Good morning. My name is Susan Pitchford, and I work on adult faith formation here at Epiphany. This morning I want to talk about control. Control, and how little of it we actually have.
“Was he a smoker?” “Had she been drinking?” “What were they doing out at that hour?”
Those are the kinds of questions people often ask when they learn that someone has had some terrible misfortune. A guy gets a diagnosis of lung cancer, and they want to know: “Was he a smoker?” Somebody wraps her car around a pole, and everyone wants to know: “Was alcohol involved?” A couple of students get mugged, and I want to ask, “Why were you standing on the Ave at 2 am looking at your phone?”
These are victim-blaming questions, and we know we’re not supposed to blame the victim, but people still ask them all the time. Why? Do we not have compassion for people who experience terrible things? I don’t think that’s it—at least not for most of us. I think the real motivation for these questions, most of the time, is that in the midst of what the Prayer Book calls the “changes and chances of this life,” we urgently, desperately, want to feel safe. And to feel safe, we need to feel in control.
If the guy with lung cancer was a smoker, and I don’t smoke, then I’m safe. (Despite the fact that, according to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, between 10% & 20% of lung cancer cases occur among people who’ve never smoked, or smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime.)
But never mind that—if I don’t smoke, I’m safe, right? And that safety is something I control. “If that driver hadn’t been drinking, wouldn’t she have gotten home safely?” “If those students had been smart enough to be in college in the first place, they wouldn’t have been out there at that hour, and they wouldn’t have gotten mugged.”
Nobody wants to feel vulnerable. So what do we do to calm down our anxiety about not being in control? We often distance ourselves from the victims, telling ourselves that we could never be that person, because…they are not us. They’re not like us. It’s a small step toward dehumanization, maybe, but it is a step. And it’s the price of control, or the illusion of control, as a way of feeling safe.
But what does Jesus say in today’s gospel? Do you think the 18 who died under the fallen tower were worse sinners than the rest of the population of Jerusalem? No, they weren’t. And do you think the Galileans slaughtered by Herod in the Temple were terrible sinners? No. (I mean, they were in the Temple—offering sacrifice!)
No, he says: they were no worse than anyone else. This is Jesus saying, “Stuff happens.” But he does add that “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” So is he saying that those victims actually were wicked people, but the rest of them just hadn’t met their punishment yet? It kind of sounds like that at first, but we need to look closer. We need to hear Jesus’ words here in light of all of Jesus’ words.
In John’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples come across a man who was blind from birth. So the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned—this man or his parents—that he was born blind?” Jesus says neither—he was born blind so that God’s power could be revealed in him. And so Jesus proceeds to reveal that power by healing him. Then again, when Jesus heals the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, also in John’s gospel, he finds the guy later in the Temple (presumably giving thanks), and Jesus tells him: “Don’t sin any more, or something worse may happen to you.”
So it sounds like sometimes bad things happen because we’ve sinned, and sometimes they just happen. If you want to go deeply into this subject, you might read the book of Job—and everything that’s been said about it in the thousands of years since it was written. Sometimes bad things are the consequences of our bad choices, but sometimes they’re just random. And sometimes they’re the consequences of other people’s bad choices—ask anyone in Ukraine.
We seek safety—nothing wrong with that; it’s hard-wired into us. Our species would not have survived if we didn’t have a strong instinct to seek safety. But when we think we can get there by controlling things, then we are in the realm of illusion, fantasy, magical thinking, and victim-blaming.
It’s not a good instinct, or a helpful one. And yet, this desire to seek safety through control goes so deep that when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, the devil takes aim precisely at this. “Are you hungry, Jesus? You don’t need to be. You can control this situation: command these stones to become bread.” “You want to control literally everything? Here are all the kingdoms of the world. All the authority over them, and all the glory, is yours if you’ll bow down to me.” And finally, “You’re about to begin your mission, Jesus. Here’s an idea: instead of the slow work of converting hearts one at a time, why not just control them by throwing yourself off the roof of the Temple? When God saves you, and God will have to save you, you’ll be universally recognized as the Messiah. So much easier.”
I think after about one day of fasting, I’d have said yes to all of it. I’m not very good at fasting. But even in his weakened state, Jesus sees through it all, and keeps directing the devil back to God: to every word that comes from God’s mouth, to worshipping God alone, to not putting God to the test.
