The Illusion of Control

A Blessed Epiphany to you.

I know today many of us are tired, and frustrated, by this latest round with the virus. I know the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff in our community are exhausted. I wonder whether many of you like me, spent the week wondering, “well, what the heck are we supposed to do now?” So, I want to begin today’s sermon with an old joke. Apologies if you’re heard it, but it goes like this:

What would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of wise men? Three Wise Women would have “asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be Peace on Earth.”

Now, that joke plays with old gendered stereotypes, it’s part of what gives the joke it’s punch. But there’s also some truth in there.

Today I want to posit to you, I think this story is all about the illusion of control. For a long time we gendered this illusion of control. We said men were the ones in danger of trying to control their world. I think Matthew wanted this story to warn all of us, of any gender, of the danger of trying to control the world around us. Matthew wants us to see Jesus, even little 8 pound 6 ounce Baby Jesus, as an invitation to stop trying to run the world. Matthew wants us to become followers on another road.

How the ancients read this story

The earliest Christians didn’t read the Bible, even the Gospels, as primitive history. Almost any reference to this story today consults astronomical charts to try and decide whether a comet in 5 BCE or a supernova in 12 CE might have been the star of Bethlehem. We worry about concrete data. Our ancestors didn’t think that way. Instead they asked what “capital T Truths” could be allegorically read from a story. St John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, preached about the star. He said this was no ordinary star. It had a divine power to call the wise ones, to witness to God’s birth. The heavens were telling the glory of God. The star doesn’t just hang over the stable. The star moves ahead of the wise ones. What makes the magi wise is their willingness to listen and to follow, to give up control.

There is, of course, a foil in this story, enter Herod. I said in my Christmas Eve sermon, Herod, as soon as he gets wind of the Christ’s birth, starts trying to control the narrative. If we keep reading on in this Gospel, we find the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt as refugees, escaping Herod’s slaughter of any child who might challenge his claim as ruler. Herod asserts control, at least he tries to assert control.

Control is an Illusion

I think part of what is so frustrating about this moment with the omicron variant is our loss of a sense of control. In November and December, it had started to feel like we had reached a new normal, a plateau where we could sometimes take off our masks, we could travel, we could safely spend time together. Part of what is so hard is the loss of the little bit of a sense of control we had.

The wisest spiritual teachers I know say control is, almost always, an illusion. We don’t have control, not really. Not over our work life, not over our families (parents of small children know this one). We don’t control our bodies. We can make some decisions that have measurable effects, sure, but we can’t control when we will get sick, when we will face a terrible disease. The wisest spiritual teachers tell us control is, almost always, an illusion.

We can spend a lot of time, a lot of money, trying to build and buy the illusion of control.

But control is almost always an illusion. With one important exception.

We do not, reliably, have control on the events and people around us. But we do have control over our response, over our reaction, over how we think about what goes on around us.

You may have heard me quote the writer David Foster Wallace before. In a famous essay, Foster-Wallace takes us to the grocery store. He complains, in vivid prose about the angry and frustrating people in the aisle, about the muzak over the speakers, about the bright lights, the intentionally confusing lay out of the aisles, and laments the shopping cart with the debilitated wheel always pulling to the left. Today we might add to his list the people who aren’t wearing masks, or who can’t seem to keep their masks over their noses even two years into a pandemic. You feel the frustration even as he builds the case.

We don’t have control over how our neighbor chooses to be in the store. We don’t have control over my need to get milk, even when the checkout line is long. We do have control about how we show up. We do have control over our inner narratives, about the stories we tell ourselves about our fellow shoppers, about the clerks. We do have control over whether we treat people with patience and kindness, and whether we give myself the extra time and space required right now.

The point, Foster Wallace says, is that

petty, frustrating crap like this…the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me.

But asserting that control, deciding that we are going to give someone who is angry the benefit of the doubt. Believing that the person rushing around us on the highway might have some life-threatening emergency on their hands, that takes some effort, it takes intentionality. It is not the default setting around us.

Frightening Divisive Times

Right now, friends, after all these months of isolation and frustration, after years of frighteningly divisive politics, I am worried about our capacity to control our own reactions, our own responses.

I have been trying, this week, to find some compassion for my neighbors who have chosen not to be vaccinated. I have been trying to find some commonality with those who are protesting mask mandates. I still disagree. I still support your vestry’s decision to require vaccination to attend in person worship. But I have been trying to find compassion, to find empathy. I am not always successful. I spent a few moments this week furious at the tennis star Novak Djokovic who is trying to sue his way into the Australian Open, despite being unvaccinated. And I realized, partway through my anger, that I don’t really care about tennis. I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of an Australian Open. I was letting something trivial occupy to much space in my head.

We live in a country where so many people have been robbed of their sense of control. By the virus, yes. But before that, by the skyrocketing price of housing and the decades long stagnation of wages, by economic inequality. We live in a country still dealing with systemic racism, gender discrimination, and homophobia. We live in a country where thousands upon thousands have been subjected to a criminal justice system that is unjust. We live in a country where millions bought into an American Dream that if you are simply willing to work 40 hours a week you can own your own home, send your kids to good schools, afford quality healthcare, and retire at 60. That dream has turned into a nightmare for far far too many. So why am I surprised when some of my neighbors fight for control?

Why am I surprised when there are protests against masks? Why am I surprised when people don’t want to get vaccinated? For that matter, why am I surprised by my own reaction to a misinformed entitled tennis player?

The Wisdom of the Epiphany and the Road to Bethlehem

The early Christian way of Scripture didn’t use this story to try and find an exact date of Christmas. They believed there was wisdom to be found in the small turns of phrase. The early church read this story as a wisdom teaching: don’t be a Herod. Don’t grasp after the illusion of control.

Instead, find the humbler way. Though these kings, or magi, or astrologers must have come from wealth, though they had power and riches enough to share, they recognized Herod didn’t have the answers. The magi chose not to return to his palace. Instead they allow themselves to be filled with joy in a humble home. They fall on their knees. They honor a child who by all human accounts should have had no standing.

That same child would grow up to tell his followers to do the same, to bring gifts of clothing and food, to come and to visit. Jesus would tell his followers to go to the people they’d least like to visit: to the hungry, to the poor, to the naked, to the imprisoned. Jesus said, as much as you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.

When you walk away from the palace, from the gossip of Jerusalem, when let go of the illusion of control over the people and events around you, new possibilities open. When you stop letting yourself use the ready made stories for why your neighbors are awful and ugly and wrong. When you exchange a measure of certainty for curiosity, when you stop repeating your talking points and listen, new possibilities can emerge. The road to Bethlehem doesn’t come with reliable signs of status. The road to Bethlehem doesn’t come with steady affirmations that you belong to the right party. The road to Bethlehem doesn’t come with orthodox certainties. If you want to change the world, start by working on your inner monologue.

The story of the Epiphany tells us, we can choose how we show up where we show up. We can choose to bestow our gifts on the ones who might least expect our generosity. We can let go of trying to control the people and events around us, and instead work on being present to the surprising presence of God in each moment. Even in a week as frustrating as this one.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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