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Better

Reverend Philip Stringer

Matthew 18:15-20

LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Speak to our hearts with your living word and feed us, that we may live to serve you in faith and love. AMEN


The title of today’s sermon is, “Better.” And the message that I hope you will remember today— after all of the other details are lost and forgotten — is simply this: It is better to be in love than to be in control.


That message is perhaps best illustrated by a centuries-old story from the Hassidic tradition about a woman who gave birth to a baby boy. Among those who came to wish her well upon the birth was a mysterious stranger. Standing alone with the woman and her baby, he said to her, “I have the power to grant to you whatever you wish for your son.” She said, “if I could ask anything for my son, I would wish that everyone will love him unconditionally, as I do!”


“Let it be for him as you have asked,” declared the stranger, and he disappeared. And it was so.


As the boy grew, his playmates always let him have his way. They never argued with him, even when he was clearly wrong. When he cheated, they didn’t hold him accountable.


He was disrespectful to his elders — and later to women. He was abusive. He became a bully— and with no one to stand in his way he rose to great power, ruthless and merciless to his enemies. He was a wicked and hateful man.


And his mother — discarded and abandoned by her son long ago, wept in her hut, destitute and alone.


And as she sat in her hut weeping one day, the stranger appeared before her again.


“Why have you cursed us this way?”


“I only gave you what you wanted,” he replied.


She said to him, “All I wanted was for my son to be happy, and to be surrounded by love!”


“Ah!!,” said the stranger, “If what you wanted was for your son to be happy, then you should not have asked that everyone love your son. You should have asked that your son would love everyone!”


It is better to be in love than to be in control.


It is “better,” because control, after all isn’t even real; It is one of the greatest illusions of life.


Today, Jesus’ words remind us that God is NOT in control of your life -- that God does not want control of your life, and that God doesn’t want YOU to be in control of your life, either.


Instead, Jesus wants us to recognize that the love of God is the greatest power and the highest authority in this life -- and Jesus wants us to live within the power of that authority so that we will know what abundant life truly is.

Jesus tells us today: being in love is better than being in control.


Anyone who has lost a loved one -- or whose health is declining -- or who has suffered any kind of loss at all, knows just how true these words are. There is no such thing as control. At best there is only the temporary postponement of loss. That is just a reality of this world. We know this on a very concrete, personal level. Control is an illusion.


In THIS world, however, the illusion of control reigns supreme. The world believes so thoroughly in the illusion of control that there are a host of sayings propping it up. Slogans such as:


Might makes Right.

Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

People in power “rise to the top.”

Well-educated people have had “higher education.”

Kings and queens “ascend to the throne.”

To be poor is to be a “Bottom-feeder.”

To be physically small or disabled is to be “powerless.”

The “golden rule” is this: Whoever has the gold makes the rules!


Jesus always stood in opposition to the illusion that power equals control. Jesus stood with people who were viewed as “powerless,” such as children and widows, sinners and prostitutes. He healed those marginalized by disease or disabilities. He praised a poor widow who gave an offering of two cents, rather than the rich man who contributed large amounts.


Instead of praising those with brute force and wealth, he lifted up the virtue of love as being the true expression of power.


“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he said.


The greatest commandments are to love your God and to love your neighbor— all of the rest of the law and the prophets are rooted in these.


Jesus taught us and he showed us that being in love is better than being in control.


And yet, you and I are so deeply steeped in this world misled by the illusion that control is power, that we can become blind to the power of love, ourselves. And to be honest, life’s lessons make it hard to believe the words of Jesus, even if we know that seeking control will ultimately disappoint us.


Perhaps the difficulty in accepting these words of Jesus is most evident when we have been hurt by someone else -- and especially when we are in a conflict where the stakes of winning or losing are high.


Mennonite Christians, as you may know, are great advocates of peace at any cost. The teachings of their tradition forbid them to take up arms or participate in any violence.


