Stewardship Sunday #2: On Deciding to Do the Impossible

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A documentary that tackles the Impossible Race. The documentary is available on Netflix.

Nehemiah 2:1-8
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

A lot, obviously, has happened since last we met. That is always true, but that’s particularly been true this week. Another mass shooting. More turmoil within our government. More turmoil abroad.

I’m gonna drop the perfect pastor bit and just be a citizen and a human for a moment if that’s alright with you: I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself getting more and more cynical. It feels like nothing is changing, nothing has changed, and we as a nation are okay with that. It feels like we’ve done nothing to curb our racism, our sexism, our homophobia, or our political gridlock.

This whole thing feels increasingly impossible.

Of course, we can all only focus on all of the upsetting and impossible things on the news for so long before we reach for a distraction. This isn’t a bad thing — it helps us to stay balanced and sane.

So I turned this week to Netflix. I was feeling in the mood for a sports movie.

Often, I go in search of a movie and end up with a documentary. I don’t know exactly why, but I think it has something to do with my preference for real life over fiction.

I found a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It’s about a 100+ mile endurance race in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants will tell you that the loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. The race is 1/3 on trails and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change.

For those of you who are not runners or hikers, let me translate: as you might imagine, that is an impossible amount of elevation change.

Though it takes five loops to complete the race, three loops is considered an achievement — completing three loops is called the “fun run.” Runners run day and night, and they have only sixty hours to complete the race. If they sleep at all, it’s only for an hour or two over the course of that sixty hours.

It took ten years before anyone completed the race. After that, it took another four years before someone else did it. Since the race began in 1995, only eighteen people have ever completed the race. Many years, no one finishes.

Only about forty people are selected to run the race each year, and the selection process is rather secretive. The race is the brain child of two men, one called Lazarus and one called Raw Dog. Lazarus does most of the talking in the documentary.

Lazarus keeps the price low — it costs $1.60 to apply and if accepted, participants must bring a license plate from their home state or country as their admission to the race. This keeps the race accessible to anyone who can afford to make the trip to Tennessee, so all kinds of people show up, including backpackers and poor graduate students. And, Lazarus says, “For $1.60 and a license plate, if people have complaints, I can just laugh.”
Since so much of it is off trail and the course is not marked, the course is sometimes hard to find, and when runners quit, they often take a long time to find civilization again. One runner completed only two miles of the course, quit, and then got lost, spending some 32 hours in the woods. He is currently the holder of the record for the slowest race pace ever, at sixteen hours per mile.

Lazarus, co-creator of the race, says that he sees the participants every year and really hopes that most succeed, but he knows most won’t. He says, “there’s a dark humor in that.   And some of the failures are spectacular – and really funny.”

Because the course is not marked and people often get lost, Lazarus says with a laugh, “People like to stick with a veteran just for the confidence of knowing where they are. But if you don’t have enough veterans, you just have people wandering in the woods all day.”  

The start of the race is also variable. Runners are told to show up at a particular day and time, but the race start time varies according to the creators’ whims. A conch shell is blown sometime within a 12 hour window, signaling that the race starts in one hour. This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Some years, the race begins in the dark. Some years not.

It’s definitely a race for crazy people.

Lazarus says, “People who have trouble with [any of the last minute or informal race details] are not going to do well on the course, because [no matter what,] it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” 

He continues, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish  anything without the possibility of failure….We like to give people the opportunity to really find out that something about themselves….People who do this are better for …what they’ve asked of themselves.”  

For all of his philosophizing about how good the race is, thought here’s an acknowledgement of how hard it is and how ridiculous anyone is to try it. Runners must prove that they completed every part of the loop by collecting a particular page from books placed along the route. The books are things like Death Walks the Woods, The Road Not Taken, and The Idiot. 

When runners quit, they hit a Staples Easy Button, which says matter-of-factly, “That was easy.”

In the documentary, as the runners are getting ready to begin the race, Lazarus says, “You’ve got about a minute to go – this is usually the part of the race where they’d give you lots of good advice, but if y’all’d take good advice, you wouldn’t be here.” 

