Sunday, August 16th, 2015 – 12th Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69
Hymns: “Mighty to Save”, “Come, Thou Almighty King”, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, “Break Thou the Bread of Life”, “Wonderful Words of Life”
Out of Control
We just love being in control, don’t we?
It’s something that’s instilled in us very early on. When we’re small children and we misbehave, we’re told to control ourselves. As we get older, we’re told that we need to learn to control our emotions. When we learn to drive, we’re taught tactics to maintain control of our vehicle at all times and in all conditions. When we enter the workplace, we’re taught strategies to maintain control of our work environment.
We control where we go to college. We control how well we do (some control it better than others!). We control (to a degree) what we do after college. We control when we get married and to whom. We control when we have children and how many.
We are so reliant upon having absolute control of our lives that just the prospect of giving up even the slightest bit of control completely freaks us out.
Think about the last time you were on an airplane. Chances are that, unless you had a particularly turbulent flight, 90% of the time you were on that airplane, possibly including the entire approach and landing sequence, was handled by the autopilot. A computer was in control. The cockpit could’ve been empty for that period of time, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
But it wasn’t. There were two aircraft commander-trained pilots in the cockpit, ready to wrest control away from the computer at a moment’s notice. Though the computer was flying the plane, they were still in control. It’s a comfort to them, it’s a comfort to their airline, and most importantly, it’s a comfort to us, the paying customers onboard the aircraft.
Consider, though, an even larger example. Let’s discuss, for just a moment, USS Harry S Truman. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, she is nearly a quarter mile long, displaces 103,900 tons of weight, is powered by two nuclear reactors each powerful enough to turn on every light in Kansas City, embarks over 5,000 personnel, and carries enough aircraft to prevent another airplane or ship from getting within 50 miles without the commanding officer’s consent.
And yet, when Truman departs Naval Station Norfolk next month to begin her next deployment, it will not be under her own power, nor will it be at the commanding officer’s orders. She will be guided out by a set of tugboats, commanded by a harbor officer, and will depart the bay only when the Coast Guard commander-on-scene states that the transit area is secure and gives consent. Meanwhile, CAPT Ryan Scholl, her commanding officer, will be on the bridge, completely out of control of his own vessel, until such time as Truman enters navigable waterways and the harbor tugs and Coast Guard relinquish control.
Given the way we’re taught to control everything, ESPECIALLY the way members of the military are taught to control everything, I can only imagine how helpless the CO of an aircraft carrier must feel in the back of his mind, having to rely on somebody else to be in control of a floating city, even just for a few minutes. It’s simply not human nature.
The desire for control has been human nature for thousands of years. We’ve finally come to the end of the sixth chapter of John with today’s Gospel reading, a chapter that began with Jesus feeding the 5,000 (plus women and children), who immediately turned around and began asking him for more. They wanted control. And why not?
These people were the people Israel, Jewish folk of Hebrew descent. All their lives, they would have been taught control, control, control. They were to control what actions they took as children, as teenagers, as adults. They were to control exactly how their society functioned. They were to control their families, whether husbands, wives, or children. They were even expected to take some degree of control over their own spiritual well-being: it was up to each individual to make sure that they completed the pilgrimage to the temple each year, made the appropriate sacrifices, and received the appropriate blessing from the priests. If they lost control of the situation, they were surely doomed.
So you can imagine what these people must’ve thought when Jesus gave them the final words in chapter six. Things have been steadily going downhill in many of their minds – things started out great, with him feeding them dinner for free, but then it progressed from there to him saying that the bread of life was what would fill them, not physical bread, that HE was the bread of life, that they could only receive the bread of life if they were called to God, and now, finally, he’s looking at them and basically saying, “You have to EAT AND DRINK ME.”
Now, obviously, given the later context of the last supper, where he qualifies the bread and wine as his body and blood, we understand exactly what Jesus meant here, but they sure as heck didn’t. This was bizarre and different territory for them. They were being asked to do something WAY outside their scope of normalcy. They were, indeed, being asked to give up a little of that precious control that they held and do something really, really weird.
It didn’t go over very well, either. Many of his disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” In other words, rather than trusting Jesus, as he has spent the last several chapters of the gospel of John asking his followers to do, they decided that giving up a little bit of control because Jesus asked them to was just too difficult.
