Sermon for Proper 6B
Holy Cross, Weare
June 17th, 2012
M. Lise Hildebrandt
Happy Father’s Day! One of the best parts of my relationship with my Dad growing up is that he read stories at bedtime. I remember sitting on the floor with my sister and three brothers as he sat in a chair and read to us from the Just So Stories or Winnie the Pooh. He has a deep expressive voice—I can still hear him saying, “on the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river . . . “ This was such an important part of my childhood, that I vowed to read to my children. From the earliest times, Eric and I read stories, all kinds of stories to them every night until they were 14. We had many favorites including Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in my Closet.
In this story, a little boy explains how he was terribly afraid of the scary things in his closet. He would close the door and not look until safe in bed. Then he would peek out, but not see anything. Because the monster, the nightmare, was invisible to him. But every time he looks away, we see this huge ugly monster coming out of the closet.
I don’t know if this story is for children, or if it is for their parents. As soon as you have children, you start becoming aware of all the nightmares lurking in the closet and in the pantry, the medicine chest, the playground, in the neighborhood, on TV, on the internet . . . Everywhere you turn, there are invisible threats. Traditionally, fathers have been placed in the roles of provider and protector for children.
How do most of us deal with the nightmare in the closet? We work harder and harder, don’t we? Every time we turn around, there is a new threat. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or the increasing amount of autism; hormone-altering chemicals in food can liners and sports coaches who turn out to be abusers; rising obesity and diabetes, epidemics of bullying and suicides. We are often so bombarded with information about these “closet nightmares” that we have no clue how real they are, how much we should worry about them, or which are real and likely to affect us and which are not that big of a deal. Add in a wild economy, lots of unemployment and life upheaval, and we can truly feel besieged. Some parents get to the point of spending all their energy trying to keep their children safe—to the point that they have no life of their own.
Even if we you don’t have children, life today can make you overwhelmed with monsters, real and imagined. A few months ago, I heard a radio show on finances—a woman called in, explaining that she was thinking about retirement and wondering if she had enough money socked away. The show host responded vehemently that she shouldn’t even THINK about retiring until she had saved up $750,000. So great. There’s another closet nightmare—since there are many people for whom this is an unattainable goal. Even when you work hard, even when you do everything you can for your children—and of course, that is not good for you or your children in the long run—even so, you can’t fight against all the scary invisible unknown dangers. You can exhaust yourself and cripple your children.
There is, however, another kind of invisible force running through the universe. It is called the power of God, or the kingdom of God, or the Way. It is energy for good, energy that brings life. It is, says Jesus, like the force inside a seed that causes it to sprout and grow, put out flowers and produce grain. The earth and water help it, but it is this force for life that works in it, invisibly, without help even from humans. It is a force that turns the tiniest seed—even a mustard seed—into a huge bush. The Way of God is like that, working invisibly, working when we sleep or aren’t paying attention, working God’s will, often under the surface, undetected, or through the smallest or most unlikely people or things.
An example of this is seen in the Old Testament reading. In last week’s reading, the people of Israel demanded that God give them a king. This week, we skip ahead. Saul was made king, and was fine for awhile, but then he started disobeying God. Samuel is grieved, and even the Lord is sorry he made Saul king. So he works under the surface, invisibly to produce a new king for Israel. The Lord starts the ball rolling. He has Samuel go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse to look for the man whom the Lord will pick as the new king. One by one, all of Jesse’s tall, fine sons go by, and one by one the Lord says, “Nope, not him.” Samuel is startled, because they look wonderful, but God says, “Don’t look on their appearance or height, for I do not see as humans see; I look at the heart.” The Lord is looking for a quality that may be invisible to others. So Samuel asks if there are any others sons. Jesse sends for the youngest, a sheep-keeper named David. When David comes in, the Lord says, “That’s the one,” and Samuel anoints him king.
There is only one problem. Saul is still the king, and will kill anyone who declares himself king instead. That does not seem to be a problem to God, however. Working invisibly, he engineers a way to bring David into Saul’s household. Saul gets fits of madness—maybe anxiety or depression– that seem to be calmed by music; he asks about a musician, and his servants tell him about Jesse’s son, who plays the harp. That is David; David is called to court and plays for Saul. Eventually, David takes over as king, but is all happens subtly, invisibly, by the hand and power of God.
We try so hard to achieve; we try so hard to cope with all the real and invisible threats in life, but it seems we can just run from one crisis to another, trying to plug one hole in the dyke after another, knowing that eventually the flood of water or danger or economic ills may overcome us. There is another way. A way of letting go. A way of accepting that we can’t fight off all the dangers or crises; we can’t ultimately keep our children safe, we may not be able to live up to somebody’s standard of what we need to retire, we may not be able to keep from getting cancer.
You know what the truth is? You can’t keep yourself or your children safe. You can’t plan for every eventuality. The old notions of retirement may not hold water for many people today. On Friday night, my daughter Becca and her boyfriend Matt stayed overnight with me. They got up early, packed up, and headed out the door to meet my other daughter and her friends and climb up Mt. Washington. An hour later I got the call every parent dreads: “Mom, we were in an accident!” Not even a mile from my home, they were looking at signs for the highway and didn’t see the stoplight. They plowed into a car crossing the intersection. They were fine; the other driver had minor injuries. The car is totaled. They were horribly shaken up. I had seen them just minutes before, but had no power to keep this from happening.
Bad things happen. But the force for good is always present; God tries to break in and grow wherever we are.
In the book, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, the boy eventually comes face to face with the nightmare. Both are terribly afraid of the other. When the boy realizes that the monster is scared, he is able to befriend him and invite him into his safe bed with him. I’m not sure we can make friends with all our fears, but letting go of the need to try to control life is like making peace with the nightmares. Bad things happen. But the force for good, the kingdom of God, is always present, trying to work through all sorts of things, small things, invisible things, to increase life, joy, hope, positive change. Just hours after the accident, Matt’s grandparents decided to give him a car they have held onto but not been using.
Our mindfulness course starts today. Mindfulness is all about letting go of fear, let go of control, and being present to the day, the hour, the minute. It calls us to let go of our illusion of control. There is little that we can actually control, and when we recognize that, we are freer to live life now. I can’t control the stock market or price of gas or the weather or whether my kids get in accidents. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be healthy or that Holy Cross will become a huge parish or that I’ll retire with lots of money. I can decide that I have enough today. I can try to take care of myself and my relationships and my work here at Holy Cross the best I can each day. I can look in the closet and decide that the nightmares may not happen and aren’t worth worrying about or may happen and I will cope. But that’s it.
The Tao Te Ching is an ancient text from a Chinese teacher, Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching means “the book of the Way.” Jesus also called his path of life “The Way,”—“I am the way and the truth and the life.” The brief sayings have a great deal of wisdom in them. This in is about what we can accomplish with all our striving and work and worry:
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity. (Tao Te Ching, Steven Mitchell, © 1988, p. 9)
“Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” We do what we can each day, and then let go. There is a wild stream of God flowing around and through us. The best thing we can do is stop striving so hard and let go. Allow it to use us. Stop fretting and trying to hold on. Jesus promises that when we trust in God, we will be filled and carried and used to produce great fruit.
It is the best thing we can do for our children, our parents, our friends. Do our small piece of work each day, and then let go. As AA says, “Let go and let God.” That is the Way, a way of freedom and joy. Let us pray. Amen.