If this is your first Boston Marathon, ever, raise your hand. If this is your second Boston Marathon. Third. Fourth. Fifth. If you have run six or more Boston Marathons please stand. How many?
By any measure, the Boston Marathon is special. It is not the fastest marathon. It is not the most difficult marathon. But it is special … one of a kind.
The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest, peaceful international competition.
There is something else 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 26.2 miles, spectators old and young offer 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! Think of it: Bostonians louder than New Yorkers!
Lining the race from Hopkinton to Boston we abandon our Puritanical primness, our Colonial coolness. We let loose. We yell, scream, applaud, stomp 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. Bearded and grizzled bikers forego their usual, studied nonchalance. They throw their leather-clad dignity to the wind and cheer as loudly as any soccer mom. So great and grand is their cheering that it actually does compensate for the pong of stale beer and haze of cigarette smoke 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 thirty-six hundred women … thirty-six hundred women of Wellesley College not at their most refined.
Then there is the four-mile series of rises that end with Heartbreak Hill. Any number of runners have said that those hills would have broken them, defeated them, if 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: both deafening and heartening. Fatigued runners are ferried across the finish line on a wave of sound and emotion.
So here’s the thing: tomorrow, Marathon Monday, some 30,000 wicked fast athletes will run the Boston Marathon. A meager, a scanty tribe of 30,000 runners …
As to spectators, as to my tribe: we will be one million strong. That’s thirty-three cheerers for each runner.
Think of it this way, runners: you each have your very own entourage of thirty-three people… everyone one of whom is willing you on, willing your success, wrapping you in equal measures of good will and high expectation.
Runners: you do not run this race alone.
Which is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes about the Christian life. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race … a marathon or an ultra-marathon.
And he assures us: You do not run this race alone.
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! He cries. Look who is here! Abraham and Sarah are here! Moses and Miriam, Peter, James and John, Martha and the Mary’s! St. Francis, John Bunyan and Joan of Arc! Look, over there: St. Patrick and C. S. Lewis, Saint Theresa of Avila and Mother Theresa of Calcutta!
Look, Christian, there is Sojourner Truth and there: Frederick Douglass! Oh, and Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero!
Look, Christian, there are lesser known saints: your grandparents and great grandparents and great great-great-grandparents.
The coliseum is filled to the brim with those who have run the race before us. Those who stayed the course. Those who stumbled, yes, but clawed their way back up. Who succumbed to temptation but then rose above it. Who were felled by despair but rallied back to the land of hope. Those who know what we know, who also faltered and failed, stumbled and limped but who have achieved their prize. Who, having crossed the finish line, now cheer us on from their home in heaven.
The Christian life is arduous. It is difficult. It requires much of us. More than we can manage alone.
But, we do not run this race alone.
When we start to flag, when we lose our legs, when our spirits fail us, 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 or in the presence of sheer terror, when we grow weary of doing good, when we are tempted, sorely 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 and we do – look up …
See, there is Father Abraham ... and he is rooting for you, cheering you on. And Sarah is there, by his side … and she is willing you across the finish line … shouting “Come on cupcake, you can do this!”
We do not run this race alone.
Those who have gone before us are coaching us, urging us, companioning us, cheering for us. Can you hear them roar?
The Boston Marathon would not be the event it is –if 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, pursuing peace, standing up to evil, and trusting God.
My friends: be of good cheer! We do not run this race alone.