Unbound: Part 3
What would it mean to have no control at all?
There’s something about being the father of a newborn that makes you ask this question.
First, Put yourself in the place of the infant. You are utterly helpless. You have no control over muscle movements; in fact, you’re not even aware that the hand that just went past your face is yours, and is attached to your arm, which is attached to your body. You can’t even hold up your own head. Your eyes don’t focus; in fact, the lenses of your eyes are clear. Nothing is filtered out; it’s just a sheer mass of bright light that assaults you. Your sense of hearing needs work. Where adults can filter out many of the echoes in natural sound, because of years of training the brain, for you, it’s a constant barrage of noise. You can’t eat, move, clothe, bathe, change, clean without someone doing it for you. I’ve heard it described this way: that human life starts with four trimesters. Three of them are in the womb. As a newborn, you have little, if any, control.
Or maybe we’re looking at this all backwards. As a newborn, you control everything. Need to eat? Just cry. They’ll come running. What time is it? 3 am? No matter; let that scream rip. They won’t stay asleep for long. They may think they control you, but when was the last time they went out to dinner, just the two of them? Can they even go down to the basement without bringing along a monitor, in case you decide it’s time to be changed? And how about the way you can get them to babble like complete idiots, simply by opening your eyes? “Coochie-coochie-coo!” As a newborn, you have all the control in the world! You’ll never have them at your every beck and call this way ever again.
There’s something about the desire to be in control that captures our imaginations. For the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring this theme of freedom, what it means to be “unbound” from all that holds us down, to be completely free in faith and free in Christ and free to live and love the world as God desires for us. And it’s my hunch that, lurking behind this idea of freedom, just barely out of sight, is the question of control. For many of us, being unbound, means being freed from the control that others have over us: over our time, our money, our lives. Therefore, freedom, we think, means that we are in control of our own destinies. We can shape and mold our worlds to our own liking. We can work hard enough and long enough to succeed and deserve the rewards that come our way.
And this desire for control, for self-sufficiency, is something that most people have in common, regardless of culture; but our own society seems to be gripped by it. We are newborns, infants, hating the fact that we need others to help us at every turn, and knowing that fulfillment comes in the freedom of adulthood, taking care of ourselves and our every need.
But is this idea of control ever possible? We have no control over where we are born, or to whom, or in what time period. We have no control over the things that come to us easily, or the things that make our heart sing, or over the things for which we have to compensate, or the things that turn our stomachs. We have no say in any of this.
That’s not to say that we don’t have responsibility. We have control over how hard we work, sure. We have control over how we use or abuse our bodies and what we put into them. We have a choice in the way we respond to the situations we encounter, whether that be with an overarching sense of integrity, or with a morality that depends on the situation and our needs at that time.
But in terms of the bigger picture, which one of us can look back and say that we have been in control of our destinies up to this point? Take this morning, for example. Maybe you made the decision to get out of bed this morning, to come here, to this church, or to read this blog, on this particular day. But what about all the decisions that preceded that?
Why are you in Atlanta in the first place? What first brought you to this church? Were you born into it? Did you find us online? Were you looking for Presbyterians, or just churches in the neighborhood? And if you’ve come to this place again and again, what caused that? Was it the welcome you felt? What did you have to do with that? Or perhaps, most importantly, what in the world is it that shaped you so that you would even want to darken the door of a place of worship on a long holiday weekend?
In the end, our search for ultimate freedom brings us to some odd conclusions. And if this is our goal, our primary desire in life, to be totally and utterly free, can we achieve it? Or maybe, more importantly, is this what we should aim for anyway?
The lesson from the gospel of Luke this morning tackles these ideas of freedom and control, but in an expected way. Jesus and the disciples have gathered this large following. Between Jesus’ teaching, his willingness to take on the religious leaders of the day, his inclusion of those who are marginalized, and the fame that has spread about him and his miraculous healing powers, the world of ancient Galilee is set on its head. His popularity is soaring. He has changed from an itinerant rabbi to the leader of a movement.
And it’s at this moment that he decides to spell it out for them, to let them know what it is that they are getting into. In other words, he is making sure they understand the cost of discipleship.
"You want to be a part of this movement?” He says, “That’s great. Just know what it is you’re signing up for.” And it’s there that these two examples come up: the man who wants to build a tower and so begins by calculating the cost of materials and labor; the king who contemplates battle and starts by measuring up his opponent. If you want to get going, you need to take some time to think through whether or not this is what you really want to do.
