And so, the Kingdom of God is Like… (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Many of you know I’m a marathon runner. It’s my thing. At some point along the way, I figured out that I’m pretty good at it. I’m not a world class athlete, not even close, but I can hold my own. And, my competitive nature is suited well to the sport, especially at mile 22 when every fiber of my being is screaming, “Stop moving,” my pride won’t let me lay down and die on the hard, grimy asphalt.

I think I’ve run 15 marathons, which is a fair amount, but nothing compared to some of my running buddies. Determining which race is next on the docket is practically a sport in itself. Course design, fan support, race logistics, and location all play into it. There’s a lot of hype and peer pressure associated with marathoning, with everyone always chasing their next qualifying time.

And, in my circles, we’re all chasing the unicorn. Trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. If you don’t know, it’s one of the more prestigious races around. Only the fastest runners get in – the best of the best. I’m lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to run it 4 times.

It’s a sight to behold: svelte, strong, determined runners all show up to compete against themselves and against others. As runners wait for the gun to go off, everyone silently ‘sizes up’ everyone else. Don’t get me wrong. There’s also a ton of goodwill and comradery… but underneath it all, we’re all there for the finisher medal, to best our opponents, and to maybe set a new PR (personal record). While we may train hours and hours together, on race day it’s an individual sport. It’s about what I can achieve. No doubt about it.

It’s also interesting to examine from a social construct perspective. Sure, everyone there is fast and deserves to be there, according to the race regulations. However, everyone participating also has the means, status, and ability to be there.

My friends and I joke that we pay $180 for the joy of running 26.2 miles. That’s how much it’ll cost to toe up at the line. We clamor to get a spot at that table. That $180 doesn’t include air or bus fare; doesn’t include hotels; doesn’t include meals; doesn’t include the swag you buy at the expo (and when these new fangled tech tanks cost $80 and shoes cost $150 – that’s not insignificant); doesn’t include if you decide to go to the Red Sox game while you’re there. I don’t know, all told, it could easily cost $1500 to run the Boston Marathon. All of which doesn’t take into account, the fact that we all have the means to take off work, have had the space in our lives to train 60 miles a week, and the personal arrogance to believe we deserve to be there.

We’re all privileged. We’re all first. We’re all invited. We all have a seat at the table.
And none of us are giving up our racing bibs to slower, uninvited runners who frankly, can’t cut it.
That’s not how the Boston Marathon works.
Heck. That’s not how life works.

Registration for the Boston Marathon happens in September. As I mentioned, you need a qualifying time to get in. Last September, I had my qualifying time from the Philadelphia Marathon, with a cushion of 3 ½ minutes. Because, here’s the kicker, just because you meet the time requirements for your age group and gender, that doesn’t mean you get in. You just never know.

Everyone said I was a shoe in – I had not only met the required time; I beat it by minutes. I hoped this would be my first Boston after birthing Maddie. I submitted my application, made my hotel reservations, and did the thing that pastors have to do if they are running the Boston Marathon: made sure it didn’t fall over Easter weekend.

I was set.
Except I wasn’t.
I didn’t get in.

My time wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t among the field of the best. My invitation had been rescinded.

I had earned my place at the table. And still, I was denied.
Others who were better, faster, and fitter than I would run.
And, I’d be on the sidelines.

It was as if Saint Peter slammed the gate to the Kingdom in my face and said, “Sorry, you didn’t quite make the cut it. The Kingdom’s not for you. But, you can always try again next year.”

So, this year the organizers of the marathon made the time requirements even stiffer, because by shrinking the field of qualifiers it reduces the number of people they have to deny entry to, because now you have to be even faster to get in. I have a qualifying time again this year, with another cushion of 4 ½ minutes off the new standards. But there’s no telling if I’m ‘in’ or if I’m ‘out.’ It’s up to the powers that be…

Thankfully, the Kingdom of God doesn’t operate like the Boston Marathon.
The Kingdom of God has less stringent requirements than the Boston Marathon.
There are no qualifying times to meet; no social statutes to climb; no fees for entry. The Kingdom of God is not earned.
It’s given. Freely.
To you and me.

It’s given to:
To those who affirm Jesus’ name and those who claim no faith.
To those who run with the wind and those who lay like the sloth.
To those who boast of successes and those who cannot face the day.
To those who are strong and those who are weak.
To the young and old, the rich and poor, to enemies and friends…
it is given.

I imagine Jesus delighting in joy as he mischievously says, “Let me tell you what the Kingdom of God is like…”

It’s like a 5-kilometer race, cobbled together by a bunch of unqualified organizers, who are mostly thankful they remembered coffee is the nectar of the gods. It’s not a fancy race. Not like one of those big charity races with thousands of runners, flashy marketing, and cash prizes. It’s a race with a few hundred participants, many of whom haven’t run further than from the grocery store to their car in a rainstorm in the last twenty years. Many of them will walk.

Cheering is minimal as the fastest runner crosses the finish line. There is no medal hung around her neck. We all expected her to win anyway. This is a different kind of race. These runners aren’t here for the sport of it, but rather for the pure joy of it.

When the last runner finally comes into view – and let’s be truthful, the last guy is walking, with a cane: huffing and puffing and wiping sweat off his brow, wearing all the wrong clothing. But, he didn’t stop once and never gave up – when he crosses the finish line: every spectator, every runner, every walker will cheer with wild abandon. They will lift him up on their shoulders, handing him bananas and Gatorade, showering him with cool water, and all will shout, “The last will be first!”

And the first-place runner will hang the medal around his neck

The cherubim and seraphim will dance and cheer louder for this last one than for any other. He will be invited to stand upon the podium and as he climbs to his place, he will beam with worth and pride for the first time in his life.

Everyone knows the last place runner spent more time suffering on the course, and overcame more challenges, and persevered more than any other runner in the race. And all are happy to celebrate with him.

And so, it is in the Kingdom of God…
Jesus says, “Friend, move up higher. A place is reserved for you.
And bring your neighbor and co-worker and sibling along too. It’s a wide podium.”