Sunday, August 15, 2010

Running In Solidarity

The only medal I ever won in my life was a 1979 Naturite Distance Run medal! I was proud to receive this medal, not so much as an honor to me. It was certainly no Olympic gold, and it involved a whole lot more of the “agony of defeat” than of the “thrill of victory”!

The “Naturite [Vitamin] Run-for-Fun”, as it was called, was held at Cal Expo in Sacramento. There were two events: a 10,000 meter race (6 laps around the race track) and a 5000 meter race (3 times around the track). Within each event, there was a men’s and women’s category in each of three divisions: one for youngsters, one for the middle-aged and one for those over 40. Considering myself an optimist, but no fool, there wasn’t any way I was going to run 6 times around the Cal Expo race track! So I entered the 5000 meter.

As my son and daughter can happily confirm, I went into rigorous training, all of two weeks before the great event! They spent many an evening at Howe Park, having the greatest time on the playground, watching what must’ve seemed like a slightly deranged man panting and puffing and sweating around the edge of the park. My colleagues at work encouraged me daily with comments like: “You’re crazy!” or “You’ll never make it!” or “Are you sure the doctor said it was OK?” Nevertheless, I was obsessed with the challenge of proving that I could be a winner, at least in the over-40 division!

Gradually, I worked up to what I thought was the equivalent of three times around the track. On the Tuesday before the race, however, I ran on the sidewalks around the park rather than on the grass, and came down with shin-splints so painful that I could hardly walk. Only on Friday evening did I try even a walking workout, much less a running one. By Sunday morning, I had serious doubts about the whole thing, right up to race time. But the challenge and determination spurred me on.

As though physical pain weren’t enough for discouragement, when I arrived at Cal Expo we were informed that, because the event had drawn so few participants, they were doing away with the three divisions and running everyone together! Standing at the starting line with what appeared to be high school track stars, sun-tanned veteran joggers, and eager youngsters, I suddenly grasped the meaning of the words “generation gap”! To add insult to injury, in the first half mile of the race, the unkindest cut of all was when a little 10 year old boy passed me by on the second lap (his 3rd!) and shouted out “Hang in there!” The frustration, and even a little embarrassment, only urged me on through that last lap. Three quarters of the way through it, I all but gave up because of the pain. But with the goal that close, I managed a final spurt of energy the last 10 yards and crossed the finish line. To my amazement, as I came into the exit lane, an official congratulated me and thrust the medal into my hand, along with a small box: an assortment of Naturite vitamins!

I never did bother to find out what my running time was, nor where I placed. The medal itself was valuable because it represented an accomplishment of which I was proud. I’d committed myself to see it through, and had undergone the necessary discipline of training, even when it proved painful. And in the end, I had the joy of saying: “I did it!

The author of Hebrews, in today’s Epistle (12:1-14), was perhaps thinking of something like this in describing the race of Christian life, a race which has no divisions or categories. We all run it. Today’s passage follows Chapter 11 where the author gives a sort of short course in biblical history. He singles out the great heroes of faith, from Abel to Samuel and the prophets. In Chapter 12, using imagery of a sports stadium, he pictures this great crowd of witnesses, who have already run their races, now cheering us on to run well. He notes the importance of running unencumbered by selfishness and bad habits. The race, moreover, isn’t a sprint, but rather demands endurance. He says we must run steadily and pace ourselves, and that largely depends on where God wishes you and me to be in our life, at the time God determines, and for the purpose God has in mind. The greatest incentive for our running, he tells us, is looking ahead to the finish line, to Jesus, the beginner and completer, “the pioneer and perfecter”, of our faith. Jesus’ vision of “the joy which was still before him, in the future” is what gave him the determination and courage to keep going, even to death on the Cross, despite the shame, despite opposition from enemies: enemies who turned out to be his own sisters and brothers. As if anticipating our temptation to quit running at the first sign of temptation, the author of Hebrews reminds us that none of us has yet fully paid our dues: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”, as Jesus did.

Suffering, the Cross, is an inescapable part of our human and Christian lives. Though we don’t like it at the time, by God’s grace it is always redemptive and it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

In the Gospel (Luke 12:49-56) Luke’s Jesus tells us in the most forceful terms about the demands involved in following him. Jesus echoes what John the Baptizer once said of him: that Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire: “I came to bring fire to the earth...I have a baptism with which to be baptized...Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division...You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

It’s not a message we want to hear! We prefer the quiet, gentle, reassuring Jesus. But as he and the disciples get nearer to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, the City of Peace where untruth, cruelty and violence -- even death -- will be unleashed on Jesus, as it was on the prophets before him, Jesus goes to the heart of his teaching, namely, the “reign of God”, the reign of truth and all that it implies. Jesus, the Living Word and Example, the Message of God in the flesh, challenges each of us to choose whether or not we will generously align ourselves for or against the kingdom, the reign of truth.

