SERMON: God, Grant Me The Serenity
This the first in a sermon series entitled "Finding Peace in an Anxious World." In this series, Pastor Anna focuses on "The Serenity Prayer" by Reinhold Neibuhr and the Book of Proverbs as a scaffolding by which to dismantle our anxiety and affect change in the world. This sermon was preached at Skye Farm Camp on September 6, 2020.
Jesus Calms a Storm
22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, 23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
Everyone take a deep breath with me.
And let’s let the breeze off the lake carry our spirits. Breathe deeply, the crisp cool air that comes so easily here. Whether this is your first time to Skye Farm or your 100th I hope you’ll allow yourself to feel like a guest in God’s house this morning. It is not very often that we can be in such a remote and serene place while also surrounded by the church community we love. It’s familiar and new all at the same time. As with one breathe we are recognized by a familiar God and yet feel the possibility and newness that only the dawn can bring.
This is a serene place. It’s a place that just by being here, we can feel the closeness of God and a sense of peace. Its one of the great ironies of 2020 that the year we most need camp experiences to bring some serenity into our lives, is the year camp has been rendered less accessible through the usual avenues. That’s why I’m so grateful Hannah had this idea of church at camp and Skye Farm has been so hospitable . I needed this and not just because a summer without church camp would feel incomplete, but because I need all the ways of accessing serenity that I can get these days.
We are beginning a new sermon series today as a new month begins, called “Finding Peace in an Anxious World.” I’ve been praying a lot about how to begin today. The image of a large fortress comes to mind when I think about my own anxiety and the anxiety the world is carrying right now, so enormous and fortified that a way in cannot be found. In 2020, our anxiety has been re-enforced and strengthened with so many layers of injustice, distrust, disappointment and uncertainty, that any quest of “finding peace” (aside from day trips to Skye Farm everyday) seems like a hopeless task. How do we carry the peace that we find in these calm waters back with us into the anxious world?
With the help of some colleagues an answer to my prayer came. How do you begin to break into the reenforced fortress that is our anxiety in 2020? You build scaffolding beside it and dismantle it piece by piece. The scaffolding is built of several different elements, all of which God has given us for this purpose.
The first piece to this scaffolding is the Scripture. The reason we read and reread ancient texts given to us through our ancestors in faith and inspired by God is because they let us know that the difficult things through which we go have been gone through before, in one way or another. We see this in the gospel passage in which Jesus’ own disciples were caught in a literal life storm. This is an anxious moment for them. Jesus is right there with them, but he is sleeping. And so they fret and they worry for their safety and they wonder if Jesus even cares. When he wakes, Jesus with a wave of his hand and a word from his mouth quiets the sea and the wind and it becomes as smooth as the waters you see behind me. Jesus then wonders out loud why his disciples had doubted? The disciples, those who were closest to Jesus, the first to receive the Good News, were not immune from anxiety and doubt. Even though today we no longer have the physical presence of Jesus, we can take confidence from passages like this that remind us that doubt and anxiety are parts of the human experience- even for the disciples- and yet Jesus never fails to comes through in the end with calm waters.
Each week this month, we’ll also read a passage from Proverbs. It’s not a book of the Bible we read often in worship, but as we seek to understand our anxious habits, it offers us much wisdom. We hear echoes of storms being calmed in the Proverbs passage, as well. Like much of the rest of the book, this passage from chapter 3 is written as though from a parent to a child. Have a listen:
The True Security
21 My child, do not let these escape from your sight: keep sound wisdom and prudence, 22 and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. 23 Then you will walk on your way securely and your foot will not stumble. 24 If you sit down,[a] you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. 25 Do not be afraid of sudden panic, or of the storm that strikes the wicked; 26 for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.
Wisdom and understanding are not qualities we are born with. They grow in us over time. When have grown in our wisdom in God, we will grow in our serenity and peace. We will have no need to dread disaster. We can’t expect to know how to address our anxiety in 2020 if we have not first worked to build the scaffolding beside it.
Knowledge of God is found in these scriptures but it is also found in our community of faith where we see the nature of God reflected in love. So I next want to tell you about another piece of the scaffolding we build to dismantle our anxiety.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote “The Serenity Prayer” in its current form in 1943 while he was serving a small congregation in Heath, Massachusetts. Although Niebuhr was a well-known theologian by that point, the prayer was written with two simple objectives: to address the complicated anxiety in his present-day, war-torn world and to reach out a hand to his congregants who were struggling in their faith against paralysis as they made sense of what they should do in the midst of their anxiety. He intended this prayer to be a means of finding hope in a world where xenophobia and hatred threatened to win control.
Niebuhr wasn’t naïve. He knew that words on a page could not bring down empires of hatred. But he earnestly believed that the Christians sitting in his pews could, if only they could release themselves from the crippling power of fear and anxiety that gripped them. If the anxiety could be pushed away, he believed they were capable of bringing God’s goodness into their present reality of brokenness.
Niebuhr said that the purpose of the prayer was to remind his fellow Christians that “the sinful impulses that give rise to the suppression of liberty are rooted deep in every human heart. The threat of oppression is ever-present, for it is within each of us. So one dangerous component in the life mixture one must pray to have either the grace to accept or the courage to change, is the condition of one’s soul.”
In other words, within each of us is the capability to oppress our fellow human beings. Also within each of us is the tendency to let the battle between good and bad arrest our agency. Anxiety prevents us from finding acceptance of what is in the world and mustering the courage to change what shouldn’t be in the world. The opposite of anxiety, is wisdom, and with wisdom, serenity.
God, grant me the serenity. This is where it starts. By asking God for this, we acknowledge that we cannot find it on our own. This morning we begin by seeking serenity from God, and we do it by coming here to this sacred, serene place, gathering with this, our beloved community, and opening this, our holy Word.
Places we go to find serenity and the people we long to be with, this is a good start. But we can’t always be in those places or with these people. So how do we carry the serenity forward into our more uncertain moments?
This piece of the scaffolding you build yourself this week.
Introduce the Daily Examin. St. Ignatius. Do it individually or in a group:
FINDING PEACE IN AN ANXIOUS WORLD
WEEK 1 PRACTICE
THE DAILY EXAMIN
INVITE GOD IN
Center yourself. Some helpful invocations include “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10a).
Ask yourself what in this day and in this moment are you thankful for?
Where did I find God today? Where did I feel God’s absence?
IN GOD’S HANDS
Pray that all you have considered, the good and the bad, be put in God’s hands and for you to be released from it. Pray that serenity and wisdom begin to follow.
Repeat each evening this week.
This scaffolding that you are building is counter cultural in a world where anxiety is the dominant narrative. It’s a rebellion against fear. A protest against the status quo. A conspiracy with God to loosen the grip fear can hold on your life… because only a person freed from that paralysis can begin to take the next steps of acceptance of what cannot be changed, courage to change what can be changed and wisdom to know the difference.
God be with you until we meet again.