Serenity Now, Liberation Always

serenity now

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 2, 2019.

Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 46

Rev. Weikel, Jessica Wolanin, and I sit on the chancel steps as if driving/riding in a car. We perform the roles of George, Estelle, and Frank in the following scene from the television show, Seinfeld.

Let me set the scene. George Costanza is driving with his mother Estelle in the front seat, and his father Frank sitting in the backseat behind her:

Frank:  I got no leg room back here. Move your seat forward.

Estelle: That’s as far as it goes.

Frank: There’s a mechanism. You just pull it, and throw your body weight.

Estelle: I pulled it. It doesn’t go.

Frank: If you want the leg room, say you want the leg room! Don’t blame the mechanism!

George: All right, Dad, we’re five blocks from the house. Sit sideways.

Frank: Like an animal. Because of her, I have to sit here like an animal! Serenity now! Serenity now!

George: What is that?

Frank: Doctor gave me a relaxation cassette. When my blood pressure gets too high, the man on the tape tells me to say, ‘Serenity now!’

George: Are you supposed to yell it?

Frank: The man on the tape wasn’t specific.

George: (pulling up in front of Frank and Estelle’s house) What happened to the screen door? It blew off again?

Estelle: I told you to fix that thing.

Frank: Serenity nowww!

I step into the pulpit.

Some will recognize this iconic scene from the television sitcom Seinfeld in which the character George Costanza’s father Frank yells “Serenity now!” every time his stress and anger boils over, specifically in response to his wife Estelle. The cry “Serenity now!” becomes a recurring theme for other characters as the show unfolds.

The humor lies in the juxtaposition of angrily shouting words that are meant to restore peace. I think the catch-phrase became something of a pop culture phenomenon, because many of us can relate. Despite our desire to feel inner peace, we can quickly become so stressed out and overwhelmed that our emotions boil over.

I had a “serenity now!” moment this week.

First, those of you who were here last week, or those who read my column in the newsletter that came out on Friday, know that I recently attended a retreat for clergy, and returned committed to some spiritual practices that I hope will make me more mindful in my life and ministry. Among these practices is ten minutes of meditation each morning when I wake up. At the crack of dawn, with only birdsong to accompany me, I sit down to center myself, hoping to bring that quiet center with me into the day ahead.

On Thursday morning at about 5:30, I am roused from sleep by my wife Lourdes who asks, “Are you awake?” She proceeds to tell me that she woke up to the realization that she has been overpaying our mortgage for the past five months. She is upset with herself and worried about what happens to that extra money she paid. Though I worry little about such things, in this waking moment, her anxiety becomes my anxiety.

I drag myself out of bed and shuffle downstairs for a cup of coffee, to be followed by my meditation. On my way, Lourdes tells me that she saw on the Simsbury High grading portal that Abby did poorly on an exam, dropping her hard-earned grade for the quarter. I feel a knot begin to form in my stomach.

Then, in reaching for my coffee cup I bump a glass, sending it tumbling into the sink where it shatters.

After cleaning up the broken glass, I plop down upon my chair for my morning meditation. Lourdes thought to snap a picture of me sitting quietly, facing out into our backyard, eyes closed, a picture of perfect peace.

The picture is deceiving. Because I know my mind was shouting, “SERENTITY NOW! SERENITY NOW! SERENITY NOW!”

Here we are on the cusp of summer, a time, for many to slow down, escape the crush of work, the demands of family, even the obligations of church. And yet, I expect many of you would join me in admitting that there are still days when life gets the best of us, and we find ourselves wanting to shout, “Serenity now!”

Paul and Silas were having one of those days.

When we pick up the story, Paul and Silas have met a slave girl who has a spirit of divination. The slave girl falls in behind them, continually shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of liberation.” By identifying Paul and Silas as slaves to God, the girl claims a kinship with them; they are all slaves.

Day after day she shouts this, until Paul can’t stand it anymore. If he had watched Seinfeld he would have screamed, “Serenity now!” Instead, he commands “the spirit” to come out of her, after which she finally falls silent.

Note that Paul does not cast out the spirit out of concern for the girl, but simply because he is irritated and annoyed.

Her ability to tell fortunes was what made her valuable to her owners. She was their meal ticket. Casting out the spirit, though providing Paul a moment’s peace, did not necessarily help the girl. In fact, with her owners now angry and looking for retribution, Paul leaves her in an even more precarious situation than she was in before.

