"The Greatest Control Is To Have None"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 19, 2007
Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29-12:2
The author begins his chapter with words that frame a unique definition of faith. He wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In Eugene Peterson’s translation, we find the same verse in these words: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. This fact of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, setting them above the crowd.”
Take a few minutes now to review your life. Consider a time when stepping out on faith was required. Last week a funeral director told me a story involving a wedding that was conducted by one of my colleagues. The bridal party had all processed into the sanctuary and was facing the congregation. The organist began playing, Here Comes The Bride, but she would not budge.
The minister’s wife said, “Okay, this is your moment.” The bride said, “I’m not sure I want to do this.” Of course, Daddy’s eyes got big as he saw, financial disaster! financial disaster! streak across his mind’s video screen. The pastor’s wife was quick with a response. She said, “You can never be sure of anything. Step out on faith and trust God to fill in the blanks.” Daddy took that first important step and the bride followed. The wedding unfolded as they normally do. Who knows how this story will end.
Can we ever be sure that this person is the one? I once told this congregation that a number of people spend more time researching the purchase of a new car than they do the person with whom they intend to spend the rest of their lives. With the high tech dating services we have today, more and more people are allowing computer printouts, resumes and pictures to narrow down the odds of a failure. Let us try another venue where stepping out on faith may occur.
I remember 20 minutes before my hip surgery my surgeon, Marc Brassard, introduced the anesthesiologist. Sitting in front of me was this young woman, who looked as though she was fresh from medical school. Marc must have noticed the expression on my face because he said, “She is the finest anesthesiologist I have ever known.”
I told her that rather than wanting a general anesthetic that I would prefer an epidural. She said, “I can do those.” She said, “With those there can be some side effects. You could be paralyzed for the rest of your life.” Then she said, “If I were going to have this hip procedure, I would prefer an epidural myself.” That did not help. She continued, “With a general, you run the risk of experiencing brain damage.” That is when I started laughing. There is no risk free approach to major surgery. We have to step out on faith and put our lives into the hands of others.
The reality is that there is risk every time we get behind the wheel of the car. There is risk every time we board an aircraft. There is risk when we bring a child into the world. Those babies grow up and we cannot program them to be everything we hope for them. They have their own destinies to experience.
We have all known people who almost become ill over details about anything they do. When they are planning a vacation, they have to know every stop along the way. They have advanced reservations at hotels or campgrounds. That is the only way to do it. It is not mine.
Our family was packed up and ready to roll with our little Apache camper firmly hitched to the car. We were planning to drive across the United States. We had removed the back car seat and replaced it with a porta-crib where our child slept. We could do that in those days.
My Dad said, “Where are you going to spend the night?” I said, “I don’t know -- somewhere around St. Louis.” He said, “Do you mean that you don’t know?” I said, “No, there will be a place.” I reminded him of something that Jesus once said, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” I told Dad, “I’m sure he always found one at the end of each day.”
We had the freedom while in the Tetons to say, “Let’s stay another day and check out Jenny Lake.” When our radiator blew up on a Sunday, we had the challenge of fixing it before crossing Death Valley. When the axle and attached wheels flew off our camper, the adventures that resulted from that could never have been planned. When our light switch governing our headlights failed, we were traveling down a mountain road at 10:00 at night with sharp cliffs and the Pacific Ocean on our left. Life is a grand adventure of faith. We have had adventures that would make you shake your heads in disbelief. Somehow we survived our vacations.
There are brides that show up in my office with eight-inch thick notebooks filled with every detail that you could imagine. It is no wonder that some brides are frequently frazzled before, during and after their weddings. A time of celebration has become an exercise in perfection, replete with brides medicating themselves to take the edge off their nerves during the ceremony. Some people do not allow room for butterflies in their stomach. That is truly sad. After 40 years of preaching, I still get butterflies before I go on.
The need to control details can be a recipe for experiencing all the things we do not want. Why? Life comes at you fast and we have to bring visibility to the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” We cannot control life. When we try, we miss other adventures the universe brings to our doorstep. We also would miss the skills we would never have to access and develop if everything in life unfolded according to our plan book. What a boring life!
What the author in this chapter does is balance all the creative things God has done through people like Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus with the lives of believers who experienced an extremely marginalized existence in terms of creature comforts. The author spares nothing in his description of what happened to these people. They were tortured, whipped, imprisoned, stoned and sawed-in-half. Peterson’s translation says, “Not one of these people, even though their lives were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised.”
What helped them to survive? Their eyes were not on earthly comforts but on what God had promised afterwards. This thought is what caused some slaves in this country to sing, “ I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home. A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariots, coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariots coming for to carry me home.”
When we are not powerful enough to cast off the powers that appear to dominate in our world, our faith drives us to trust in what no one can see. This was the message of the author of Hebrews.
