The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Matthew 9: 9-13
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
I want to give you a series of examples of control. We all struggle with the idea of control, being in control, being controlled. This morning my purpose is to suggest, a life of faith is born when we choose freedom in love and lay aside control born of fear.
The greatest image of control, one I will lift up in the end, but introduce now, the greatest image of control of which I know is the television show, I Love Lucy. No character of the twentieth century better personifies the limit of control, how little we can control life, than Lucy; and no such character at the same time also begs the question of love, it is in the title, I Love Lucy.
My first example is the Amish—the plain, farming folks who seem a bit out of touch with modern life. The Amish are fascinating and are to be found in most any state where you can live off the land, where there is cheap farmland. Unfortunately that excludes New Jersey whose sole Amish representative is a buffet restaurant.
You might think that the Amish are an example of control by their strict dress codes or their uniform lifestyles, but that is a misunderstanding. The Amish look alike, dark simple clothes, houses with clothes drying on lines, horse and buggy, but they are intentionally unique. Every community has very distinctive differences that belie a sense of uniformity. Their sense of control is not about fashion or custom. The Amish are great example of control in how they view technology.
If ever you want to know about this, there is a great book, Better Off. If you read this book what you will find is that the Amish believe that with every piece of technology, every tool, every engine, every device, with each one comes a loss of control. Each time you take on a piece of technology you lose a bit of control over your life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it in a way that is helpful. If you don’t know how to maintain your possessions, you are owned by them. And this is true of us. Who here can fix a car, repair a gas line, let alone fix a phone a television or a computer? And by fix I don’t mean turn the device on. Being able to turn a device on is the new threshold of mastery. You hear it when people say, I can’t get it to work.
The Amish believe we are owned by our cars; we are owned by our homes; and we are owned by devices. We are at their mercy. The beauty of the Amish community is that they are intentional about this ownership. They don’t reject technology out of hand or deny it exists. With each form of new technology, the Amish ask the question, is this worth the freedom we will lose if we use this? It’s a powerful question. The closest we get to this question is financing. Do I want to pay for this car over five years or seven? The Amish would say that is just one part of our prison.
We are starting to see their concern, to ask the Amish question of control and technology ourselves. More and more, with every bit of information we give away to technology, with every bit of data that is mined from our devices, we are realizing this: we are giving away freedom, losing control to information technology. We are beginning to ask, is it worth the loss of freedom?
The next example comes from my Jewish grandmother. I was adopted by a neighbor, Eddie Rosen, when I was in high school. She needed a grandchild to feed, to direct, to chastise; as none of hers were handy, I was chosen. Eddie was a true love in my life. She literally said to me on many, many occasions, eat, eat, you’re too skinny. I listened to Eddie too well perhaps.
But the example with Eddie is her cupboard. I’ll never forget the first time she sent me to fetch a container. Not having had time to eat enough to satisfy her concern, she was sending me home with soup. In Eddie’s cupboard I found a container, a cool Whip container. But I didn’t find one container, I found dozens of Cool Whip containers. Every Cool Whip container Eddie ever bought.
And I found tin foil, pressed smooth by her hands lying stacked in sheets torn from the roll ready to be used again and again. I found balls of string and rubber band balls. There was parchment paper in stacks as well as wrapping paper. And I could keep going for quite some time about Eddie’s cupboard; it was the temple of recycling.
You see, Eddie lived through the Depression and in the Depression, you learned that the only time you threw something away was when it had absolutely no possible use in the future whatsoever. Everything had potential and could be used again if kept properly and treated with respect.
To Eddie’s credit her cupboard was not her main source of control. Her sense of control was that you knew right from wrong and you worked hard and you loved your family. This was the lesson Eddie heaped upon me at her kitchenette. In her cupboard though you could also see the way we gain control of life by having enough. There is a security that comes when the mortgage is paid off, when the shelves have canned goods just in case. There is a sense of being prepared, being able to provide, be it a meal or a plastic container to save the leftovers from the meal. If you have enough, you have a sense of control.
Having enough can prove elusive. Not with scarcity, ironically. Having enough proves difficult with excess. Just a bit extra becomes a garage stuffed to the gills by one too many Costco runs. The shelves are a fight to find a can of tomato paste because you need to dig through stacks and stacks and stacks of cans burying the smallest of cans. People lament the absence of built-in closets in older homes forgetting that people have lived up to this point with just a few items of clothing.
