This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on January 9, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, as always, thank you for this time. Thank you for this space. Thank you for being with us through another week.
Help us, Lord, in everything to be mindful of you and your presence. Help us to be grateful for what we have. Help us to focus more on what we can do and less on being combative. Help us to focus more on what we can build and create than on what we can tear down, and help us to be at peace with the work that is being done.
Help us to hope in the future and the possibilities that love creates. Help us to hope in the future of the work that is set before us, so that we can not only live in the moment but so that we can be positive in our work.
As we consider scripture, Lord, help us to be moved by the Spirit to those places that will be most beneficial to us. Help us to be caught up in whatever places would speak to us the most so that we can continue to learn and to grow at every step.
Help us to not be in a hurry, to not have expectations about where we should be going or where we should end up. Help us in this, Lord, to let go of our need for control and focus and be attentive, instead, on what is happening in and around us, Lord.
We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I don’t know if you’re familiar [with what’s called the] Enneagram. It’s a system that kind of helps you see who you are and you respond to things that are going on around you, and in particular, how we tend to respond to things that frustrate us or cause us anxiety, stress us out. I’m way over simplifying it, but in the Enneagram, I’m what they call a 5, and what that means is — one of the things that means is — I like to be in control.
I like to have answers for things. I like to analyze things. I like to have as much data as possible. I like to examine all the possibilities and minimize uncertainty before I make decisions, and because of that, I really like rules, and I didn’t realize until recently that part of the reasons I like rules is because rules help me to color inside the lines.
And that’s not something that I want because of other people. It’s not something that I feel the need to stay within the lines because other people expect me to. It’s not that I care if other people approve of what I’m creating or doing, but I like to feel in control, and rules set boundaries. Rules means data — more information for me about how a thing should be done in order to be most efficient or most effective. Rules create for me an expectation that I can meet. It is better for me to change rules than to break rules.
I’m not interested in breaking rules for the sake of rebelling. I’m interested in breaking rules that don’t fall in line with what we’re trying to accomplish, and really, all that is is just a changing of the rules — prioritizing one rule over another.
This is the world that I live in. This is how my mind works. The implication, then, is that rules and laws are the same as control. They create for me a control in my world and my environment, but that begs the question: who’s controlling, and what or whom are we controlling?
If rules are about control — if rules are about boundaries — in order to minimize uncertainty, then who is the one doing the controlling, because it’s really easy for us to go from control to oppression. And by oppression, I mean exerting authority over somebody that we don’t have the right to exert. Taking authority for ourselves when we don’t have the right to be authoritative.
We see this a lot all throughout scripture, and it’s one of the things that God speaks out against often. In Exodus, chapter 22, we find God trying to, or beginning to, instruct the Israelites in how they should be. God sets rules for them — lots and lots of rules — and in chapter 22, in verse 21, he says,
“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”Exodus 22:21, NIV
And he says that same thing in Exodus chapter 23 and verse 9: don’t oppress foreigners. [God] institutes all of these rules, and in the middle of these rules, he says, “But you shouldn’t be oppressing people who have come into your land.” In other words, “Don’t take the authority that I have given you to enforce these rules among yourselves and use that as an occasion to exert control over somebody when you have no right to control them. You were foreigners in Egypt.” And then after they leave Egypt and go into the promised land, again they’re foreigners, and God says these rules are not carte blanche for you to oppress people just because you think you have some kind of control.
In Deuteronomy chapter 23 — Deuteronomy chapter 23, in verse 15, he says,
If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.Deuteronomy 23:15-16, NIV
Which is a very strange passage in the middle of these first five books of the Old Testament considering all the rules and the occasions they had to take slaves. And yet he says if a slave escapes his master and runs to you, you don’t send him back to his master. Don’t oppress them. Don’t exert control over them when you have no right — no authority — to do so.
It’s very easy for our rules that give us control to become oppressive to the people around us.
Similarly, in Acts chapter 7, we have a recounting of the Exodus story. In Acts chapter 7, in verse 19, Stephen is speaking, and he says, concerning Pharoah,
He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.Acts 7:19, NIV
He links the treacherous nature of Pharoah’s ruling — of his control over the Israelites — with the oppression of the Israelites, and I think for most of us, that makes sense. People who control in treacherous ways are oppressive. In other words, control becomes oppression when it begins to control others. When we obey the rules for ourselves, we control ourselves, and we call that self-control, but when we enforce the rules in a way that makes others subject to us, then we become oppressors.
This is what happens when we look at things like slavery. We say, “God has given me authority, and God has given me rules by which I can ‘color within the lines,’” and then we take those rules and we begin to enforce them on other people in a way that subjects them to us, and the way that we justify this is we say, “Well, they’re inferior beings.” And by making them inferior, we no longer have to extend the same kind of freedom to them that we have for ourselves.
That’s what we do with the foreigner in our land. He says when a foreigner comes into your land, don’t oppress them. Don’t subjegate them, but instead, we say, “Well, those foreigners, they’re inferior to us, and therefore, we have the right to be authoritative over them” — the same way we use that to justify the way we treat our children.
Our children, who are inferior to us as beings and therefore are dependent upon us for survival, are therefore subject to us, and because they’re subject to us, we get to lord it over them with our authority. And so oftentimes, parental control becomes oppressive to children.