It was then that I realized that what I love about running is the same as what I love about church. It’s not gonna happen the way I plan it, ever. We have to adapt and be flexible. We have to give a lot of time and effort to it, or it will fail — and most churches will eventually fail. And finally, we’re also all a little bit crazy, because this church thing is so hard that fewer and fewer people are trying it every year.

But, because we do it, we’re better for what we’ve asked of ourselves and each other.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus lays out another story about vineyards. This time, there’s a vineyard owner who leaves his vineyard to be tended by servants. When he goes to collect his share of his own vineyard, he sends slaves and then his son, all of whom are killed. Then Jesus asks the Pharisees, to whom he’s telling the story, what the vineyard owner will do. “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death!” They respond. 

But notice that divine retribution is talked about by the Pharisees, not Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t affirm their assumption. Instead, you’d think by his response that they got it wrong. “Have you never read in the Scriptures,” he says, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”?

Guys, Jesus says, you don’t get it. God doesn’t work like people do. You’re saying, if people won’t listen, and if they reject you, kill ‘em! Ignore ‘em!

This is not going to be that easy.

Church is not easy. Church in this age is particularly not easy.

And here we are talking about stewardship and building our future.

It sounds so easy, as if we can just speak it into being. But it’s not easy. Church is much more comparable to the Barkley Marathons than it was even a decade ago.

Church in America today does not just happen like it used to. It is no longer a given that our favorite church will always be around whenever we feel like going. Many churches meeting today will not be meeting on a Sunday ten years in the future. Like the participants of the Barkley Marathons, most will fail.

Now, before you get depressed about that, consider what runners all know: that attempting a hard thing is itself a virtue. Crazy people tend to flock together while doing the impossible — that community is best forged while enduring and adapting together.

That, just as Lazarus says, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

In this age, we church folk have the opportunity to find something out about ourselves, and just like that race through Tennessee, it’s not going to happen the way we plan it. If we have trouble adapting, and if we cannot be flexible and patient, we will have trouble building our future.

Just like running a race, you have to decide to start. We have to intentionally decide to build our future. We have to each make a decision that this place is worth investing in and building a future for. We have to intentionally decide that we as a community want to stay here, at 319 Granby Road, together, for the foreseeable future.

And here’s the Good News: first, we are not alone on the course. God is here. And all these other crazy people are here, because we just keep showing up.

Second, we have a history of rising to the occasion. We have a history of putting time, energy, and resources to do whatever we need to do.

You have the willpower and the adaptability and the generosity of a church twice your size, and that is no small thing.

You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday, year by year, because you believe in this place and you believe that we have a purpose together. You don’t have to. You could sleep in on Sunday. Most people do.
“That was easy.”

But you? You keep showing up.

The future is before us: we just have to decide, again, to step into it, that we have a purpose here worth fighting for. Completing the race will be hard, but it’s possible. You’ve shown that it’s possible: God got you this far.

This is true of trying to do good in the world, too.

In the epistle lesson today, Paul talks about forgetting what’s behind and straining toward what lies ahead, like runners on a race course.

So you’ll be filling out commitment cards soon.

And so I guess that this last sermon before you fill those out should give you some type of tips, words of advice. But I guess, like Lazarus says, if “y’all’d take good advice, you wouldn’t be here.” 

So I’ll just tell you this: you are loved. You will always be loved. And you have already given the greatest gift: you’ve intentionally made yourself part of this community. You keep showing up.

We are attempting a hard thing, but we are not alone. God keeps showing up, too, among us. And because of that, we have an opportunity. Yes, this whole thing seems impossible — the state of the world and the Church.

But like Lazarus says, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish  anything without the possibility of failure.”

So let us dare greatly. Let us fail spectacularly sometimes, and God willing, may it be funny. But let us know that God is with us, that we are together, and that we are, collectively, insane, and that’s a good thing.

Let us build. Amen.

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