Sermon for 11 Pentecost Yr C, 15/08/2004
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
In today’s second lesson, the writer gives us a recital and roll call of some of God’s faithful people over the centuries, and lists some of the events and circumstances they endured. The message in all of this is one of encouragement, to keep the faith come hell, heaven or anything else!
It was the Danish Lutheran philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard who once observed that: “The tyrant dies and their rule is over, the martyr dies and their rule begins.” In other words, never underestimate how contagious and influential suffering and faithful servants of God are on the world and within the church. The following story certainly underscores this very well:
Sheila Cassidy is an Australian born-British medical doctor, who in 1975 was working in General Pinochet’s Chile. At the request of a priest she treated a man sought by the Chilean police. Their response? She was arrested and tortured. During three torture sessions electrodes were attached to all parts of her body, one even inserted into her vagina. She was threatened with rape, with whipping and with being attacked by rats. After this she spent three weeks in solitary confinement until she was released.
Dr Cassidy says that it was her faith that sustained her during this time, that in solitary confinement she had “an enormous sense of the presence of God.”
That same faith motivated her to actively campaign against the Pinochet regime, but also to deny the fear she had felt.
The list of people in our second lesson who suffered similar circumstances also were vindicated in their suffering and blessed with the sense that God was with them. God was present with them to help them face and persevere what they were going through. Their sufferings and perseverance are also an inspiration to us and help us too. The following story reminds us of the necessity of perseverance to run the race of life and reach the finish line:
The Olympic Games, Mexico, 1968. The marathon is the final event on the program. The Olympic stadium is packed, and there is excitement as the first athlete, an Ethiopian runner enters the stadium. The crowd erupts as he crosses the finish line.
Way back in the field is another runner, John Stephen Akwhari of Tanzania. He has been eclipsed by the other runners. After 30 kilometers his head is throbbing, his muscles are aching and he falls to the ground. He has serious leg injuries and officials want him to retire, but he refuses. With his knee bandaged Akwhari picks himself up and hobbles the remaining 12 kilometers to the finish line. An hour after the winner has finished Akwhari enters the stadium. All but a few thousand of the crowd have gone home. Akwhari moves around the track at a painstakingly slow pace, until finally he collapses over the finish line.
It is one of the most heroic efforts of Olympic history. Afterward, asked by a reporter why he had not dropped out, Akwhari says, “My country did not send me to start the race. They sent me to finish.” 
Life can and sometimes does get to be like a marathon race and we too, like John Stephen Akwhari can suffer injuries and setbacks. Yet, we are called to persevere to the end; we do this says the author of our Hebrews passage by keeping focussed on Christ to finish our race as we journey through life. It’s so easy to focus on other things or people and not on Christ—but only Christ will keep us focussed in the right direction and provide what we need to help us finish the race.
Sometimes, however, the persevering becomes very difficult when we feel as though we’re facing our sufferings all alone. Yet, today’s lesson from Hebrews is a reminder to us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The faithful people of God are with us cheering us on, to help us, encourage us, and strengthen us. Remember this story:
There was once a father who had five sons who were constantly quarrelling. One day, weary from their bickering, he asked them to bring him a bundle of sticks. Handing the bundle to the oldest he commanded, “Break it.” The lad attempted to break the sticks over his knee, but his reward was a sore leg. One by one the other brothers were given the same command. None of them were able to break the bundle.
Finally, the father tore open the bundle and handed each son a single stick. “Break it,” he said. The task was done with little effort.
“My sons, if you remain together and assist one another you will have the strength of this bundle. If, however, you are divided among yourselves you will be broken as easily as these sticks.” 
There is indeed strength in the church as we support and encourage each other in our faith journey—and I know that you folks here in our congregation are very good at that, and may the LORD bless you for all of the encouragement, inspiration and care that you give to one another! The author of Hebrews understands very well that in the church “we are in this together;” as a community of faith; as a communion of saints (and sinners); we live and move and have our being. So keep cheering each other on as you run with perseverance the race that is set before you. For we all need one another and are inspired by one another; as a team working together, with the help and grace of Christ we shall be able to accomplish way more than we can by working alone; we too shall remain in the race and finish the race and thus reach our goal. Amen.
1 Cited from: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1999.
2 Cited from: Sydney 2000 Olympics website.
3 Cited from: Wm. R. White, Stories For The Journey (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), p. 79.