Things We Can’t Control

Today’s scripture readings:
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Luke 13:31-35

At a Gloria Dei Communications Committee meeting on Thursday, we had a lively and productive conversation about how we might garner earned media for some upcoming events and activities. (“Earned media” is communications-speak for, “Let’s get the news to cover some of the exciting things we’re up to here at Gloria Dei.”) We talked about the unveiling of our new sanctuary at the end of our Rise, O Church project, and how the renovation will make the space more conducive to large community gatherings, helping us to live into our desire for this building to better serve our entire neighborhood and the city of St. Paul more broadly. Maybe the Villager, our local newspaper, would want to do a story about our renovated space? By Christmas we will have a new, world-class organ that music aficionados will be excited to learn more about. Maybe our new instrument could even be featured on Pipedreams on Public Radio? We talked about hosting Project Home here in December, welcoming homeless families to live in our building for the month, and our partnership with Mount Zion Temple, whose members graciously volunteer to spend time here with guests over Christmas so we can all celebrate the holiday with our families. Certainly Jews and Christians working together to house the homeless at Christmas is just the kind of human interest story some TV station would want to feature on their news broadcasts as Christmas approaches.

Our Communications Coordinator Linda McDonald stepped in to ask an important question. She asked, “What are we trying to accomplish with this earned media, and what metrics would we use to measure whether we’ve been successful?” Are we trying to attract new members? Will we measure the number of visitors here each week to see if there’s a noticeable increase? What’s the point of earned media? I’m proud of where the group landed on this question. We agreed: What we’re really trying to do is plant seeds. They may or may not take root; we’ll probably never even know if they do. But our goal is to get our message out there—to proclaim Good News—and trust that the Holy Spirit will work with whatever we put out into the world. Maybe someone will open the newspaper and read a story about some wonderful thing we’re doing at Gloria Dei and feel moved by the Spirit to reconnect with their own faith after a negative experience of church earlier in their life. Maybe someone will see a story about Project Home on the news and feel a nudge of the Spirit to do something to address homelessness in their own community. And maybe someone will hear a news story about Gloria Dei and decide to pay us a visit—of course, that would be great, too.

At the end of the day, we don’t really control how people respond to our message. We leave that up to God. Our job is simply to get the message out, to preach good news and live the Gospel out in the world; to do as Saint Francis instructed: “Preach the Gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” We do that; the rest we leave to God.

+++

We want so badly to be in control. We convince ourselves that if we do our homework, make all the right preparations, show up as our very best selves, and say all the right things, then we will secure the outcome we desire. I’m reading this sermon from a carefully crafted manuscript—and I almost never deviate from the words I’ve written on the page—because I’ve convinced myself that if I get the words just right and nail the delivery, then you all will be deeply moved and transformed by my sermon. Actually, it’s probably more that I worry that if I walk up here without a manuscript and just wing it, I’m going to make a fool out of myself and you’re not going to get anything out of it. Either way, the story I tell myself is that it’s all up to me, that I am in control. The truth is, so much of life’s circumstances are beyond our control. I wonder how much of the anxiety we experience as human beings emerges from our fruitless efforts to exert control over every aspect of our lives.

What strikes me about today’s Gospel reading is that Jesus actually isn’t in control. He has a single-minded focus on his mission and refuses to be deterred by a tyrant who wants to silence him or by people who are unwilling to be gathered into a new kind of community. He isn’t knocked off track by his inability to control people’s reactions to his preaching and teaching. If anything, Herod’s determination to destroy Jesus only strengthens his resolve to continue to Jerusalem and have his message heard in the capital city.

By the world’s standards, Jesus’ ministry would have seemed to be a failure. Sure, people showed up to hear him preach and be healed of their diseases, but when the going got tough, every disciple became a deserter. Even Peter would deny him three times and flee to safety. Jesus died alone on a cross, save for two common criminals crucified alongside him on the same day. Jesus refused to do anything other than preach and embody good news, and he ultimately couldn’t control how others responded. But he knew that wasn’t his job. His job was to proclaim the Gospel. The rest was up to God—and in the end, God was at work in the midst of Jesus’ suffering and rejection to bring about resurrection.

+++

One thing the pandemic has reminded us is that we are not in control. There is so much that feels beyond our control today: COVID, Russia and Ukraine, climate change, systemic racism, rampant gun violence. It’s a difficult but not necessarily a terrible lesson for us to learn, that we are not actually in charge. We are consumed by the notion that if we try hard enough and do just the right thing, we can write the future. We run around frantically like a nervous hen attempting to gather her chicks into the perfect formation. What if we could free ourselves from the need to have everything go according to our plans and instead learned to live the lives God has called us to live as faithfully as we possibly can and left the rest to God? What if we could maintain a single-minded focus on the mission God has given us and began measuring our success simply by the depth of our commitment to God’s purpose, trusting that God is ultimately in control and can work with what we’ve got? Might we be released from the fear and anxiety that consumes us if we really learned to trust that God is in charge and is always working to bring about resurrection?

The New Century Hymnal used by our friends in the United Church of Christ contains a simple but profound blessing. I’ll leave you with that today:

May you love God so much that you love nothing else too much.
May you fear God enough that you need fear nothing else at all.
Amen.


Resources consulted:

Marcia McFee, “Good Enough” liturgy worship series, accessed March 11, 2022, http://www.worshipdesignstudio.com/goodenough.

The New Century Hymnal, “Prayer of Benediction: 874” (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1995).


The featured image for this post is from Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash.


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