In my upbringing, competition, success, ambition were, if not dirty words, at least suspicious. Can any of you relate? The world's traditional values are turned upside down by Christianity. Jesus says over and over that the first will be last, and the last will be first. Brethren, particularly, cling to the Beatitudes, "blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek." I grew up in a family and church that celebrated peacemakers more than Olympic gold medalists. I bet some of you did too.
The athletes that did become heroes in my childhood were people like George Nicholas, a star runner, who refused to race for his university until the school changed its investments so it no longer profited from apartheid in South Africa. I learned about George Nicholas from the folk singer Charlie King, and the lyrics that tugged on my young heart, brought tears to my eyes, were these:
“What have I got to lose? Scholarships, revenues. Maybe hang up these running shoes. But if I was a man in Johannesburg, I wouldn't get the chance to choose.”
I did all sorts of sports growing up, but I never took them seriously. Changing the world, now that was serious business. So when an athlete like George Nicholas used his fame and athletic appeal to make the world a better place, that gave depth and purpose to sports beyond suspicious worldly values like winning and competition.
The folk song goes on "All my life I've been trying for someone else's finish line. Well this time the race is mine. It may look like I'm just standing still, but inside I feel I'm flying."
My heart raced with these words, I could picture myself on a state-of-the-art track in a huge stadium, the crowd filing in and spreading throughout the bleachers, and I imagined myself in George Nicholas’ skin, pacing in a track suit with no plans to hurry around that track. Even standing still, I trust his heart was racing.
George Nicholas found a new race to run, a race that mattered to more than just himself or his team or his school. When we use our lives to witness to justice and compassion, we honor God.
And often when we're witnessing to what matters most, it doesn't feel good, it's terribly hard, we can lose friends, we might lose sleep, we probably lose worldly success or wealth and we certainly lose comfort. And then we recall the Beatitudes, blessed are the persecuted, blessed are the poor in spirit.
So when Paul writes (in our scripture from Hebrews) "let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us," I think of athletes like George Nicholas. He doesn't simply run the race that he'll win, he runs a race he might lose. He puts his ego, his status, completely on the line. He declares that he won't compete until his school divests from stocks that support apartheid in South Africa.
What if his university chose their status quo over a few more track records? George Nicholas would look foolish, might have to transfer schools, might not be able to finish college, and would have nothing to show for it.
That sounds like the kind of race that Paul says has been set before us. Leading up to that verse Paul recounts a history of faithful struggling – crossing the Red Sea to escape slavery, marching seven days around the walls of Jericho, Rahab risking her life and community to help the foreign Israelites.
"And what more should I say?" writes Paul. "For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness..." And he goes on several more verses about torture and flogging and execution.
The stories Paul evokes are all about suffering, he gets pretty dramatic about it. We can get distracted by all the suffering and drama and I think it’s more important that we focus instead on the risk in each of these stories. The risk the Israelites took to leave the life they knew in Egypt and cross the Red Sea. The risk Rahab took to help foreign spies entering her city.
Let’s read this passage from Hebrews as an invitation to run a risky race! Sometimes we will suffer, sometimes we won’t. I don't want to say that a faithful life is full of suffering and we should strive to be martyrs as often as possible - I think some Christians, especially Brethren, can get too invested in suffering and martyrdom out of pride, because we want to prove something about ourselves, prove how strong or faithful or selfless we are by how much we have suffered. Our egos speak up with ideas like that all the time, but our ego's voice is not the voice of God. So I'm not suggesting that we look around for struggle and strife and assume that's where God wants us to be.
But a faithful life inevitably brings us into seasons of strife, down rocky roads, to races we'd rather not run at all.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith, won gold and bronze medals on the US team in 1968. Their picture is in your bulletin. John Carlos and Tommie Smith trained harder than most of us can imagine for the 200 meter race they ran so well, so fast, that day. And still, that was the easier race they ran that day.
John Carlos grew up in Harlem and was a natural athlete. He dreamed of swimming in the Olympics until his father broke the news that Olympic training pools were in private clubs that didn't allow black people. Perhaps he broke their hearts. Still, John Carlos was strong in body and spirit and he and his friends entertained themselves after school stealing food off freight trains and handing it out to poor and hungry people in Harlem. When the police chased them, John Carlos didn't get caught. (Younge, 2012) He trained for more than one race as he imperfectly chased justice for the meek, the poor in spirit, the hungry.
Even though John Carlos prepared for the races set before him for years, the political statement he and Tommie Smith made at the 1968 Olympics was spontaneous. Certainly they didn't know they'd have the opportunity – they didn’t know they’d win and be on those pedestals. They’d just finished running 200 m faster than basically anyone else alive. They didn't have a specific plan. But they knew what mattered most. They weren’t planning, but they were prepared, to proclaim justice. "That's what I was born for," John Carlos said decades later. (Younge, 2012)
I wonder what you feel when you see this picture – at the time, many white Americans were outraged. When I see this picture I see two people standing for justice, risking their safety and reputations, venturing into absolutely unknown territory with a new race to run. When I look at this picture my heart swells just like it does when I listen to the folk song about George Nicholas who refused to race until his university divested from apartheid: “What have I got to lose? Scholarships, revenues. Maybe hang up these running shoes. But if I was a man in Johannesburg, I wouldn't get the chance to choose.”
John Carlos and Tommie Smith walked barefoot to receive their medals in solidarity with poor people around the world.
