Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Team Sport

Hebrews 11: 29-12:2
This is perhaps my favorite time in my life. A time that I look forward to with great anticipation. Yes, it is Olympics time! I am a self-proclaimed Olympics junkie. I record portions of the games that are on while I’m away or asleep just so that I can stay caught up. I become one of those people that Amanda was talking about Wednesday night. Those people who really are anything but athletic but for a few weeks every four years become an “expert” on random sports like synchronized diving or rhythmic gymnastics.
It has not been uncommon for Steven or the kids to come into our room to see me alternately crying from some amazing story, or shouting because It’s not fair that Gabby couldn’t compete for the all-around! I’m sure my family cannot wait for this summer games madness to go away. But in my own defense this is two weeks every four years and SEC football and basketball madness happen EVERY year!
My guess is that throughout the world today various churches will be hearing something about the Olympics. It’s a natural tie in to today’s text. Train really hard and finish the race, right? They will hear stories of Michael Phelps winning his 23rd gold medal after turning his life around in rehab. They will hear of Simone Manuel, the first African-American woman to win an individual Gold in swimming, and of Simone Biles, the 4 foot 8 powerhouse who overcame being taken from her mom by foster care and raised by grandparents who have stepped up to allow her every advantage she needed to win gold.
But there is another story from the Olympics that has captured my attention, that links to Hebrews in a very different way. But before I go there, let’s look again at this passage.
We don’t know who the writer of Hebrews might be, really, we don’t know. For much of church history it was assumed that Paul wrote Hebrews, but it’s really not his writing style, and Paul was never one to write an anonymous letter. For a time, some scholars passed around the idea that it was Apollo but nothing has backed that claim up. There are many who think it was written by Pricilla which is why there is no name, as a sermon by a woman would have been hard to swallow.
Whomever the author is, they have the most amazing and complete use of the Greek language of any Biblical writer. These chapters flow like none other. They are not a letter so much as a sermon.  And they are written not to a community like Huntsville, or Madison, but rather to an ethnic group, the Hebrews. A group of people who had a shared history and background even if their zip codes would have been vastly different.
The passage that we read today is close to the heart of this book. The author spends all of chapter 11 recounting the history of God’s people. Starting at creation and masterfully winding throughout the familiar and unfamiliar stories of Genesis and Exodus, through Judges and 1 Samuel, a picture is painted of a people who have time and time again journeyed through the harshest conditions, but kept their eyes on God. But even with their struggles, their journey one thing held true for them all. Verse 39 says “All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received the gift that God had promised.”
What I believe the writer is alluding to here is that throughout the history of God’s people they have been on a journey, going where they are called, willingly and unwillingly, with the faith they have received, searching for the homeland they have been promised, but none actually get there.
Think about that. Abraham leaves his home in Ur and travels all over the place accumulating wealth and a blessing, but never lives to see his children inherit the promised land. Moses doesn’t get much more than a glimpse at the promised land from the top of a hill even after he’s taken the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness. Samuel dies at his own hands and doesn’t see the people repent. David never sees the Temple of the Lord completed. Isaiah gets sawed in half, according to tradition, and doesn’t see the justice he prophesied rolling down the hills.
They were a people journeying, searching for a homeland, refugees trying to find a place to call home.
The author of Hebrews tells us that the home they were awaiting, the promises God was offering were not fulfilled in their life time, but through Christ, they will/are realized.
The perseverance, the endurance of faith will lead us to the present and not yet kingdom of God, where Jesus sits on the right hand of God and we all finally come home.
I think that most of us can relate to the journey metaphor. We’ve heard the term spiritual journey enough. But this particular image of a people searching for a homeland might be more uncomfortable for us here in our current time and place. Homelessness, after all in America and most of the world, is a less than desirable state.
When the opening ceremony of the Olympics started this year I was amazed. It wasn’t just the pageantry or the amazing storytelling of the performances (even if Meredith Vieira’s explanation of them was terrible) or the colorful outfits the Olympians wore. This year something different happened.
This year, for the first time, there is a refugee team. A team comprised of people without a homeland. This group of 10 athletes from all over the world show us what endurance really looks like. Their stories are heartbreaking, their trials unimaginable. From literally running out of their country to flee oppression to hauling a boatful of people through treacherous waters, these Olympians have done the unimaginable, and made it to the top of their sports.
          When they walked in that night, under the banner of the Olympic Rings there was something special. The commentators kept saying “They have arrived.” But I don’t think that’s what it was. Each of them knew that their chances of medal, let alone gold were slim. And as of Saturday six of the 10 had competed and failed to qualify let alone medal. But to a person they are thrilled to be a part of this journey, this experience. They don’t feel that they have missed out because they didn’t get to the medal stand, they know that in enduring their difficulties, in fighting to make it this far they have put things in motion for the next group that will come. There will be more refugee teams, because there will continue to be refugees fleeing countries. They have even created a flag for the refugee team, and orange banner with a black stripe that calls up the image of people in life jackets trying to make it to distant and safe shores.
The Refugee Olympic Team's flag.
The Refugee Olympic Team's flag.THE REFUGEE NATION
They will be the witnesses for the refugees that come after. They will cheer them on, reminding them that there is hope and a future, living breathing examples of faith.
Likewise, the writer of Hebrews tells us, those that came before are cheering us on in our journey. We are looking for a home, a homeland, a place of safety and security. The Bible tells us that this place is found in Christ. Those who came before us, those who followed the faith to the end, they are cheering us on knowing that we will all find a home together in Christ.
We are called to take off the things that weigh us down, the sins that cling so heavily, the burdens that make us slow, the fear, the anxiety, and run the race put before us.
We are not called to run it perfectly. We are not called to run it without doubt. We are called to run it with endurance, keeping the promise of a homeland found in Christ before us.
This kind of running, this kind of journeying, allows God to be at the forefront of our lives. It allows us to look towards Jesus, who for the joy awaiting him endured the cross. And what joy is that my friends? The joy of the reconciliation of the family of God!
What an amazing homeland, the present and not yet kingdom of God! May we continue to seek with eyes of faith and may we cheer on all of the other refugees we encounter telling them that God is good, all of the time and all of the time, God is good.

We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. When things seem to crumble, he is with us. When things seem shaky, he will be near. When the world seems to be overrun with troubles, he is at our side. Let the refugees of Christ run the race with endurance, until we can all truly be full citizens of the kingdom.

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