The Belfast Half Marathon. It might be the highlight of my ten years at Fitzroy. There was our Van Morrison Service the day before his 70th Birthday Concert on Cyprus Avenue that attracted one hundred visitors from all over the world! There was our first Live Nativity that made UTV News. We’ve had some amazing U2 nights. We’ve welcomed Bruce Cockburn, Ricky Ross, Jim Wallis, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Barbara Brown Taylor.

Yet, yesterday’s Sunday morning was as satisfying a day at the office as I have ever had. First there was the sense of Church community as we gathered at the front of Church in the rain. The worship band started rehearsing on the Church doorway. The kids started setting out jelly babies and oranges.

The first runner was not long in arriving, just after 10 o’clock. A Kenyan floating over the surface and hardly breaking sweat. He waved as we cheered him down University Street. Not long after that our own Fitzer Gladys Ganiel turned the corner. The noise level went up a notch as we cheered one of our own, only second (!!!!) in the Women’s Race but only because we hadn’t tripped up the leading woman a minute our two before.

And something happened. Who knew but there is something addictive about cheering half marathon runners. Not long after Gladys we were past the elite runners and, as we were situated just before the 12th mile mark, the runners seemed to benefit from the music, the clapping, the cheering. The smiles on their faces, their waves. You could tell that we were contributing.

It was one of those moments when I realised that a hunch, that might not work, had worked beyond my wildest dreams. My plan had been to cheer the half marathon and then do a short worship service half an hour later than our usual time.

My sermon series just now is entitled BEING WITH and so I had scheduled this week’s to be BEING WITH THE CITY. The sermon was based on Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish exiles in Babylon -  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer 29:7)

As Jesus was called Emmanuel which means God With Us so he sends the Church to be with. In Fitzroy’s engagement with the city on University Street, during this half marathon, I have never sensed such a BEING WITH. I was so pleased that we were not inside the building sending praise up to God like worship was some Sunday Cul-de-sac. This was the Church out of the walls loving the city.

Oh you might say that cheering a few runners is not world changing but the metaphor was inspirational and for the runners it was way more than metaphorical. The changes in runners’ faces was immediate but the social media response afterwards was incredible. So many spoke of the lift that they got as they turned the corner on Botanic Avenue and heard our music and cheering.

In my sermon I reminded the congregation that I had eyeballed politicians about the Half Marathon interrupting Worship in the city and how they needed to respect us more. I then asked a question. What is the best way to BE WITH the city? What is the best way to love the city? To shout and demand our rights or to be on the street clapping, cheering, loving?

What I never expected was how much our congregation loved the experience. What it did for us as a community. It was service of the lightest touch BUT it was joyous. At 11.30 almost all of the runners were past us BUT it was not easy to get Fitzers to stop cheering and come into the service. Sometimes serving is more worshipful than a worship service! 

Thank you to all the runners for running for so many good causes. Thank you runners for smiling, waving back and then for your emails and social media postings. To be called the highlight of the route or the best entertainment of the day was as much of a lift to us as any of our cheering was to you. See you next year!


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