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The Marathon of Faith
Hebrew 12:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:7-8
August 23, 2020

I once read about a woman who had worked for two years in Iraq trying to establish democracy by teaching community groups how to have civil public debates, hold fair elections, and hold officials accountable for corruption.

It turned out to be a misguided policy, but what I found interesting about her story was how distracted the participants were by issues of the peripheries of their town.

To travel just a few miles to class, they had to pass through several checkpoints, so they often arrived at class feeling tense.

While in class, people fretted about what the nearby Sunni village might be doing, planned their night patrol duties, and checked-up on family members … so virtually nothing got done during the time they had set aside to accomplish what they themselves had said was most important to them: building democratic institutions.

Of course, she was teaching in a community on high alert, but her story makes an important point: people living with stress – especially prolonged stress – compound their worries and are easily distracted so that they neglect their core values.

Our pandemic stress may not be like what the Iraqi people were facing, but we are living through a very tough time right now, and stress distracts us from our goals and values.

The church has learned a lot about living with stress – we have a long history of persecution, underground churches, and martyrs.

The author of Hebrews calls them the great cloud of witnesses.

Some are remembered because they faced the sword, but most often their sacrifice was the long, quiet, unnoticed life of faithfulness to Jesus.

The author of Hebrews used the metaphor of a marathon to describe this kind of devotion.

Hebrews 1b-2a … let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Viewing faith as a marathon is particularly helpful for us right now.

Faithful living for us is not facing lions in Caesar’s coliseum, but maintaining our purpose and our Christian values day after day while shut-in at home for months on end.

There are lots of pitfalls to faithful life right now.

First, is allowing frustration, boredom or depression to keep us away from devotions, prayers and even church altogether.

To understand how church life is being affected by the pandemic, the Barna Institute recently did a study they call The New Sunday Morning.

One of their findings is that 35% – that’s about one in three – practicing Christians have entirely stopped going to church, and this has nothing to do with access to technology.

Not surprisingly, other parts of their study reveal that those who stopped attending church are experiencing a variety of negative emotions such as depression and boredom to a greater extent than people who remain involved.

Pew Research and others have long shown a correlation between participation in a faith community and mental and physical health, even life expectancy.

But some have wondered if that was merely the result of having more in-person social contact.

Well, now we may be seeing that good emotional and physical health are more about sustaining faith than just social closeness.

One of our members at our Council of Team Leaders meeting last Monday said that church is giving her a purpose at a time when so many others are floundering.

Whether you are feeling overwhelmed by new work demands or adrift in a Groundhog Day existence, therapists explain that many of us are experiencing a form of PTSD because so much of our life has been jerked out from under us.

Going to a restaurant, the beauty salon, church, having coffee with friends have been replaced by day after day living alone or with just a couple of family members.

And our frustration is exasperated by the uncertainty of how long this is going to last, and then by the social upheaval and political malice we see all around us.

Add to that the record high temperatures, the floods, the fires … it’s combining to take a toll on us, whether we realize it or not.

All this leads some people to give-up, to stop caring … to withdraw.

Our culture has not cultivated values of endurance.

For a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, national church attendance soared as people looked for quick comfort, but by November attendance had returned to normal levels.

It’s not in our DNA to see faith as the marathon Hebrews describes, yet that is what will see us through the pandemic.

Where I first attended church, they have a position known as a Practitioner.

It requires three or four years of study and demonstrated skills in prayer to qualify, and during my years of study I met an elderly woman named Pauline.

Pauline had had many difficulties in her life.

Among other things, she had a hunch back that left her with a painful limp, she’d lost her husband, and during the time I knew her, her family was struck by some kind of financial disaster.

But, whenever I was in her presence, I could feel peace – it was so tangible that decades later I still physically feel relaxation when I picture Pauline in my mind.

You can’t fake that kind of thing.

She used to end her prayers with Luke 12:32 It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

In Pauline’s case it came from years of prayer … every day, a routine of prayer and meditation.

So, look.

We are in turbulent times, and it is affecting our health and our mental states.

I know we talk about prayer – you kind of expect it because we’re a church, right?

But as many of us are at home a lot more than usual and stress-caused emotions are sneaking up on us, this might be a good time to give a bit more attention to prayer.

I once heard someone say that orchestras tune-up before (rather than after) their concerts … and so with prayer it makes most sense if we begin our day with prayer.

It can be as simple as starting by thanking God for bringing you to a new day.

Your life today is a gift, and there will only be so many of them.

I find this orients my attitude for the day – how am I going to treat this precious, irreplaceable day?

If I am in a grumpy mood, the prospect of my squandering the day with a bad attitude usually changes me.

You may share other things you are grateful for.

Then tell God what you are feeling … excited, anxious, lonely, angry, scared – whatever.

Have you ever had a friend who just always says, “Life’s great. I’m okay.  No problems.”?

It’s hard to make a connection with them, isn’t it?

Well, God wants to connect with you, so be honest and vulnerable.

And then bring your requests to God.

Just as I enjoy giving gifts to my loved ones, God wants to meet your needs.

It is His good pleasure to do so.

The Creator of the universe just spent personal time with you – so you can then release your feelings and your requests to God with gratitude, knowing that they are heard and are being acted on.

There’s a second pitfall we are seeing to faithful living during the pandemic – and this one comes directly from some churches.

Last Sunday morning before our own worship service, I needed to swing by our church facility to do a few things and was upset to see that one of our neighbor church’s parking lot was packed full.

Look, we all want to see one another.

We all want to sing together … but are we so self-centered that we will risk our health and our community’s health by disobeying social distancing guidelines?

For some, apparently so.

A church is supposed to spread the Good News, but some are more likely to be spreading disease as they attend tightly packed services – often without facemasks – and then go to work and to grocery stores.

Where is the sense of Christian sacrifice in this?

Despite holding a privileged position in society, the evangelical community has long portrayed itself as being under attack by the secular world, trying to tap into a resonance with the real martyrs of our faith.

Grace Community Church in Sunland is disobeying state and local regulations by crowding thousands of congregants into their sanctuary.

On their website they say, “… the State of California is using COVID-19 as a pretext to attempt to force churches to close indefinitely. This (is an) illegitimate, over-broad, and unconstitutional order to indefinitely cease assembling, and exercising their religion and sincerely held religious beliefs,…”

Claiming that you’re under attack like Christian martyrs may unite your people – but no one is seriously trying to shut down churches.

I know that churches fear losing revenue if people don’t return to in-person worship but what should we really put first?

Passing the collection plate or being unwilling to postpone your personal pleasure of gathering in worship is not being faithful to Jesus – it’s just selfishness wrapped up in religious garble.

So, I want to recognize your willingness to run the marathon of faith – and for developing new ways to worship and serve that will keep all of us, our families and our neighbors safe.

Virtually all of our members have continued weekly worship.

Our Bible study and book study and fellowships are really active.

You have given generously over and above your pledge to special ministries like CarePortal and to church members who are facing financial issues.

In other words, you are living our faith for the long-haul through this pandemic and all the extraneous issues that would stress and distract you.

It is your steady devotion to our community and our values that join you with the Apostle Paul who wrote near the end of his life:

2 Timothy 4:7-8a I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.