Texts: Isaiah 49:8-16a ; Psalm 131 ; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 ; Matthew 6:24-34
I’m going to ask you to do something together, to practice something. I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose or, if the pollen count makes that too difficult, through your mouth. Feel the air cool your throat and fill your lungs. Take another slow breath and, as the air leaves your body feel the muscles of your chest, your shoulders, your neck, your jaw relax. Decide to let your body relax.
Take another deep breath and take a look inside yourself. Use the eye of your imagination to roam around inside your body. Where are you tired? Where are you tense? As the air leaves your body let it carry little pieces of the exhaustion and tension with it. Let it slowly wear them down to minor aches and pains. This can take as long as it needs to.
Still using your imaginative eye, let your thoughts rise upwards, towards your head. Imagine your thoughts bubbling up through your throat and leaving your body through your ears, from the inside out. Keep breathing as slowly as you’d like, and listen to the sounds filling this room. Imagine the breathing of this assembly, this congregation, like a heart – drawing breath into the body, pushing breath out of the body. Imagine that you are sitting in, or laying your head on, the beating heart of God. Try and rest in that image for as long as you can.
If you can tell that you’d like to open your eyes now, go ahead. If you’d like to leave them closed for a while longer, leave them closed. Either way, think about this room that we’re in. We are in the sanctuary. Think about that word, sanctuary. It has two meanings, doesn’t it? It is the name for this room, it is the name for the rooms in which people of faith offer worship to God. We are in the sanctuary. The word comes from the Latin sanctus, which means holy, like the Sanctus we sing each Sunday during the Lord’s Supper. “Holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” The sanctuary is where we offer praise and thanksgiving that the God who made us, who has inscribed us in the palms of his hands, who has fed us as a mother nurses her child. The sanctuary is where we are sometimes able to remember that God is God.
And it has another meaning, sanctuary, right? It is something offered to another who is in distress. It is a place of refuge and protection. In older days, the sanctuary of a church offered immunity from the law. It was a place within which the powers of the world were forbidden to exercise their dominion. Whether housing felons or immigrants, sanctuaries have been used as a place of grace from the law. Sanctus, holy, the holiness of God shielding us from the force of power in the world.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
If it hasn’t happened already, allow your mind to drift off for a second. Acknowledge that there are other thoughts at the edge of your mind that would like to rush in and take hold of your consciousness. They are your worries. They are your preoccupations. They never rest. They would love nothing more than to have all of your attention, all of the time.
When your worries are at the front of your mind, they seem larger than life. They seem insurmountable. They seem eternal. But, when they are off at the corner of your mind they sound more like cats scratching at the door, trying to get into this room, this sanctuary. They are small and frustrating, not large and powerful. You are in the sanctuary, and you can take refuge from your worries here if you would like.
Keep breathing. Ask your mind to notice your breath. Remember that the Hebrew word for Spirit is ruah, which also means wind. You are sitting inside the presence of the holiness of God, breathing it in and out. The wind that fills you is the living presence of God. The air that leaves your lungs is going to enter your neighbor’s. It is connecting us, like the water at this font, or the loaf of bread or the cup of wine at this table.
While we are here together, inside the sanctuary, let’s give some rational attention to the worries that wait for us outside. We acknowledge that they are there, that they will eventually return and may even, for a while, take center stage in our thinking. But for now, while those worries are waiting for us somewhere else, let’s think about them as a group.
Our worries often feel larger than life because they are, isn’t that right? Our worries are larger than one human life. I worry about the people in Myanmar who are orphaned by the cyclone and waiting for food and medicine. I worry about the families of the children in China who died in their school buildings during the earthquake last week. I worry about the plight of peoples divided by decades of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. I worry about the war that we are in, how it goes on and on and becomes so ordinary that we forget it is a war. I worry about the presidential campaign, about who will be the party nominee or who will win the election. I worry about the city, about the children who go to school not knowing if they are safe there. I worry about our congregation, about our future, about how long we will be in ministry together. I worry about my car, and the price of gas. I worry about my cat and her health. I worry that one more emergency will use up the last of my money. I worry that I will end up alone. I worry about the future. The future. What will happen next? What am I forgetting? What have I forgotten to worry about?
Breathe in. Breathe out. The effort it takes to name your worries can be unnerving. The actual work of worrying can be exhausting. And what has it accomplished? Has my worrying changed a single thing?
Yes, it has. It has changed me. It has made me tired. It has made me weak. It has made me scared. And when I am tired, and weak, and scared I am less likely to discern clearly the very important difference between what I have control over and what I do not. I worry about things I have no control over because, ironically, it makes me think that I do. The lie my worries would like me to believe is that if I just worry hard enough I will find an answer, a solution, to things that lie outside my power. My worries treat me as though I am God, as though I have the power to set everything right, and then they blame me when I fail. My worries make me feel guilty and powerless. They have pulled me out of my sanctuary, my resting place in God.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
So goes the original text to the prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr we’ve come to know as the serenity prayer, the prayer at the heart of the spirituality of recovery that begins by acknowledging that we are not God, that we are not in control, that we are addicted to patterns of being and doing that assume that all power and wisdom rests with us. Let’s hope not! Let’s hope that there is something larger, and more loving, more forgiving, more generous, more gracious at work in the world. Let’s assume that there is. Let’s assume that we are held in the heart of a loving Creator.
Breathe in. Breathe out. This sanctuary, this holy place, is made holy by the presence of God that fills it and fills us. God, who is always as close to us as our next breath, would love nothing more for us to rest on God’s breast. To be rocked in God’s chair. To be held in God’s arms. When we are living there it is so much easier to tell the difference between that which can be changed, and that which cannot. It is so much easier to forgive ourselves and others.
“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life,” Jesus asks. “So d
o not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Instead, practice what the psalmist recommends, what the choir sang so beautifully, “I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me. I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.”
Breathe in. Breathe out.