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!

Advent 2: This Is My Wish

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on December 9, 2018, the Second Sunday of Advent. The sermon was followed by my daughter Abby Harris singing This Is My Wish, a Christmas song recorded by Jordin Sparks.

Isaiah 11:1-10; John 14: 25-27

There once was a Queen who ruled over a kingdom riven by much conflict. Seeking inspiration for reconciliation, she offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The Queen looked at all the pictures, but there were only two that represented peace to her.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, for lush, green mountains rose up all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell and in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a torrential waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the Queen looked more closely, she saw behind the waterfall a tiny green bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, amid the furious rush of water, sat the mother bird on her nest… at perfect peace.

The Queen chose the second painting. “Because,” she explained, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no conflict or chaos. Peace means to provide a safe and steady place of refuge amid turmoil, and to nurture life even as death threatens. The bush, the nest, and the mama bird, these communicate the real meaning of peace.”

Both visions of peace are represented in the reading from Chapter 11 of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who provided counsel to several kings of Israel during a period of great conflict. One commentator writes:

The context for Isaiah’s oracle is the difficult period of tensions around the Syro-Ephraimitic war in 733 BCE, when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz refused; but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, he called Assyria to intervene. This they did with devastating impact, eventually leading to the destruction of Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom in 721.

I won’t begin to try to explain all that, except to say, Isaiah wrote the words I read in response to an enormous and overwhelming conflict with which we can easily identify. Replace Israel and Judah in the text with Democrats and Republicans, and Assyria with Russia, and this would sound like something right out of today’s headlines.

In response, Isaiah paints two pictures.

First, Isaiah prophesies that a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Jesse was King David of Israel’s father. In the midst of the chaos that is engulfing Judah, this family tree of the beloved David appears all but dead. But like that bush in the painting that pushes through the rocks behind the crashing waterfall to support new life, Isaiah assures Judah that new life will spring forth and peace shall be restored.

Then, beginning with verse six, Isaiah paints a picture that we have come to know as the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. This is the vision of peace represented in the first painting of the perfectly still mountain lake. Turmoil has been left behind, and tranquility reigns. This is a vision of the realm of God, to be fulfilled in God’s time.

Both portrayals of peace are true. We might think of one as a peace process inviting our participation, while the other is our ultimate destination, a return to Eden with God.

That said, how do we live like the bird sitting quietly on her nest, nurturing new life, even as chaos swirls all around?

I recently read a quote from Buddhist teacher John Kornfield:

If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate, and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.

Well, we’re not dogs, so how do we live like the bird sitting quietly on her nest, nurturing new life, even as chaos reigns? How do we enter into this peace process? What courage, what strength, what force of will is required?

Or, is it nothing more than nothing?

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a titmouse asks a mourning dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the titmouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow-not heavily, not in a raging blizzard-no, just like a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd snowflake dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say-the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the titmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

On this Second Sunday of Advent, each one of us is invited to be that sprout that springs forth from a stump that appears dead. Each one of us might be that bird that sits quietly amid the chaos nurturing new life. Each one of us might be that 3,741,953rd snowflake, that nothing more than nothing, that one voice that restores peace.

But how! We are not dogs. We all too easily tumble into the roiling waterfall portrayed in the Queen’s painting, becoming part of the turmoil that surrounds us, giving in to anxiety, fear, judgement, anger and blame.

God, through Jesus, has equipped us to restore peace in our lives, our relationships, our communities and our world, not with courage, strength, and force of will, but with nothing more than nothing, through confession and forgiveness.

Confession helps us name, then unburdens us, of the ways we contribute to conflict and chaos. And accepting forgiveness for ourselves while forgiving others allows us to nurture new life and restore peace in the world around us. This is the peace process into which we are invited.

I am hoping confession and forgiveness can become a theme for us at First Church in the year to come. So let there be peace, and let it begin with me by confessing this to you.

There are two essential commitments I make as your pastor and preacher. First, that each of you know that you are created in the image of God and loved unconditionally. And second, that together we follow Jesus in standing alongside the most vulnerable, those the Gospel calls “the least of these,” including immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, women, ethnic and religious minorities, those with disabilities, and the poor. These two commitments are not incompatible with one another. Both are biblical, and both are central to our Christian walk of faith. That said, as your pastor and preacher, I sometimes find that in lifting up the gospel’s commitment to the least of these, I leave others, some of you, feeling diminished or judged rather than unconditionally loved. Instead of resulting in peace and reconciliation, my message sometimes draws attention to divisions among us. This is my confession to you, and I am sorry.

I ask for and gratefully accept your forgiveness, just as my faith tells me God forgives me. And I bring you good news that you too are forgiven for those times you may judge or contribute to separation and conflict. Confession and forgiveness. One voice. Nothing, and more than nothing.

The Queen in the story concludes that peace means to provide a safe and steady place of refuge amid turmoil, and to nurture life even as death threatens.

This is my wish.

This is my wish for this church.

This is my wish for the most vulnerable, those Jesus calls the least of these.

This is my wish for me, and this is my wish for each of you.

That peace will find a way.

Amen.

 

Abby Harris singing This Is My Wish

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