Finding Serenity to Endure


A sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Malachi 4:1-2aPsalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In the late 1980s band REM had a hit song entitled, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”  It’s a song that’s been running in my head this week.  The words start out,

That’s great! It starts with an earthquake, …
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn.
World serves its own needs, dummy, serve your own needs…
In a government for hire and a combat site….
Team by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped.
Look at that low playing! Fine, then.
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do. Save yourself, serve yourself.
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed,
Dummy, with the rapture and the rev-‘rent and the right, right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched….
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

The song continues in a kind of delirious, disconnected rehearsal of baffling things—people and institutions and nature, all colliding.  Though the song debuted in 1987, it had a huge resurgence at the turn of the Millennium in 2000, and again in 2012, when the so-called Mayan Apocalypse was expected. I’m guessing that, this week, with so much taking so many by surprise and so many questions about the future—I’m not the only one humming, “It’s the end of the world as we know it…”

This sense of the world ending is (of course) not new and not particular to us—even when it feels like it because of a personal disaster, a local disaster, or a national disaster.  “The End” has happened again and again throughout history.
In scripture, sometimes the warning about “end times” comes from God—through prophets, through symbols, and through Christ.  In other places, begin to sense that they are living in the last days when there’s some kind of calamity like a famine or drought; or an invasion or a war; in times of rapid cultural change, and when new leaders who are unknown or untrusted come to power.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks IN such a time, and OF such a time. He makes it specific when he says that even there in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Israel’s worship, the symbol of God’s presence among his people—the temple, Jesus says, is going to disappear. That day will come, he says “when not one stone will be left upon another; [and] all will be thrown down.”

The disciples hear this and they become alarmed—whether they think Jesus is going to storm the temple and help bring it down, or whether some calamity is on its way, this is serious stuff.  The disciples then ask him, “When?  When will this be?” And, how will we know when it will be about to happen?

Jesus sees their anxiety, and tries to equip them for what’s ahead.  He warns them about there will be those false and phony leaders who will come along and take advantage of the fear and uncertainty of what feel like “final days.”  Some will exploit this sense calamity, and will do what they can to harness the fear. Jesus cautions, “Some will say, ‘the time is near.’” Others will say “wars and insurrections are coming.” But through it all, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. Do not be terrified,” because certain things will happen along the way.
In classic language of the end times, language that might have been from Isaiah or Daniel or Enoch or John the Baptist, or John the Divine, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… famines, earthquakes, plagues…” And then Jesus gets personal.  To those who follow, those who put simple faith in the Way of Jesus and seek to love in the face of all, get ready for rough times.  Jesus warns that even the religious leaders will question them, perhaps punish them, and may even persecute them.

Even so, Jesus says.  Perhaps ESPECIALLY so, Jesus counsels to remain calm. Don’t even plan beforehand what you might say. Trust in God and trust in Jesus. “Not a hair of your head will perish.” Now, some might question this, because soon after Jesus saying this, Stephen is persecuted, John is killed, and many, many others will die for their faith. But Jesus is talking about something way beyond this world.  The things and people and institutions of this world come and go… but those who follow the Christly way of love and sacrifice will have eternal life.

And so, what does this Gospel say to us? Most of us have not had to risk being persecuted for our faith. Instead, much of our culture regards Christian faith as superstition or a psychological crutch.  Christians are more likely to be pitied than feared.  Attending an Episcopal Church is seen as a nice, if oddly old-fashioned cultural affectation.

Unfortunately, for some who attend church, perhaps that is an accurate characterization. But for others of us, our faith holds within it the same power it had for those early disciples. There is something about the presence of Jesus in our lives—this Jesus who was born, lived a life like ours, was crucified, and raised from the dead—this Jesus still lives through us and gives us the strength, the courage and the tenacity to live in with faith for final days—whatever shape that “finality” may take, whether (in the words of one preacher, Fred Craddock) “we go to Christ or Christ comes to us.”
All week, I’ve had the R.E.M. song going through my head, but I’ve also had a prayer going through my head and on my lips.  Almost like a mantra, I’ve been saying the Serenity Prayer over and over.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Over and over again, I’ve said it.  This little prayer can fool you with its simplicity, but make no mistake: it has the power to save lives and change history.  The Serenity Prayer was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the American pastor, theologian, and philosopher who taught at Union Seminary across the street from Columbia University.  Niebuhr’s blend of passion for Christ and commitment to justice and ethics explains why Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by Niebuhr and even quoted him in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s interesting to notice what King says, exactly.  He writes

“It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

Niebuhr spent time as a pastor in Detroit in the 1920s as that city experienced a wave of new immigrants—African Americans, Jews, and Catholics, among them.  One reaction took the form of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion.  In 1925, when the KKK publicly supported candidates, Niebuhr spoke out against them and the complicity of the politicians, calling the KKK, “one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of a people has ever developed.”  Niebuhr spoke, preached, and wrote about pacifism and the use of “just war,” he confronted poverty and racism, class and unfairness.  And so, keep all this in mind when you hear or pray that “simple” little prayer for serenity.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Though the prayer may be called “The Serenity Prayer,” notice that it’s not asking God to grant a calm, passive, do-nothing attitude.  It’s more of a prayer of discernment, a prayer for right action.

As I’ve prayed the Serenity Prayer this week, I realize again and again my powerlessness over people who vote differently from me, over the media, over government officials, and especially over candidates or leaders-elect.  But, as I’ve read of friends and colleagues who (just this week) have spoken out against prejudice they see, or bullying they witness, or racism they encounter in the form of a joke or side comment—I’m reminded of the many, many things (if I have the courage) I can change.  It’s the wisdom and the courage that I need.  And the faith, that Jesus promises.

At the end of today’s Gospel there is an important word. Jesus promises, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By enduring—that is, simply living out our faith—getting up in the morning, saying our prayers (when we remember), loving our those around us as best we can, and going through the activities of the day with as much faith and trust in Jesus Christ as possible. This is our preparation. This is our practice. This is how we become prepared for whatever may come.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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