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New Testament Reading–2 Timothy 4:1-8
This morning I thought I would tell a fictional story about a running group. While any resemblance to our church’s running group is purely coincidental, one could interpret the running group as a metaphor for a church. The story begins as follows…
Rick didn’t like to think of himself as being conventional, so he was disheartened to realize that he seemed to be suffering from a textbook case of midlife crises. He had begun his career in cancer research more than 20 years ago with high hopes that he would establish a name for himself in the field through his discoveries. What he had come to realize, however, was that his discoveries had instead paved the way for other people to make a name for themselves. His research had made their research possible, but they received all the recognition and adulation. As he turned toward the second half of his life, he felt a crises of meaning. He realized his career wasn’t going to give him the kind of fulfillment for which he had hoped, and he became haunted by the question of what he might be able to do during this next phase of his life that would bring him a sense of challenge and reward.
In the midst of such ruminations, Rick decided that he would run a marathon. It would certainly be challenging, and if he completed it, he would receive the satisfaction of knowing that he was still a capable person who could accomplish goals no matter how strenuous or demanding. To train for the marathon, Rick joined a small running group. In an illusion to a 1985 movie of the same name, they called themselves “The Breakfast Club.” Whereas the movie was about five teenagers who endure a Saturday detention together, their group consisted of a core contingent of five runners in their forties and fifties who did long-distance runs every Saturday morning before eating breakfast together at a local diner. Whereas the movie followed the teenagers as they discovered that there was far more to each of them than their stereotypes suggested, the runners had likewise gotten to know each other far beyond what their surface identities revealed.
The core group contained a nurse, a hairstylist, a teacher, and a pastor. What struck Rick the most about them was that their conversations revealed that these were really good people with whom he was running. They were good in the sense of being morally good. They certainly weren’t perfect, and Rick disagreed with some of the choices the others made, but what mattered to Rick was that they were reflective in making their choices and thinking about life. On one run, for example, they discussed the moral dimensions of something that Rick had never given much thought: giving tips. Rebecca, the pastor in the group, said she usually tried to give a good tip because she figured the person deserved it and probably didn’t get paid enough by their boss anyway. If she couldn’t help bring justice to the worker, the least she could do was give a decent tip. Rob, the hairstylist, said he liked generous tips because they not only supported his income but because they were often a way for his clients to express how much they felt he did a good job on their hair. A good tip helped him to take pride in his work. The flipside, of course, was how to regard those who didn’t tip or tipped very little. Rob preferred to think that in such cases the problem was theirs not his. They were simply stingy people. After that run, Rick decided he would start to be more generous in his tips.
Because they ran on a Saturday, the pastor often liked to use their discussions for help on her Sunday sermon. Typically, the other runners could tell whether a rough draft had been written yet or whether she was trolling the waters for material. On one occasion, she entered into a long debate with Scott, the teacher, on whether or not virtues should be taught in school. Scott was a bit wary of the subject. While he liked the idea of schools promoting values such as empathy in an effort to cut back on bullying, he felt that often politicians liked to talk about the moral instruction of students in public schools as a way to blame the students and their teachers for everything ranging from teenage pregnancy to gang violence. Scott didn’t like that kind of moralizing approach. He felt a deeper understanding of the circumstances and lives of his students was needed. “People want to blame everything on the students and the teachers,” said Scott, “when no one wants to look in the mirror and see how they and the rest of society might be failing our children and youth.” This led into a long discussion of moral responsibility.
The views expressed would have been fairly typical had it not been for the contributions of Jennifer, the nurse. Jennifer happened to work in a psych unit. She raised the question of whether one can always say that people are morally responsible for their actions if the chemistry of their brain predisposes them to act in a certain way. “The more time I spend in the psych unit,” said Jennifer, “the more I am struck by how the actions of patients are the result of how their brains have been programmed in ways beyond their control.” Jennifer continued, “One day it occurred to me that if this is true of my patients, who is to say it isn’t also true for how most of us act on a daily basis? Even if we make rational choices, our brain chemistry still tilts our choices in a certain direction. If we were to take a few pills, we might find ourselves making very different decisions.” Jennifer concluded, “In a way, all of our actions are a product of our brain chemistry.” After much discussion, all the runners agreed that everyone was responsible for their own actions, but this didn’t mean one shouldn’t try to understand the factors that led to those actions regardless of whether those factors were neurological, social, or otherwise. For Rick, this conversation was almost too much to process on a 12-mile run.
On another run, Rebecca shared with the group her preliminary thoughts on her sermon for the next day. Her scripture had to do with running, so it seemed fitting to receive input from the group. In the scripture, Paul is a prisoner on his way to Rome. He senses that his fate will be death, but instead of dwelling on how the emperor of Rome will judge him, he focuses instead on how God will judge him. This is the happy thought that gives the entirety of his life and ministry meaning. He declares, “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, which our God, the just judge, will give me on that day.” Rebecca explained how when runners won a race in ancient times they were given a wreath made of celery to wear as a crown. This crown withered in a few days time, but in the rhetoric of Paul the crown given by God to the just and righteous was everlasting. In other words, living a just life wasn’t simply laudable in the moment. It had ultimate significance.
For Rebecca, the passage seemed to be Paul’s way of writing his own obituary, and what an obituary it was! He was patting himself on the back as a moral and spiritual Olympic champion crowned by none other than God. This discussion led Rebecca to ask the group how they would write their own obituaries. This conversation hit at the core of Rick’s midlife crises, and it led to a giant ah-hah moment. Rick realized that certain achievements in life depended upon the accolades and judgments of others. For example, he could only become famous in the field of cancer research if others judged him worthy of it. At the same time, there was at least one form of achievement that anyone could accomplish regardless of how others judged you. That achievement was to live what in olden days they called the good life—not the life of riches but rather the life of virtue. This life could be had by all regardless of one’s social or economic status. It instead depended upon moral and spiritual qualities. It depended on being just and fair, compassionate and caring, loving and kind. He realized that part of this good, virtuous life was also being of service to others, and he certainly had done that with his cancer research regardless of whether he was ever recognized for it. In all honesty, Rick wasn’t sure he had done enough at this point in his life to win an everlasting crown, but that wasn’t what really mattered to him in that moment. What mattered was that this goal of virtuous living gave his life meaning in the here and now. This was truly a case in which the race mattered just as much, if not more, than the finish line.
As Rick thought about this, he became especially grateful for the other runners in the Breakfast Club. If he had never joined them, if he had never gone running with them, he would never have been around such good people and such good conversation. If it wasn’t for them, he never would have had his ah-hah moment, and his race would have been run in vain. Now, his training for the marathon had new meaning. He was running not simply for the challenges of the race but also for the possibilities it afforded. Even with all its difficulties and hardships, the race would nevertheless be an experience of new life. Long before the finish line this new life was in itself worth celebrating. Amen.