Eight centuries before Jesus, Micah the prophet foretold that believing in God can lead to painful anxiety, suffering, division in all a person’s relationships, even in the closest relationship, to one’s family. Jesus repeats Micah’s prophecy, in v. 53, in shocking detail! It leaves no doubt that, once one commits oneself to God, God’s truth, God’s reign, there’s no thing, no cause,no person -- even a parent, a brother or a sister -- whom we can put ahead of Jesus as our priority.

In today’s first reading (Jeremiah 23:23-29) the prophet Jeremiah says much the same thing from a slightly different viewpoint. In condemning the people’s reliance on bogus, hypocritical “prophets”, who say only what people want to hear, God reminds them that God isn’t a part-time God, present only when they need something, but that God is always present, even in the midst of their doubting and suffering. God is very truly God and part of one’s life, even when a person has drifted and is caught up in the pursuit of false freedom, pleasure, and possessions, and in the resulting emptiness and disappointment.

Jeremiah points out that phony prophets come and go in every age, while God remains present. We’re all familiar with so-called “prophets” who offer people, especially vulnerable, suffering folks, a whole range of pious platitudes, sugary assurances, magic solutions, but are no real help in their suffering. In fact, they often compound people’s problems by preaching a gospel of ease and success, of wealth and blessing. The Cross cannot be removed from the Gospel, nor can the gospel preached by false prophets be a reliable defense against life’s real traumas. “Let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully.”, God reminds the people.

Scripture scholar Gary Peluso-Verdend writes: “One of the common denominators in [today’s] lections is that telling the truth and deciding who is telling the truth often divides people...A contemporary comedian [Stephen Colbert] who satirizes the day’s news and newsmakers coined the term ‘truthiness’, meaning that in today’s parlance, public words that pass for truth are too mushy and questionable. Real truth often divides and evokes anger from those who live in and with lies. It is always time to speak in a truthful manner...It is not good to isolate the need for truthful speech and actions from the needs for compassion and community; sometimes we are afraid to speak of truth for fear of evoking anger or even violence against ourselves. Neither is it good to allow truthiness to go unchecked. Truth spoken in love nourishes even as it tears down in order to build on a solid foundation. Truthiness neither nourishes nor can [it] endure over time…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis in 1945, wrote from prison that to really believe is to stake your life on the something or Someone in whom you believe. And when you do so, you’re sure to experience, at some point, challenge or opposition or conflict, either from inside yourself or from others outside. Religious faith and suffering go hand-in-hand when your life is set on Jesus the Christ. Bonhoeffer observes: “It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit…

If Jesus is, as the author of Hebrews says, the One who begins faith and the One who helps faith become fully mature and adult, then you and I must participate in and share His suffering and anguish. Only by involving ourselves in the “reign of God”, the reign of truth, in the life of this world, wherever we are, can we genuinely live in faith. Bonhoeffer sees this as a kind of Christian “worldliness”. It means, for example, that rather than simply add names to prayer lists, we involve ourselves one-to-one in healing, reconciling, encouraging, feeding and clothing our sisters and brothers. It means immersing ourselves in family, the parish, the community, the world where God is often absent: a world of prejudice, hatred, and violence; of self-serving politics; of racial and sexist injustice; a world of terrorists and hostage-takers; of deceptive, immoral employers and corporations; a world of families ripped apart by divorce, addictions and abuse of all kinds; a world of lonely people, and people with little hope beyond just getting through tomorrow.

Setting our hearts on Jesus, believing and following him, means allowing ourselves to be caught up in the way of the Cross, the way of life, being in solidarity with Jesus’ sufferings in the life of the world, living in faith with determination and courage.

On Monday this week the Church commemorated St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, a relatively little-known Carmelite nun, known in secular life as the philosopher, Edith Stein, who, with her sister, Rosa, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, 68 years ago, in 1942. Both of them were at the Carmel in Echt, Holland, when they were arrested. Teresia could have escaped to Switzerland, but Rosa wasn’t able to get the necessary papers. Rather than abandon her sister, Teresia chose to stay with her, knowing that it would lead to both their deaths eventually.

What would give a human being that kind of determination and motivation in making such a choice? What did Teresia’s choice, and Rosa’s, say about the depth of their search for truth and their Christian faith which, because they were born Jewish, meant that they had to go against the deep religious convictions of their own family and friends? I believe that there’s a clue in some lines which Teresia had written in a meditation some years before, and which can serve to challenge you and me today in our journey of faith. She wrote: “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.

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