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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