Earlier this week, Lois and I were in Pinehurst, North Carolina to conduct a memorial service for a long time friend of ours. All over the house, were pictures of Russ Stokes with people like Joe Gibbs, a gentleman who was the former owner of the Baltimore Orioles, heads of state and CEOs of major corporations. Russ was one of the more connected people that I knew.
In June, we stopped by Pinehurst to visit Russ. As I sat next to him on his bed, we both understood that this would be the last time we saw each other in this form. He said, “I can’t fix this, Dick. When the doctor’s told me that I had a very short time left, it was the greatest shock in my life. Actually, it has been transformational. I have had to think about a lot of things that have nothing to do with this world. Tell me, what will it be like when I leave?”
I told him that what he would experience is beyond anything words can communicate but I did my best. I have some experience with the other side. He listened. Then I used his business language. I said, “Russ, I have a number of good friends on the other side. I’ll have my people talk to your people, and I promise you, they will make your transition as smooth as possible.” He smiled and chuckled in his typical fashion.
I had a prayer with him and Lois and I went on our way to visit our daughter, Sue in Dawsonville, Georgia. Russ Stokes’ transition was painless and peaceful. He surrendered his control and rowed his boat gently down the stream until it emptied into the vast ocean of God’s love.
Faith is not about having control over where life takes us. Those who try their best to hold and control their destiny will discover at the end of their lives that all they succeeded in doing was to remain a big fish in a small pond.
Think of Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt because of brothers who were jealous of their father’s love for him. He was accused of trying to attack his master’s wife and he was imprisoned though innocent. His life was out of his control. What he did was make visible his faith, as he understood it, and Joseph became a savior of his people.
It was not easy for Jesus to surrender his life. Jesus struggled with alternatives in the garden and the heavens were silent. No guidance came. Two thousands years ago Jesus had to sing, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home. A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”
It is one thing to know what is going to happen next and quite another thing to step out on faith. I do not believe that Jesus knew what was going to happen next. If he had known the outcome, there would have been no need for him to sweat drops of blood, suggesting a physical condition associated with the highest form of anxiety we humans can experience. Jesus surrendered to the inevitable and trusted the outcome of all things to God. This is what having faith looks like. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I am once again going to quote from Peterson’s translation of the end of our lesson. His words are very insightful with respect to our faith. He wrote:
Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls, energizing you for what you face!
What the author of Hebrews is telling readers is that the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us offers guidance to everyone who understands. We cannot control the aspects of our material lives. It has never worked. Life comes at us fast and we have to be prepared to be at peace in spite of what events transpire around us.
We can experience guidance that is all around us when we are not so anxious about what is going to happen next. Some of my best adventures were on the backpacking trails or fishing in one of the lakes in Maine. I think of many young people today who have a cell phone glued to their heads or who are logged on to My Space in their carefully controlled computer environments. That may be fine for them. Our adventures begin, however, when we take risks – when we confront the pharaohs in our lives or we talk to God when faced with burning bushes. When we live by faith, we have long since given up our need to control what happens next.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and nurturing God, we search for the spiritual nourishment that will cause our neediness to be silenced. We know that fulfillment is not the same as gratification. We know that the power that comes from skills of spirit is not the same as the power that comes from those who have authority over us. When we experience conflict, our sense of justice often obscures our ability to love. There are times when being right is critical to our identity. There are moments when the role of being the one who serves is not clear. Teach us that our faithfulness in living what Jesus taught is our greatest gift to this world. As you demonstrated through him, you can take one seed and from it cause a remarkable network of life forms to blossom. Help each of us to be a blessing to those whose understanding of eternity may still be asleep. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you God, for the fragile moments in life, that teach us that we do not have to know the reasons why anything happens before walk with you each day. Thank you for the challenges that make us stretch beyond our known capabilities. Thank you for the times when all our symbols of security dissolve around us and once again, our thoughts must find peace with you as the unexpected unfolds.
Why is it, O God, that so often we quickly respond with frustration when your will may be fashioning our destiny? Why is it that we find detours so unattractive? Why is it that so often we conclude that something is a waste of our time? What is more important than reflecting you in everything we do, in all the places we visit, and in the midst of all the experiences that try our patience?
As we reflect on our lives thus far, who could not have known ahead of time the jobs we have, the partner with whom we enjoy a relationship, the children born to us whose personalities are still forming? What an adventure life has been! We confess it has been an adventure because of hindsight. Today, we can look back and see how each piece interestingly fits into all the others. As we anticipate tomorrow, help each of us to stand forth with faith, knowing that our future will be as fascinating as our past. May we radiate such confidence by accepting every moment as our opportunity to mirror your nature to an audience of onlookers who we may not know is watching us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .