Sermon: “Running Fools” (August 14, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Running Fools” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
August 14, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A recurring theme in the classic 1994 film Forrest Gump is running.  As a young boy Forrest has to wear braces on his legs and as he is being chased by bullies one day his leg braces suddenly break apart and with a huge grin he begins running.  After outrunning the bullies he runs along some county roads and then runs through town, where he races by a barber shop where an elderly gentleman glimpses him and comments, “That boy sure is a running fool.”

Later Forrest falls in love with Jenny, serves in Vietnam, and starts a thriving shrimping business with Lieutenant Dan, but he also loses his friend Bubba during a battle and loses his mom to cancer.  Jenny spends her life running as well, running from an abusive childhood, running from the faithful love of Forrest.  When Forrest proposes to Jenny, she declines because of her past life replete with promiscuity and substance abuse, “You don’t wanna marry me,” she tells him.

The next morning Forrest is sitting alone on the front porch, wearing khaki pants, a blue gingham shirt, and his white Nike’s with the red swoosh.  He then dons his Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. cap and starts running.  In a voice over Forrest then tells a lady sitting next to him on a park bench what he did:

That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run, so I ran to the end of the road, and when I got there I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town, and when I got there, I thought I’d just run across Greenbow County.  I figured since I’d run this far, I’d just run across the great state of Alabama.  That’s what I did.  I ran clear across Alabama.  For no particular reason I just kept on going.  I ran clear to the ocean.  And when I got there, I figured since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around and just keep on going.  When I got to another ocean, I figured since I’d gone this far, I might as just turn back and keep right on going….”

The lady on the park bench smiles at him, “And so you just ran!”

Then over a montage of breathtaking images of the natural beauty of America through which Forrest is running he continues, “I’d think a lot, about momma, Bubba, Lieutenant Dan, but most of all, I thought about Jenny.  I thought about her a lot.”  Later, as he is running through the desert with a small gathering following him, he concludes, “My momma always said, you got to put the past behind you before you can move on, and I think that’s what my running was all about.  I had run for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours.”

Forrest then slows down and stops running.  He turns to face his followers, who have stopped in silence to listen.  “I’m pretty tired,” he says, “think I’ll go home now.”  He concludes in the voice over, “And just like that my running days was over, so I went home to Alabama.”

That sequence of the film resonated with many people, because, as you know, Forrest is not the only “running fool” out there.

In 2014 the rock band The Call did a tribute concert for Michael Been, their lead singer, songwriter and bassist, who died in 2010.  During this concert Michael’s son, Robert Levon Been, played and sang in his dad’s place, and sang a stirring solo version of a song called “You Run.”  To say it hit home for me is an understatement.  To be vulnerable with you, it actually made me cry.  In fact I found it on Youtube and as I was grilling dinner one evening last fall I played it repeatedly on my phone—grilling and crying and drinking a bottle of Sam Adams at the same time.  My daughter Emily stepped outside and asked me if I was okay.  I lied, “Yeah, I’m good, it’s just allergies.”  See if you can relate to these lyrics:

What are you running from my love?
What’s this thing you’re guilty of?
Follow me and never feel accused…
But you never do believe a word I say
And you never did believe there’d be a day of reckoning

So you run and you run and you run and you never stop
And you work and you work and you work until you drop
You’re in over your head and the pressure just don’t quit
But you can’t escape the reach of love
(From the 1989 album Let the Day Begin by The Call)

If you are not familiar with The Call, perhaps you know these lyrics from Jackson Browne:

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I’m running behind
(From the title track of his 1977 album, Running on Empty)

Or, if you are a country music fan, perhaps you know this question from Lady Antebellum, “I run my life…or is it running me?” (From “I Run to You” on their eponymous 2009 album).

Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is helpful for running fools.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians who had converted from Judaism to Christianity.  This was very risky at that time in the Roman Empire because Judaism was a sanctioned by the Roman Empire, but Christianity was not, which meant when people converted from Judaism to Christianity they made themselves vulnerable to persecution, at times persecution that cost them their lives—and so many Christians were reverting to Judaism to save their skin.

The writer of the letter encourages the recipients to persevere in their faith in Jesus Christ even in the midst of suffering, and in doing so demonstrates that Jesus is indeed the Son of God who in his death on the cross fulfilled the entire Old Testament sacrificial system not just for Israel but for the whole world, and states the means by which we receive the forgiveness and love of God, faith.  Men and women of faith, the writer continues:

Suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:36-38).

And in light of all this the writer shares the following good news for running fools:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the 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, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

“Let us run with perseverance.”  Our perseverance is tested the most when we are knocked down while running—knocked down by a bad decision or the meanness of someone else or an unforeseen life-altering circumstance—we are running along just fine until something or someone knocks us off our feet.

When I was in middle school I remember saw the award-winning film Chariots of Fire in the theater, a film based on the true life story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams as they trained for and participated in the 1924 Olympics in Paris.  The scene that impacted me the most was early in the film when Liddell was running a 400 meter race and was knocked off his feet by another runner.  Instead of just lying there blaming that runner and wallowing is self-pity, Liddell sprang to his feet and to everyone’s shock, not only managed to catch up with the other runners but even won the race.  I remember getting goosebumps at that scene.

Scripture puts it this way, “Though (the righteous) fall seven times, they will rise again” (Proverbs 24:16).  In other words, if you get knocked down, get back up.  But what if, in the course of running your race of faith, you are knocked down and you cannot get yourself back up?

A few years ago I saw a Special Olympics video on Youtube in which several athletes were competing in a sprint.  One of the contestants tripped and fell… and the others all did something you would never expect.  Instead of seeing the fallen sprinter as one less competitor to worry about, they all turned back, every single one, and helped him to his feet.  Then smiling, they all linked their arms and crossed the finish line together.  The race was not about winning but helping others finish.

It is the same with the Christian race of faith.  We are simply called to run the race with perseverance that God has marked out for us—and along the way to stop and help those who have been knocked down and are unable to get themselves back up.  Moreover, it is not the finish line we are to look to, but rather the One waiting at the finish line—“Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Why?  Because of what Jesus did for you on Calvary, where he “endured the cross,” where he atoned for your sins—where he put your past behind you so you can move on.  You may feel toward God the same way Jenny felt toward, Forrest, “You don’t wanna marry me”—but the love of Jesus trumps your feelings, which is a good thing.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”…the Greek verb used here for “run” is trecho, a verb that Jesus only used once as recorded in the four gospel accounts.  In all his preaching and teaching, Jesus only used this word one time…in the parable that perhaps more than any other reveals the heart of God toward running fools: the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The prodigal son, having traveled to a far country and wasted his entire inheritance on fulfilling his lusts, finds himself broke, sick, reeking of the pigs he had been forced to feed—until one day he says to himself, “I’m pretty tired, think I’ll go home now.”  Jesus says when the prodigal son’s father, who had gazed down the road hundreds of times hoping to catch a glimpse of his son actually saw him, that this he “ran and puts his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

This was the most undignified thing an older man could do in Jesus’ day, lift up his robes and run down the street, but the father did not care about his dignity, he cared about his son.  The father loved his prodigal so much that he himself became a running fool to show his son that love.

So “what are you running from, my love?  What’s this thing you’re guilty of?”  Jesus’ words to you are “follow me, and never feel accused.”

The gospel is very good news for any of you who, like Forrest Gump, are “pretty tired” because you have been running for years and years—because the gospel means that when it comes to running from God, your running days can be over.  You can’t escape the reach of love.

The love of God transforms us from running fools running from God or running after our own self-centered agendas to redeemed running fools helping pick one another up, linking our arms together, and pressing on toward the One who awaits us at the finish line: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Amen.