The Unseeable, Unknowable Finish Line-Rev. Boone Clayton


Matthew 8:18-27; with Heb. 12:1-2

Last year in November, when we were about six months into the pandemic, I learned about a special type of race, a special type of running competition. The race began at the top of the hour, say 8 a.m., and you had to run 4.1667 miles. Doable for most runners who train regularly, but this race has a catch. At the top of the next hour, you had to run another 4.1667 miles; and at the top of the next hour, another 4.1667; and again, and again, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum, ad nauseum. Did I call the race special before? You could also call it terrible and tortuous. Known as the Backyard Ultra, this race goes on and on, hour after hour, and like Highlander: there can be only one. Only one person gets credit for finishing the race: the last person standing. Everyone else gets a DNF: did not finish.

In 2020, virtual versions of Backyard Ultras became even more popular. I’ve heard of people running around their neighborhoods, on a treadmill, around their backyards, around their driveways, and even, believe it or not, around their sofa in the living room. One winner I read about ended up running just under 250 miles for 59 hours. He even reported hallucinating smiling people out on the road that ended up just being trees once he got closer. This race is not for anyone without a great deal of both physical and mental fortitude. Not knowing where the finish line is, it turns out, can be agonizing for even the hardiest of runners.

Here we are in the 53rd week of the pandemic in our community and in our state, and we are only starting to have the vaguest idea of where the finish line might be. We started out, so innocent and naïve, cancelling church and school for two weeks, then another two weeks, then four, and then…somewhere in there we stopped trying to manufacture a finish line. (A Sound of Music song comes to mind: “Totally unprepared were we to face a world of COVID…”)

And yet face it, we did. We have found new ways of doing things and rediscovered old ways of doing things and we have Zoomed and Zoomed and Zoomed some more. And through it all, Pastor Deborah and I have been so proud of the new ways this church has sought to live into God’s call for our community – a call that asks us to be light-bearers, to be the hands and feet of Christ, and to love God and love others. So I am happy about that, but I am also…tired. I’m tired of masks, of distancing, of school not being normal; tired of not hearing the joyful noise of singing filling this space, tired of not seeing you all here on any given Sunday – or any day for that matter (although sometimes I imagine the hundreds of you at home all clustered together like tiny dots living inside the camera), and again, tired of masks.

So if COVID-19 and the pandemic are like running a marathon with no finish line, is there anything in scripture that might help us finish this race? Fortunately, the letters of the New Testament have multiple references to races. Unfortunately, most of them talk about running with a clear goal in sight or of running in vain – we have a clear goal in mind, but it’s only kinda sorta coming into view, and I don’t think we’re running in vain but rather with the purpose of valuing the health and very life of each and every person on God’s earth. The most helpful passage, I think, comes in Hebrews 12:1-2: “So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (CEB) Endurance we have had, but how much more will we need? The support we’ve given and received through that “great cloud” of people surrounding us has been amazing, but what if the cloud is getting tired, too?

Tired, tired, fatigued…this past year has left us full of COVID fatigue. Some things we tire of in common, and some things are more unique to our own situations. For example, some of us spend more time alone than we’d like, especially if we live alone. For others, we may get quality time around other people, but it is the same other people day in and day out – perhaps, for example, a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old. God, grant me the patience…

But that is COVID fatigue. That is the pandemic struggle of trudging forward in this endless race without knowing where the finish line. What about other struggles that don’t have a finish line in sight? When we think back on this past year, there are other struggles that have an unseeable, unknowable finish line. I am privileged in many ways in my life – too many than I care to count, if I am honest – but I realized this week that the COVID fatigue is not the only race we are all running, whether we know it or not. George Floyd’s death and the deaths of too many others…too many…have shown many of us what many others amongst us already knew: that we still have miles to go before we sleep when it comes to racial equality and justice, maybe more miles ahead of us than behind us. That “other” journey without a finish line may be the most prominent from this past year, but it is joined by more others: gender equality, income equality, and more. I said I realized this week that the pandemic race is not the only race without a finish line that we are all running, whether we know it or not. But the reason I only came to see that this week is because I didn’t have to realize it before – and I don’t have to see it or think about it on any given day that I don’t want to.

On that note, I am fond of the MLK quote about the arc of the moral universe. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s nice. It makes me feel better about myself and the world around me and what I do in life to make that world a better place. I can ponder the idea of the arc and feel good because the arc is on its way toward justice. If it gets there today, this year, or this century can be just fine by me because I will be just fine in the meantime. But the arc of the moral universe doesn’t have a finish line either. And this past year has shown me as clear as ever that it needs one. It needs an Operation Warp Speed to get its own vaccine. Because these are all finish lines that may not be in sight for any of us just yet, but they need to rest; and the handful of minutes before the top of the next hour just isn’t cutting it anymore.

And so we arrive at the gospel passage before us today. They are at Capernaum, on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee – which is what Jesus calls “the lake.” Crowds are coming, and Jesus wants to go to the other side of the lake. But this is a more complicated trip across the sea than we might realize: the Sea of Galilee is over 8 miles wide, east to west, and over 13 miles long, north to south. Being up at the northern tip and with the next passage being in Gentile territory around the southern end, this is the 13 mile “other side” journey. For reference, in terms of looking across water, the James River Bridge is 4.5 miles across. Now you can see Smithfield when you look out across that part of the James River, but you can’t see it well. And this is almost 3 times as far as that.

All of that fun geography is there to show that the disciples cannot see their destination when they set out on the boat. They cannot see the finish line, although admittedly this is not their first expedition onto and across the sea. But when a huge storm comes – a violent storm, according to Sarah Ruden’s translation – all bets are off and they need help. They don’t know if they will make it to the finish line they can’t see. And this is the type of boat they would have been in, so I can see being afraid. This boat, by the way, is called the “Jesus Boat.” It was recovered from the north-west shore of the sea in 1986 and preserved in a special climatized chamber. It has no known connection to Jesus, of course, but it has been dated to the first century as a fisherman’s boat and so it is exactly the kind of boat in today’s passage in Matthew. I don’t think I blame them for being afraid. We have been afraid with a storm of our own – a pandemic storm that will surely echo throughout the rest of our lives.

I think that we are at a similar point in our pandemic journey as the disciples were once the storm was scolded by Jesus and the wind and water became calm. The calm is nice, but they still had to finish the journey — and maybe their finish line on the other side was within sight by then. For us, with three vaccines out there becoming more available by the day, with 2 million doses being administered each day in the U.S., with 12.5% of the population fully vaccinated and another 12.5% having had at least one dose, we can finally start to catch a glimpse – if we squint – of the finish line off in the distance. We can finally start to imagine an end to at least one endless marathon. But we are still in the boat, with miles to go before we sleep. And we must not lose sight of the other races in which we run together, pursuing their own unseeable finish lines.

Like the disciples must have done as the storm built up steam around them, we can look around and see that we have each other. It might sound corny, but it is nevertheless true. And we have seized on our own storm as an opportunity to shine Christ’s light and to share God’s love not just with one another but with our entire community. As brothers and sisters in Christ, this is our calling and I am proud to have lived into it so earnestly with all of you.

But also, just as the disciples must have done, we can look around and see that we have Jesus with us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The footprints in the sand poem we emphasized in the fall of last year rings true again: God is with us, each and every step of the way. To restate and to paraphrase Hebrews 12: So then, with endurance, with one another and with the Holy Spirit in the boat with us, let’s finish the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.