In Uncategorized on January 4, 2008 at 5:01 pm

Good morning. Before I begin, I’ve been asked to announce that after communion this morning the ushers will collect a second offering, the proceeds going to help me pay off a lunch bet with Father Phil, because, you may have heard, the Red Sox beat the Rockies in the World Series. I am a man of my word, and I pay off my bets, so Phil, I am going to take you to a very, very nice part of town; it’s called Commerce City. There is an elegant McDonalds there that serves awesome Boston Clam Chowder. Just kidding. Phil, congratulations to you and the Red Sox, and I promise, I will take you somewhere nice.

I learned a lot in kindergarten. I really did. But some of the most important lessons I have learned in life come my from experiences of running, but not quite completing, two marathons. Here’s the story.

About two years ago Charlie Schlaufman sent me an e-mail about a new race called the Colfax Marathon, and Charlie wondered if I wanted to run it with him. A marathon is a short race of 26.2 miles, and for someone of my limited running ability, running this distance would take only five or six hours, starting five miles east of Fitzimmons in Aurora, and running straight west on Colfax to Colorado Mills Mall in Lakewood. Piece of cake. Having run only seven or eight miles of distance at any one time in my life, I enthusiastically told Charlie I would do it.

I began training in January of 2006, and by May I had pushed my long runs to almost four hours. I was ready. On a beautiful day in late May Charlie and I took off at dawn. I was doing well until mile fifteen, when my quads started to tighten up. By mile twenty I could barely walk, and at mile 24, just two miles shy of the finish, my legs shut down. So I stopped. I had told myself if at any point during the race my body said stop, I would listen. My body said stop, and I was done.

I was disappointed, but I had had a wonderful time, and I immediately started training to try again in 2007. I did more long runs, I lifted weights, and I ate more nutritious foods. As I lined up at the starting line in May of 2007 I was confident that this time I would make it.
I should have known that getting the stomach flu one week before the marathon was a bad sign. I thought I would be okay. But at mile three I knew I was in trouble because the sweet gatorade I was drinking every mile was not digesting, it was just sloshing around in my stomach. Not good. More bad news came at mile sixteen as I experienced a digestive reversal; in other words, I threw up. At mile twenty-two, hot, sick, and about to reverse my digestion again, I stopped. As you can imagine, I wasn’t having any fun. My second marathon was over.

Today we celebrate one of my favorite days in the church year, the feast of All Saints, and I had assumed that the lessons of All Saints would be closely related to the lessons I learned in running, but not quite finishing, two marathons. I discovered, however, that sometimes the lessons of All Saints are exactly the opposite of what we earthly runners would expect.

The first lesson I learned from my marathon experiences is that training for and running marathons is often a long and lonely endeavor. Although I got in a few training runs with Charlie, most of the time I was running all by myself, sometimes for three, four, or five hours. I pretty much ran the entire second marathon all by myself. Running is not a team sport. Most of the time you are all alone.

One of the hardest parts of running all by yourself for long periods of time is not so much the physical challenge, but the mental. What do you think about for four or more hours? Boredom is a big problem. And finding mental tenacity is probably the hardest part of all. Before every run you ask yourself, how am I possibly going to do this? During the run you ask yourself, how am I going to keep going? Do I have anything left? Why, exactly, did I decide to do this? There is nobody to help you answer these questions. You are all by yourself.

Life is sometimes very much like running marathons. In many ways, we feel like we are all by ourselves. Maybe we have been dealing with an addiction or a character issue for years. It has been a long battle, and we feel worn out and all alone. Maybe we have been trying with all our might to make an important relationship work. We may be exhausted, and unsure if we have anything left to give, or if we can even keep trying.

Maybe we have been working for years at an unfulfilling job, and every morning we ask ourselves, how am I going to do this? Where will I find the energy and creativity to deal with a job and with people who bore me out of my mind? Sometimes life itself just wears us out, and we wonder, do I have anything left? Will my pain ever stop? We all must deal with these difficult questions, and many times, just like running a marathon, it feels like there is nobody to help us, and we are all alone.

But the message of All Saints is just the opposite. The message of All Saints is that we are never alone! In our Old Testament reading this morning Daniel is troubled. In a dream he has seen four different beasts coming out of the sea, and like Elvis, Daniel is all shook up. So he asks an angel what the dream means, and the angel tells him that the four beasts are four kingdoms that will arise out of the earth. But don’t worry, the angel says; the saints of the Most High will also receive a kingdom, and they will possess it forever, yes, forever and ever.

Who are these saints? Earlier in chapter eleven Daniel says that in his dream, as he watched, the Ancient of Days, or God, took his seat. A river of fire was flowing out from before him, and thousands upon thousands attended him, ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. These countless thousands who are standing before God are his saints.

