Sunday, October 7, 2007

Out of Control – a sermon

You know that feeling when you were a kid and you got on your bike on a hot summer day? You rode out on the street and felt the breeze run through your hair and under your arms. Maybe you got daring and took your hands off the handlebars and gave a whoop of joy. Then you took the bike down the hill and went faster. It was a big hill so it got faster and faster. You think, "I'd better grab those handlebars – this is getting fast." Then you see that bend in the road which you had forgotten about, and the bike's going really fast now. You put on the brakes only to remember they didn't work and the only words your mind can come up with are, "This is going to hurt."

That's called being out of control.

Usually, it's considered to be a bad thing.

Whether you are a person who is out of control or some situation is out of control, it means that things are not going to be smooth sailing for awhile. And it might just hurt.

Today we look at the life of St. Francis – but also at ourselves. Now, you know that St. Francis was a bit of a loose canon already, right? When he was a young man he hung out with the wrong sorts of people and got into all sorts of trouble. You could imagine his parents waiting up at night wondering, "Where did we go wrong?" Then one day he joined the army – because he really liked how he looked in uniform – and went to war. It took him all of one battle to get captured and wind up in prison where he spent a year thinking, "That was a really bad idea."

You probably already know that when he got home he was a much soberer young man who became converted to Christ. Only, then he got out of control again. Francis started taking his father's money to feed the poor and help the church. When his father tried to lock him in his room, Francis escaped and went about helping more people, which scandalized his father. Finally, his father took Francis to the bishop and said, "Talk some sense into this boy." In front of the bishop, Francis declared that from that day on he would dedicate himself to Christ's service alone, and that he would adopt a life of poverty. With that, he stripped off all of his clothes so that he would owe his father nothing, and walked down the street completely naked, singing hymns to God.

He was really out of control.

Which is pretty much how he would stay. This is a man who talked to animals, for goodness sake. In the town of Gubbio, there was a wolf terrorizing the people – talk about out of control – and nobody could seem to catch it. So Francis walked out to talk to it, which made everyone pretty sure he would be killed. Two creatures utterly out of control of anybody else, meeting outside the town. No wonder they could understand each other so well. Francis did not fear dying because death had no control over him. What could the wolf do to him, after all? Nor did he seek to control the wolf, merely find common ground.

Of course, St. Francis became the founder of a great monastic order, the Poor Brothers. His poverty, his humility, his freedom seemed awfully attractive to a lot of people. But as the order grew, it got out of control, too. Francis could no longer visit all the houses, and he was troubled by reports that some of the brothers found his way of poverty too difficult, so they were changing things a bit. Before long, Francis had no control and was shunted to one side. Yet even then, they say, he spent his last years filled with joy – not because everything was going well but because God was with him.

You may know what it's like to have things feel out of control. Where you can't make anything good happen, where everyone has unrealistic expectations of you, where a mountain of work and worry pile up on your shoulders and nobody is doing what you want. I don't think it's just me…. Well, that's a common theme in our lives. It's a big world with so many obstacles, so many dangers, so many things to get done – it's exhausting.

We have a little card in our kitchen that says something like, "You can't control the situation or the people around you – you can only control your reactions and attitudes." You can't control the aging process (or whether you get a disease) – you can only control how you approach the impending loss of abilities you once took for granted. You can't control people who SHOULD be doing things or thinking your way – you can only control how you approach them.

One of the things about our lives is that there are two ways of being out of control. We can try to control everything that goes on around us, try to make everything work just the way we want – and finally scream in fear or frustration when it doesn't. Or we can give up some of our control – voluntarily go out of control, as it were – and hand it over to God. Not that God will make bad things go away or make everyone agree with you. Ain't gonna happen.

But when we let go, when we reach the place where Francis was, and success becomes irrelevant, and whether everyone loves us becomes irrelevant, and whether we look ridiculous becomes irrelevant – because God loves us and is with us always even to the end of the age – then we are out of control in the best possible way. Amen.