The sense of security we gain, the sense of being in control of life’s needs and demands, easily becomes an out-of-control situation when we amass and horde and heap and pile and stuff too much stuff into every possible place. And when the moment comes when we must reckon with this (when a loved one shouts from beneath one of piles, “there is too much stuff”), in this moment the struggle is over the idea the sense of calm and assurance those items bring. If I give this away, what will happen when I need it? The sense of control.
In the gospel of Matthew, the writer records a whole series of exchanges between the Pharisees and Jesus. We read the first one two weeks ago, where the Pharisees were offended and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Today we read the second offence, “why is it your teacher dines with sinners and tax collectors?”
In this string of exchanges, it is easy to find fault with the Pharisees, they are uptight and fussy and look foolish. So foolish we can miss how their struggle is our struggle. Since we like Jesus, we can miss how much of their problem is our problem. The Pharisees do not trust freedom; this is something we all must overcome.
At the heart of the whole series of exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees, the key to each one, is the question of control. The Pharisees are afraid that if you are not careful, if you are not vigilant with the control of life, then terrible things happen, people lives are ruined, society is destroyed. You have to be in control or crazy stuff happens.
The way to keep this fear of chaos at bay is to categorize and demonize and disdain people. At the root of didain is hate; you hate so to overcome fear, to keep fear of chaos under control. You are supposed to hate the tax collector.
The image of Jesus dining with the sinners and tax collectors is the worst nightmare of the Pharisees. They are seeing their worst nightmare. The Rabbi who hangs out with ones we are supposed to hate and disdain, the enemy. Jesus ruins the image of control born of hate. The Pharisees believe, as do we, that if you treat someone with utter contempt and disdain and derision that you have put them in their place, under control.
Unfortunately, the desire to control others with hatred is a unifying element of society today. We may be very polarized with our politics, but our trust of disdain binds us all together. Hatred has become common ground. The struggle of the Pharisees is alive and well. Take heed how much you trust anger and disdain. Beware, derision is our ruin.
The last example is Lucy. I Love Lucy; I do love her. Always have. As a young boy I was given a small black and white television. The extravagance was in light of a broken femur. I was immobilized for months at the age of four. From this small television my mind was shaped, formed by Gilligan’s Island, the Lone Ranger, and, most importantly, Lucy.
Lucy’s life with Ricky, her trusted confidant and co-conspirator Ethel, and the ever-affable Fred, always linger in my imagination. Although each episode had a new moment of crisis or calamity for Lucy to overcome, of which there would be “splaining to do”, each episode was really the same.
Lucy tried but was not able to navigate the chaos of life without fault, and there needed to be forgiveness. Something went wrong, Lucy tried to fix it, but made it worse, and then, she was remorseful. At the end of each episode there was forgiveness, redemption. In the end we needed to remember, I Love Lucy.
I am not sure why it is my favorite, but I love the moment where she tries to stay in control of the chocolates coming down a conveyer belt and when she cannot control the relentless flow of candy in her panic, she tries to eat them all as fast as she can. That scene stays with me. It is as if each candy she reaches for is one of my mistakes, one of my misdeeds and as she tries to eat each one it as if I am trying to get the faults of life under control, to right the wrong, restore order. And with each attempt life becomes more and more chaotic, out of control.
The Pharisees believed, as do we, that if we can identify the wrong in others, we have made the world a better place. In this disdain and derision there is a sense of control. And we need a sense of order in our lives. Absolutely we do. But Jesus tells the Pharisees, and tells us, seek the order of life in freedom not in control, trust mercy not disdain, be ready to forgive be slow to condemn.
We are being ruined by disdain. The need to feel in control, to keep our fears at bay, leads to hatred. Control, sadly, only leads to ruin, to chaos. Freedom born of love is the way unto the Kingdom of God. This was too much for the Pharisees to see. I pray it is not too much for us. Let us trust love to guide us to freedom with each other. Let us see the beloved in the sinner, the one we would rather cast out. Let us see in spite of faults, see and know, like the show, we must love Lucy and one another. Amen.
- Isaiah 1:18 - 20
- Matthew 9:9 - 13