Fury and Control

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

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Good Friday
Preached at St. Peter the Fisherman Roman Catholic Church in Eagle River, WI, at the ecumenical Good Friday service organized by the Vacationland Ministerial Association.

John 18:1–19:42

Back in grade school, I hated when we’d break up into teams and play sports. I wasn’t very good at sports—to this day, I’m still not good at sports—and that usually meant I was picked last or close to last. Unless it was something like “who could climb the monkey bars the fastest”, because I was a speed demon on the playground equipment. But basketball, baseball, soccer, ugh. I hated it.

But then, then, I got smart–or at least, I liked to think I got smart. Games have rules, right? And most games need someone to make sure the rules are followed. So I started volunteering to sit out and be the referee, or the umpire, when we’d play team games. As far as I was concerned, this was a win-win. I got to participate without the embarrassment of being picked last, but I also wasn’t really participating, and therefore, couldn’t let my team down. Perfect!

Of course, there was also another reason I liked playing ref or ump. That’s because being ref or ump in a game gives one an enormous amount of power and control in the game. Now I like to think that I was a pretty fair ref, and that even though I didn’t have any real authority I pretended to use it in a just and right way. But there’s no denying that I liked being in that position of control. It was fun. It was really, really fun.

I’m of course not the first human being to be in a position of power and control, and I’m not the first on which it took a hold. From the moment of our creation, we human beings have sought ever higher and higher levels of control. It seems to be wired into our makeup. We always want more control. Whether we’re toddlers demanding that we set our own bed time, children who want to play ref instead of team member, teens in rebellion against their parents, or older church folk clinging to the ways of the past, we live our whole lives looking for more and more control, to shape the world in our image.

And on some level, we’re pretty successful. Life is a constant struggle for control, losing some here, gaining some here. Some are better than others at it.

There’s just one problem, one barrier to our seizing total control. That problem is God.

And that brings us to Good Friday.

More than anything else, Good Friday was an attempt by humankind to take control away from God. You could argue that we already tried that in the garden of Eden. According to that story, we tried to take control away from God by making ourselves better, smarter, more like God. It didn’t work.

So we needed a new plan. And when God was foolish enough to come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we were presented with the perfect opportunity to take control. We killed God.

And you know what? We’re still not in control.

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

It infuriates me that chemical weapons are still being used as tools of war and terror, and that there are people dumb enough to try defending it or try using it to justify even more killing.

It infuriates me that no one seems capable of doing anything to stop people like Assad and Kim Jong-un, or the human rights violations in Egypt, Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, China, without invasion or bombs.

It infuriates me that my own country drops bombs on the people of Syria and then denies the refugees safe haven, literally condemning them to death, and somehow thinking its doing some great and noble service in the process.

It infuriates me that the most holy region of the world for three major religions has been reduced to a literal war zone because we can’t learn to get along, instead using our sacred writings as billy clubs to beat on our neighbors and justify unleashing our rage and hatred against those who don’t think like we do, because “the Tanakh/Bible/Quran says it’s okay”.

It infuriates me that around the world the LGBTQ+ community is hunted and murdered, and that our own thinking in our churches not only accepts that reality but cultivates it and allows it to continue, because instead of worrying about people being attacked and killed for their sexuality and gender identity, we’re more worried about offending people.

It infuriates me that we laud praises on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then go about our lives as a racist community, a racist country, because our white privilege allows us to ignore the tragedies we leave in our wake and pretend we’re not responsible for fixing them.

It infuriates me that around the world those of us with the most stuff on the whole refuse to help the poor and the needy as Jesus did, without qualification or stipulation, because by telling ourselves that they deserve their position or are responsible for their own condition we can justify doing nothing.

It infuriates me that congregations and churches will sacrifice people, ideas, hopes, dreams, their mission in order to hold onto their precious buildings and “the way they’ve always done things”, as if the building and our less-than-useful European traditions could do the work of God without the people and their dreams.

