October 13, 2018
On Thursday this week, I drove to Jones Park in Cedar Rapids to watch the last cross country match of the season for Liberty High. This course was super hilly and challenging; plus, it was windy and about 45 degrees. I got there early, in time to watch the freshman/sophomore boys’ team start. While watching them run, I learned from one of the coaches that a runner must be able to complete the 5K in under 30 minutes in order to qualify. The coach gestured to one of his runners, who was by then decidedly in last place and said, “That boy always finishes at around 29:55. It drives me crazy.” I made no reply–how could I?–because I have so much admiration for anyone who is able to run any distance in any amount of time, ever. The coach ran off to do coach things, but I watched this boy as he finished the last half mile or so of his race. Then something happened that I’ve seen before in cross country, but each time, I’m overwhelmed by that unnamed human emotion you feel any time you discover hope in humanity.
This boy was struggling. He was running uphill into a prevailing wind. He was breathing heavily, and his steps were uneven. Suddenly his teammates appeared at his side, who had finished many minutes before, some even ten minutes before. They had completed their race, perhaps gotten a drink of water, maybe hugged their mothers and high-fived their teammates, possibly even stretched a bit. But then they returned to the course to run with their last guy. They ran alongside him and clapped and cheered. He finished the course in 19:57. The coach ran past me, growling.
I am not an athlete and never had the chance to participate in sports in school. While I marvel at those with athletic ability and cheer for those who come in first, I especially marvel at those who participate in athletics knowing they will be last. What drives them? Where does their motivation lie? Where does their strength come from, their tenacity? It’s one kind of strength to be the runner chasing the gator in first place; it’s quite another kind of strength to be the one the gator is chasing. Here’s to that boy, and all those out there like him, who participate knowing they will never get a ribbon, medal or place of honor. And here’s to the team who runs alongside him.
Although I am not a runner like that boy, I do know what it feels like to not measure up, to feel like I can’t possibly make it, to feel like I will not be able to cross the finish line, and I suspect you do, too. I know, and perhaps you do, too, what it feels like to know there is a wrong I cannot right, that there is a person whose love I cannot earn, that there is a destroyed relationship I cannot repair. For example, today is my mother’s birthday. 36 years ago, when I was 10, she left my brothers and me. Today, in our estranged relationship, I know that whatever I do–or don’t do–today in honor of her birthday, will be wrong. If I text, I will use the wrong words. If I don’t text, there will be judgment as well. As a result, in my own mothering, there are times I feel like I cannot possibly succeed. I cannot possibly do a thing that was never taught to or modeled for me. But it is precisely at those times, when I am at my most despairing, when I turn to other mothers whom I trust, who run alongside me in this race, who cheer me on. Genetics be damned, motherhood is an earned title, earned by those who are there to give you strength when you are running uphill into a prevailing wind. We then gather strength from the ones who run alongside us in life and cheer us on, who love us in our faltering steps and our gasping breath, who do not demand our love simply because of shared blood that runs through our veins. It is what prompts Jesus’ question, “Who are my mother and brothers?” and pointing to his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and brothers.” The ones who run alongside Jesus and love him and cheer him on, not perfectly, but to the best of their ability.
A rich man comes to Jesus and asks him how to get into heaven. “Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor,” Jesus answers. This man is used to winning, he is accustomed to the taste of success, and suddenly, Jesus’ words seem to send him to the back of the pack, leaving him crushed and grieving by Jesus’ seemingly impossible challenge; the disciples, however, who overhear this conversation, protest with much and maybe even deserved indignation and say, “Hey–wait a minute!!! We’ve DONE all that! We HAVE left behind our money and our families and our jobs and our lives to follow you! We listen to your sermons and feed thousands of people and assist with your miracles and deal with the people you offend! Tell us that we’re saved, at least! If WE’RE not in first place, then who is?” And Jesus says, “You can’t enter the kingdom of God on your own. It’s like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. It’s impossible. You can only enter God’s kingdom because of God’s effort, not because of your efforts.” With this, all are bumped to the back of the pack. While our efforts are needed in the world, they do not earn God’s love, God’s forgiveness or God’s kingdom. Those things are all God’s doing, simply because God loves us.
This is such amazing news to those of you who feel like your efforts don’t measure up, like you’re that last kid running in the race, like you’re that mom fumbling her way…this is glorious news to the ones who find themselves in last place, because we encounter some pretty amazing people at the back of the line, in the back of the bus, in last place. We shake hands with Rosa Parks, herded to the back of the bus but defiantly taking a place at the front. We shake hands with Vincent Van Gogh, dying in mental anguish, unaware of his own genius, having sold only one painting in his lifetime. We shake hands with Walt Disney, who, as a young man was fired from his first job because he was told he lacked creativity. This is not to say being shoved to the back of the line will ensure success or prosperity. But it does ensure company. The back of the bus is always crowded. Economy class is always booked full. Homeless shelters are always at capacity. Suicide prevention hotlines always have a wait, ironically. Immigration detention centers are bursting. Life is lived in the back of the line.
And these are the ones, these who have been moved or shoved to the back of the line, these–along with the ones who can’t measure up no matter how hard they try, the ones who will never finish first, no matter how great their effort, the ones who fail to achieve whatever standard they feel they should achieve, these ones who finally throw their hands in the air and say, “I can’t take one more step,” it is then they turn to see Jesus running alongside, sweating and gasping, fully human in this human race. This is Jesus’ redemptive work, not ours, to finish the race when we falter. On our own, it is simply impossible for us to enter the kingdom of God; it is the grace of God that gathers us all in, leaving no one out, starting at the back of the line, whether we run a 5 or a 15 minute mile, whether our mothers love us or abandon us, whether we have our stuff together or are falling apart at the seams, can enter into God’s kingdom on our own.
And the justice of the kingdom of God is that when this world kicks to the rear the ones who are tired and poor, the huddled masses who yearn only to breathe free, Jesus gives up his crown, his royalty and his majesty and runs alongside, cheering and loving and forgiving and saving. It is Christ who runs at the back of the pack, having been thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, who was himself cast out and kicked around, who encounters us running uphill against a prevailing wind. Because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, all things are possible, including salvation for you and for me, accomplishing that which seems most impossible, whether that be running a race or simply surviving the day. Jesus takes the very last place in the world, a lonely death on a cross, in order to give you first place, which is a seat in his kingdom. Jesus becomes last in order that you may be first.