Acts of Faith

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, October 21, 2018.

Something I’ve noticed, in myself and in others, is how easy it can be to spend time and energy thinking about and worrying about and getting anxious about things that I can’t control, and that you can’t control. In our connected world, we’re aware when a tragedy happens somewhere in our country or on the other side of the world. The news these days is increasingly breathless and anxious, like the weather report when a big storm is coming! There’s a lot to worry about!

So I’ve been remembering the wisdom that’s in the Serenity Prayer, which was composed by Reinhold Niebuhr for a sermon he preached back in the early 1930s. Do you know Reinhold Niebuhr? He was a minister who became a public theologian and ethicist and one of the most influential American thinkers of the 20th century. His little prayer has been adapted, there are different versions, but at its core it says, “God, give us the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Our worship theme for October is “letting go,” and I’ve been wondering, “What do I need to be letting to of? And what do you need to be letting go of?” Of course I can’t answer this question for you—you need to answer it for yourself. But I have this hunch that our lives would be better, and our families and communities and our world would be better, if we would let go of those things we cannot change. Those things that, if we are honest, we have no control over. So we could focus our power and our energy on the things we do have control over; the situations and places where we do have agency and influence.

Please don’t hear what I’m saying as a call to withdraw from the world, to live in a bubble or cocoon where nothing will ever trouble you again. No—to live in the world, to be a person of faith and good will, means being open to the pain and suffering and injustice around us; having your heart troubled and broken open. And then, to ask: “What am I going to do about this? What can I do to help?”

The problem these days is it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the bad news, to be so discouraged by all the trouble, that we get ourselves wound up with anxiety or pushed down into depression, we succumb to what’s called “compassion fatigue,” and we’re not able to help anyone.

So if you are wondering, “What might I be let go of?” here are a couple of suggestions. Let go of what is keeping you from being in touch with the wonder and mystery of life. You could turn off the evening news and step outside into the chilly air as the light fades and the stars appear. Maybe you’ll see and hear some of those geese that are flying south these days. And you’ll be reminded that you are a part of something large and beautiful and good. 

What about letting go of whatever is making you anxious or afraid? Whether that is spending too much time on the news or the drama of social media, what would happen if you just stopped doing some of of those things that aren’t helpful to living a grounded and more peaceful life? You could try it as an experiment, like a diet where you give up something you know is not good for you. “I’m only going to consume this much—because that’s all I can take in.”

You could work on letting go of things you can’t change. As much as I might wish otherwise, I can’t help people on the other side of the world. What I can do, and what I often do, when I learn of their suffering, is to say a prayer: “Please be with them, God, remind them they are not alone.” I know that my prayers aren’t enough; that I need to do things too. But praying is something I can do for people that I can’t do anything else for. 

And speaking of things you can’t change, you know, don’t you, that you can’t change anyone else? That as much as you want to help your friends and family, as much as you know they would be better off if they did this or that, you don’t have the power to change them. What you do have the power to do is change yourself, and your own behavior. That’s why interventions, as hard and as painful as they can be, they can work. When people say, “If you continue to this, which is doing all this harm, then I can’t live with you anymore. Or I won’t bring my children around anymore. I’ll still love you, and still pray for you, but I won’t participate in your destructive behavior.” 

What we do have power over, and agency over, is our own lives and our own choices. And we have more power and influence than we imagine. So rather than let our limitations drag us down, how about we celebrate the fact that acknowledging our limitations can free us to do the work we have been given to do? Like we heard in that prayer in honor of Oscar Romero, who was made a saint just last Sunday:

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, 
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.”

My challenge to you today is this: what are you going to let go of, so you can focus on what really matters? What are you going to lay down, and what are you going to pick up? Maybe you need to let go of the idea that the problems facing us are too great, and that you can’t make a difference. Maybe it’s time to let go of the notion that what you have to offer isn’t good enough, or isn’t needed. Because our community and world needs all of us, pulling together, to make things better. 

How about we follow the lead of our musical guests today, Libby, Michael and David (of the band Mustard’s Retreat), and take up their practice of being “defiantly hopeful”? In spite of all that we could find to be discouraged about, how about we look for our own ways to do good, and be of use? As they sang:

“I plant for you, I plant for me, 
I plant a prayer of hope with each and every tree
all for a world I’ll never see
in the evenings you can find me, planting trees.”

This is what it means to be a person of faith, planting trees in whose shade you do not expect to sit; being glad you’re able to do some good while you can. So, my friends, what little acts of faith are you going to do while you’re here? How are you going to put your hopes and dreams for our world into tangible form? You can start anywhere—helping feed people who are hungry, standing up for what is right, reaching out to someone in need. Who knows how our little acts of faith might grow and help change things?

“This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, 
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.”

Ours is a simple faith, that life is a short embrace, and heaven is in this place, everyday (words from the song by Mustard’s Retreat). Let us be grateful and glad that we are here, that we are all in this together, that we have this opportunity and this calling to help heal and bless our world.