It is the historic faith of the church that these saints are God’s beloved people, living and dead, and that those saints who have died, the faithful departed, are just as real, and just as present to us, as we the living are present and real to one another. That is why, no matter how tired we are in life, and no matter how lonely we feel, because we are surrounded by the saints, we are never alone.

It’s like the new Verizon commercial, where somebody is talking on a cell phone, and suddenly they realize that they aren’t alone, but they’re surrounded by a network of thousands and thousands that make Verizon’s cell phone service the best of all. The slogan of that commercial is, “It’s the network.” That’s our slogan too. We don’t live the Christian life alone. We are constantly surrounded by a network of saints who are encouraging us and praying for us. Without that network of saints, we couldn’t do it.

And it’s important to remember that these saints don’t join us only when we die. Remember the final scene in the movie Titanic? Rose has told her entire moving story, and then she dies, and is reunited with her love Jack, and with all those who died on the Titanic that awful night. That is a great scene. But that scene has nothing to do with All Saints. We are not reunited with those who have died when we die. We are reunited with those who have died every single day, all the time, and we feel their presence especially as we worship together. Though life can discourage us in so many ways, the saints are always there to pick us up and help us keep running. That is what All Saints is all about.

The second lesson I learned from my marathon experiences is that there are often honest and legitimate excuses for why we didn’t finish the race. During my second marathon I got sick. What do you do? If I hadn’t gotten sick, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have finished. If I had done two or three more long runs, I am sure I would have finished my first marathon. The weather for both marathons was unusually hot for that time of year. If it had been in the mid-60’s, as is normal, instead of the low 80’s, I am sure I would have had enough in the tank to finish my first marathon, and maybe even my second. There are several other small things, like measuring the course correctly, that, if they had just been a little different, I likely would have finished both races. These excuses are honest, and legitimate. Sometimes there are good reasons why the race doesn’t turn out like we want it to.

Life is like that. Many times there are honest and legitimate reasons why our lives haven’t turned out like we wanted them to. Maybe we have real genetic inheritances that make us vulnerable to addictions, or depression, or anxiety. With a different genetic makeup, our lives would honestly be different. Maybe we were raised in truly dysfunctional families that deeply wounded our souls, and those wounds have made us victims in life, or perhaps perpetrators of the same pain. Growing up in a different family would honestly have made us different people.

Maybe we have made some well-intentioned, but bad choices in our lives. If we hadn’t made those choices, our lives would honestly be in a very different place. Or maybe life has simply dealt us some difficult cards. Maybe we have had to deal with medical issues, problems with a spouse, unexpected financial burdens, or simply been hit by the unexpected earthquakes and tsunamis that human flesh is heir to. Each of us have honest and legitimate excuses for why our lives haven’t turned out like we wanted them to.

But the message of All Saints is exactly the opposite. The message of all All Saints is that for Christians, there are absolutely, 100%, no excuses. And do you know why there are no excuses? There are no excuses because we have already won. We have already crossed the finish line. We are already champions. There are no excuses for why we didn’t make it, because we made it!

In Luke’s gospel this morning Jesus is ministering to the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. Jesus preaches to them the sermon on the plain, which is very similar to the sermon on the mount in Matthew chapter five. Jesus tell his audience that it isn’t necessarily good to be rich, because the rich already have their reward. Don’t envy those who are well fed now, because they will soon be hungry. And those who laugh now and have few cares will soon mourn and weep. But blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be satisfied. And blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Jesus then says rejoice, and leap for joy, for great is your reward in heaven. We made it! The whole sense of the Greek in these verses is that the kingdom of God is ours, right now. No qualifications. We’re in.

I think that word heaven is what trips us up. When we hear heaven, we think of the next world. We have the idea that if we persevere in this life, then in the next life, in heaven, we will laugh, and be satisfied, and see God. Wrong. This isn’t Iowa. This is heaven. We are in heaven, in God’s presence, right now. All the blessings of the kingdom of God are ours, right now. We made it! If we don’t have to wait until we die to be reunited with God’s saints, then in the same way we don’t have to die to be a saint. We are all the saints of God, and wherever God is with his saints, that is heaven.

I know, so many times this world doesn’t seem like heaven. But on All Saints we celebrate the triumphant last chapter of the story, and what a chapter it is. Paul says in Romans eight that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. In today’s part of the story we see through a glass darkly, but we will see that God is transforming our genetic weaknesses, our family upbringings, our bad choices, and even our seemingly random fate into an incredible story of triumph and victory.

Our lives never turn out as we hoped. But our lives will turn out better than we ever could have imagined. No ifs, ands, or buts; no excuses or legitimate reasons. We did it. We made it to the finish line. That’s what All Saints is all about.

