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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2019 (Mothers' Day)

May 12, 2019

Passage: John 10:22-30

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Easter

Detail:

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C (2019)
May 12th, 2019
Mothers’ Day
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Acts 9:36-43 Revelation 7:9-17 John 10:22-30

 

I try not to draw too many frivolous comparisons between the message of the Gospel and what’s going on in the world these days, but I simply cannot resist noting that this morning’s Gospel reading proves that gaslighting is not just a modern phenomenon. For those who are not familiar with the term, one standard definition for gaslighting is that it is “a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target's belief.” Essentially, it’s a clever way of trying to control a conversation. And if you pay attention to modern politics, then you probably know that it’s a standard tactic used, especially by partisan pundits, in conducting interviews. 

 

I won’t say any more than that about current politics, but again, it’s worth noting that in the conversation going on in this morning’s Gospel reading, it looks like the interviewers are trying to gaslight Jesus. Today’s section of John’s Gospel takes place in the tenth chapter, and in chapters seven through nine, we have a series of stories where Jesus is being questioned by the religious authorities of the day. On each occasion, the authorities want to know who Jesus claims to be, and each time when Jesus makes a bold claim about his identity, the religious authorities refuse to accept it. They refuse to accept it because if they did, it would mean they are not in control. And on this occasion, when Jesus is being questioned about his identity again, he’s right in saying that he has already answered the question. And I think he’s essentially telling his questioners that he’s not interested playing the control game. 

 

And there’s a great lesson for us in Jesus’ refusal to play this game. We know how the story plays out - that those who wanted to be in control wound up crucifying Jesus in an effort to get rid of him for good. But even after he was raised from the dead, Jesus did not return in order to assert control over anyone. As we’ve heard for the past several weeks, the repeated message of the resurrection is “Do not be afraid” and “Peace be with you.” Hardly expressions of a wish to dominate and control. 

 

Last week, I was reminded of a quote from the Rev. Jim Fenhagen, who was the dean of the General Theological Seminary in the 1980s. Fenhagen wrote, “Until I let go of the need to control, I am unable to love.” And though the underlying idea has been expressed in various ways through the centuries, I find it refreshing to hear contemporary voices acknowledging that the will to control is as much an obstacle to love as it has ever been.  Because we are all tempted to play the game of control - often - and I’d wager that most of the anxiety and stress that plagues us is the result of our inability to assert our will in any given situation. Much of our lack of love is the result of our habitual desire to control what’s going on in our own lives and in the lives of others. But the truth is that if our ultimate goal is to love more, then we have to learn that love does not sit well with the desire to control. 

 

There are two things going on today that I think drive this lesson home. 

 

This Sunday is typically referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday - you probably picked up on that theme from Psalm 23 combined with the Gospel reading - and the image of a shepherd is a useful one. Though I am not an expert in animal husbandry, I do know that the job of a shepherd is not to control. 

The shepherd’s job is to protect and guide. And any shepherd who looks at a flock and thinks, “YOU WILL DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO DO AT ALL TIMES,” is going to be constantly frustrated. If you’ve ever worked with sheep - or any other kind of domesticated animal - then you probably know that animals tend not to be so submissive that they will conform to our will all the time. I know from experience: Davis and I have a dachshund, and most of the time, I think he’s actually the one in control of the household.   

 

In any case, a good shepherd does not treat sheep as mere objects to be controlled. A good shepherd treats the sheep as creatures to be cared for and guided; sometimes at the cost of always getting one’s way.

 

This Sunday is also Mothers’ Day. And one of the things that most mother figures know is that even if you took responsibility for the life of a child and guided your children - even with a heavy hand - and were in control of nearly every aspect of your child’s life, there comes a time when you begin to realize that you have to let go. I’d even go so far as to say that a mother’s role involves always preparing for the time when their child is able to make their own way; it involves always working against the need to control the outcomes of their children’s lives. In short, mothering is about learning the hard way of love. 

 

And as I am sure most mothers here can attest, this is not an easy task, and it involves a tremendous amount of heartache and frustration. Not least because children learn from an early age that gaslighting is an effective strategy against parental influence! 

 

But seriously, love almost always involves loss. And because we don’t want to lose what we love, we’re tempted to try to control every outcome of life so that we don’t lose it. Only, we can’t control everything. 

 

Imagine how desperately the Virgin Mary must have wanted to control the situation when she saw her son being led away to be crucified. But she was not able. All she could do was to continue to love her son. Or think back to how Mary Magdalene must have felt when she thought that someone had taken Jesus’ body away - how she probably would have given anything to control what had happened. But she was not able. All she could do was continue to love her Lord. 

 

In much the same way, the lesson for us all this Good Shepherd and Mothers’ Day is that there are times in life when we are practically forced to choose between the desire for control and the ability to love. And in those instances, choosing the desire for control is likely to leave us feeling frustrated and angry when things don’t go our way. Choosing love might not help us achieve our desired outcome - but it does allow us to persevere. 

In many cases, the the power of love is that it frees us to carry on when there’s nothing left for us to control. The paradox is that in letting go of the need to control, we are actually freed to receive something greater in return that can never be snatched away. 

Such is the example we have in Jesus, who refused to assert control over his own life, choosing instead to follow the way of love to the end. We here are witnesses to the resurrection - to what has happened after the “end” - and so I encourage you all: mothers and fathers and shepherds alike, to take some time throughout the rest of this day to give thanks for the gift of God’s love that sets us free.