Lenten Series: Giving It Up
Sermon: Giving Up: Control
Pastor Diane Gordon
Mt Pleasant FUMC
February 18, 2018
Scriptures: Psalm 25:1-10 NIV and 1 Peter 3:18-22 CEB
We have begun the season of Lent – the lengthening of days and light; our season of self-examination as we prepare our hearts for Easter renewal and resurrection. It is not uncommon to practice a fast during Lent. Some fast from red meat on Friday, others choose to give something else up. Our sermon series during these six weeks is titled “Giving it Up” and each week we will talk about some of the more difficult aspects of our human condition to give up. Today we are considering what it looks like to give up our attempts to control.
Living in a world that is naturally filled with uncertainty feels more comfortable to us when we develop practices and beliefs that give a sense of being in control. It’s not abnormal for us to have habits and rituals that we do every day. We get up at the same time. We do the same things. We know what to expect and a sense of order is created. It feels good when we know what to expect.
What can go wrong? Life. Life happens, and things go out of order. From little things like our alarm not going off to big things like a medical emergency, job loss, fire, flood, hurricane, mass shooting, relationship problems, financial problems…the list is long. We are not as secure as we think we are, so we wrestle control wherever we can, seeking to aright the imbalance we feel.
There are many things we cannot control, no matter how hard we try. For example, our genetics and how they affect our body and long-term health. Yes, there are new medical technologies being developed that might change our genetic coding for certain things. If my child could be spared from something horrible that can be fixed, I probably wouldn’t hesitate. But playing God and making everybody a blue-eyed blonde is just evil. Knowing the thing I’ve inherited, like a gene for breast cancer or a predisposition for diabetes or Alzheimer’s can give me the power to choose a life-style and medical care that will lead to health for as long as possible. Again – we seek to control, but sometimes we must simply do the best we can.
Experience has proved time and again that we cannot control other people, no matter how hard we try. Grooms think their beautiful bride will never change and brides think they will change their husbands. Well… What I’ve learned is that we are responsible to others, not for others. We can be faithful and loving, but they are still who they are. We cannot control other people. Not really. We may use coercion, emotional blackmail, impose rules of our own making, threats or punishments to elicit the behavior we desire, but ultimately, we cannot control them.
I’m still learning that we can never make everybody happy. Lincoln tried to tell us that a long time ago, but the people-pleasers among us think we can avoid conflict – or at least control its chaos – if we try to keep everybody happy. Again, it’s an urge to control. It doesn’t work – even if people aren’t direct and open about being unhappy, they will talk in the parking lot after the service or meeting. Admit it. We’ve all done it. Honest conversations one on one are best. Read Matthew, chapter 18:15-20. This is God’s advice to us on conflict resolution.
It’s taken a long time for some of us to realize, but we cannot control the culture around us. For decades the church attempted to keep doing business “as usual” because it worked back in 1965. Our Sunday Schools were overflowing, and pews were packed. New buildings were built to handle the abundance. Going to church every Sunday was the norm; whether you lived the other six days as a disciple or not. Church was where people were recognized as “faithful Christians,” doing their duty to bring their kids to church.
Then when the kids recognized the hypocrisy they saw being lived out, they rejected the church rather than the hypocrites, surmising that the institution was to blame for tolerating or condoning such in their midst. Rather than a hospital for sinners it was billed as a hall of saints.
In many ways they were right, but it doesn’t lessen our need for the church to be the place where God can be worshipped, and the gift of grace can be accepted. The people who are disciples of Jesus, are to be the Body of Christ revealing the love of Christ to all and shining His light in the world. We must name evil when we see it and work to live lives worthy of the gospel, both inside the church and outside its walls. Church is the place where broken people can find healing and hope. And just like everywhere else, we must fight the urge to control what God is doing and how God is affecting change.
Yes, you got it. We try to control God. In our desire for certainty we attempt to understand how God thinks and works and we often impose our own understandings of who God loves. We seek to define who the neighbor is that God expects us to love, setting boundaries that keep us within our comfort zones.
Unfortunately, we try to do the same with salvation. We paint a picture of heaven filled with people just like ourselves, while on earth, we demonize those with whom we disagree, and have decided are doing “it” wrong. (Whatever IT is.) Franciscan theologian, Richard Rohr has said:
“Most Christians remained in a fragmented and dualistic world, usually looking for the contaminating element to punish or the unworthy member to expel. While still daring to worship the cosmic Scapegoat—Jesus—we scapegoated the other links in the great chain. We have been unwilling to see the Divine Image in those we judged to be inferior or unworthy: so-called sinners and heretics, women, LGBTQ individuals, people from other races and ethnicities, the poor, those with disabilities, animals, non-Christians, and the Earth itself.”
Not only do we imagine we can control who God loves and saves, we attempt to control how God will answer prayer. We like to negotiate with God, saying, “Lord, if you will just grant me this one wish, I will never again _______.” We have trouble with “Thy will be done” when it doesn’t match with our will. We even attempt to control God’s timeframe. Lord, grant me patience. I want it RIGHT NOW!
The only thing you and I can control is ourselves. We can choose how we spend our time, attention, energy and money. God gave us free will so that we could choose the good because it’s the right thing – not because we will be rewarded. God desires that we will love the way God loves. Being human, we realize this is not easy. It might be easy for God, but it’s hard for us. Other people don’t do things our way and it irritates us! Other people are just plain mean, rude, unethical, impractical, and hard-headed. Still others are bleeding hearts and think and live so differently!
God expects us to love even the ones we cannot control. Ouch. That’s hard.
So, what can we do?
We must let God’s will reign in our hearts and minds. We must surrender control over to God and be transformed by the mind of Christ. This happens when we practice what Wesley referred to as the Means of Grace. These are spiritual practices that lead us into deeper relationship with God. Worship, prayer, study and contemplation of the Bible scriptures, fasting in order to shift our attention toward God, partaking in Holy Communion, and serving God in community, are all ways that God shapes and mold us, taking us out of our narrow world and into God’s kingdom.
Richard Foster tells us that, “The purpose of the Disciplines [means of grace] is liberation from stifling slavery to self-interest and fear. When the inner spirit is liberated from all that weighs it down, it can hardly be described as dull drudgery. Singing, dancing, even shouting characterize the Disciplines of the spiritual life.”
What we consider normal in our attempt to control the world around us, Foster calls “slavery to self-interest and fear.” We cannot rightly say we love God with our whole hearts when we are in bondage to self-interest and fear.
Loving God requires surrendering control of our lives in order to allow God, through the Holy Spirit, to transform us into the likeness of Christ. That transformation is a process that is evidenced by the Spirit’s fruit in the life of a Christian.
May this season of our lives find us mindful to let God go to work in our hearts as we intentionally spend some of our precious time practicing the means of grace because we truly long to take on the likeness of Christ Jesus and dwell in the presence of God. Amen.