When I look at John Carlos and Tommie Smith I see justice. But in 1968 many white people saw their hands raised in a black power salute and saw something scary, something disrespectful. Many in the crowd boo’ed. Many yelled “n-word, go back to Africa,” or “I can’t believe this is how you n-word treat us after we let you run in our games.” (Younge, 2012)
I assume most white people didn’t feel that outraged, but most everyone was scared. 1968: Anti-Vietnam War sentiment rises as the Vietnam War kills record US soldiers. Richard Nixon and Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy run for president. US soldiers kill more than 500 civilians, from infants to the elderly, in Mi Lai. Martin Luther King is assassinated. 46 more people are killed during riots after his murder. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. That’s just a taste from the first half of 1968, all months before these summer games in which John Carlos and Tommie Smith ran a race and raised their hands.
It looks like justice to me, now, but I wonder what my grandparents thought at the time, they were in their 40s (not so much older than I am now). I wonder if they looked down on John Carlos and Tommie Smith as being too controversial, disrespectful, too confrontational. All the things that many concerned white people say today about Black Lives Matter protesters. What will future generations see in the pictures and hear in the stories from August 2016?
When we suddenly realize that an unexpected race has been set before us, as John Carlos and Tommie Smith did in 1968, we might not run it perfectly. We might not convince anyone. We might not witness with finesse. That’s why we’re in training, today, for the opportunities we cannot predict. That’s why we practice our spiritual practices, that’s why we learn to speak with love, that’s why we listen more than we talk.
As Richard Rohr says, “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world.”
When we’re running the race that has been set before us, as Paul encourages in this passage from Hebrews, it means we don’t get to simply run the race we’d planned to run. It means we’re going to risk – we’re going to risk losing the prizes of pride and status and popularity. And when we run the holiest and most important races, we’re running before a “great cloud of witnesses.” Paul’s phrase is often considered to mean the saints and friends of the faith who have died and hover around in spirit to cheer us on as we do God’s work.
But sometimes the great cloud of witnesses won’t cheer us on, sometimes they’ll boo. What was “great” about the cloud of witnesses as John Carlos and Tommie Smith received their Olympic medals was not their favor. What was great was that this crowd, this cloud of witnesses, needed to witness these men risking for justice. They needed to be shaken out of their white supremacist notion that they owned the Olympic games. “I can’t believe this is how you n-word treat us after we let you run in our games,” jeered some in the crowd. These spectators were talking to Olympic medalists, two of the fastest people alive. Whose Olympics?
In 2016 the Olympics belong to 206 countries (Willis, 2016) and a team of refugees who are competing under the Olympic flag. When the modern international Olympic games began in the late 1800s, people hoped that countries competing in athletics would help them use up their aggression so they wouldn’t need to fight wars. Well, the Olympics invite just as much political controversy today as they did in 1968, or during the Nazi regime, or many other years of tension and war. This team of refugees is a first, and it’s about time, as this year the number of displaced people in the world has reached a record 65 million. (editorial, 2016)
Who gets to be a team is absolutely controversial – can Taiwan have a team, or do they have to compete as China? Scotland or Great Britain? Palestine or Israel? Kosovo or Serbia? John Carlos and Tommie Smith joined the illustrious list of Olympic medalists at the 1968 games, and they also entered the hall of fame of athletes whose bodies and loyalties made political statements that ticked off people who just wanted to feel good about their country being the fastest and strongest.
The 2016 Olympics belong to Yusra Mardini, who swam three hours through the sea to guide a lifeboat to Greece, keeping Syrian refugees like herself alive. Once she was discovered in a German refugee camp she started training for these Olympics in a pool built by the Nazi regime. What could be more political than a Syrian Muslim woman swimming in a formerly Nazi pool to prepare for these Olympic games?
Yusra Mardini is 18 years old. She’s been swimming since she was 3; her dad coached swimming before their lives were overturned by war. For 15 years Yusra has been training for races she never could have predicted. The race put before her a year ago was swimming for her life through the Mediterranean Sea. Since then her race includes telling a new story about refugees – reminding the rest of the us that refugees aren’t simply victims to be cared for, but strong, fast, brave swimmers, too.
With Yusra Mardini, with John Carlos, with Tommie Smith, with George Nicholas, we can proclaim “blessed are the peacemakers who run the race that is set before them.” Recall Richard Rohr’s words: “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world.”
What race are you running today? We can run holy races whether we’re athletes or couch potatoes or in a wheelchair or have a heart condition.
What race has caught you by surprise? Your career path, your college major, your serious hobby, your favorite sport – what have you been striving for that has taken you somewhere you never expected? Brought you into relationship with people who have transformed you. Opened a door you never would have sought? Taught you something invaluable about yourself? What race has been put before you that you will risk running?
Who is your cloud of witnesses? Is it the audience you hoped for? Is it an audience that applauds and cheers? Or boos? Who is aching to witness you carry and love what God loves: justice, hope, compassion?
“What does the Lord require of you?” asks the prophet Micah. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. This is training for any race set before us. We turn together to a hymn of this scripture, to set these words on our hearts, to train for the race.
Carry and love what God loves, as you run the race before you.
The citations pasted strangely from Word. (editorial, 2016) is from Christian Century.
Younge 2012: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/mar/30/black-power-salute-1968-olympics
Willis, 2016: http://metro.co.uk/2016/08/12/how-many-countries-in-the-olympics-some-nations-wont-get-a-chance-at-glory-6063233/