The girl’s owners bring charges against Paul and Silas, who are then stripped and beaten. So much worse than confusion about a mortgage payment and a disappointing grade, their day goes quickly from bad to worse, “Serenity now.”

And this downward spiral continues as they are then brought to the innermost cell in the prison and locked in stocks. While the slave girl is free of her demon, Paul and Silas’ freedom is taken away.

Do they shout, “Serenity now?” No, they pray and sing; the jail doors spring open and their stocks are loosened. Not only are their chains broken, all the prisoners are set free.

From the slave girl’s bondage and freedom, to Paul and Silas’ imprisonment and freedom, to the other prisoners now free, the focus now shifts to the jailer. Fearing Rome’s harsh punishment for allowing the prisoners to escape, he prepares to take his own life.

When Paul informs the jailer that all the prisoners are still there and accounted for, the jailer and his family give their lives to Jesus and they too are set free, both spiritually and physically.

On its surface this is a feel-good, miracle story featuring Paul and Silas as its heroes, but Religious Studies Professor, Dr. Jennifer Kaalund draws our attention to the relationships between the different characters in the story, and the various forms of imprisonment and liberation they experience.

Kaalund asks, “What if the prison break story isn’t about Paul and Silas? What if the prison break is teaching us that liberation is a communal act? Recall that everyone’s chains were broken, not a select few. Our collective liberation requires that we first acknowledge our connectedness.”

So, this is one of those sermons that began as one thing, and by following the text has become more than I expected.

Beginning with Paul’s annoyance at the slave girl, and concluding with the verse in Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God!” I set out to preach about the value of meditation and other spiritual practices to re-center and restore us in the midst of chaos and overwhelm. I found support for this idea in Paul and Silas’ praying and singing while in prison, not unlike my meditation on Thursday morning.

But as I further considered the text in light of Dr. Kaalund’s commentary, I realized a couple things. Stress and annoyance are individual experiences, so a desire for serenity is self centered. This doesn’t mean that living more mindfully through meditation, praying and singing, isn’t important, even essential. My meditation in the midst of my serenity-now moment on Thursday morning got me through that day.

But if serenity is individual, liberation is communal. As civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer declared: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

On Thursday, beneath my individual need for peace, lay Lourdes and Abby’s real issues. Liberation is communal, and I would not be truly free myself until these concerns were addressed.

The text takes us from Paul’s self-centered desire for peace of mind, to liberation for all, including prisoners and their jailer.

So, meditate, pray, sing, tend to your soul. Be still. Then, from the stillness that only God can provide, share the burdens of your family, your friends, your neighbors, and strangers, until we are all set free to know, Serenity now, and liberation always!

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Who’s Behind the Mask?

masked-singer-4

This is the sermon I preached on Mardi Gras Sunday, March 3, 2019, at First Church Simsbury.

Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36

As has already been made apparent, this is Mardi Gras Sunday.

Mardi Gras proper, is this Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Because Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which we solemnly reflect upon sin, repent, and fast, Mardi Gras is a feast day. In anticipation of an extended period of reflection and restraint, Mardi Gras invites us to indulge in joy.

I attended college in New Orleans, home of one of the most famous Mardi Gras celebrations. People throng the French Quarter, floats and marching bands parade down Canal Street, people eat and drink more than they should and, people where fanciful masks.

I don’t know the history of masks in Mardi Gras but I recognized a couple roles masks can play.

Masks may present a false identity, hiding our true selves. Masking our shortcomings, our sin. But maybe masks may also provide an anonymity that allows us to reveal our true selves.

We could wear a mask of a saint to hide our sin. Or we could wear a monster mask, freeing us to dance, sing or speak uninhibited by fear of judgement.

So Mardi Gras and masks were on my mind as I reflected on today’s scripture lessons. I will return to these Bible passages in a moment, but first, let me share an illustration that I hope will function as an effective metaphor for Transfiguration.

I will say in advance, this illustration draws from pop culture, and will include references that will be unfamiliar to many of you. But I think we can all arrive at the same place together if you follow along.

My daughter Abby and I were channel surfing this week when we came across a television show called The Masked Singer. This is one of those reality shows where people perform each week for a panel of celebrity judges, and each week one of the contestants is judged to be the worst and eliminated from the competition.

