Notes for a sermon for Christ the King, Birkenhead, August 14th 2016 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C, Pentecost +13)
Have you been watching the Olympics? It’s too easy to watch too much isn’t it? What have been your highlights?
Did you see Yusra Mardini win her 200 metre freestyle swimming heat? Yusra was swimming for the Refugee Olympic team. She got such a cheer. She won her heat, though didn’t qualify for the semi finals because others had swum faster than her.
Yusra is 18 years old. She was born in Damascus, a Syrian Christian and represented Syria in 2012. Her family’s house was destroyed and the roof of her training pool was blown off. She and her sister Sarah decided to flee Syria last summer. They reached Lebanon, then Turkey, and then boarded a boat for Greece. There were 20 of them in a dinghy designed for six. The boat was soon in trouble with the motor failing after 30 minutes. There were only four swimmers in the boat: Yusra, her sister and two others. They had to get out and pushed and pulled for 3 hours until they bought the boat to shore on Lesbos and the lives of the people on board so saving the lives of all their fellow passengers.
Last August, after 25 days, she arrived in Berlin. She gets up at 4 o’clock every morning to train before going to school. That has been her training schedule. That is how she arrived at the Olympics.
Also in the swimming pool was Adam Peaty, our first swimming gold medal since 1988. He’s from Uttoxeter. He used to be scared of water. You couldn’t tell could you?
Besides his own dedication – his story is one of immense and sacrificial support by his mother, the rest of the family and his neighbours – as they have struggled to make the money to pay for the petrol to get him to his training.
His response to winning: “I’m proud to have pushed the boundaries of the human race.” Are we pushing the boundaries of the human race? And if we are thinking to ourselves how old we are, that we are too frail, there will be the Paralympians coming along next month to shame our outlook. And if we are thinking that we are unfit then we have to open our ears and hearts to the good news that God’s love helps us fit for the kingdom, not our strength.
Are any of you successful athletes? Or maybe you’re not medal winners, but you’ve got a life of achievement because of the work that you have put in – you’ve brought up children, you’ve supported a sick relative, you’ve ….
Or, perhaps more of us are conscious of our failings, the missed opportunities, inability to keep our resolve – losing our way in lives full of regrets. Me too.
Our first reading (Hebrews 11:29-12:2) gives honourable mentions to many people – to the prostitute Rahab, to Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets – those who administered justice, those whose weakness was turned to strength, those who endured torture, imprisonment and persecution – destitute, ill-treated, homeless. They are all commended for their faith.
The letter is written in the past tense, but the honourable mention is intended to embrace those who now administer justice, those who endure torture, imprisonment and persecution, those whose faith is commendable. They are all champions of the human race – and we are all encouraged to run with them for a podium finish – at the right hand of God. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfected of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1f)
We have all been introduced to the pool in our baptism. It might be a long time since we swam in those waters but perhaps it’s worth casting our minds to our baptisms and the call to swim in those waters. That is the training pool for future champions – champions of the human race.
Those who get honourable mentions are commended for the race they ran even though they could hardly make out the tape. According to this letter to the Hebrews, God has planned something far better for us. I don’t know whether any of you have been to the dogs but the greyhounds race after the hare that has been set running. We have Jesus before us, to fix our eyes on, to follow.
Where Jesus goes, our eyes follow. That is where we set our sights. The highways and by-ways, the margins ………… “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
Yusra Mardini, in an interview this week says that she has been overwhelmed by the support that she has had and that she hopes that she has “opened the world’s eyes to the plight of those who have been displaced” – which is where eyes will focus if they are fixed on Jesus because we know his time was/is for them and those like them who are strangers (even aliens) to the powers that be.
Jesus is the goal, but what about our training schedule?
The words of Psalm 90 shouted out to me this week:
The days of our life are three score years and ten, or if our strength endures, even four score; yet the sum of them is but labour and sorrow, for they soon pass away and we are gone (verse 10)
How soon life passes. Before we know it we are at the end of our days, and we can easily become overwhelmed by the sense of opportunities missed. Life runs away with us. In this context the psalmist prays:
Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom (verse 12). Numbering our days means making our days count, whether we have 3 days, months, weeks, years. How shall we use the time that we have? Shall we train them on the human race we run?
The psalmist continues (verse 15), Give us gladness for the days you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have seen adversity – a simple plea for a better time than the times wasted or suffered.
Part of my own training schedule is to pick up a poem each day. For me it’s like a protein shake – it builds me up and gives me energy. This poem I picked up this week is by Annie Dillard and is called How we Spend our Days It is about how we manage our time, structure our time so it helps us keep a good time and a winning time.
How we spend our days
is, of course,
how we spend our lives.
What we do with this hour,
and that one,
is what we are doing.
defends from chaos
It is a net
for catching days.
It is a scaffolding
on which a worker
and labor with both hands
at sections of time.
A schedule is a mock-up
of reason and order –
and so brought into being;
it is a peace and a haven
set into the wreck of time;
it is a lifeboat
on which you find yourself,
Each day is the same,
so you remember
the series afterward
as a blurred and powerful pattern.
So what about a training schedule? (And what would go in that schedule?)
What about aiming for a good time? (And what a good time for you be?)
How about championing the human race and the whole of God’s creation?