The son of a friend of mine was playing guitar at the Mennonite Music Festival in Michigan. While he was on stage there was a yellow jacket or wasp that apparently didn’t care for his music, and it stung him on the side of his face and in a few other places. Finally, he stopped playing and said, “For just a minute, I’m suspending the Mennonite teaching of pacifism because I’m gonna kill this thing!” To which the crowd laughed and hollered, and several people in the front of the crowd helped him kill it.


When we get stung by our enemies -- when we are wronged and we get mad -- or even when no one in particular is to blame but life just seems to be going wrong -- these are the times when we are tempted to walk away from Jesus’ teachings -- and to stop loving for just a while. To say just one mean thing — take one cheap shot. To do just one hurtful thing to get back. Then we can go back to following the rules of being nice.


Jesus’ words, of course, are not simply rules that are to be followed. These are words intended to guide us through the maze of living in a world of brokenness and conflict. They are the words of the one who came to heal that brokenness and lead us into life. They are words intended especially FOR those times when we feel like giving up on doing what is good and right.


Jesus says, don’t switch from love to control. No matter what happens, keep on loving.


Anybody who has tried this knows how scary it is. It is so scary that people often try to set boundaries on the extent of love — which (ironically) is actually to try and control love! This disciples once asked Jesus when they could stop forgiving someone — “when can we stop trying?; stop caring?” Jesus’ answer was essentially, “never.”


In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks to his disciples about conflict. For control-seekers, arguments are a battleground that ends with winners and losers. The unspoken question underlying Jesus’ teaching, is simply, “how can I come out as the ‘winner?’ At what point do we declare the other person the ‘loser’ and walk away?”


If we look at Jesus’ words through the “eyes” of the world, we will find rules for declaring yourself the “winner.”


1. Tell the person they’re wrong.

2. If they don’t listen, take two witnesses who can show they agree with you.

3. If they don’t listen to three of you, get the whole church to argue for you.

4. And if they won’t even concede when all the holy people are on your side, then we can agree that you tried, but the other wouldn’t listen. You win and they lose. “Let such a one be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile.” Cast them out as a bad guy — dirty undesirable.


That’s what the eyes of the world — steeped in the illusion of control — would have us see.


You tried, but there is only so much you can do. It’s OK to walk away. You win.


But Jesus stood opposed to the illusion of control. When we hear Jesus say that after a certain point we are to treat those who sin against us as tax collectors and Gentiles, we need to remember who is talking, and ask ourselves, “how did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles?” And of course, he treated them with an extra measure of love and concern. After all, you and I are sinners. You and I are Gentiles. How does Jesus treat us?


The answer of course, is given most profoundly here (altar) — where the broken body of Jesus in given for you, and the blood of Jesus is poured out in love for you.


Jesus’ words today compel us to look -- no only at how we approach controversy and conflict, but how we view all of life -- not just in the church but in every area of our lives.


It is better to be in love than to be in control.


We are perpetually presented with the dilemma of whether we will choose to live our lives in a system of control or a system of love.


From the major events of life to the minor-- from questions of war to questions of who goes first at the four-way stop.

Jesus says that it is better to be in love than to be in control.


Jesus teaches us today that the power to do what is right is already yours through his love for you.


In Jesus, we see that true love is not weak at all. As those baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that love defines us and love can define how we move and behave.


The sin of the other doesn’t determine how we act or who we are; love does. The sin of the other person is not going to shape who we are or how we will behave. The love of Jesus will do this.


Our authority to live in love is our greatest asset and power-- because it really isn’t OUR power at all. It is the power of God.


It is better to be in love than to be in control.


Every day you will be faced with the choice of choosing control or choosing love. Remember the words of Jesus -- remember how the power of his love reaches out to you -- even as you continue to sin -- and washes you clean. And as his love continues to re-create you, look with new eyes at the world and the people around you. They may meet you with kindness or they may not, but that isn’t really the issue. The real question is: how will you meet them?


It is better to be in love than to be in control.


AMEN.

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