control

June 13, 2021

My niece Camryn just finished the third grade.  She loves animals.  And she loves fun facts.  So I sent her a book of fun facts about animals as a gift to celebrate the end of a crazy school year.  She loved it and read most of the fun facts out loud to her family.  Did you know, for example, that it is physically impossible for pigs to look up into the sky?  Or that sea otters hold hands when they sleep in the water so they don’t float away from each other?  Camryn was especially delighted to learn that sloths climb down to the ground once a week…to poop.  And so now I’ve met the challenge issued by my 13-year-old niece, who dared me to mention sloth poop in a sermon.

These facts are fun, but the book also reminded me of how much we just don’t know.  I don’t claim a vast knowledge of sea otters or sloths, but I know some things.  And yet almost every fact in that book was a surprise.  Many of them challenged my assumptions about those creatures – and made me realize once again what a clever Creator God is.

The little stories that Jesus tells in today’s gospel – these word pictures that we call “parables” – when you look closely, they challenge our assumptions as well.

We assume, for example, that we need to be in control.  We need a plan.  We need to manage the details of that plan, and we need to have a plan B and a plan C in case something goes wrong with plan A.  I’m not saying that being prepared is a bad thing.  But we all know that there’s a tipping point from careful planning to micromanaging.  There’s a part of each of us that really wants to control not just the process or the planning, but the outcomes.  If I do x, then y will happen.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.  If I sign up my kids for all the right programs, they will get into a good college.  If I make all the right choices about what to eat, I will never get sick.  If I take care of every need that my family has at every hour of every day, then nothing bad will happen.  But that’s not how it works.

Then Jesus comes along and tells a story about a farmer who scatters seed and then…takes a nap?  It sounds like the farmer basically throws some seed around and then does little else besides going to sleep and waking up and living his life.  But that doesn’t keep the seed from growing.  I’m guessing not all of them made it, but many of those seeds break open beneath the earth and find their way to the surface and unfurl themselves to soak up the sun and grow deep roots to drink up the rain.  The farmer doesn’t do any of that – the seed does.  And when the time comes, there’s plenty to harvest.

I don’t like this little parable.  I want to know that effort is rewarded and that laziness has consequences.  I want the story to say that if the farmer carefully places each seed in organically fertilized soil, then that seed will grow.  I want it to say that if the farmer pulls every weed with his bare hands and waters the soil every single day, then the plants will prosper.  I want the farmer to do something other than go to bed and wake up.  Or, if that’s all he does, I want the seeds not to grow – just to prove a point.  It doesn’t make sense that they grow.  Jesus challenges our assumptions that we have to be in control of everything – or that it is even possible.  Growth can surprise us by how it happens and where it happens.

Just when I’ve gotten myself pretty worked up about that first parable, Jesus tells another one, and it challenges my assumptions too.  This time Jesus points us to the mustard seed, this smallest of seeds.  I’d look at something that small and think, “What in the world could that become?” Even as it started growing, I might think, “That’s not a very attractive plant.”  I might even start making plans to uproot it and get it away from the prettier plants.  But then Jesus reminds us that this little tiny mustard seed eventually grows into something that spreads out its branches so that the birds can nest there.  It provides shade and shelter in the best of ways.  So much for my assumptions…yet again.

Both stories, Jesus tells us, are supposed to reveal something about the kingdom of God.  In the end I think these stories reveal how little we understand the kingdom of God.  God’s plans and purposes defy our expectations at every turn.

The kingdom of God is like this. It grows in ways we didn’t plan, uproots our assumptions, shows us how the things (or the people) we dismiss can surprise us.  God’s imagination is far bigger than our own.

Yesterday I participated in an online experience called America Talks.  I signed up for it a few weeks ago at the recommendation of a friend.  I had to answer some questions about my background and my political beliefs ahead of time, and then yesterday afternoon, after a brief orientation, I was paired up with someone who does not share many of my beliefs for an hour-long, one-on-one, face-to-face online conversation.  I’ll be honest.  I was pretty nervous.  I enjoy talking to strangers, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to do that, and this kind of conversation seemed like it could go off the rails pretty easily.

My conversation partner was Phil, a 62-year-old grandfather and former Marine who lives in Michigan.  Thanks to some helpful guidelines, the conversation was structured so that we could get to know each other better, we could talk honestly about our differences, and we could hopefully find some common ground.  We were encouraged to listen with curiosity, to speak from our own experiences, and to connect with respect.  In other words, to set aside our assumptions about the other person and try learning instead of judging.

We had a great conversation.  By the end Phil and I had named a common goal and had identified the ways that we would each keep working toward that goal.  We found that we share a commitment to supporting young people and providing every kid with a quality education.  We talked about the importance of making sure that all children have good, safe, healthy lives, no matter where they live.  We differed on a lot of things, and we would probably disagree on the policies that might lead to our shared goal, but we agreed about a lot more than I would have predicted.

About 1000 people participated yesterday.  I realize that 500 conversations are not going to transform our country tomorrow.  But I keep thinking that each small conversation as a kind of mustard seed.  Even though I can’t control the outcomes or conditions of this experiment, maybe things will grow from those small conversations and connections that we never imagined. I don’t have to know what will happen to trust that God can make something beautiful and useful out of it.  I just have to let go of my assumptions and try.  I have to trust God’s imagination.

