September 25, 2020

 Look to the Rock

 Look to the Rock
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D.                                        
September 25, 2020
 Look to the Rock
Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32
REFLECTION
 If there’s ever been a week that’s emblematic of the year 2020, it just might be this one – raging wildfires in the Pacific Northwest; COVID-19’s death toll reaching 200,000 in America; the death of an unparalleled judicial prophet; the turmoil over the most consequential Supreme Court nomination in decades; the prospect of an incumbent President‘s unwillingness to step aside in a contested election; the exoneration of the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor; and at home, adjusting to a Yale where the academic demands have dramatically increased while the time to address them, and the social balm that makes them easier to weather, have both been in short supply.  As this weekend arrived, I wondered, just how many more weeks that we label “unprecedented” can we endure?
 I don’t know about you, but these days, I often have trouble stilling my mind and my heart enough just to fall asleep.
 What keeps you awake at night when your brain and your heart are driving you crazy?  Where do you find that calm still voice to settle you down?  Where is your rock?  Or, as our beloved deacon, Kyle, often puts it, “Where is your North Star?” 
 Take a moment and breathe in and breathe out…  You made it through this week… and we are here… together… either feeling, or hoping to feel, God’s presence and action, in our lives, and in this fragile island planet we call home.  Welcome!
 Silence
 And now please join me in our opening hymn, …
 
SERMON
 My beloveds, please pray with me the serenity prayer.  “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.  Amen.”
 The timeless wisdom of this prayer is drawn from a text by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and adopted by the world-wide recovery movement.  It’s a prayer that either Moses or Jesus could very well have written themselves. 
 It’s is a prayer for tough times… like the ones Moses found himself in today – his people dying of thirst and, characteristically, blaming him.   How did he respond?  By turning to his oratorical powers?  By reminding his people of the many acts of extraordinary leadership he’d demonstrated on their behalf?  No, he turned to his own North Star, God, with a simple plea, “What should I do with these people?  They’re almost ready to stone me.”
 And God’s response is an equally simple one – go to the rock of Horeb, strike the rock and your people will drink.  In other words, “Have the serenity to accept who you are and who I am, the serenity to accept that you don’t have the power to change your people… and focus on what you can do.  Then, if you find the courage within to do it, you’ll also find I’m right there with you.  And your people?  They’re my problem.  I’ll work to open their hearts so that they’ll recognize me in you; so that they can answer their own question “Is the Lord with us or not?”
 Jesus could have written the serenity prayer as well.  As Paul puts it in his letter to the Christian community at Philippi, “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Can you even begin to imagine Jesus’ experience as he grew into young adulthood – like each of you – growing in awareness of the larger world around him – the repressive Roman occupation; the collusion of his religious leaders with Rome; the weaponization of the religious purity codes to maintain the status quo, to control access to Temple worship, and to marginalize everyone they defined as different?
 What kept Jesus awake at night?  What did he have to accept that he couldn’t change?  When did he realize he was a slave to the two – edged sword of God’s extraordinary gift of free will to humanity?  That so many of the challenges in his world, like ours, were beyond the influence of any one person… even if that person was God?
 Where was Jesus’ rock?  Where was his North Star that stilled his anxiety, warded off his despair, and kept him focused on the present moment?  Clearly,  he looked beyond the law, beyond prescribed religious beliefs and practices, to the two great commandments that summarized all those inadequate human constructs – love God with everything you’ve got; and love your neighbor even as much as you love yourself. 
 Where did Jesus find the serenity and the courage to open the floodgates of faith, hope and love that these two commandments promise?  Read the gospels for your answer:  not from some creed, but through turning continuously to his daily experience of a deeply rooted, unconditionally loving relationship with his Abba. 
 Only because those roots ran so deep, only because Jesus nurtured them every day, was he able to be a witness to the impact of God’s love; to make choices, every day, that prioritized that relationship over his own ego, over the baser instincts of his own humanity:
  • Jesus chose to care for himself, so his adversary’s favorite tools of exhaustion and despair were dulled;
  • He chose kindness and compassion over silence or indifference; chose justice over appeasement; chose life over death.
 Do you notice that throughout scripture, every time a Moses or a Jesus made choices like those, God, in turn, did what God always does?  God opened the eyes of the people who witnessed these choices, and helped them see the presence and action of God in their own lives, to see a glimpse of their own divinity within? 
 My beloveds, there’s one more piece of very good news in all of this – you’re not alone.  In fact you have a huge cloud of company in many of your friends at Yale and beyond.  Especially among those who’d never be caught dead using God talk like we do.  Because the reality is that many of them believe just like we do that there’s a force, an energy, a higher power beyond themselves that connects all humanity together, that joins us in common interest, that expresses the basis of being human – our essential interdependence.  And they get that their choices affect the world for good or for ill. 
 Find those friends and talk to them.  Maybe even tell them that the God they don’t believe in – the God whose judgmental and wrathful image has been exploited over the centuries to cause so much suffering and death; a God who excludes all but those followers who look and believe and act just like each other – that that God who so many of your friends have categorically rejected, is actually the exact same God you don’t believe in.  And that your friends’ beliefs are something you can learn from, that while they may differ conceptually or intellectually from your own, they may actually promote the same actions that can usher in God’s great dream of shalom in such a troubled world. 
Just as each of us, when we say together the Nicene Creed, actually means something different from the person next to us, in the same way, the thousands who take to the streets to protest for justice for every race, gender or immigrtion justice are completely unique, but together, they have found a way to change the world.
 So, my beloved friends, if you want to make it through these times, look to your own rock, to your own North Star, like Jesus did, and find the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

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