“paddling in perseverance toward Christ”

This is the last sermon that I will preach at the Kansas City Rescue Mission. K.C.R.M., it’s been fun. May God continue to bless your ministry to those in need.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

On August 4, 2009, just a little less than three years ago, I was sitting in my kayak at Kaw Point, where the Kansas river meets the Missouri river. I was participating in the Missouri River 340, one of the longest river races in the world. It is a canoe and kayak race that stretches between Kansas City, KS and St. Charles, MO. The race organizers describe it as “340 miles of wind, heat, bugs, and rain,” and you only have 88 non-stop hours to complete this distance. A large number of people who sign up and start the race at Kaw Point drop out somewhere during those 340 miles. They face dehydration, heat exhaustion, or simply, exhaustion. The record for the course is 36 hours and 48 minutes, set in 2010 by a tandem team. The record for a single person completing this race is 37 hours and 46 minutes, set in 2008 by the man who currently holds the Guinness world record for the longest distance paddled in 24 hours.

There I was, sitting in my 14 foot kayak in the murky waters of the Kansas river (during later visits to Kaw Point I have even seen snakes swimming around, poking their ugly heads several inches out of the water as their bodies trailed behind them), about to embark on one of the first real adventure races I have competed in. I did not know exactly know what I was getting myself into. I was somewhat nervous, but was prepared. I had a little over three and a half days to paddle a kayak, by myself, for 340 miles down a river I had never been on before – yeah, I was a little nervous. Somehow, I had even convinced my mother to come out and be my ground crew for the event; she would meet me at the various mandatory checkpoints along the way, helping me with food, water, and other supplies.

As the days passed by on the river, I was sure to drink plenty of water in the stifling August Missouri heat, sun, and humidity. You and I know that summers can get more than a little warm and more than a little humid up here. I made sure that I was eating plenty of food; I needed the energy. Ever so slowly the mile markers passed by. Even at the first checkpoint, 50 miles into the race, people were already dropping out due to dehydration and other issues. However, I looked ahead, thinking about the next checkpoint, and focused on making it there. To tell the truth, I did not want to think about the end of the race; I could not think about 340 miles all at once. It was overwhelming. I only thought about the distance to the next checkpoint, whether it was 50 miles, 27 miles, 36 miles, or whatever it might have been. The goal before me was the next checkpoint on the river.

Each day, I paddled over 100 miles and did not stop until it was four or five o’clock the next morning. And even then I only stopped for a short meal and a few hours of rest. During the entire 340 miles, I only slept for about eight hours; for that first major ultra-marathon endurance race, my ultimate goal was simply to finish within the allotted time and to make it to each checkpoint before the cutoff time so that I would not become disqualified.

During the day the heat and sunlight kept me awake; during the night I had to force my eyes to stay open. Closing my eyes just for a second might mean falling asleep and being swept into the debris that is so abundant on the muddy Missouri. Even worse, I could tip over. The river has barge traffic and sand dredges all along it; if I allowed my exhaustion to get to me, it may have meant losing focus and coming too close for comfort to one of these. I had no desire to be swept under an oncoming barge or through a sand dredge.

On the final night of the Missouri River 340, after waking up from only an hour of sleep at a city park in Hermann, MO, my right shoulder suddenly felt as if someone had beat it to a pulp with a sledge hammer. That moment was the first time I truly considered dropping out of the race; I was in so much pain that I could barely move my arm. I told myself that if I felt okay by the time I left before the sun rose, with one more hour of sleep, I would continue the race. Thankfully, by the time I was ready to leave and finish the race later that day, and with the help of a few ibuprofen, the pain had dissipated.

Furthermore, paddling in the darkness on the water, my constant state of exhaustion played tricks on my mind. Trees on the riverbanks suddenly looked like dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park”; I thought I was seeing construction on bluffs where there was no construction. I thought I saw parking garages that were built right on top of the Missouri river at three o’clock in the morning. It was a difficult race, but it was a race that I had to persevere through. It was a race that was in no way easy for me, a beginner to the sport of ultra-marathon endurance canoe and kayak racing. But I had a goal, and that was to make it to each checkpoint on time and to ultimately finish the race that was before me.

