Run the Race


Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Roanoke UMC
August 18, 2013


Roanoke UMC, I am proud of you. First, you sent Rev. Ken Sloan-Couch into retirement knowing that you had paid, in full, the cost of the new Fellowship Hall. You began in 2007. You broke ground in 2008. You held your first function in 2009.You paid in full and got it done in 2013 even when it cost more than anticipated. God is good. Second, under the leadership of Rev. Charles Graul, you are dedicating the new Fellowship Hall to the work of Christ and his church. No higher aim could we seek than that - we who call ourselves followers of the Way.

Always and everywhere, “it is laudable to finish the course and keep the faith.” And yet, the people of Roanoke UMC still have a race to run. Marion Bartoli makes the point even sharper. After accomplishing her dream of winning Wimbledon and bright future ahead, she announces her retirement in Cincinnati after a tough loss. More importantly, Bartoli reminds the press and others shocked by her unexpected retirement that tennis is a game. Tennis is one aspect of her life not the whole. She has to Run the Race that is set before her. What follows is the race the writer of Hebrews wants us to think about in the sermon today. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… So what is happening as we run the race that is set before us?

Be it the Olympics, baseball, football, basketball, soccer, track, tennis, hockey etc.; people are always watching. For example, I love to watch professional tennis on television. So, I am following the Western and Southern tennis tournament held in Cincinnati this week. When the players take the court, a great cloud of witnesses surrounds them. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week, reports from the website of the Western and Southern Tennis Open indicate that the stadium was sold out. Not only were their daily reports of a sold out stadium, reporters were paying attention to who won, lost, retired or fired their coach, namely, Maria Sharapova.

The writer of Hebrews makes the same point about Christians in general and Roanoke UMC in particular. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And those witnesses are paying attention to what you are doing and have done. This scripture even suggests that biblical heroines and heroes of the faith as well as pillars of this church that have died form part of the great cloud of witnesses still checking you out. If Santa Claus “can see you when you’re sleeping, see you when you’re wake, knows when you’ve been bad or good,” why not those who have gone before?

In our text, the writer of Hebrews celebrates God’s people freed from Egypt land, Jericho’s walls falling down, the faith of Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets spurred by the belief that their lives and voices inform our work and witness today. David has been gone over 2,800 years, yet we use the Psalm as if it were penned yesterday.  David’s writing and life are very much a part of our contemporary consciousness. Nobody can talk about the history of this church without mentioning former members in the church triumphant who played an important role in helping the church to be what it can be. They ran the race as best they could.  Hebrews impresses upon us the fact that Roanoke must run the race as best it can.

Most of us are familiar with story of David and Goliath. King Saul and his army were afraid to take on the Philistine Army because they had a champion and giant in their midst named Goliath. King Saul promised to reward any Hebrew who would take Goliath on and defeat him. The shepherd boy agreed to fight Goliath for one main reason. God had saved him before and would do so again. With that, Saul put a bronze helmet on his head, a coat of mail on his body and strapped his over sword over the armor. David could hardly walk much less move in Saul’s armor. To fight against Goliath, David needed to lay aside all that weight that got in his way. Bottom-line, David defeated Goliath. Beyond his strong faith, David laid aside the weighty impediments of King Saul to obtain the victory. To be the best church you can be or persons we can be, Hebrews says it best. “Let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Earlier, I summarized the journey this congregation took to plan, build and pay for the new Fellowship Hall. In it, you exemplified our scripture for today. First, you heard and felt the heavy weight of Ted Frost’s caution. He thought this project might be too much for the size of this congregation. A little congregation had dreamed a big dream. But you decided to take it on anyhow. To do so you had to raise a significant amount of money before construction. You got it done. Hard earned cash from family budgets appeared. Projects to raise more funds ensued. A number of members committed themselves to a five-year pledge. You kept momentum and focus over a five-year pledge period. You solved many of the conflicts that building projects inspire. You prayed for God’s grace and support along the way. And it happened. To say it differently, you laid aside differences of opinion and put a few things on the back burner at home for the sake of the church to get it done. You persevered when the costs ran higher than expected. Church and community have taken advantage of this resource. Community classes, senior fellowship, family movie nights, fifth quarter class for the community, youth classes, Sunday school and Zumba classes. Hallelujah and thank you Jesus!

Finally, running the race set before us with perseverance means little if we are not “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” This is no critique of Rahab, Moses, Mary, Elizabeth, Paul, Peter and a host of others. We celebrate and are inspired by them.  But they are not Jesus.  Jesus alone is the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith. Ministry is not about us; it’s about him and the things we achieve on God’s behalf.

That is what he tells the mother of James and John. He will not do her a favor. Seating her two sons beside him in seats of glory is not his to give. Christ focuses her mind on the heart of his ministry on earth. Our Lord tells the mother and James and John his ministry is not about her sons. Matthew 20:28 says Jesus came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The best race to run for Christ is stated clearly in your mission statement. It says; Our mission is to serve Christ through serving others.  If you achieve what’s captured in those nine words, you’ll cross God’s finish line in flying colors. It’s easier said than done.

I read a few historical tidbits about your town on the Internet. (I know. I know.  Everything we read on the Internet is not true.) Roanoke was born in 1874. Coal mining was big in that day. According to the Internet, Jumbo or Mt. Jumbo is a present reminder of this ancient past. Furthermore, the article identified an act of Mother Nature that is typical in these parts. Ft. Smith, Arkansas, my hometown, is in Tornado Alley; so is Roanoke, Illinois. Over 90 historical tornado incidents have been recorded in this area. So you’ve had to be in mission to persons left homeless and/or hungry whenever those events have occurred. Maybe you haven’t waited for some catastrophic act of Mother Nature; you’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner, and welcomed the stranger on a weekly basis. Perhaps, you’ve served whoever walked through your doors through worship, marriages, baptisms, funerals because that is what church’s do. I celebrated Pete Hughes for collecting money to provide reading glasses for the Russian Church, thousands of miles away.  Thousands of miles away, you are serving others. I hope you’ll be ready to serve the smallest constituencies in Roanoke if they ever walk through your doors. Out of a population of 2,000 people, your 2010 stats list 13 African-Americans, 22 Hispanic, 0 Asian and 10 Native American. To run the race most effectively, we have to reflect the mentality of our Lord in Luke 20:28. “He came not to be served but to serve” and “to give his life as a ransom for all.”

Friday afternoon, my wife and I went to see a movie entitled The Butler. Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey starred in the movie. It was moving and captivating.The movie told the story of Eugene Allen, a butler who served in the White House for 34 years in obscurity. As a butler, Allen was instructed to live by the mantra “the room ought to feel empty when you’re in it.” Allen worked for and served eight presidential administrations from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.  Someone might ask the question, why make a movie about a butler? Allen died in 2010. Why are we hearing about him now? All butlers are required to do is “answer the door, be in charge of serving food and drinks, and entertaining guests both domestic and foreign, and cater to the wishes and specifications.” Presidents,inventors, movie stars, the Jackie Robinsons, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and the Mother Teresa’s   ought to be the ones acknowledged by the world, isn’t that right?  Not necessarily. Jesus happened upon a discussion his disciples were having about who is the greatest. Our Lord informed the disciples that he or she who wishes to be greatest of all must be “servant of all.” Through serving others, namely leaders from around the world, Eugene served Christ and became famous by Jesus’ standards. Somebody who witnessed Allen’s servanthood in the White House finally told it to the world. To run the race effectively Roanoke UMC, you have to serve others, just like Jesus. Amen.