In the end, Jesus himself embodies the ultimate challenge to our assumptions.  If you’d asked a first-century Jewish person to describe what the messiah was supposed to look like, that person would not have described an itinerant preacher born into relative poverty.  And yet that’s how Jesus shows up – defying all expectations by taking on flesh and blood and becoming one of us.  Then he kept showing up in the places no one expected, among the people no one else respected – the tax collectors and the lepers and the bleeding women and the beggars.  And isn’t resurrection the ultimate challenge to our assumptions?  We assume that dead people stay dead.  And yet that’s when Jesus shows up again, promising a victory over death that is beyond our imagination.

I hope we will look for those mustard seed possibilities that God puts before us, as God challenges us to release our assumptions and to be open to something unexpected.  We don’t have to be in control. We are not in control.  But we are part of a holy community that God has called together and that God promises to use for holy purposes.

Maybe the sea otters can teach us something – like how to hold on to each other so that we don’t drift apart.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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Sunday, April 4, 2021

The women were focused on practical matters.  Buying the right combination of spices to anoint the body.  Getting up early in the morning.  Worrying about how to move a heavy stone.

That’s a kind of faith in and of itself – attending to what has to be done, even if you’re not sure how to remove the obstacles in your path.  But you get up early in the morning and you do the next task that’s in front of you because it’s all you know to do.  It’s all you cando.

We’ve done so much of that this past year.  We’ve dealt with so many practical matters.  We figured out Zoom.  We learned to wear masks.  We washed our hands again and again.  We navigated grocery stores that were not built for social distancing. We figured out how to get a vaccine appointment.  We did online school.  Online work.  Online worship.  Online everything.

It’s what we do when we’re not sure what else to do.  We focus on the practical matters. 

There was a meme that circulated a lot early in the pandemic.  I taped it to my wall for several weeks because I found it helpful.  It sorted things into two categories: “Things I can control” and “Things I cannot control.”  “Things I cannot control” included: the amount of toilet paper in the store, the actions of others, predicting what will happen, how long this will last.  “Things I can control,” which the graphic encouraged me to focus on, included turning off the news, my own social distancing, finding things to do at home, and my kindness and grace.

I imagine a version of this diagram for the women who head to the tomb as the sun rises.  They cannot control the violent death of their beloved friend and teacher.  They cannot control their grief.  They can control getting the spices, getting up early, getting to the graveyard to anoint the body.

And that’s when everything is thrown into turmoil.  They show up, and nothing that they thought was in their control actually is.  The big stone has been rolled away.  But there’s nothing to anoint.  No body.  No sign of Jesus anywhere.

The young man dressed in the white robe says the right things – “Do not be alarmed.  Jesus is not here.  He has been raised.”  But it’s so confusing.

And of course the one thing that in this strange moment is within their control to do – to go and tell the others – they don’t do.  They’re afraid.  They are filled with terror and amazement.

Other writers tried to add a more happy, more tidy conclusion to the Gospel of Mark.  But scholars agree that the original ending is what we heard this morning.  I’ve always loved this messy, open-ended ending, but I especially love it this year.  This account of resurrection is so fitting for the time we are in.  We understand what it feels like not to get the ending we expect.  We know what it feels like to keep searching for hope in the midst of confusion.

The women feel both terror andamazement.  And so do we.

We are many centuries beyond that moment in the empty tomb, and yet we feel that strange mix of emotions.  Terror and amazement.

We’re terrified that things might never go back to normal.

We’re amazed at what we used to consider normal.

We’re terrified that we’ve forgotten how to be around people.

We’re amazed by the time we’ve had with our closest people.

We’re terrified that the variants of the virus will outpace the vaccine.

We’re amazed how quickly the vaccines have been developed.

We’re terrified that this year might change us forever.

We terrified that it won’t change us at all.

We’re amazed that we’ve been able to adapt.

We’re amazed that we’re still here.

We, like the women at the tomb, have come to realize that we can control much less than we thought we could.

We hold so many things swirling in our hearts that we don’t know how we can contain it all.  Confusion and curiosity. Despair and hope.  Grief and love.  It’s all there, and it’s all messy, and it’s what makes us human.  We can only hold it with and for one another and trust that God is with us as we live it.

Because when you can’t control much of anything, you have to focus on what you know.

What we know is that eventually the women told someone.  That’s why we have this story at the heart of our faith.

We know that God is a God who brings life out of death…peace out of chaos…justice out of oppression…promise out of a pandemic.

We know that nothing can prevail against a God who makes resurrection possible.

We know that it’s our turn to add our part to the story, to go and tell what God has done…even if our voices are shaking with terror and amazement.

There’s an Easter blessing by Jan Richardson that I love.  It seems to me to be addressed both to those women standing in the empty tomb and also addressed to us standing in the emptiness of this moment.  So, as I read it, imagine it speaking to the women and speaking to you.

Seen: A Blessing for Easter Day by Jan Richardson

You had not imagined

that something so empty

could fill you

to overflowing,

and now you carry

the knowledge

like an awful treasure

or like a child

that roots itself

beneath your heart:

how the emptiness

will bear forth

a new world

that you cannot fathom

but on whose edge

you stand.

So why do you linger?

You have seen,

and so you are

already blessed.

You have been seen,

and so you are

the blessing.

There is no other word

you need.

There is simply

to go

and tell.

There is simply

to begin.

She’s right.  We stand on the edge of a new world, one we can’t yet fathom.  What will be our story of this time?  What will be our story of faith?  How will we carry that blessing into the next season?

It’s time to go and tell.  It’s time to begin.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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