SERMON: And the Wisdom to Know the Difference
This is the fourth 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 Cobleskill United Methodist Church on September 27, 2020.
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
What was it that made Peter get out of the boat? There are perhaps many different answers we could all come up with to that question, but I want you to hold it in the back of your head.
Thanks for coming along with me through this month of September as we’ve been attempting to find peace in an anxious world. I wish I could say a four-week sermon-series on the topic would automatically make each of your lives more peaceful and less anxious. I wish it were that simple, but I know it’s not. We’ve been using lines from “The Serenity Prayer” each week as a scaffolding by which to address our anxiety, our God and our role in a world of decisions that affect both good and bad. “The Serenity Prayer” is a simple prayer, but it’s anything but easy to actually pray, let alone practice. So I thank you for praying with me and walking with through the prayer: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Over the past two weeks I’ve talked about the difficulty in accepting things we cannot change as a way of acknowledging that we are ultimately not in control of the universe, only God is. But we’ve also talked about how many of the world’s problems can be and are affected by our decisions, if only we have the courage to go against the grain when it’s not convenient or necessarily beneficial to us.
So we’re here on our last week, the week where we talk that decision point when we have to decide IF the difficult situation we’re in is one that we can change, or one that we can’t. How do you know?
At this point it’s important for me to tell you a little more about the guy named Reinhold Niebuhr, the man who wrote the Serenity Prayer. I think I have mentioned this before, but he was a pastor and a seminary professor who lived through the first World War and the second World War. And as you can probably imagine living through two of the most horrific losses of life in world history, he wrestled with how to make sense of the unsensible, not only for himself but for his students and his congregation. Reinhold Niebuhr wrestled with how and when to be an agent of change as a person of faith and yet to also realize that we ourselves are not God. He also came to the horrifying conclusion that humanity is subject to the powerful grasp of sin in a way that we can’t deny, and sometimes in a way that we can’t change.
Having lived through two World Wars, Niebuhr spent a lot of his energy thinking and preaching about sin and the root of evil. But it caught some off guard in his religious circles who would have preferred to focus on the good that was possible in humanity. After several decades of social optimism within the church- a period which had brought us the social principles within our own Methodist tradition- optimism about the human potential for good came crashing down when figures like Hitler and Stalin came on to the scene. Niebuhr gave words to what shell-shocked Christians were feeling all over this country: human nature was apparently as capable of utter depravity as it was of virtue. No one had wanted to believe it, but the atrocities of the second world war meant that Christians could no longer ignore the evil that was possible in fellow humans, especially fellow humans who professed to do such evil things in the name of Christ.
Sin has an irresistible power over humanity and those who call themselves Christians and those who are in positions of leadership are not immune. This was then and is still something that cannot be changed. For some of Niebuhr’s friends, and for many of us today, this was and is a devastating realization. THIS was the point where some people, overcome by their devastation and disappointment in humanity, allowed themselves to become paralyzed by the disbelief. This is the point where complete and total exasperation and frustration gives way to anxiety and hopelessness. And hopelessness is arresting and debilitating.
So this is the world into which Niebuhr wrote “The Serenity Prayer.” He wrote it for a people that were devastated by the effects of sin and evil and feeling utterly hopeless. But Niebuhr refused to that sin had the most power in the world. He believed that just because you acknowledge and, even accept that evil and sin are a reality in the world, it does not mean that you have lost your own power to be a force for good. The sin that we cannot change in the world must be balanced by the good that we can. In fact, Niebuhr believed so strongly in the God-given responsibility of Christians to stand up in faith to the influence of sin and evil, that he became a prominent voice in the 1941 debate in this country between isolationists and interventionists, arguing that power must balance power. Goodness must balance evil. In faith, he believed goodness could prevail against evil. He didn’t debate entering into war with a nonchalant attitude, though. He insisted that the decision be made with gravity and prayer and a reliance on the Holy Spirit. In short, decisions must be made with wisdom.
Wisdom is the X factor in an ambiguous world. As we talked with the children, knowledge and brains and smarts can get you a long way in the world. But those things don’t necessary cause you to make good, ethical and moral decisions. What does affect your ability to decide between action and inaction? It’s wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Wisdom balances what we have learned from our experience and what we have learned about God, chiefly, that we are not God but that we are awestruck by God and convicted by God. That we fear God in a way that always reminds us that God is ultimately in control and we are merely growing in our knowledge of God, gaining insight day by day so that we can be God’s helpers, but never ourselves God. Wisdom is about realizing we are not God but that God has expectations of us to love mercy, act justly and to walk in humility.
How do you know whether your action in any given situation will help make it better or be futile and pointless? Wisdom. Wisdom is what your heart is telling you when your heart is connected to God.
Again, I return to my first question. What was it that made Peter get out of the boat? Some might say he was impulsive and headstrong. Some might even say he was foolish. But the more I think about this passage, the more I realize Peter was making the wise decision he needed to make in that moment. On behalf of his friends, he wanted to help relieve their fears. In the midst of a raging storm, they thought a ghost was approaching their boat. Fear reigned. And so Peter is faced with a decision point: do I put myself out there or do we all continue to live in fear? He wanted to make sure that this figure approaching them on the water was indeed Jesus. He wanted to do his part to help. And so he put his foot out onto a sheet of water, knowing that he wasn’t God but trusting that God would save him and his friends. This is the heart of wisdom.
He steps onto the water knowing full well the likely outcome of a human being trying to stand on water. But instead of sinking, the scripture tells us he started walking and went toward Jesus. It wasn’t but a few steps in and his fear overcame him again and he started to sink. In faith, he called out for his Lord Jesus and Jesus did not let him sink.
What is the lesson in Peter’s story for us today? What is the timeless quality of “The Serenity Prayer” that makes it relevant in 1943 the same way it’s relevant in 2020? There will be storms in our lives that we cannot stop. And we must be humble enough to understand that we are not the master of these storms- we cannot tell them when to come and when to go. God, and God alone is the one who brings peace in the midst of the storms. But, like Peter, and like Reinhold Niebuhr, we must understand that there will be times that we need to step out of the boat and into the storm. That our humility in the face of a storm must not paralyze us, but rather give us courage to do what is in our power to do, and trust the rest to God.
I pray that you increase everyday in your knowledge and fear of the Lord. That your wisdom grows day by day as you put your trust in God. You have hard decisions to make. We all do. May God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.
FINDING PEACE IN AN ANXIOUS WORLD
WEEK 4 PRACTICE
The labyrinth is a sacred place set aside for you to reflect, look within, pray and negotiate a new behavior. Sometimes we walk a labyrinth and other times we can following the winding path on a page with our finger. Consider these three stages:
As you move toward the center, release cares and concerns, emptying and quieting yourself before God. As you surrender to the winding path, seek wholeness and healing.
As you reach the center, pray for clarity in your life. Remain there as long as you wish, receiving whatever is there for you.
As you move out on the same path, be empowered by the Spirit to be more authentic in yourself and in your service to the world.