Going to Extremes

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

September 26, 2021
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture reading – Mark 9: 42-50

 When the modern Olympic Games were started in 1896, one of the first events added was the marathon.  This is a foot race covering about 26 miles.  The distance recreates the distance that an ancient Greek soldier was reported to have run from a battle at Marathon to Athens to announce the great victory in 490 B.C.  This race was included in the ancient Olympics, and so it was also put in the modern games.  By 1924, the official distance was standardized to be 26 miles.

Although the idea of running a marathon seems like an extreme event to most of us, it is not for others…

Next to occur was the triathlon.  For those who didn’t get enough of a challenge from standard marathon, they can try this one.  A participant must first swim about a mile in open water, then jump on a bicycle and ride a little more than 24 miles on an open road, and finally ditch the bike and run 6.2 miles to the finish – a total of 32 miles in all.  Just to add a little more to the challenge, some triathlons are held in some pretty miserable places such as Death Valley, California; the Australian Outback, and the various deserts of the Middle East.

Again…, this would seem to be going to an extreme that was out of reach for us.  And yet, you’d be wrong!

Now there is the Ironman Triathlon and the Ironwoman Triathlon.  This extreme event involves swimming 2.4 miles in open water, then riding 112 miles on a bicycle, and finally a full marathon of 26 miles – a little over 140 miles in all.   

Now that’s what I call going to extremes.  Wouldn’t you agree?

But there is one more…oh yes, there is one more: the Iceman Triathlon.  This consists of the same as an Ironman Triathlon except that the 2.4 mile swim is in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula that extends off the mainland of Antarctica toward the southern tip of South America, the 112 bike ride is across the ice and snow of that same peninsula, and the 26 mile marathon covers a glacier in that same area.  It has been accomplished by one man: Anders Hofman in 2020 just prior to the pandemic beginning.

And you can be certain that somewhere, someone is contemplating either matching Hofman’s triumph or coming up with a better one!

People all over the world seemed drawn to extreme challenges.  We love to watch them, and most of us are impressed by those who try them (although we reserve the right to say either “That guy’s crazy!” or “No way I could do that!”)  

But at the same time, even most of the participants will acknowledge that they are going far beyond the norm, way past what is usually expected as a limit or even a challenge, and out of the bounds of normal, human behavior.  Recognizing when extremes have been reached – or even exceeded – is not usually a difficult skill for most people.

So why is it that we can so quickly and decisively go to extremes when we are reading and trying to understand the Bible?

I have grown exhaustingly tired of people quoting the Bible AT one another, as if it were a painter’s pallet and they are waiting for the right moment to choose and deliver the right quote.

“An eye for an eye…”

“You reap what you sow…”

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you…”

And dozens and dozens more that we have all heard and probably used.

My Son’s favorite Bible passage might serve as a good example of why all of us should be VERY careful before we take what the Bible says to extremes.  Please take your Bible and turn to Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 18-21.  Hear and be afraid: 

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear and be afraid.”

This passage from the Law of Moses was written to the people of Israel before they reached the Promised Land, a time of at least 1400 B.C.  It might be satisfying to hear and think about if you teenage son is driving you crazy, but to take it literally and to commit murder is going too far.  Yet, it is in the Bible…

The Bible is full of literal language that is hard to hear and even harder to obey.  “Love one another” was given to the Apostles on the night of the Last Supper by the Lord himself.  He called it a “new commandment” meaning they had no choice but to follow it if they wished to obey God’s word.  That literal word still works for us today, even as we tackle loving the other who is an immigrant, the other who has different skin from us, the other who lives in a manner that bothers us, the one who is just so different that it makes us uncomfortable.  And yet Jesus gave it as a commandment.

Another is to “turn the other cheek.”  If you are seriously, publicly, or painfully struck, NOT striking back is not our first move.  We all secretly love it when the bad guy or the evildoer gets what’s coming to them.  But hit me in the face, and then tell me I’m supposed to turn my head and offer the other side?  I’ll get clobbered!  Jesus didn’t tell us about what to do after you get hit a second time…but this could be taken to an extreme in which you never stand up for yourself, you never attempt to stop someone from hurting you or even others around you.  That’s an extreme we just don’t need in today’s world.

Yet read Jesus’ words carefully in today’s Scripture reading.  He is using language that is harsh, vivid, hard to even hear, and figurative!  No one means for this translation – or any other – to be taken at face value.  When the words say “cut it off” they are meant to be taken seriously, but not literally.

After all, the hand may be used to steal, the foot to run away from something, the eye to look jealously upon a new car that your neighbor just bought, but sin begins in the thoughts.  If your thoughts cannot be controlled, then it won’t really matter which part of you is cut off; you will find some way to sin again.  

Also, we tend to love our immediate sins more than we love the possibility of eternal life existing at some point in the distant future.  This also ruins the act of cutting something off because it causes you to sin…as if that were possible!

Verse 49 refers to everyone being “salted with fire.”  It is true that sacrifices back in the days of Jesus were burnt offerings to the Lord; signifying fire burning away any impurities.  Take this to any type of extreme and you will have believers branded with a piece of red-hot metal, or books and movies and CD’s being burned, or some type of ceremony in which someone’s faith will be tested by being burned.  I can imagine this scenario because it goes toward proving one’s faith.  (A test must be passed BEFORE you are allowed to worship in our community!)

Jesus also referred to his “little ones.”  Because today’s Gospel reading is preceded by one involving Jesus using a little child as an example, and children flocking to him for a blessing, it is safe to assume that he was referring to children.  

But what if the extreme were pushed just a little here?  What if Jesus meant children, as well as new believers who need support and encouragement in order to grow in the faith?  Just like children, to put something in their way to deliberately block or hinder their growth would be a wicked and unfair extreme.  It would not make them “tougher” or “stronger” or “remind them to think about number 1 first.”  No, it would just frustrate them and slow them down…and eventually they might fall away from the faith.  Then what was accomplished?

Finally, although some will go to extremes in order to win people to a faith in Jesus Christ, and that is to be admired and copied, I don’t believe that extremes accomplish much if our vision for any believers cannot contrast with our own.  Jesus’ view of his family of believers was expansive; our own tends to be limited by what we want for others (and for ourselves).  

If we cannot disagree with others on matters of faith and music and worship and how the church should spend its money, then we will have a difficult time finding anyplace that makes us happy and comfortable when we worship. 

If we are not comfortable with differing opinions on verses and passages in the Bible and what they could mean, then we are closing our minds to the possibility that we could learn something new – even about a verse or passage that we know by heart.

If we are not open to inviting and truly making others feel welcome and valued in the community we call Heritage Presbyterian Church, then don’t worry…that problem won’t last for long…only until the church closes for lack of funds.

If we are not open to new ideas, new proposals, new methods, new and different people, then how can the family of Jesus Christ grow in other ways?

Going to extremes in what we do, say, think, act, and believe is a good way to end up displeasing God.  

We should consider the alternative…Jesus in all sorts of ways, Jesus in all sorts of interpretations, Jesus in all sorts of people.