"Running to Stand Still, or, 20 McNuggets at 30 is NOT a Good Idea"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
12 February 2012
Texts: 2 Kings 5.1-14
1 Corinthians 9.24-27
I see seven towers
but I only see one way out...
-"Running to Stand Still", U2
-As a runner, I’ve always loved today’s reading from Corinthians. Yet, as you get older, it’s amazing how a text can change for you. I know, I know. I’m only turning 30 next week. That’s not that old, not even for HFASS!
-But it is old, especially in runner years. So it’s one thing to hear Paul tell the Corinthians, “run in such a way as to win the prize” when you are 17, putting in 10 mile days with the cross country team, and able to wolf down 20 chicken nuggets without a second thought. It’s another to hear it with flat feet, two bad knees, and an extra ten years and ten pounds under your belt! When getting to a half mile is a good day for me. And scarfing 20 chicken nuggets definitely isn’t.
-So unlike in my “younger” days, when this passage provided endless inspiration out on the trails, for me today, it’s kind of, well, uninspiring. Paul talks about things like self-control, competing for an imperishable wreath, punishing my body and enslaving it.
-But when it’s your body that feels like its enslaving you; when it’s your feeble attempts at self-control that seem to endlessly control you; when a life of competition and comparison leads to loneliness and isolation instead of collaboration and community; and when that sought-after prize still seems to elude you in spite of your best efforts to “run in such a way as to win it;” well, that’s when I want to tell old Paul – bracket “St.” apparently – to take his running shoes and race directly to h-e-double hockey sticks.
-And yet…we keep on running, don’t we? And not just because we live in Colorado. But as much as we say we believe that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to earn God’s grace and love, as much as our tired bodies and our broken souls scream at us to stop the madness, we cannot help being gluttons for punishment. We know in our gut that the game is rigged. That no matter how much we train for the marathon, some skinny Kenyan dude is going to come out of nowhere and make everyone look foolish while setting a new world record. We know the competition for spiritual success or self-improvement is a faltering footrace, that grace points us elsewhere.
-But then, we hear an inspiring sermon. Read a motivational blog or tweet. Experience a fleeting moment of success. Discover a new diet plan, or a new church. After years of despair about faith, we find progressive politics, or radical religion. Someone challenges us to get our lives back together. And then, suddenly, we’re back on the treadmill, training away, running after that promised carrot of glory dangled by our own self-delusion - and a ready array of promised guarantees from the capitalistic and Christian industrial complex.
-And we always start out with such high hopes, don’t we? Some of you may remember that it’s February. Which means that, just a few weeks ago, we may have made New Year’s resolutions. Remember those? How’s that going for you exactly? I was cruising...until I wasn’t. But thank God, Lent’s right around the corner, right?
-Maybe for you the race looks more "spiritual." Maybe it’s something you’ve been working on your whole life. Maybe it’s that deep, dark, completely flawed personality issue, that foible or secret fault, that you know is destroying you, and yet, you are completely unable to destroy. Like the Leper in today’s Gospel, maybe you were touched by Jesus. And then Jesus gave you a week of sobriety. Enabled you to stop lying about money. Took away your anger, and gave you kindness towards your enemies - or your co-worker, spouse or partner. Helped you stop talking so darn much…or gave you the courage to speak up.
-At least for a week or so. And then, we’re right back to measuring ourselves by our self-made images of success. The treadmill is whirring away, the headphones are back in our ears. We tell Christ, “thanks for the pit-stop. I think I can take it from here.”
-In many ways, we are all like the Leper Guy from today’s Gospel reading. We come to Jesus in an hour of desperate need, begging to be healed. We beg with the right words: “if you choose, you can make me clean.” If we’re lucky, we may even experience some form of healing! And then, as soon as Jesus sternly commands us to do something – or in this case, nothing! - well, like Leper Guy, we fail miserably. If this guy’s healing is the starting pistol of the race of faithful obedience, dude basically takes a few steps, pulls up a deck chair, cracks open a bottle of beer, and watches the rest of the runners go by from the sidelines, yelling, “see ya’ suckers!” He doesn’t even try to obey Jesus. He starts up his own race, which is, in fact, no race at all. Definitely not the nothing that constitutes the race to which Jesus calls him.
-His own race looks like self-promotion, like Leper Guy doing what he wants, “proclaiming freely” about his good fortune to anyone who will listen. And as a result, we are told, Jesus can no longer openly enter a town – any town! – but has to resort to roughing it out in the wilderness. Ironically, the quarantined, isolated leper thanks Jesus by exchanging places with him in what the text calls a “lonely place.” We are no different when, disregarding Jesus’ command, we relegate him to the margins of our lives in favor of our own efforts. And then it’s back to struggle, self-loathing, and the faltering foot-race of self-improvement. Then we’re back, with Jesus, in the lonely place of despair.
-But here’s the thing, my dear saintly sinners. This is no shock to Jesus. Christ does not call us because he thinks we are going to be all-stars. Christ knows we run on two bum knees and two flat feet, knows that at the first opportunity, we’ll turn tail and run. Away from him, and towards perishable crowns of our own imagining.
-And yet, even knowing this, Christ has compassion on us. Christ reaches out and touches us, Christ tells us “BE CLEAN” - even though, even WHEN, Christ knows that within minutes, we are going to fall flat on our faces. Christ sees us in our leprosy - our wordiness, our anger, our laziness, our addiction - and when we fall on our knees before him, begging for mercy and compassion, Christ does not merely touch us. Like my friend TJ, who during a championship high school cross country meet, found me broken-footed and face-down in the mud, disgraced and unwilling to finish the final mile, Christ comes to us all, breaks the rules, crosses the barrier, and lifts us up. Pulls our face out of the muddy ground. Christ embraces us. Christ embraces YOU. He embraces me. Full on. Sets us on our feet again. And whispers in our ears, “be clean.”
-And though we keep talking freely and thus banish Christ to the lonely places, though we line up to race for glory again and again, Christ continues to admonish us, simply, “be clean.” It’s not just a one-time moment. It’s a command and a promise: “be clean.” Be what you are. You are embraced. You ARE mine. This is your new race. Becoming what you are in me.
-Nothing can change that. Nothing can separate us from that love. Nothing can take away that crown which has been given us - the crown of the love of God in Christ Jesus. We run the race, falling, stumbling, tripping, vommitting, failing. But now, we run, even at a crawl, towards the cross of Jesus, who was not afraid to fall into the mud and mire of our lonely places, that we might all be lifted up into his arms. And even in those miry, lonely places, Christ still awaits. Even our failure cannot keep people from coming out to him “from every quarter.” The more we try to run away from him, the more shocked we are to find Him running into us.
-And maybe that’s the kind of running Paul has in mind. Running in Christ. Running together. Running in freedom. Knowing that even our bold failures, like Leper Guy’s, can still be a free proclamation of the Good News of what Christ has done for us. That, set free in Christ, we may run fiercely, risk needing forgiveness, sinning boldly, but always, stumbling more boldly in the direction of the love of Christ Jesus. Running to stand still.