This is the world we created when we attempted to take control of it away from God? We thought this was a better future than the one God had planned? We thought that we were actually capable of overcoming our sinful natures on our own? We thought we could maintain control?

But we’re not in control.

If we were in control, the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday would have been just that: his death, the ultimate price we human beings can exact from one another.

If we were in control, there would have been no harrowing of the dead.

If we were in control, the tomb would have never opened. There would be no resurrection. Death would still be in control. Mary Magdalene would not have become the first apostle, sharing the good news of the risen Christ with the other disciples. God’s unconditional love and willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of hate in order to end the cycle of hate and broken promises that had characterized God’s relationship with humanity would never have been proved.

But we aren’t in control. We never have been, we never will be, and if our current and past attempts at remaking the world in our own image are any indicator, we never should be. We have always been slaves to a control that is not our own.

Once, that was Sin and Death, cruel masters of our own making that turned on us and shackled us. But today, today is Good Friday.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we are not in control.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that, though we continue to act as though Sin and Death still rule over us, God reclaimed us, banishing the hold Sin and Death had over us, reaffirming our place as beloved, if unruly and rebellious, children of God.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is in control, and that one day, our seemingly-endless struggle against that control will cease, that the reign of God that has already broken into the world will come to completion.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we tried to take control from God, and we lost.

We are still a world in rebellion; we don’t like to lose. We still inflict hardship and calamity and pain and suffering and torture and death on each other in our attempt to maintain what little control we might have. But thanks be to God that our sins are not the final word.

Thanks be to God that our power is fleeting.

Thanks be to God that our revolution did not sever our relationship with God, but rather provided God the perfect opportunity to re-imagine, restore, renew, and redeem that relationship.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday.

Featured Image: “Cross at ‘Dawn'” by *Robert* is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Out of Control

Advent reminds us that we can’t stop wars from happening, that we can’t prevent people from murdering other people, that we can’t cure every disease, that we can’t prevent every suffering, that we can’t prevent every (or any) natural disaster. Like when we witness a hurricane or a tornado tearing through our feeble human-made constructions, Advent is a time when we are humbled by the fact that so very, very little is really in our control.

First Sunday of Advent C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

I used to be someone who watched a lot of The Simpsons.  Not so much anymore, but I used to. I always loved the opening title sequence, especially the part where it appears that Maggie, the little baby with the pacifier, was driving her mother Marge’s car from her car seat.

When I was a little kid, I had a similar fascination with driving. I would sit in the back seat of my mother’s car on the way to school and sometimes, I would hold my hands out like I was holding a steering wheel. When she turned, I’d turn my hands. When we were going straight, I’d keep them straight. I’d tilt them slightly when we were changing lanes. It felt like I was really driving the car, that this big rolling metal machine was obeying my every command, was subject to my every demented whim.

Of course, in reality, I had no control over the car whatsoever. There was nothing I could do twirling my hands around from the back seat that could effect the direction of the car in any way. I had the illusion of control. It appeared that the car was going in the direction that I wanted to go. But the truth was that car was not under my control. Which was a good thing, because I was prone to letting my mind wander off as any kid does, and having the car in my hands was just asking for a disaster.

I wonder how far that illusion spreads. What do we really have control over? What can we really bend to our will? What things or events are really under our influence?

This is becoming a sad, repeating litany, but this past Friday, a man armed with an assault weapon entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, murdered 3 people, and injured 9 others. Such things are common now. We’ve almost become numb to them. I know I have. Open the paper, “Oh, another shooting, how grand.” And I’m off on my day like nothing happened.

But something did happen. Something is always happening. At times, it can feel very much like the events Jesus talks about: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

This is, as I said last week, nothing new. Both our snippet of the prophet Jeremiah and our warning from Jesus’s ministry were written during times of great upheaval. Jeremiah was writing during the Babylonian Exile, when the Babylonians had come down on the kingdom of Judea, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and deported the upper class people to a foreign land. Jesus’s words as presented in the Gospel according to Luke were a warning about the upcoming destruction of the temple by the Romans, which had already happened by the time the Gospel according to Luke was written.

I’ve never experienced having my home city destroyed by invaders. I’ve never experienced being deported from my home and barred from returning, or where returning would mean certain death. But 50 million other human beings on this planet know what that’s like. I can only imagine what that’s like, to have your entire life taken out of your control and forced to endure the pain and suffering inflicted on you by another.

It’s a legitimate question to ask what any of this has to do with the season of Advent, the season that starts today. It’s four weeks until Christmas. Shouldn’t we be focusing on the baby Jesus? Cute little cherubs with wings? Wise men, shepherds, angels, silent nights, family dinners, presents, trees, Santa Claus, wreathes, jingling bells, snowflakes? You know, Christmas? Why do we have to get through Advent first? And why does it start with these readings?

We live in a particular, peculiar time. In the entire approximately 14 billion year history of the known universe, there has been no time like the last 2000 years of recorded history. And it’s true—the event that marks the beginning of this extraordinary time is, indeed, the birth of Jesus Christ in a little town called Bethlehem, an event we remember every year during the Christmas season, which is indeed a separate season after Advent that starts on December 25.

But the birth of Christ, the coming of God-incarnate into the world is just the beginning. It’s just one “pole” marking off this extraordinary time. The other end? It also happens to be Christ’s coming, his coming again, the fulfillment of promises made for his return.

Where that pole is, when this extraordinary time will end, is unknown. We don’t know. We have no idea when Christ will return. The earliest Christians assumed it was going to be well within their lifetimes. When Christ didn’t return immediately, they adjusted their expectations, and they continued to wait. For 2000 years, we have waited, and who knows how much longer we will have to wait? It’s not really in our control at all.

And so we live, and work, are born and die in this great “in-between” time. Advent, really, is about the in-between, that tension between promise and fulfillment, between waiting expectantly and not losing heart. It’s about recognizing and relinquishing the illusion that we have any control over anything that goes on in our world at all.

Advent reminds us that we can’t stop wars from happening, that we can’t prevent people from murdering other people, that we can’t cure every disease, that we can’t prevent every suffering, that we can’t prevent every (or any) natural disaster. Like when we witness a hurricane or a tornado tearing through our feeble human-made constructions, Advent is a time when we are humbled by the fact that so very, very little is really in our control.

Advent, then, could be interpreted as a somber time, even depressing. That happens when we realize that the control we thought we had over the world really is just an illusion, like a child “driving” from the back seat of the car. For many centuries the season of Advent looked very much like the season of Lent, with purple paraments, with penitential rites, with lament. But that’s not what Advent has to offer. There’s a reason we’ve dressed the church in blue: blue is the color of hope.

“Hope? Hope? After everything I just said, you expect me to believe that this is a season of hope?” …. Yes.

Advent is a season of hope because, even though the world is not in our control, it doesn’t mean that the world is out of control. You see, we tend to put ourselves in the center of everything, and can’t imagine that there’s something or someone else who can be in control. But look again at our readings.

Jeremiah’s words aren’t from Jeremiah himself. They’re from God. I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David.

Nothing that Jesus talks about: not signs, not the coming of the Son of Man, not the day of the Lord; nothing comes from human beings. It is all from God.

Giving up control doesn’t mean we condemn the world to lawlessness and evil. It means acknowledging the control of the one who has always had the world in control.

Advent is the season of the in-between. It is the time between two extraordinary events, Christ’s coming and Christ’s coming. It is a stark reminder that we really have no control over the world at all, that the world does not obey our deepest and darkest desires, that it doesn’t bow to our whims, that it doesn’t look and act and feel exactly the way we in our brokenness would want it to.

And that, more than anything, is why Advent, this in-between time, is a season of Hope.

Featured Image: “Crazy driver” by Benjamin Vander Steen is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon–April 13, 2014–Palm/Passion Sunday A

Palm/Passion Sunday A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 131:9-19
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14—27:66

As kids, one of my cousins was known for being particularly competitive. I don’t feel bad telling this story, because he admits this himself, and we can all look back on it and laugh. He knows I love him.

