Being in control of one's life is a virtue we admire greatly in this country. The discipline of the athlete, the successful professional, the wise investor, the accomplished artist. William Bennett's popular Book of Virtues fairly bulges with stories of responsible people in firm control of their lives.
On the other hand, one of the harshest judgments we make is on people who are out of control in one way or another. To let your car get out of control is a crime...to let your emotions get out of control is an embarrassment...when your children are out of control it is considered a failure...with the mind out of control it is an illness. When our finances are out of control, they lead to bankruptcy and ruin. We take control very seriously in our community and rightly so.
But for people of faith, there is a particular limit to the control we have to have over our lives. We are responsible for the way we live, but ultimate control ~ final authority in our lives ~ rests with God as we know Him in Jesus Christ. It sets up a dicey sometimes difficult situation for us. Whose life is this anyway? How can we stay in control of our lives and still have Jesus as Lord of our lives? It is an oxymoron ~ a contradiction. It sets up a struggle we all have to work at.
There are three great stories in the lessons appointed for this that touch on this struggle. I would like to talk with you today about those stories....about being responsible for our own lives and still having Jesus as Lord of our lives.
The three stories are great ones from our tradition.
There is the story of Job. And the story of Jesus stilling the storm. And then an optional extension of the Gospel ~ the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac ~ a great story. All of these raise the question of control...the question of whose life is this.
The lesson for today is the beginning of God's response. It is the colossal four-chapter chewing out that Job receives from God. It begins this way. ?Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind. Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man. I will question you and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know. Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its basis sunk? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.?
That kind of talk goes on for four chapters. And Job is brought up short ~ reminded that the final word is God. No matter how strong a person may feel about their own goodness and righteousness. Job struggles with God about authority and control. Job loses.
The second story is from the Gospel of Mark. The small flotilla is just crossing the Sea of Galilee and there is a sudden storm. Now everybody knew what to do with a storm. These were sailors. They made their living on this lake. Everybody was needed for doing what needed to be done. The sails were reefed, the oars were put out and everybody was pulling at it. People were bailing at a frantic pace. That's what you are supposed to do in a storm. It's what sailors have done in these situations from the beginning of time. It says in Mark's gospel that Jesus was sleeping through it. Now I've been in a storm on a lake and I can tell you that that's a miracle. That's really mentioned. I don't know how He was sleeping through it. But anyway, that's what Mark tells us was going on. And the disciples awakened him and asked him to bear a hand. Instead, Jesus rebukes the storm and makes it go away. Rebukes the storm and makes it go away! The crew is filled with awe ~~ that's the literal meaning of awful. It's an awful moment. The assumptions about how life works is upsetting. That's not what you do in a storm for crying out loud. You reef the sails; you bail the boat. You might even drown but you don't stand up and scold the storm and send it away. Experienced sailors find that all of a sudden their world is out of control. Their assumptions just don't hold. in the Kingdom of God.
Then following that is the strange story of the Gerasene Demoniac. It's a madman. There's no helping him. He's like the storm at sea. He is out of control and people know what to do with him. They leave him alone. They've adapted to it. It's just the way things are--it happens. It happens sometimes to people and it happened to him and so just give him a wide berth. But Jesus comes into his life and heals him. He scolds the illness as it were and sends it away. In the science of that day, the demons that caused the illness took up real space. If they were not in the man then they had to be someplace else. It was sort of like the shell game. If it's not here it has to be somewhere else. The demons asked Jesus for permission to move in on a herd of pigs. Jesus perhaps as a good Jewish man who knows that pigs are unclean anyway, says OK. Then the newly possessed pigs make like lemmings and stampede off a cliff. The owners are upset. Madness they can deal with, but the loss of an asset is different. So Jesus is run out of town.
No matter how we view the part about demons in the pigs the human part is clear. For the Gerasene people their priorities placed preservation of an asset well above healing. The control of the assets ~ the keeping of the assets. Let the madness go alone. For Jesus healing the madman was the top priority. The assets could be let go.
In all three of these stories ~ great stories I would say ~ take place on the boundary between individual responsibility and God's authority. All three of them brush up against the question of whose life is this anyway. Job knows for certain that he is good by his own standards. The crew knows exactly what to do in life's storms. The Gerasenes are convinced of the correctness of their priorities. In each case God trumps their assumptions with greater authority. Greater power and greater priorities. Such stories run all through scriptures. And they are all through our lives as well. When we assert our authority over life we come against God's greater authority. The alcoholic who insists I can handle it ~ I'll quit tomorrow. The workaholic who tells us that this is just a demanding period at work and it will all soon change. Both of them are heading for a confrontation with God's reality. Parents who have somehow gotten pulled into a struggle with their children for control over life and think that is what best for their children, but it is not often the case and they are headed for a confrontation with God's reality. People who have lost the distinction between God's will and their own and insist that every whim that crosses their minds is a direct message from some micro-managing God miss what is obvious for everyone else to see. They have lost the balance between their individual responsibility and their accountability before God.
Marriages that have become contests of will and control by two people who are convinced of their own righteousness are not much like marriages made in heaven.
How many of us, when we pray, immediately forget that we are the servants of God and begin to act like masters of God, telling God what to do about this situation and that situation. What can we expect of such arrogant praying? Such flying in the face of God's reality.
One of the signs of this confusion about who is in control of our lives is in a popular bumper sticker that proclaims, "God is My Co-pilot." That's a well meaning bumper sticker I'm sure. It probably seeks to proclaim a faithful life. But co-pilot! How about God is my airplane, or my destination, or my reason for flying, or the wind beneath my wings? Co-pilot represents a hopeless confusion about who is in charge of our lives.
People, even people of great faith and piety, are not very good at recognizing the line between individual responsibility and God's authority. We are each and everyone of us called to be responsible for our lives ~ our decisions and actions ~ how we spend time ~ how we spend money ~ what we say and do and desire are all our responsibility. But our life is accountable to God. How do we sort it out? Well, there is no answer, but there is an important principle in leading a Christian life which applies here. The principle is that people are better prepared for life with good questions than with good answers. Listen to that again. People are better prepared for life with good questions than with good answers. It means that rather than having a formula or a set of rules for life like the Pharisees did in Jesus day, it is better to live and act with a sense of wonder about what is right and good and best. God is better able to work with and through people who are kept open by questions than with those who are closed off by answers. It applies in this case. If you begin this day by wondering how you can live responsibly and how you can be accountable to God you will probably do a pretty good job of it. If you will end the day by wondering how you were able to balance your responsibility with your accountability you will probably sleep well and rise a better person.
People are better prepared for life with good questions than with good answers. There is no answer to the question of whose life is this? It is yours and it is God's. We are meant to be in control of our lives and our lives are meant to be lived in God's control. Whose life is it? Are you in control of your life? There is no good answer but it is really a good question. Take that question to work with you tomorrow. It will serve you well. Amen.