There are two things that make this familiar trope unique on The Masked Singer. First, the singers are also celebrities. And second, their identities are unknown to the judges, the audience, and to us because they are each wearing an elaborate, fantastical costume. There is an alien, a French Poodle, a rabbit, a hippo, a peacock, a bee and a monster. These are costumes worth of any Mardi Gras ball, they are wild and wonderful.

So, each week, each celebrity contestant performs a song in their own voice. Biographical clues are shared about their identity, and the judges then try to guess who is behind the mask. The contestant that is eliminated, in a drawn out, dramatic fashion, takes off their mask, and everyone cries, “Ohhhh, that’s who it is!”

Many of the masked celebrities were of the B-list variety, football player Antonio Brown, comedian Margaret Cho, and talk show host Ricki Lake were eliminated early. Abby and I happened to tune in for the finale, with just three contestants left, the peacock, the bee, and the monster. All three could really sing! One by one, the celebrities behind the masks were revealed, in third place Gladys Knight, in second, Donny Osmond, and… drumroll… The Masked Singer champion… T-Pain!… who I know will be unfamiliar to many here this morning.

We are only half way through this illustration, because now I need to explain who T-Pain is and more importantly, why he might have something to teach us on this Mardi Gras Sunday.

T-Pain, his stage name of course, is a hip-hop star who has recorded many hit songs over the past ten or twelve years. His unique claim to fame is that he has recorded exclusively using something called auto-tune. Auto-tune is a technology that electronically modulates a singer’s voice. It can be used to correct the pitch of a singer that sings out of tune. But it can also be used to create special effects, making a singer’s voice sound synthesized, with an alien quality. This is what T-Pain was known for, producing hit hip-hop sings using auto-tune.

There is something else you need to know about T-Pain before I bring this all home. He has been widely and harshly criticized by other rap and hip-hop stars for his use of auto-tune, for not having real talent, for not being a serious artist. These judgements have been very public, and very harsh; and T-Pain has spoken about the hurt he has experienced as a result, even as his commercial success has made him very wealthy.

So here’s the thing. When T-Pain performed behind the monster mask, he didn’t use auto-tune, but sang in his real voice which, it turns out, is beautiful. None of the celebrity judges guessed that it was T-Pain behind the monster mask. His use of auto-tune had made his real voice, unrecognizable.

T-Pain’s mask set him free; he no longer felt the world’s judgment, and was able to be completely himself, to reclaim his own voice. And you should have seen him when he took his mask off to claim the championship trophy; he was so darn happy, he smiled ear to ear, he bounced up and down, and he shed tears of joy.

Abby and I were genuinely moved by the moment.

Masks can function in a couple ways.

Masks may present a false identity, hiding our true selves, hiding all manner of sin and suffering. But masks can also protect us from the world’s judgement allowing us to express our true selves, to live as God created us to be.

We could wear a mask of a saint to hide our sin. Or we could wear a monster mask, freeing us to dance, and sing, and speak without fear of judgement.

T-Pain’s monster mask allowed him to reconnect with his true self, restored his own, beautiful voice, and freed from the monster costume and alien voice, enter back into the world as a magnificent creations of the divine.

So here is a question for you. Do you wear masks? Do you present one face to the world to hide your true self? Do you wear that mask out of fear that you will be judged for who you really are? One could say that T-Pain’s use of auto-tune was itself a mask that hid his true voice. What do you hide behind?

Or could a mask be liberating for you, allowing you to encounter the world as the magnificent creation of the divine you are?

So, let’s see if I can tag up with the two Bible readings.

In Exodus, Moses descends Mount Sinai after receiving the tablets with the Ten Commandments. Having seen God face to face, the skin of Moses’ face is shining. He calls all the Israelite leaders together and tells them everything that God has said to him.

Then, in Luke, Jesus ascends the mountain with Peter, John and James, and the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white.

Both Moses and Jesus reflect the glory of God, in their face and through their words. The light of God enables them to reveal their true identity. By donning the dazzling raiment of God, they are freed from judgement and fear, and speak their truth as magnificent creations of the divine.

Might we, then, think of this as the liberating mask that God offer’s each of us, the reflected glory of God, God’s light, that we may know that we that we are beloved by God, freed from judgement, and given voice to enter into the world as magnificent creations of the divine, smiling ear to ear, shedding tears of joy.

Amen.

 

 

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