Are You In Control or Being Controlled?
March 3, 2013
A number of years ago now, I found myself sitting in the receptionist’s area of a local car dealership. I was there to discuss buying a new car and the salesman I had been working with in the process was with another customer. So, I was simply killing time while waiting on him. As I did, the guy next to me in the waiting area struck up a conversation. As we talked about the car I was considering, he asked me what I did for a living. When I said that I was a minister, his response caught me completely by surprise and I have remembered it ever since. “Well congratulations on being so faithful to the Lord’s work,” he said. “Since you are being blessed with a new car, it is obvious that you are doing exactly what God wants you to do.”
While I left the dealership later that morning without a new car, I did leave with a lot to think about as I pondered the connections my waiting room friend quickly made between one’s ability to buy a new Chevy and God’s favor. Without a doubt, his attitude and response were rather typical. Christians today regularly look at wealth and material well-being as a sign that God is pleased with us. And, the flip side is that it is not uncommon to hear a connection between hard times or the lack of wealth and God’s disapproval.
Ironically, there is nothing new under the sun about such observations. Even in the New Testament world, it was commonly believed that those who had prospered in life were also those most closely aligned with God and God’s expectations. In fact, there was even a direct connection between this way of thinking and the book of Deuteronomy which seemed to advocate that if you simply did the right things you would be blessed but if you did the wrong things you would be cursed and thus the conclusion that to be wealthy is to have lived obediently
Now, I think we can all affirm and appreciate that behind such thinking is no doubt an honest desire to express gratitude to God for all that we have and as the giver of all things. However, to say that we are doing well financially or that we have a lot of material things does necessarily mean that we also have the right to conclude that we are exactly where God wants us to be. The dangers of such thinking are addressed several times in the New Testament but perhaps the most direct focus on this subject in all of the gospels is our passage for today from Mark 10.
Without question, it is very striking to notice that in this conversation with the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus rejects the idea that this man was where God wanted him to be because of his wealth. Further, he also suggests that this man’s wealth was actually a significant impediment in his quest to please God.
Yet, what may be even more profound is what appears to be imbedded underneath Jesus’ comments to this young man. You see, when we look at this story, we generally stop with Jesus’ focus on this man’s possessions as his primary impediment. However, the underlying idea here seems to be Jesus’ connection between this man’s financial well-being and his sense of control. Notice again this man’s original question to Jesus—“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, here is a figure that had done well, here is a person who had been successful, here was someone who had made something of himself—he had done it. Now, he wanted to know what he needed to do if he is going to be successful in the life to come.
In turn, what Jesus seemed to be able to appreciate and to see is that this man’s wealth had led him to a terribly false belief that if his control and mastery of this life could lead to such success then certainly a control and mastery of the life to come and the kingdom of God can yield the same results—thus the question, “what must I do?” Yes, his wealth was a problem but an even greater problem was what it had let him to believe about control.
All the way back in 1828, a new phrase was introduced into the American vocabulary when the Delaware Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal wrote an article about the work of a man by the name of Roger Sherman. The article celebrated Sherman as one of the five people involved in helping draft the Declaration of Independence and his accomplishment of becoming the US Senator from Connecticut at the time. In affirming Sherman’s stellar career, the article pointed out that he had risen to prominence and had accomplished these wonderful things even though he came from humble, beginnings. The title of the piece and the new word introduced was “A Self Made Man” (Thisdayinquotes.com for February 2, 2010).
For almost 200 years now, we as citizens of the west have celebrated this idea of being self-made. We love to look at what we have done. We love to celebrate what we have accomplished. We revel in our capabilities to exert control and to showcase our expertise. Nothing is more satisfying than being able think about what can happen when we get things done.
We applaud such success. But when Jesus saw it in the life of the Rich Young Ruler, he quickly called him to change his ways. Jesus’ invited him to give up his possessions and he also invited in the process to give up control. When the man was unwilling, Jesus’ responded to the disciples with perhaps the most ominous statement in the New Testament, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the need than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Again, this is as much about control as it is about wealth.
Think about it for a moment. In a world where we want to take care of ourselves, there is one area where it is impossible for us to take care of it all by ourselves and that is when it comes to our relationship with God and to things of the kingdom of God. No matter how hard we work, no matter how smart we are, no matter how good we are, no matter how successful we have been in all other areas of our lives—we can never measure up to God’s expectations. In the same way, the advancement of God’s kingdom is not ultimately up to us. Why, we have about as much chance of doing such things on our own as does a camel of fitting through the eye of a needle.
But, the good news is that the quicker we give up control of our lives the better off we will be. The sooner we stop believing that God’s love depends on our goodness, the better off we will be. The quicker we quit thinking that we have the ability in and of ourselves to advance the kingdom the more at peace we will be. The faster we move away from the idea that this all depends on us, the more space God will have to work in our individual and our collective lives.
Now, don’t hear me wrong. I am in no way saying that what we do doesn’t matter. Indeed it matters in a profound way. But, I am saying that it never hinges completely on us and to think that way is to leave God out rather than to invite the grace, love and direction of God into the equation.
Today is a significant day in the life of our church. Today, we invite a new family into our midst and to join our ministerial staff in Chuck and Noelle Peek. But, from the very beginning, we must affirm that the work that Chuck is being called here to do doesn’t hinge completely on him. No matter how smart, sharp or successful Chuck is, if it is all about him or all on his shoulders he will fail and our church will fail. Chuck is just a human being like all of us and collectively we have to always remember that the calling is never about what Chuck is here to do, it is about what God is here to do through Chuck. This is a way of affirming that where Chuck is weak, God will be strong. Where Chuck makes mistakes God will get it right. Where Chuck is unsure what to do, God through God’s grace will lead the way.
And, this is true for all of us and it is such a freeing way to live and be if we will embrace it. It is a matter of control. And it is a matter of our willingness to admit that there are some things we simply can’t do if the reigns remain firmly and only in our limited grasp.
Whether we have realized it or not, for the last seven years, we have had a real life example of giving up control living in our midst. This past Tuesday night, we celebrated the life of John Hamrick at the chapel at Martha Franks. John died last Sunday at our hospital here in Laurens while we were here in this very place worshipping. If you didn’t know John, he sat right behind me almost every Sunday in the choir. He was 67 when he died and he lived his entire life with diminished mental capabilities. As a result, John was never able to fully be in control of his life.
But, this aspect, which we might all look at as a detriment was an amazing benefit to John. His weakness allowed him to open himself up to others and to God. What was so meaningful on Tuesday night was that every speaker who shared about John talked about what they had learned from him. He was the one who had taught each of us. And, I would argue this morning that one of the primary reasons he was able to do that is that he was never in control. It was God working through him and God’s strength freely embraced in the midst of weakness that allowed John to be who he was.
I pray that we won’t miss the lesson before us today because it is a vital one. I pray that we will all stop trying to be in control as we affirm the reality that giving up control is a much better way to live. I pray that we all might have the ability to trust today that in admitting our limitations, we open ourselves up to God’s limitless love, grace and power. For when we admit we are weak, God can finally be strong. Amen.