The final lesson I learned from my marathon experiences is that sometimes you give it your all, but you don’t get the medal. After I stopped running my first marathon Andrea picked me up, and we went to the finish line to congratulate Charlie. As I crawled out of the car I saw two young women marathoners walking by, and they had these beautiful medals around their necks, signifying that they completed the race. My heart sank. I knew I had done the right thing stopping when I did, but I would not be receiving a medal. I instantly thought of the apostle Paul’s admonition to run the race that you might finish it. I had given everything I had, but there was no medal for me. That was tough.

Again, I think life is often like that. Have you ever been in love with that special someone, and you said all the right things, sent all the right flowers, and wrote all the most beautiful poetry? You did everything you could possibly do, but when you looked in their eyes your heart sank, because you knew you were not the one. You gave it everything you had, but you didn’t get the prize. Or have you ever found the job that was just perfect for you? Your resume was awesome, your qualifications fit the job perfectly, and your interview went great. But your heart sank when they called to tell you they had chosen someone else. You gave it everything you had, but it wasn’t enough.

Or maybe you are a fan of the Colorado Rockies (though Red Sox fans know this experience too). You watch your team play perfect baseball for a month, and your spirits soar because everything seems just right to win the World Series. But then, even though they played their hearts out, it just wasn’t enough, and your heart sinks because they came so close, but they couldn’t capture the big prize. Sometimes in life, as players and as fans, you do everything you know how to do, but you don’t get what you longed for.

Again, the message of All Saints is just the opposite. The message of All Saints is that it is okay for our hearts to soar, because we already have a medal around our necks, and our joy has only just begun. In our reading from Ephesians, Paul says that “having believed, we were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance, until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of His glory.” The Holy Spirit, who lives in our hearts, is also the champion’s medal around our necks.

Picture it like this. You run a marathon, and as you cross the finish line, a beautiful medal is placed around your neck. That medal is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who we received at baptism, is the victory seal, the triumph symbol, written on our hearts, proclaiming that we are champions and God’s own forever. We did it! No sinking hearts because we tried with all our might and failed. Just victory and joy.

Then, you look down at that medal with great pride, and you tell the person who placed it around your neck that the medal is awesome. They say to you, “you think that medal is awesome, just wait till you see the post race banquet.” That is also what the Holy Spirit is. The medal around our necks, the Spirit, is our ticket into the post race banquet. If we have the medal, we are guaranteed of getting into the banquet. The banquet is our inheritance, eternal life with God, forever. A life of joy at God’s table that we can’t even begin to imagine. So, our life today is life is like a victory lap. We finished the race, we received the medal of the Holy Spirit, and now we are taking a victory lap around the track as we head to a banquet that will feed us for eternity. It doesn’t get any better than that. Every team winning the World Series forever. That is what All Saints is all about.

And don’t forget, the banquet doesn’t start when we die. We join with the saints at the heavenly banquet table every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Several of you have told me about impressions or visions of coming to the communion rail, and sensing that the rail extends off into heaven, with all the saints kneeling beside us. That is exactly what happens at every communion. Every Eucharist is heaven on earth.

So, there is only one question left this morning. Will I try another marathon? To be honest, I don’t feel a great need to try again. My two marathons were wonderful experiences, I got a good sermon illustration out of them, and I’m not sure I’m up for the hard work of training again. Plus, less than 1% of people ever even try a marathon, so though I don’t have a medal, my effort itself is it’s own reward. I had a lot of fun. Therefore, this morning I want to announce to my family, my friends, and my church, that my marathoning days are officially ooooo, let me try that again…… marathoning days are officially ooooooo, one more time, my marathoning days are officially oooooo, only just begun. Yes, I am going to try it one more time.

Why you ask? I’ll tell you. I have no idea. But here is what I want you do to. On May 21, 2008, as many of you as are able, please meet me at Colfax and Sheridan at about ten o’clock a.m. Come prepared to jog, walk, or crawl the final six miles with me, and bring food, water, medical supplies, umbrellas, and a wagon. Yes, a wagon. One way or another I’m getting in this time, and if I have to be pulled in, so be it. The point is, I’m not sure I can do it on my own. I need your help and support. And I’m going to get that medal. Isn’t that what All Saints is all about?

It is so appropriate that this morning, on All Saints, we are celebrating three baptisms, so please join me in prayer.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for Rebecca Sadie Lee, Magdalena Grace Lee, and Mason Harper Smith, three saints who are born into your kingdom today. As they begin the marathon of life, help them know that they will always be surrounded both by your presence, and by all the saints of God. Strengthen them when they are tired, keep them going when there are plenty of good reasons to stop, and always remind them that the Holy Spirit in their hearts is the champion’s trophy that guarantees their life with you for ever and ever. We pledge as your followers and saints to run with them every step of the way, and to greet them at the finish line, where we will all continue to worship you forever and ever at the glorious feast you have prepared for all your saints. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

  1. I liked hearing this sermon when you delivered it, and I liked it again when I read it on your blog. Thanks, Jim!Martha

  2. Cool. Were you able to copy it?

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