SERMON: Courage to Change the Things I Can
This is the third 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 20, 2020.
James 3:5-8 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,[a] and is itself set on fire by hell.[b] 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
20 My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. 21 Do not let them escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. 22 For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. 23 Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. 24 Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. 25 Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. 26 Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. 27 Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.
“Courage,” Maya Angelou says, “is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
We’re walking week by week through “The Serenity Prayer” this month. The first week at Skye Farm we reflected on the ways God grants serenity through scripture, community and daily prayer practices in such a way that we can make a scaffolding by which we can begin to dismantle our anxiety. It’s only when we begin to chip away at the anxiety that we are ready for what comes next: accepting the things we cannot change. That was last week. And it was and still is a bitter pill to swallow. There is so much about the world right now that is out of our hands. Yet acknowledging that we can’t control every part of our destiny on one hand puts us in our place in relation to God and on the other hand is a necessary part of dealing with anxiety. There are some things we must just learn to accept so that we can then surrender them to God.
But, not everything. Somethings are out of our control. But other things are not. And herein lies the delicate balance that is at the core of The Serenity Prayer. We can’t change everything, nor can we sit back and resign ourselves to fate.
Some things can and should be changed. The reason? Because we have free will and God gave it to us in hopes that we would make good decisions. But you can see how well that has worked out for us.
I’m not sure which is worse, the terrible things that happen to us that we cannot control, or the terrible things that happen to us, our neighbors and our earth that we absolutely can control, but decided not to because the arrangement benefited the decision makers in some way or another. The world is in a lot of hurt right now and a lot of that is because of all the toothpaste we’ve let out of tube, in a manner of speaking. If changing, and reversing this course of action that has left haves and have-nots our world were easy then we wouldn’t be praying to God for courage.
I really struggled with how to even open this can of worms this morning without this sermon becoming a day-long event. I have so many emotions about how much the world seems to be one giant dumpster fire right now. So much has gone wrong and is within our power to change, where do we start and how do I keep this short?
I’m going to share three ideas. And it’s just a start. Three ways, if you really care or dare, that you can choose to be courageous and tackle the mess that we’ve created.
#1 Find your voice and use it for good. (hold up the toothpaste tube we used at children’s time). What’s coming out of your toothpaste tube? The scripture from James talks about how one tainted tongue can set a forest ablaze. How one voice has the power, like a tiny spark in a great forest, to set a fire so big that its smoke will drift across a nation. The words we say matter. The language we’ve inherited from our families matters. The words we throw around with our friends in jokes and side comments matter. Do you speak in ways that build up, or do you speak in ways that tear down? Yeah, I’m talking about twitter. And I’m also talking about the emotional moments with our kids. The times we try our best to teach them a lesson, but we end up showing them what it looks like to be angry. I’m talking about the ways we publicly engage with those who disagree with us on social media where it’s one thing to be civil and speak the truth in love and another thing to smear and insult. What comes out of our mouths has the ability to cause great harm. It also has the ability to do tremendous good. If one disparaging tongue can make a fire that big, surely a tongue that speaks out in a gentle yet courageous voice for justice can have mighty ripple effects, too. What we say and how we say it matters. Be honest. Show respect for one another. Default to kindness. Our children are listening. The way we use our voice changes things.
#2 Operate with integrity- there will be some situations for change that you will have to intentionally seek out. Others will land in your lap. The ones that land in your lap will be choices between doing things the easy and cheap way or doing things the ethical and right way. Choosing the later most certainly requires courage. And here’s why: because it requires putting others’ interests before your own. It means giving up a little more of your own wealth and security so that you can even the scales and give some wealth and security to someone else who has less. Integrity is about being honest with yourself and making choices that stand up to the moral and ethical teachings given to us by Jesus Christ himself. Love your neighbor as yourself. Leave 99 sheep to search for the one sheep who is not yet in the fold. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Whether you are at work, or school or with your family: Do you do what you say you’re going to do? Do make choices in all areas of your life that practice your Christian values? Do you do good and righteous things even when no one can see you? The actions you take in your everyday life have consequences. Sometimes those consequences affect you. But more often, they affect someone else in a way that they have no power to change. The power to change things lies in your hands when it’s your decision that shortchanges justice and morality. Be responsible with your life and your work. Be just with your decisions. Think of others before you think of yourself. Live with integrity as if Jesus Christ himself were the silent observer in every scene of your life. Integrity changes things.
#3 Practice Hope. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance.” Sometimes the courage to change things means the courage to not give up hope. Hope itself becomes a practice. Let me say that again, hope itself becomes a practice. Hope is the change you desire to make but cannot yet see. This means that you must not lose sight of what you hope the world will look like. Even when the tides are running high and you feel yourself slipping under. Whatever you do, guard your heart from despair. Pick yourself up again after each hit and recommit to being an agent of change in a world that doesn’t believe in you. Change doesn’t always happen in ways that we can see immediately. It can be incremental and slow. It can be two steps forward and one step back. But to give up hope is to concede to the status quo when you know in your heart that things could be different. Guard your heart. Keep your heart. Be vigilant in your quest for what you know to be right. Practiced hope changes things.
How can you find courage to change the things you can? Find your voice and use it for good. Operate with integrity. And practice hope. It’s a good start.
A wise woman who worked for equal justice under the law her entire life once said, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that leads others to join you.” What kind of fight do you have in you? Will you open your eyes and see what around you needs to change and realize that you have the ability yourself to change it? Will you do it in a way that brings people with you?
Today any little girl that has a dream can grow up to be anything she wants, even a justice on the Supreme Court. Do you think this happened because people just accepted the world as it was and figured it was too ingrained to change? No. It happened because someone had the courage to speak up when she saw something that needed to be changed, and she changed it. This isn’t rocket science. This is pure courage.
Our world needs a whole lot of courageous people right now. Our world needs consistently virtuous people, as Maya Angelou said. People who will use their voice for building up, not tearing down. People who will operate with integrity not just when it looks good, but when no one is watching. People who will not give up hope when despair creeps in. God grant us the audacity and courage to take responsibility for what we, as humans, alone must change.
FINDING PEACE IN AN ANXIOUS WORLD
WEEK 3 PRACTICE
The kataphatic tradition of prayer uses words, images or songs to speak to God. During this practice, explore language as a tool.
NAME FOR GOD
Pick a word to name God (God, Mother, Abba, Lord, Creator, Father). Take a few moments to picture God in relation to that word.
Consider how God is like the name you have picked. What do you see in your imagination? What does it mean for God to be that?
GOD IS NOT…
Because language is limited, consider how God is not like the name you have picked. Allow yourself to explore the deniability of this statement.
God is beyond our understanding. Allow yourself a moment to give thanks for ways we know God and the ways we do not.
Repeat this week with different names for God.