I don’t know about all of you, but I have absolutely no room to judge these folks. I know I’ve discussed before how the Search and Call process was a very frustrating time for me that, obviously, ended up working out for the best. The fact is, though, I passionately hated how much control I had to give up to engage in that process. It started with the fact that I was working with a regional minister who I spent three months emailing and calling trying to figure out how to even START Search and Call before he finally sent me a two sentence email telling me exactly what needed to be done. You know, a two sentence email that probably took him less than a minute to write, which he waited until April to do instead of doing so in January when I initially contacted him.
That helpless feeling of not being in control – hurtling toward graduation and ordination at warp speed, while simultaneously being entirely unable to actually start looking for a job due to either the whim or simple neglect of somebody who happened to be in a position of power – made me want to scream. It made me want to drive to the regional office and go have words with this regional minister. And all those factors weren’t aided by the fact that this took place less than a year after my initial officer training for the US Navy – five weeks in which I was taught that being in positive control of my situation in all times and places was absolutely key, and that if I didn’t maintain control, I had failed.
Then, when I did finally get into Search and Call, things didn’t improve. I still felt like I had very little control over my situation. I would be sent profile after profile by regional ministers, only to have them all basically be terrible. One, for example, was a church in one of the most expensive cities to live in in California that wanted to pay me $27,000 a year with a housing allowance that MIGHT allow me to rent a 300 square foot studio apartment in the bad part of town, IF I was lucky.
The horrible part was that I knew there were churches out there that needed pastors that I would fit well where I would actually be able to conduct ministry, but I wasn’t hearing anything from any of them. In frustration, I sent an email to the director of the Search and Call program, seeking some sort of direction or assistance from Disciples Home Missions.
The response I got back from him was a suggestion to engage in more prayer and devotion, with some recommended readings. Now, if you’re sitting there thinking that I probably didn’t take that very well, you would be correct. At the time, I thought that that was the most useless email I could’ve gotten from him. After all, wasn’t the program’s purpose to actually match ministers and churches? Why wasn’t I being helped with THAT?
Looking back on that more than two years later, I realize that what was recommended to me then was exactly what I needed to do. I was so focused on maintaining control of the situation that I never stopped to consider that maybe it was a situation that I had absolutely no way of controlling. I couldn’t control what churches had open positions, I couldn’t control how regional ministers chose to disseminate my profile, and I couldn’t control when a church might reach out to me. I needed to relinquish that need for control and abide in Christ.
And to be honest, I never did. When Bill Rose-Heim sent me the profile for this congregation two years ago, my response wasn’t, “Thank you, Lord, I have trusted in you,” but rather, “It is about darn time!” That was, of course, absolutely the wrong reaction, but fortunately, our God is a God of grace and mercy who chose to overlook my impertinence and rewarded me with being pastor of a great church nonetheless.
That refusal to give up control ended up resulting in a large number of Jesus’ followers walking away from him in that moment. This crowd that had been fed by him in Galilee, that had tracked him down in Capernaum, dwindled away, these followers drifting away because they couldn’t stand the thought of relinquishing control of their lives and abiding in Christ. In fact, so many left that Jesus ended up turning to the twelve Apostles, his most faithful of faithful followers, and asking them if they wanted to leave as well.
Now, a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how Peter was a hard-headed, impetuous individual who made some of the biggest blunders in the Bible, but that he was also at times the wisest of the Apostles, speaking truth in faith when none other dared to do so, and it was the second version of Peter that spoke up. “Lord, who can we go to?” he asked Jesus. “You have the words of eternal life… you are the Holy One of God.”
I really don’t know if I can think of somebody in the Gospels who more badly needed to relinquish control than Peter, he who instead of letting Jesus just come to the boat insisted on trying to walk on water, he who found it necessary to try to build shelters for Moses and Elijah, he who found it necessary to draw a sword on a servant after being specifically told to stand down – and in this moment, relinquishing control is EXACTLY what Peter did. He took a moment to look at the situation, realized that if he wanted to continue to follow this Holy One of God, he could not be in control of his own situation, and said, “Lord, who can we go to?”
Peter gave up his control and acted on faith. And how many Christians today could learn a good lesson from Peter’s actions? We look around us, even just here in northwest Missouri, even just among the Disciples of Christ, and we see other churches, their followers slipping away, their resources disappearing, but holding fast to what little control they still believe themselves to have. Expand that out to across the state, across the nation, around the world, and Jesus’ own modern-day disciples are falling way because following in Christ’s name requires relinquishing control, and they don’t have the faith to do so.
So let go. Let go of the need to be in control. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. Let God direct your paths.
Abide in Christ, and Christ will abide in you.