It is right then that the Jesus of our imaginations, the soft, cuddly, welcomer of children and shepherd of lost sheep begins to take on this unexpected edge. “You must hate your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, your own life!” So much for traditional family values…“Take up your cross. Give away all your possessions. You want to follow me? Take a moment and see if you’re really willing to do what it takes, to build that tower, to fight that battle, to be my disciple.”
Now, I hope we engage with the lessons of Scripture enough to be aware that there is more than meets the eye here in this text. There are thousands of years separating us from the culture of Jesus’ time. But let’s start with what assaults us out the gate: the word “hate.” It’s so strong! Perhaps it means something different, softer, easier in the original Greek? Nope. It means hate. Not dislike, or find distasteful, but hate. The truth is that Jesus is engaging in what commentator calls “prophetic hyperbole” – that is, overstating things in order to make a point. And for Jesus’ contemporaries, this point became quite clear as he entered Jerusalem: Are you willing to give up your life and all that you hold dear for the sake of this movement you wanted to follow when we were back in Nazareth? And the answer is predictable. One by one, including his disciples, they all fall away.
For us, the question might come to us this way: do we love God more than the people and things that we hold dear? Do the relationships we have and the stuff we hoard reflect the priorities we claim? Now, this language about hating family might come across as a slap in the face to us. But there are those of us who know very well what it means. For the sake of our own healing, we have had to separate ourselves from unhealthy, abusive relationships. “Hatred” may be a strong word, but there are those of us who have had to cut ties with family; something that is far more easily said than done.
And even for those of us who consider our families relatively healthy, places of the kind of support and encouragement and unconditional love that they ought to be, every one of us has that crazy uncle or in-law or cousin or sibling that we would have nothing to do with if we weren’t related through blood or marriage. Family, for good reason, has a hold on us. And there are times when we need to break free from its grip.
Similarly, our possessions often claim ownership of us, too. Family fights are one thing; family fights over money are something else altogether. Money can come between friends, business partners, colleagues. It can create jealousy, envy, paranoia. Even so, we crave it. We seem to treat our possessions as something to be hoarded so that we might ultimately be free, be in control of our destinies.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that money is actually quite neutral. Scriptures says that it’s the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. There is also much good that can be done with money. The question is, in our drive to have more and more of it, do we hold ourselves unwaveringly to a standard of generosity? Do our finances reflect our values? Or are they simply one more thing that ties us up in knots, adding to our pile of anxiety, just another reason why we need more so that we can get that ever-elusive control over our lives?
Let me put it this way: how much of your money do you give away? I’m not talking about to the church; I’m talking about overall. What percent of your income would you estimate goes to charitable causes? Twenty? Ten percent? Less than one?
Consider the story of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. In 1731, he made 30 pounds. His costs that year were 28 pounds, so he gave away 2 pounds to the poor. In 1732, his salary doubled to 60 pounds. But he had learned to live on 28 pounds, so he gave away 32. In 1733, it rose to 90 pounds. So he gave away 62 pounds. Over the course of his lifetime, John Wesley’s income was as high as 1400 pounds. But his expenses rarely rose above 30; he would give the rest away.
Can we even fathom considering the way of John Wesley? Or are we waiting to be generous until we have “enough”, whatever “enough means? We think that, by virtue of having more and more, we will eventually free ourselves from external control; but is the truth that we have ceded control to our possessions?
There is a reason that Jesus talks about money more than anything else, other than the kingdom of God.
And in all this is the lesson of the newborn. It’s not really clear who is in control. The problem, even the danger, is in thinking that we are really free when it reality we have handed the reins over to something that is now steering us in directions we don’t want to go. That’s the very definition of addiction: something else has power over us such that, even when it destroys us, we cannot change course.
To live lives that are truly unbound, to be utterly freed from the people and things that hold us captive, doesn’t mean grabbing the steering wheel ourselves. If God is our co-pilot, we’ve still got our hand on the rudder. Freedom means recognizing that it is only in Christ that we are truly free.
If we place all of these things we want to control, these people, these cares, these anxieties, these hopes into God’s hands, then we’ll begin to see that they were never in our hands to begin with. That’s why they keep feel like they’re slipping through our fingers; our hands, simply put, aren’t big enough.
So let go. Let go, as the saying goes, and let God. That is what it means to be free.