And so we can justify oppression by simply justifying to ourselves or rationalizing to ourselves that some other thing, some other person, some other being, is inferior to us. Employers do this with employees all the time. “I own the business. You work for me.” Customers do it with customer service people all the time, too. “I pay for this service. Therefore, you answer to me.”
All we’re doing is creating a situation in which somebody else seems inferior to us, and therefore, we give ourselves the right to be authoritative over them, and suddenly, the rules become oppressive. You don’t have to go very far to see this. You can sit in any store and watch people do this all the time. You can go to work for almost any company and watch this happen to your coworkers and to yourself.
It’s so easy for control to become oppression. It’s so easy for the rules to just be props to hold up some kind of oppressive system. And so, I make this equation: if control over others becomes oppression, then freedom means letting go of control.
So, when we get to passages like Luke 4, which I go to a lot — it’s foundational for me — when we get to passages like Luke chapter 4, where Jesus is reading from Isaiah and he says in verse 18,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Luke 4:18-19, NIV
Setting the oppressed free means pulling them out from under the control and the authority of people who would seek to control them beyond what they have the right to do. Those people who are oppressed are the ones who are being forced to conform to a system that should have no hold over them, and if we cannot locate these people, if we cannot let them live where they want; if we can’t let slaves run away from their masters, or better yet, abolish slavery altogether; if we can’t give our children freedom to be individuals and to make choices for themselves, then we are not doing what the Lord has said. We are, in fact, doing the opposite; we are continuing to oppress those who might otherwise be free.
One of the ways we notice this in societies and in systems are when rules become rules for the sake of rules — when the rules stop serving purposes. This is why companies have Mission and Vision statements, so that they make sure that all the rules they set in place and all the choices they make feed into the purpose of the company. When rules become rules for the sake of rules, they become oppressive, because they seek to control with no benefit, and when societies come across rules that they say, “These are no longer beneficial for us,” they should change those rules. To hold on to the rules for the sake of having rules — to hold on to the rules for the sake of tradition, to hold on to the rules with no clear purpose of how it benefits a group — is to simply enforce control over somebody else when really we don’t need to.
All of the Gospel is like this; Jesus continually challenges rules, not for the sake of being rebellious. He’s labeled as rebellious because he challenges rules, but every time he challenges rules, he gives a counter argument. The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Which is lawful: to do good or to do evil?
All of these things that he does, he says, hinge on two rules that kind of supercede all the other rules: love God; love your neighbor as yourself. And so what happened in my own walk with God — what happens in my own theology — is that the rule became “Love,” and when love becomes the rule, all the other rules get evaluated by this.
Somebody says don’t speed, and the question is, is “not speeding” — is following the rule of not speeding — loving to God or loving to my neighbor? If it is, then we should keep it. If it’s not, then we should abolish it, because the rule is Love.
People say, “Well, you’ve got to obey the law, obey the rules, and that’s how you become righteous,” and yet, Jesus says the rule is love. Obey love, and that’s how you become righteous.
As a Five, as a person who wants to be in control and have answers and who wants to minimize uncertainty, this is the most challenging thing in the Gospel for me, because I like rules, and I like control, and I like knowing, and Love is a force of possibilities, and that means uncertainty and not knowing.
When you love somebody and you free them from out of your control, from out of oppression, they get to make their own choices. They get to be their own person and do their own thing, and you can guarantee that sometimes it’s going to be things you don’t like. You can guarantee that sometimes they’re going to hurt us with their choices, and we’re going to want to control them again, and I feel that with my children, that when they do things that I don’t like, things that offend me, things that are hurtful to themselves and others, I’m going to want to come in, and I’m going to want to exert control on them and say no. But the reality is that any rule that we impose, any boundary that set, any control that we exert over ourselves or other people, has to a part of the rule of love, because if it’s not part of the rule of love, it just goes from controlling to oppressing. It just goes from setting boundaries to fencing people in, and that simply isn’t compatible with the work that God is doing in the world.
This is why, I think, that at the end of the gospels, Jesus dies. Jesus dies at the end of the gospels because he refuses to exert oppressive control on the people around him, and in one gospel, he tells his disciple, “I could if I wanted to. Don’t you think that I could call legions of angels to come down and destroy the world and set me free?” But I think Jesus shows us that his personal freedom is not the same as real freedom. His physical freedom from his oppressors is not the same as real freedom, because real freedom comes at the expense of control. He can’t control people and set people free. As soon as his control goes from himself to others, it becomes oppressive.
Paul talks over and over again about self-control. He talks over and over again about communities controlling themselves — working together to set boundaries for their own communities, for their own congregations, for their own desires — but it is not about exerting that control over the people around us. It’s not about forcing other people to look like us and do what we want. We are free in Christ, and for the sake of freedom, Christ has set us free, and that means self-control for the rule of Love, and that means letting other people — the foreigner, the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan — have their own freedom to make their own choices.
I hope that even if you’re not like me — even if you don’t feel that pull for control, even if you don’t feel that comfort in rules and staying inside the lines — I hope that you will recognize that your freedom in Christ means self-control and not oppressive control over others and that you will work this week to find those places in your life and in your community where people are being oppressed in the name of “the greater good” and find ways to replace that oppression with freedom so that everybody can exert their own participation in the community, not just be forced into a box.