The vast majority of Americans have been glued to their TV sets this past week as we watched the Olympic Games in Rio. Even people like myself, who are not sports fans, find these games irresistible  as national heroes emerge, some old and some new. Who can resist watching Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, as he glides past the competition with strength, power and grace? Who can resist the Women’s gymnastic team who absolutely crushed the competition setting a team record that will likely stand for quite some time? Then there’s Katie Ledecky, our new swimming hero who earned four gold and one silver medal. Or how about David Boudia and Steele Johnson who were quite emotional as they won a silver medal in synchronized diving.

Let’s admit it! We adore our sports heroes. We love watching them.  We root for them, screaming at our TV sets as if it was going to help them to win. We are inspired by their stories as we learn of their victories and defeats in both their professional and personal lives. I think the reason why we enjoy our sports heroes so much is that they are living proof that hard work and endurance pay off in life. If we can summon the same kind of dedication and courage, we can accomplish great things as well.

But this morning, I’d like to talk about a different kind of hero. It’s the kind of hero whose posters do not grace our kid’s bedroom walls. It’s the kind of hero who doesn’t get million dollar endorsement contracts nor commands the media spotlight. These often unsung heroes are those I call Heroes of the Faith. They inspire us to grow in our relationship with Christ. Their wisdom and example are invaluable to us as we meet the challenges life throws at us.

Here’s a poster of a few of mine. It includes my grandfather Henri Reis who I’ve always felt a close connection to even though we never met. Meister Eckhart, a 15th century theologian, mystic and philosopher whose writings about the intimate connection between God and nature continue to inspire me. Martin and Katie Luther, need I say more about them? Mary Magdalene whom I believe was as much a part of Jesus’ original apostles as Peter and John. Her example to go against societal norms gives me the courage to be authentic in my ministry. Harvey Milk, who is an icon in the struggle for LGBT equality and who gives me the courage to continue the fight. Finally, there’s Walter and Dorothy Pitrusu, my beloved grandparents, whose love and support helped to make me the man I am today.

I share these heroes of the faith with you because I think they deserve more attention than our sports heroes do. Sure our sports heroes provide us with inspiration and entertainment. But our heroes of the faith are the ones who keep us going in the most challenging times. Their love, wisdom and example are invaluable to us as we seek to grow in our relationship with Jesus. If it has been a while since you thought about the heroes of your faith, then today is the day to do it! Today is the day to give them the spotlight because they’ve earned a gold medal in our hearts and in our lives.

This is exactly what the writer of Hebrews is trying to do in our Second Lesson. He presents us with a family album of sorts. He gives us snapshots of the heroes of our faith so that we may be inspired by their example, and be encouraged to remain strong. He tells us to remember the Israelites who crossed over the Red Sea. To remember these unnamed ones whose faith helped to tumble the walls of Jericho. To remember those who faith moved mountains and accomplished amazing things such as Daniel and David, Samuel and Rahab. To remember those who suffered because of their faith and yet remained steadfast in their commitment to God.

This list of heroes of the faith actually began in last week’s Second Lesson. So it’s a very long list indeed. The reason why the writer of Hebrews does all this name-dropping is because he wants to shine the spotlight on the heroes of our faith. Their stories and examples of courage are there to inspire us and give us strength no matter what life throws at us.

Brian J Whitfield, Assistant Professor of Christianity at Mercer University, helped to put this Second Lesson into perspective for me. He writes, “Why should we look at this photo album of faith and faithfulness?  Because in looking, we learn who we are. We learn that we are not alone and that we are part of a family with particular traits and characteristics.”

He goes on further to say that we’re supposed to remember these people so that we learn the lesson that faith endures. “Faith trusts God’s promises even when the present calls those promises into question. In the face of suffering, faith holds on and holds out because of the certainty of a future in which God has something better in store. Such are the lessons from our family photo album. We remember our company. We are not alone.”

At the end of this list of heroes of the faith, the writer of Hebrews gives us an indelible image of what it means to follow Jesus and live a life of faith and faithfulness.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also 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.”

These verse are some of the best known in the book of Hebrews. The analogy the writer gives us is both powerful and inspirational. He tells us that life is like a race. I would say that some days it feels more like an obstacle course or an iron man triathlon! Amen? Life is like a race. Sometimes we’re on pace for setting a world record or winning a gold medal. Other times we wonder how even qualified for running the race in the first place! But no matter who we feel on any given day, the author reminds us we do not run the race alone. Jesus is our coach and trainer, the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith. The NLT says “the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” The Message says the one “who both began and finished this race we’re in.” Jesus is our coach in this race. He gives us all the wisdom and training we need in order to run the race well. If we follow his advice and learn from his example we will be able to run this race successfully.

But he is not the only one who is supporting us. There is the “great cloud of witnesses” who are cheering us on from the stadium seats. These are the heroes of our faith I mentioned earlier. Some of them we know personally. Some we’ve read about in books. Others are complete and total strangers.

Whatever the case may be, their applause is loud and boisterous. Their energy gives us energy, just like the crowd at a sports event can give an athlete an extra boost in their performance. If we listen carefully, we can hear their words of encouragement and support: “C’mon! you can do this! We believe in you! You can win this race! Woo-hoo!”

This combination of Jesus as our coach and the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on results in one thing: The writer of Hebrews says “so that we may not grow weary or lose heart.” He reminds us that we can win this race! We can remain strong in faith in spite of stumbles and obstacles along the way. We can endure difficult times because we have the most amazing support structure that surrounds us on a daily basis. Like any professional athlete, we are going to have both good races and bad races. We will loose from time to time and even become injured on occasion. But, in the end, we will be victorious. We will cross the finish line!

So, Friends in Christ, I have some spiritual homework for you to do this week. While you’re gorging on the Olympics, take some time to think about the heroes of your faith. Make your own list of people  whose faith stories inspire you, whose wisdom guides you, and whose example helps you to run the race of faith and run it well.  We could not make it without their love, wisdom and support. Amen.

Copyright ©2016 by David Eck