Fanatics and Couch Potatoes

Luke 21

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discussed some amateur runners who had found it necessary to hire professional coaches to help them with their training.

We might think that these runners were getting this help so that they could improve their running times and win more races. But they weren’t. Rather, the runners wanted professional help in order to keep them from training too much!

They might run the one hundred miles a week that’s normal for marathon runners. But then they would think that this workout wasn’t enough. So they would push themselves through even longer runs. They would even add lots of hours in the gym.

Not surprisingly, with such routines, the runners’ bodies suffered and they began to develop all kinds of injuries. So the athletes hired the coaches not to improve their times but to give them reasonable training schedules that wouldn’t cause them harm!

It was strange to read about these marathoners at a time when there is so much concern about Americans being overweight and out of shape. Yet the over-trained and the out-of-shape do have something in common. They display the human tendency to overdo it. We either exercise too much or we don’t exercise enough. We eat too little or too much.

Of course, the same tendency is found in religion. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard entitled one of his books Training in Christianity. Kierkegaard recognized that people can get carried away with their religion.

But he also noticed that people can become completely indifferent to God. They make few efforts to serve God or their neighbors.

Kierkegaard felt that even though these folks had been baptized into the state church of Denmark and considered themselves Christians, they still needed “training” in how to put their faith into practice.

Unfortunately, the Christians who are most in the news these days seem, like the marathoners, to train too much. Religion takes over the lives of these souls—and they are called by the unflattering term of “fundamentalists.”

As too much running damages the bodies of ultra-marathoners, so out-of-control religious passions damage the souls of fundamentalists. Their numerous rules of living restrict their behavior until they seem to have little joy in life. At the same time, their confidence in the rightness of their beliefs makes them prone to criticize the behavior of others who don’t share their views.

Religious commitment is a tricky thing. Obsessive religious commitment undermines the love and peace that our faith is supposed to bring. On the other hand, if we don’t develop strong convictions, our faith will do nothing to help us live better, happier lives.

I suspect that the majority of the members of our mainline churches fall into this second category. Fanaticism isn’t our problem. We aren’t carried away by our beliefs. But since we hesitate to put our convictions into practice, our religion is unable to help us when we have to deal with serious problems.

We need, as Jesus says in today’s Second Lesson, a faith that gives us endurance. He promises to his disciples that “…by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Whatever our struggles—whether we deal with difficult people or stressful work or mental or physical illness—whatever problems we face, we’ll need to feel that God is somehow with us, helping us to “endure” in the race of life–and ultimately to win the joy and peace our faith promises.

Another sentence in the Gospel lesson also strikes a chord in the modern world. Christ says, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

There has been much debate through the centuries as to the exact meaning of this text. Many people at the time of Jesus felt that the world was coming to an end; some of the early Christians shared this belief. The belief survives today in predictions of nuclear catastrophe or ecological disaster that would destroy the world as we know it.

And whatever our beliefs about apocalypse, we may often feel “terrified” by current events. And much terrorism is caused by fanatical believers who have made religion itself repulsive.

Again, however: we need some strong beliefs if our religion is going to make any difference to us. If we aren’t committed to the way and the truth and the life of Jesus Christ, we can hardly expect religion to help us live our lives.

If we don’t have the courage of our convictions, our convictions will give us no courage. If our faith is not enduring, it will give us no “endurance to the end.”

Maybe we should pay more attention to those faithful worshipers who manage to get to church Sunday after Sunday. They are always here, whatever the season, whatever the weather. Maybe we should be encouraged by those reliable Christians who never say no–who always lend a hand, even when they themselves have burdens to bear.

While such Christians are examples of prayer and service, they won’t necessarily be church leaders. Their day-by-day ministry may hardly be noticed. And they certainly wouldn’t be considered “fanatics”.

But they aren’t couch potatoes, either. Over time, their faith has permeated their lives. As a result, they’re less anxious about little things, and their regular prayer and service to God has made them ready for the larger challenges.

The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican family of churches began with the Church of England, which was seen as a “via media”—a middle way between Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity.

I would hope that our faith is also a via media between the extremes of faith and indifference. I would hope that our version of Christianity would help us to be like the runner who stops killing himself and starts enjoying his daily workout. Or like the sedentary person who finally begins to exercise and discovers how much better she feels.

We all need a faith that carries us along without getting us carried away. We need prayer that is integrated into our schedules; we need positive attitudes that strengthen us for God’s service.

We need a middle way that is a happy medium—a faith that makes us happy.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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