I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 23, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Timothy 4:6-18, 16-18.
When I was probably about 10 or 11 years old, my mom took up a new hobby — rollerblading. It was the 90s, so rollerblades were all the rage. And for those of you who know my mom, who is quite the adventurous person, you can imagine that she took on this new pastime with great enthusiasm. So much so that before long, she had signed up to compete in a local rollerblade race where you go in laps around an empty office park on a Saturday afternoon—yes, this was actually a thing back in the day (at least out in California in the 90s.)
Now, I will admit that I had little to no interest in rollerblades. I had a pair, and I would sort of wobble along in them around the neighborhood after school, but I was not then–nor am I now–the most athletic or graceful person. I wasn’t fast or agile or daring. Most weekends I would’ve rather been reading a book or singing along to the soundtracks of my favorite Broadway musicals. You know, we just are who we are.
But my mom was so excited about this rollerblade race that she was bound and determined that I would also sign up and be in the kid’s competition, making it a sort of family activity. And for some reason I will never understand, I agreed to do so.
We showed up that morning and I was in my little skates with my baggy jeans and knobby knees and thick glasses and a helmet askew on my head, and the other kids…I mean, they looked like they’d been training their whole short lives for this race. They were in lycra shorts and fancy rollerblades and they skated more gracefully than I could even walk. It was one of those moments when you realize you’ve made a very bad decision, but now it’s too late and you just have to roll with it. Literally, in this case.
We all gathered in a cluster at the starting line and they blew the horn and we took off, and the crowd was cheering, and….you can probably imagine exactly what happened next. Those other kids took off on their skates like they were sprinting, and they went so fast around the course that they lapped me at least once, if not more, and meanwhile I was stumbling along on my skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright, telling myself “you just have to finish. Just finish.”
And I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it.
Eventually, long after the other kids were done, here I came, stumbling across the finish line by myself.
But you know what? It was ok. Now, would I ever do it again? Not a chance. But it was ok. Because when I got to that finish line, some of the people were still there, my mom included, waiting to cheer for me. I was so relieved to be done that it felt like arriving in heaven, and people gave me hugs, and the sound of their encouragement was, in that moment, like the sound of angels rejoicing.
I think of that rollerblade race once in a while, because it reminds me that on the other side of embarrassment, on the other side of disappointment, there is a strange sort of grace that you sometimes find in simply finishing what you set out to do. Especially when the road is long and challenging, just finishing can be its own sort of victory.
I think many of us spend our lives feeling like we need to jockey for a place at the front of the pack of whatever we’re doing—to win the contest, to be the best at whatever it is, or at least to feel like we’re not the worst. We’re afraid of falling behind, of stumbling and skinning our knees—of becoming an object of derision or pity as the race of life wears on.
And it’s all too easy to approach our faith like this, too, somehow imagining Jesus as the leader at the front of the race, the one who runs fastest and hardest, the one we’re chasing, just out of the reach of us mere mortals with our aching joints and our eyes burning with sweat and tears. We know we can’t overtake him, but somehow we think we’re supposed to try.
I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Paul first understood Jesus after his conversion on the Damascus Road. Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen who was well acquainted with the competitive spirit of the Empire and who loved using athletic metaphors in his writing. In his early letter to the Galatians, he expresses anxiety about his mission to the Gentiles, wanting “to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” He uses similar language in his letter to the Philippians, and, though its authorship is uncertain, there is that famous line in the letter to the Hebrews which encourages believers to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
So one can imagine a younger Paul, bursting with energy and determination, ready to win the race for the sake of the gospel—to be the best, to go the farthest, to conquer his opponents, to be right up in front, ahead of all the other apostles, trailing just behind Christ.
But then in today’s reading we meet Paul at the end of his life: an old and infirm man, sitting in prison, awaiting execution, writing to his companion Timothy, trying to make peace with the way his life has actually turned out:
“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.”
Not, “I have won the race,” but simply “I have finished.” Not “the crown of victory”–the laurel wreath of the athletic champion–but “the crown of righteousness,” the crown of blessedness, the crown worn by those who finish last in this world—the crown worn by his savior, and ours. The crown of thorns.
Paul came to understand, as each of us must when we are inevitably humbled by life–when we finally see things as they are, not as we expected them to be–that winning was never the point. Coming in first was never God’s expectation for us. And Jesus, whom we try so hard to follow, to be like, to catch up to, was never, in truth, at the front of the pack, showing off his divine athleticism and daring us to match it.
On the contrary, Jesus was (and remains) at the back of the pack, watching over those of us who are moving slowly, those of us who are just struggling to keep up. He’s back alongside the ones who were never graceful or impressive or strong. And he’ll stay there, bringing up the rear of the race until every last one of us has made it over the finish line, aching joints and skinned knees and all.
And when we do, I imagine that he will say to us,
“It is enough that you finished. It is enough that you fought the good fight and kept the faith. It is enough. You were enough, just as you were, even if it took you a long time to get here. Even if you were in last place, I loved you from the first.”
And perhaps this is what Paul wanted to remind us at the end of his own race, in his final message to Timothy and to those of us who would one day come along, stumbling on our skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright. Maybe he just wanted us to know:
You might not end up in first place. You might look like a total failure at times. It doesn’t matter. If you have stayed the course with gentleness in your heart, if you have cared for your neighbor along the way, if you have loved this broken world as you have travailed across it, you have already won.
So just finish the race. Just finish.
And when you do, when you stumble across that finish line, there will be arms outstretched to welcome you, and the angels will rejoice.