His house had all the fun games and toys, and, especially, the video games. He had a Super Nintendo! For us kids, that was a big deal. He played that thing over and over, trying to master as many of the games as he could. He was good. Very good. But he wasn’t perfect.

Every so often, we could beat him. There was no small measure of satisfaction watching his face as the realization dawned on him that he was going to lose. He would get so angry, his face would get all red, he’d get all stiff trying harder and harder to beat us, but eventually, he’d finally admit that he wasn’t going to win.

And then, the strangest thing would happen. He’d throw his controller down, rip the game out of the machine, turn off the TV, and start yelling at the top of his lungs how badly he beat us, and he didn’t lose because the game didn’t end. No amount of logic could convince him that ripping the game out before it was over didn’t mean he didn’t lose.

He hated losing. Still does to an extent, but has since learned how to lose graciously. But not back then. He had to be in total control, and if he wasn’t going to win, no one was going to win.

I like to try and convince myself that the way he acted back then was abnormal, was somehow in the minority. Now that I’m adult, I am sad to report that his behavior was not in the minority—for adults. I’m telling you, go look up the website notalwaysright.com for examples of people placing themselves in a position of delusional absolute power—the “customer”–who then have subsequent meltdowns when their tiniest demands are not met.

We have this curious relationship with control. As long as things are going our way, we are perfectly content to let someone else do all the work and take all the credit. But the moment things are no longer to our liking, well, that’s different. The results can be harmful, even deadly.

The story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and his death, is a story of control. On one level, it’s about the control of the crowd. Jesus enters the city on their terms, to their expectations. They are happy to welcome a new king.

Except that Jesus is not the king they expect, nor the king they want anything to do with. So they turn on him, sentencing him to death by state-sanctioned lynching. They lay charges against him so that, through deceit, they can convince the state to carry out their vigilante justice.

But there is more to this story than one crowd sentencing one man to death. On a whole separate, deeper level, this story is the story of humanity. It is our story. It is how we react to control and trying to make things go our way. The pattern goes like this:

We think we have control, and when things go our way, we are content with the illusion. Things start to change, and not in ways we like. We attempt to assert our control and “make things right”, only to find out we have no control at all. We use any means at our disposal to assert some sort of control over the situation.

We do this all the time. There are the customers who throw a fit just so they can get free food when they are unhappy. When political votes don’t go our way, we attempt to replace those who voted with people who agree with us instead. In the church, when things don’t go our way, we threaten to walk out and abandon the community, especially if we think we can use our weekly offering amount as leverage. Or we give our money to a cause, but stipulate exactly how it can be used, refusing to let go of it.

What happens when the other force we run up against is not a restaurant manager, politician, or pastor? What happens when it is God?

Ah, things are a little trickier then. How can we control God? We can’t threaten to take our lives and business elsewhere; this all belongs to God. We can’t refuse to play the game of life, since we don’t have any other game. There is nothing we can withhold from God that God does not already have.

We can yell at God, and we have good examples of that in the Psalms. But other than that, we can’t really touch God. We can’t affect God too much.

Then, there was Jesus Christ. God incarnate! For the first time, we, humanity, could look God in the eyes. We could touch God with our own hands, hear God in words and language we could understand. We could shout praises to God coming through the gate to Jerusalem and know, without a doubt, that God heard us. What a gift, and what an opportunity!

At the same time, we realized that gift could be used to our advantage. Finally, we had some leverage. We had some control, because, for the first time, we could kill God. And that is exactly what we did.

In one day, humanity focused all of its anger, all of its rage, greed, malice, and our desire to be the ones in control. We exerted our will over God, and we won. We killed God.

Palm Sunday is not the end of the story. We have entered into Holy Week, the most sacred week in the church year. The story spans the whole week. If you think you know the ending, let yourself be surprised.

Featured Image: “Palm Fronds” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.