by Louise Westfall
Let me introduce you to Ousmane, an eleven-year-old boy from Niger. Ousmane lives with his mom and dad in a mud brick, thatched-roof home in the rural village of Gamou. Extreme drought in the past few years has ruined food crops and makes daily sustenance a real challenge. Ousmane became my inspiration to run in the Rock and Roll 10K, as part of World Vision’s efforts to raise awareness and support for their worldwide ministry to end poverty and injustice. They serve alongside community folk to fulfill the mandate of Matthew 25: when you do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you do it to me. I pictured myself running with Team Central on behalf of Ousmane…and Jesus.
So I got busy this summer and started training, a schedule of jog/walking that promised to get you across the finish line. But it was not to be, as some minor pain in my right hip intensified, which I’ve learned signaled deterioration of the joint. My doc advised against running which could exacerbate the situation and hasten hip replacement surgery.
My disappointment was profound. I felt like a quitter and worse, like a traitor to my family’s work ethic: tough it out, suck it up and just do it. Extra points if you smile. And if I am very, very honest, there was the specter of “aging” hovering too…
So I had a very different sermon in mind when I chose today’s scripture text which uses a running metaphor to describe our journey of faith. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. We can do it friends, and watch me literally practice what I preach. Well, no. Not today.
But here’s the thing: there are some here today who have done so. Yes, I’m referring to hearty Team Central, who agreed to come to worship even after running either a 10K or half-marathon. I figure they may be a little tired, so I’ll go to them. [What motivated you to accept the challenge of participating in this run? How did you persevere, either in training or in the run today? What helped you cross the finish line?]
Thank you, Team Central! (You can still contribute in their honor –either by a monetary gift or the sponsorship of a child. All the details are on display in the narthex lobby.)
These intrepid runners are role models of perseverance. But we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who inspire us even without running shoes. I’m thinking of the people who live with chronic pain or disability, who nevertheless live with dignity, curiosity, and deep empathy. I’m thinking of the ones who practice a skill over and over and over again, be it endless scales or teaching children or cabinet-making or creating a spreadsheet. I’m thinking of folks who trust in a God of love even through tears of grief. I’m thinking of souls oppressed by powerful systems who persevered through slavery and persecution, imprisonment and hatred. Nelson Mandela. Harriet Tubman. Elijah Cummings. And ones who gave even their lives for the unfinished journey towards justice: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl. Martin Luther King Jr. Men and women in the armed services, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
Community insists that you are not alone, not a solitary pilgrim upon whom it all depends.
Let us run with perseverance… As usual, God never commands without providing the means to accomplish whatever it is. And as we listen to Team Central members, and reflect on the great cloud of witnesses, we catch a glimpse of what it means to live with perseverance. Things like holding a larger purpose that serves as a beacon, calling us forward…resilience in the face of troubles, roadblocks, and setbacks…to persevere is to choose hope over despair, and dare to believe that our actions matter. Perseverance takes patience, and it always, always requires grace because we all falter. Once I bought a book about how to develop resiliency. I started it with every good intention–and somehow never finished reading it.
But above anything else, the major contributor to building perseverance is…community. Look to Jesus, the writer of Hebrews reminds us, and the community called by his name. Community insists that you are not alone, not a solitary pilgrim upon whom it all depends. My Central teammates sent encouraging notes to me after I had to withdraw. You’re still part of the team. The village carries us when our own strength (or knowledge or finances or health or faith) give out.
Last Sunday we were thrilled to sing under the direction of Dr. James Abbington, executive editor of the new African American Ecumenical Hymnal (and one of Wil’s idols). At the hymn fest on Monday night we sang a new hymn about dementia and the love that endures “when memory fades.” As several of us talked with Dr. Abbington afterward, someone noted that he’d had to quit singing during that hymn because it brought up too many painful memories. Dr. Abbington quickly agreed, but then added “Isn’t it wonderful how the community just kept the song going, bearing your sorrow and surrounding your silence with sound?”
So we persevere. We run until we can’t, and then we let others run on our behalf. We sing until we’re overcome and then we let others carry the melody. We hold on and find the difficulty lessened because of others–the great cloud of witnesses here and…there–whose presence sparks joy. I laughed aloud when I saw the World Vision brochure introducing me to Ousmane. “We want to eradicate global poverty.” And yet, they’re doing it, one community at a time—one kid at a time. I’m in.
Friends, let us run with perseverance whatever God sets before us. AMEN.