these days. They are honoring a commitment they made to God, to each other, and to society.
Janet and Joe, where are you? Would you stand? Janet, I hope you don’t mind hearing this news in front of several hundred of your closest friends. Joe has arranged that following this service (privately, in the Children’s Chapel) we will hold a simple service for the Renewal of Marriage Vows to speed you on your way for your next 25 years of marriage.
You know and I know, you have not achieved this without the support of others, of family, friends who have rooted for you and supported you.
You do not run this race alone.
The Boston Marathon would not be the competition it is—the event it is—if it were not for the spectators, the cheerers … whose cheers buoy tired legs and flagging spirits … whose high-fives are as balm to blistered feet.
So, too, are the saints in heaven pulling for us, praying for us, cheering us on as we engage in the hard work, the courageous work, the dangerous work of following Jesus … of loving the unlovely, of pursuing peace, of standing up to evil, of trusting God.
We do not run this race alone.