Take It To the Limit

Sermon preached July 8, 2012

Texts: Mark 6:1-13

Last summer, some of the United Methodist Churches in the Duluth area put together a softball team to play in a recreational church league. Even though I had not played organized softball for at least 18 years, I signed up to play. We are playing again this summer. I have noticed something different about softball between my mid-thirties and my early fifties. Muscles tighten up more easily. Last year my quad muscles tightened up so much that it took two weeks for them to recover fully. A couple of weeks ago, running to first base, my left calf muscle tightened up and I needed a pinch runner. I don’t remember those kind of things happening twenty years ago. I am discovering my body has some limits.
It is not an entirely new discovery. I remember when I was in junior high school discovering these basketball hoops at a grade school in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where we often traveled to visit relatives. They were maybe six feet instead of ten feet, and that allowed me to dunk a basketball, my only opportunity ever. If I could really have dunked a basketball I would have been Irv St. John’s best friend at East High School. My body was just not constructed for basketball jams.
The first part of the reading from Mark’s gospel is about limits. “And he [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” The “there” is Jesus’ hometown. He wasn’t able, in his hometown, to do some of the things he had been doing other places. They were not open to him. They could not get past his previous identity. It was a stumbling block for them. Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?
Hometowns can be tough places sometimes. They are places that can say “He’s become too big for his britches.” That’s kind of what they were saying about Jesus. Baseball great Mickey Mantle was from the small town of Commerce, Oklahoma, with about 2,500 hundred people. In one biography of Mantle the author wrote: “Some of Commerce resented its successful native son, a factor in the Mantle’s family move to Dallas.” (Falkner, The Last Hero, picture caption). Hometowns can be tough places, I guess.
I am genuinely grateful that here in Duluth I have been able to be a pastor, even though I grew up here and some of you knew me when I was a kid. I have been able to function as a pastor for families I have known much of my life. Just Saturday I officiated at what unfortunately was the third funeral in the past two years for a family that grew up just blocks from where I lived on Avondale Street in Lester Park.
Anyway, the attitudes of people in Jesus’ home town were limiting factors for his work. “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Even Jesus bumped up against limits. We confront limits in our lives – not tall enough to dunk a basketball, muscles that need more stretching than they once did, born in a particular place and time, the ultimate limit which is we don’t live forever.
The theologian Douglas Ottati has helped me think about limits. He writes: People wield significant but nonetheless limited powers…. Human decisions and actions make a difference in how things turn out…. On the other hand, we clearly do not control all outcomes and events. (Hopeful Realism, 17)
We live within limits, and there is value in recognizing that. If our moments were endless, we might not appreciate any particular moment very deeply. Every choice we make sets the context for the next choices we make, adding significance to our lives and choices. We want to pay attention, because we can miss something important that will not happen again. The people of Jesus’ hometown missed that moment for healing and wisdom. Perhaps at a later time, they became more open, but even then, time was lost.
We live within limits, and while we need to recognize and acknowledge this, we also need to be careful not to draw the lines around our limits too quickly and easily. One of my college psychology teachers at UMD was a man named Robert Falk, R. J. One of R.J.’s favorite quotes was from a guy named John Lilly. Lilly was born in St. Paul in 1915 and was a medical doctor and a neuroscientist. He did significant work with isolation tanks and on dolphin communication. R. J. Falk loved this John Lilly quote: In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended.
Lilly recognized that we live with limits, but often our limits are internal and when they are it is our job to push against them, because some of our limits are meant to be overcome. I cannot change my height, nor the fact that I am 53. There are some limits there that I need to acknowledge. But if the limits in my life are my ideas about what it means to age – like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” then maybe some of those limits need to be taken down.
There are limits in life, but many of them are not pre-determined. The Spirit of Jesus is one that helps us push against the limits, at least the limits that should be pushed against. That’s what happens as we continue in the gospel reading for today. Jesus has experienced some “failure.” He was limited by the attitudes of others in his own hometown. Those were changeable limits, but they could not be changed by Jesus, they would have to be changed by those who could not get past his family history or previous vocational identity. So Jesus experiences some failure in touching the world with wisdom and healing.
Yet as the story continues, Jesus will not let one failure limit him completely. He continued to go about teaching and he recruits others to the mission. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” And there is success. So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
We live within limits. That is simply a part of life as given by God. We should neither ignore our limits, nor should we give into them too soon. Some of the current limits in our lives, especially inner limits, are meant to be pushed against and changed. We should neither ignore our limits nor give into them too soon. We should be neither fool-hardy, as if we had no limits, nor risk-averse, as if every limit were set in stone. As followers of Jesus, believers in the power of God’s love, perhaps one of our theme songs should be that 70s Eagles’ tune, “Take It To the Limit.” Our first question should not be about limits but about where God might be leading us. Take it to the limit.
The Spirit of Jesus in which we are invited to live is a spirit of adventure, of taking it to the limit. The power of God’s love is a power that helps us break through some of what we may have perceived as impenetrable limits. The Spirit of Jesus in which we are invited to live is also a spirit of wisdom, recognizing that some limits cannot be overcome. We are invited to live with both wisdom and adventure and courage – take it to the limit. We recognize, in the words of Douglas Ottati that: In a world of fragmentation, misorientation, conflict, and destruction, nevertheless possibilities for good abound (Hopeful Realism, 19). Giving in too soon to perceived limits means we miss some of those possibilities for doing good. Take it to the limit. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition and of the United Methodist Church, once said, “Do all the good you can.” The “can” implies some limits, but if we give in to limits too easily or too soon, we will find that we are not really doing all the good we can. Take it to the limit.
To live in the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of wisdom, adventure and courage, is something we are invited to do in our lives and in our life together. Even as this new church, combining the former First UMC and the former Chester Park UMC, we have some limits. Money, building space, people, energy are not endless. There is more good to do in the world than we can do. We will have to say “no” sometimes to worthy projects. Yet to focus too much and too soon on limits will prevent us from being open to what Jesus may want to do in us an through us. Yes, there are limits, but by the power of God some of what we think of as limits will be overcome as we move into the future together.
Wisdom, adventure, courage. The Spirit of Jesus. Take it to the limit one more time, always one more time. Amen.