This past summer, I spent a week visiting my friend Vanessa in Manhattan. While it wasn’t my first time visiting NY, it was my first time staying for longer than a weekend.
One morning, while Vanessa was at work, I decided to take the subway downtown to the Village. We were between stations when all of a sudden, the subway lurched to a stop.
I then realized three things all at once: I didn’t have cell phone service, the air conditioner wasn’t on, and there was nothing I could do about it.
As I was sitting there, feeling my heart rate increase as my anxiety started to take over, a man came in from the car behind ours. Now this man was about my age, but he was screaming and literally stomping up and down. He ran up and started banging on the control room door, screaming at the conductor. Because, you see, had had someplace to be. He was doing everything in his power to take control of a situation in which he had none. I noticed that the lounder and angrier he got, the more anxious I felt.
I looked around and realized that everyone else, in archetypical New Yorker fashion, was pointedly ignoring him. They simply continued reading their magazines or carrying on conversations with their friends.
I realized I had a decision to make: I could either let my anxiety take hold and do everything in my power to take control. Or. I could let go and acknowledge that I had none. And that that was ok.
About 20 minutes later, the train started moving. And you’d better believe that when we got to the next station, that man stomped and screamed all the way out onto the platform and up the stairs to the street as he went about his day.
When I met up with Vanessa for lunch, I had a story to tell. I launched into this drama about the train and the guy and the panic. And she just looked at me from across the table, shrugged and said, “Welcome to New York!”
Our Scriptures this morning are wrestling with that issue of control. Who is in control? What happens when those not in control try to take control of a situation they don’t like?
“Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God asks Job from the whirlwind. “Do the songs the morning stars sang at creation still ring in your ears?” The answer is obvious: No. No, I was not. God alone was there.
And in the Gospel, James and John come to Jesus and boldly say, “Teacher, give us anything we ask of you.” They ask: “When you come into your glory, let us sit, one at your left and the other at your right.”
Now, the context here is important. The lectionary skips over a couple of verses just before this exchange. In those verses, Jesus tells his Disciples for the third time: “we are indeed walking to Jerusalem now. When we get there, I will be arrested, handed over to the secular authorities to be beaten, mocked, and killed, and on the third day I will rise again.”
And this is their response. It’s as if they’re trying to process the incomprehensible by exerting whatever control they can in an uncontrollable situation. They’re desperate for reassurance that, if Jesus is going to die, the ministry in which they’ve shared won’t have been in vain.
“Yes,” Jesus says. “You will drink from the same cup as me. You will also be persecuted for proclaiming the Gospel. But you will also share in my baptism: you will be called children of God and will rise to new life with me. But to sit at my left hand or my right? That isn’t for me to decide. That’s God’s call.”
All of these stories, for me, come back to the same simple idea: that God is God and I am not.
God is God and I am not. And that’s a good thing. I am not in control - and I don’t have to be.
How often do we try to exert control where we don’t actually have any? Like the man yelling about the stopped subway car. Like Job’s friends, insisting that there must be a reason behind his suffering - as if categorizing and rationalizing his pain will make it go away. Like James and John trying to make sense of their teacher’s impending death.
We all do it. And we do it all the time. We try and control our selves. We try and control others. We try to control how others think of us.
If only I were richer, skinnier, smarter, lived in a better neighborhood, went to the right school, had more powerful friends. Then it all might be worthwhile. Then I might be worthwhile.
But things like wealth and power and status don’t bring salvation. Just last week, Jesus told the rich young man that his devotion to the Torah was remarkable. All he had left to do was sell everything he had and follow.
God is God and I am not. God is in control. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” This line is a recurring refrain from The Revelations of Divine Love, by St. Julian of Norwich.
It’s easy to hear this and think: “everything’s going to be fine!” “It’ll all work out!” “Nothing bad’s going to happen!” And while that’s true in a sense, it also misses the mark a bit.
But Julian didn’t know a world in which anything was “fine.” Julian lived in England from the mid-14th to the early 15th centuries. She lived within the context of the Hundred Years’ War. She lived at the height of the Black Death. Her world was one of violence, disease, and death.
And yet: “all shall be well.” She wrote these words after a series of mystical revelations in which Christ appeared to her and showed her the ways that God demonstrates his love for creation. This refrain that “all shall be well” is spoken from Christ’s perspective. It’s a declaration that, from God’s vantage point all shall be well because God knows how the story ends.
Our awareness is limited to our present reality. God is aware of all of time all at once. God sees the beginning, middle, and end. God perceives the whole arc of salvation histroy in a glance. So for God, all shall be well because God knows: no matter what, in the end, we will all stand side by side, reconciled, healed and renewed.
A number of years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Bishop Gene Robinson. Bishop Robinson was the first openly gay man elected Bishop in the Episcopal Church and his election caused a remarkable uproar among conservatives in the church. The death threats were so numerous that he actually had to wear a bulletproof vest under his vestments at his consecration.
He shared a story that someone once asked him: “How do you put up with this hatred and vitriol? How do you keep from giving in to the anger and pushing back?” And he said, quite simply, “Because, I know I’m going to heaven.” There’s a sense in which many of the things we worry about don’t matter. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about our anxiety or pain or grief.
But it does mean that we can let go of trying to be in control. Of trying to be the best. Of trying to be perfect.
Because God is God and I am not. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to let go of our need to be in control? How might we live differently if we let Jesus set us free?