And this is the key: our safety lies not in controlling things ourselves, but in trusting God, who actually does control things. So you’re thinking, “Okay, I’m supposed to trust God? This is the same God who lets towers fall on people? Who lets people be subjected to random violence and disease? Who lets terrible rulers do terrible things? That God?”
Yeah, that God. Not the god I imagine, who’s just a bigger version of me. But the God who says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.”
And that takes us to the lesson from Exodus. Moses finds himself on holy ground, in the very presence of God. This is the God who lets towers fall on people, but it’s also the God who’s seen the people’s misery in Egypt, who’s heard their cry, and promises to deliver them. We know that God will ultimately make good on this promise.
Here’s what I also know: I’ve led eight quarter-long study abroad programs, and I think anyone who’s led people on a trip (with the exception of pilgrimages, I’m sure), knows that before it’s over there’s going to be plenty of whining and drama, rebellion, snake bites, idolatry and more, and you’re going to want to send them all back and go on without them.
Moses is not going to be able to control any of that. And it must have looked awfully grim at times. All Moses has is God—a God who appears to him as a burning bush of all things. A burning bush. A bush that burns but is not consumed. In other words, God appears to Moses as a paradox. He’s not going to be able to get his head around this God. And this is thousands of years before the idea of Trinity!
Moses wants to know: “What God shall I say sent me? What’s your name?” And God answers: “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” The Hebrew doesn’t actually add “Deal with it,” but I’m sure it was implied. Because God is not going to be named, defined, or limited—by Moses or anyone else. In all of salvation history, when names are important it is God who does the naming: Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel—one who struggles with God; Simon becomes Peter, the Rock, and there are plenty of other examples. But “I Am Who I Am” says: You are not in control of this. I Am.
So let’s pull these threads together. How does all of this affect us personally? We are all “Israel,” in the sense that we all struggle with God. Because we all want to be in control, so we can feel safe. Remember that bumper sticker, “God is my co-pilot?” That right there is some bad policy, and if it’s true then I’d seriously suggest you demote yourself immediately, and hand over the controls. Because you don’t really know what you’re doing, and there’s a lot at stake.
Mind you, there are things we can control, good decisions we can make. We can decide to eat healthy, to get exercise, stay out of bar fights. But we all know of people who did everything right but dropped dead anyway, right? Euell Gibbons was an early advocate of healthy eating, he was big in the ‘70s, but he died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. I mean, what can you do? We can do our best, but we’re not in control.
We don’t even get to name ourselves. Some people do: did you know that Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz? I might be tempted to change my name too. And there’s something beautiful in choosing a name that reflects who you really are, or who you’ve become. Mostly our parents choose our names, but other people name us too: Thug, Fatty, Deviant, Sellout, Loser. We may get names that define our role in the family: the Golden Child, the Scapegoat, the Family Hothead.
Around these names, identities can form that dog us our entire lives. We don’t control that (although therapy can help), any more than we control whether we’re popular in school or relentlessly bullied. But God is in control And God may not stop people from naming us, but God can give us—can become—our place of refuge when others try to exercise control over us that’s not legitimately theirs.
God is in control. We can trust that. God may not take us out of the way of tyrants or falling towers, but whatever our circumstances, God will be with us in them. The life, passion, and death of Jesus show us that God does not love us from a safe distance. God is not really about safety. Jesus entered fully into the human experience and suffered hideous consequences for it because love was more important to him than his own life. The peace he gives us is not about our circumstances, or our ability to control them. It’s about him. It’s about trusting the God who loves every one of us more than we can imagine or even desire.
And this God is the one who ultimately gives us our true name. I’d like to close with a wonderful quotation from James Finley, student of Thomas Merton. Remember this, maybe meditate on it for a while, like a month, or a year:
- It is love, and love alone, that has the authority to name who we are.
Trust that Love is in control, even when it doesn’t seem like it. Even when God’s actions are mysterious, and not what ours would be if we were in charge. Trust in the infinite Love that cherishes you, more than you know. Easter is coming, and it shows us that the power is all on the side of Love. And it is in that love—not in our own hopeless efforts to control things—it is in that love that we can put all our trust.