SERMON: To Accept the Things I Cannot Change
This the second 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 under the catalpa tree on September 13, 2020.
39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.
Back to School Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. It usually happens to be around the time of our Ice Cream Social or Block Party. What’s not to love about a day when the yard is festive, kids and adults who want to still be kids are flying down a bouncy slide, the potluck dishes are on point, Autumn crispness is in the air, and the anticipation of a new, exciting school year is full of promise.
But I could see it in the eyes of June’s Kindergarten teacher when we met her last Thursday. And in the eyes of every parent in the hallways. It was a sentiment I had been trying hard to deny. This year, it’s just hard to get as excited. Everything feels so fragile. Like one small mistake somewhere in the universe of decisions that are not even within our control and it could all start to unravel. We try hard to follow the rules and to move forward with some semblance of the normalcy we crave. But sometimes life hands us situations that we have very little control over.
We see this lack of control close to home and we feel it further out with the worst wildfires in history devastating all of the west coast states and tropical storms bottling necking in the Atlantic. We see it when a loved one is diagnosed with a disease that has few options, or when tragedy strikes in any number of different ways and we are left to pick up the pieces. When we don’t have control: everything feels so fragile.
This is a hard position to be in, if you are, say, a human being. We are by nature of our position in the animal kingdom and world, at large, used to being the ones who call the shots. By this point in our evolution as a species, we have ironed out almost every wrinkle in life that would dare to trip us up. We like to think we are masters of our environment. And most of the time we truly are. ….Until we’re not. It doesn’t matter how controlled and managed you think your life is, all it takes is one diagnosis, or one novel animal virus to cross over to humans, or one slow-moving tropical storm climbing over the valley to shred any sense of control you thought you had in this life.
And that is why, in 1943, in the midst of an epic struggle for morality and goodness in the face of xenophobia and totalitarianism, a pastor and theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, asked God for the serenity to accept the things he could not change. Because at that moment in history, it was impossible to keep up the illusion that with our own power we, human beings, could control our own destiny. ]
“The Serenity Prayer,” despite how soothing its title suggests it is, is a really tough pill to swallow. Personally, I would much rather pray, “God, grant me the serenity to change the things I cannot accept” and not have to deal with the reality that there will be situations in my life that I just can’t get around. Personally I would like to be able to pull the masks off every child who needs to see their teacher smile. Personally I would like to be able to bring a long rain storm over Oregon, Washington and California. Personally there are a lot of things I wish I didn’t have to accept.
Larissa read this morning from a passage of scripture we usually reserve for Holy Week. It’s one of the last hours of Jesus’ life and he’s praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is facing a situation that is out of his control as the powers that be want to crucify him the next day. He knows that he is going to have to die, but for one brief quiet moment the night before, he tenderly asks God to change his fate, to take away this future. Sounds vaguely familiar, right? He admits to God that he doesn’t want to die. It’s not his will. The audacity he had to admit that he didn’t want to face the end of his human life!
No one can say how much time passed between this confession and the second part that followed. The very human side that likes to control my own destiny likes to think Jesus, too, lingered in his self-pity at a fate he couldn’t change. The truth is, though, Jesus followed his confession of not being okay with a “BUT.” “Not my will BUT yours be done.” So be it. This was out of his hands and he knew it.
Okay, okay, okay. Jesus was God’s son. We are ultimately not surprised that Jesus, of all people, was able to summon the endurance needed to face the inevitable. But the scripture that follows tells us otherwise. After Jesus admits that he’s in a situation he can’t change, God sends him strength in the form of company. As if God knew even though Jesus was his Son, powerful and holy, there are some situations in which even God’s son needs help. God sends an angel from heaven to him and together they work through the rest of the night in prayer. We know Jesus’ anxiety is huge, as sweat pours from his face. But instead of doing this alone, he has the company God has sent.
Accepting the things we cannot change is a lesson in humility; it is a submission that we are not the masters of our world nor do we control our own futures. And so left with the hollowed out feeling that this realization brings, we have two choices: we can live in fear, or we can trust God.
Proverbs 3:5-8 says:
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. 8 It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.
When we accept that there will be years like 2020 with global pandemics, wildfires, hurricanes, murder hornets, wind storms, and presidential elections all in the same year calendar year with very little we can do to avoid it, we admit that God is in control, not us. We accept that we are vulnerable creatures.
I’ll be really honest and say that come tomorrow morning as I put my mask-wearing five-year old on a public school bus, I’m going to be complete puddle of vulnerability. I will be silently whispering under my breath “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” Maybe you will be, too.
One final thought before we move on. When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane as his world was turning upside down, God sent him company. Not his disciples, who couldn’t manage to stay awake, but an angel sent from heaven. God doesn’t mean for us to struggle through acceptance of difficult days alone. Don’t let this go to your heads, but sometimes through this whole pandemic I have thought of you all, this congregation, as angels sent from heaven, sent by God so that no one here has to go through difficult days by themselves. It brings me comfort to know that as I watch my daughter get on a school bus tomorrow and murmur a prayer under my breathe, that some of you will be praying to the same God with the same prayer when you face one of the many other difficult situations this year has laid in our laps.
We need each other. Every single week, whether we see each other face to face or we connect to the church through the internet, what we do here, the way we support one another just by showing up and keeping watch over one another: it matters. So much more than you could ever imagine. Thank you for being God’s angels for one another. Through our dark nights, and uncertain days, may God grant us the serenity to accept what seems too difficult to bear, and know that we do not do it alone.
FINDING PEACE IN AN ANXIOUS WORLD
WEEK 2 PRACTICE
the welcome prayer
FOCUS, FEEL, SINK IN:
Become aware of whatever is happening in your body and your soul. Sink in to allow and accept how you are feeling.
WELCOME AND NAME
Whatever you find, welcome it in words spoken or unspoken, even if you find it challenging. “Welcome, fear” or “Welcome, pain” or “Welcome, uncertainty” are all fitting words of welcome.
LET GO AND LET GOD
Once you have felt, welcomed, and named how you feel, begin to release it physically and emotionally to God. I can be helpful to use words like this: “I let go of the desire for security and control” and “I let go of the desire to change what I am experiencing.”
Repeat each day this week.