The author of Hebrews tells us the same thing about following Christ. While they did not have the sport of canoe and kayak racing during the time of Christ (Christ, however, did spend a lot of time on boats, so if they did have canoes and kayaks…. Well, who knows….), one of the popular sports of the day was running, such as in the original Olympic games from ancient Greece. The author of Hebrews tells us that the Christian life is like a race, and we must run it with perseverance, looking the entire time to Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Each of us knows that in following Christ, and in responding to God’s abundant grace, and living as a disciple of God’s law of love, fulfilled and manifested in Christ himself, this race is not an easy one to run. Each of us knows that we may go through difficulties when we put Christ first, many of those possible setbacks coming from the world around us.

We may become tired and exhausted as we face apparent obstacles before us. We may become discouraged or our worries may bog us down. There could be any number of things that appear unexpectedly in our lives. As a result we might be tempted to put a halt to this race that we are running (or paddling) toward our goal in Christ. Just like the huge barges that appeared unexpectedly during the day as I paddled, tired and exhausted, with blisters the sizes of dimes and quarters forming on my hands, I had to maneuver my way around them, keeping the goal of the next checkpoint at the forefront of my mind.

Each one of us, through everything we are facing in life, cannot become discouraged; we must keep the hope and the promise that is found in Jesus Christ as our focus and as our goal!

On Friday we will remember the death of Christ; he died on a cross so many years ago so that each one of us, and all of humanity, would have an opportunity, through our mediator Christ, to be reconciled to God. Christ was an atoning sacrifice. The author of Hebrews tells us to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely.” These weights and sins distract us from our goal in Christ and from our fulfillment in Christ. Today, I would ask each one of us: what are the weights and sins that are pulling us down? What are the sins that are clinging so closely to you and separating you from God? Are we putting our faith in something, or someone, besides God? Are we not demonstrating a love and respect for our neighbor that is true to the example of Christ? Ask yourself: what is weighing me down? What sins are clinging to me that I can cast aside in order to run freely to Christ? Just as Christ was put to death on a Friday so long ago, today we must put to death the sin that is separating us from our goal in Christ!

However, death was not the end for Christ. On Sunday, Christ rose from the dead! He conquered the death, despair, and destruction that sin leaves in our lives. Remember the hope that we have in a risen Christ! Remember that we are running a race toward a Christ who is alive and who is working in our lives today! Remember that Christ has already conquered death and sin and we can hand our worries, our doubts, our anger and hate, and our idols over to Christ! And through Christ, these things will no longer be in our lives, but through our resurrected Savior and Messiah, we too are resurrected out of our death and our sin; we have a new existence in Christ. We have new life as we run this race toward Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and we run this race without the weight of our sins burdening us down!

Christ: “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Christ has already endured the cross and taken his seat beside the throne of God. Christ endured the hostility of sinners, so that each of us may not grow weary or lose heart! I realize that truly following Christ can be difficult, but again, do not grow weary or lose heart! Christ has been there and has experienced it; with Christ as our goal and as our focus, even with all of the distractions and the difficulties of this marathon, we too “may not grow weary or lose heart!”

Each of us must remember that we are not alone in this race. The author of Hebrews tells us that, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” In this race we need the encouragement and the support of the community that is found within our friends who will cheer us on when we struggle or doubt, or whatever else it may be. Many times, these encouragers are our family and friends. A lot of times they are people that we find in the Church, there to help us grow, and encourage and challenge us to become stronger in our walks, runs, marathons (and even paddles) with Christ. I could not have finished all 340 miles of that first ultra-marathon endurance race in only three days if it were not for the encouragement of those fellow racers who paddled their canoes and kayaks next to me in the exhausting darkness of the humid night, or during the miles of windswept river with the wind blowing against me; I could not have finished without the encouragement of my mother when I met her at the checkpoints, or the motivation that other race volunteers gave me along the way. Each of us, in this race towards Christ needs one another. We need the support of community from other believers who are persevering through this same race, who also have Christ as their goal.

It is Easter; remember that Christ has risen. Remember the race that is set before us and run it with perseverance and encouragement. Run it without the weight of sin. Run it and do not grow weary or lose heart. Christ has already conquered death and sin; know the hope of Christ and the goal that is before you in Christ!

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