Our Lenten journey will soon be coming to an end. Next Sunday, we will walk with Jesus to the cross. Over the last few weeks, we have explored different spiritual practices: giving, prayer, repentance and pilgrimage. All these can be profound practices as we seek to feel closer to God, and figure out how God calls us to be Christ’s followers today.
But we are not quite done yet. Today I would like to explore the last and possibly most difficult practice: surrender.
Now who here knows the so-called Serenity Prayer? It’s often used in 12 step groups, but actually wasn’t originally written for that purpose. We know it as follows: ‘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.’
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. That’s actually much more difficult than it sounds. Acceptance, surrender, requires trust, and trust, except maybe in ourselves, is hard. We like to be in control, and we want to be in control. When there’s something going on that’s out of our control, it’s either scary, or frustrating, or it drives us crazy, or all of the above. Let me tell you, as a German citizen, I have no control over the outcome of the presidential elections this year, I can’t cast one the millions of votes to at least make my voice heard of it – and to me it’s very scary, frustrating, and drives me nuts, because there is so much at stake for this country and the world. It’s almost impossible for me to stay serene about that.
Now we may have no control over the outcome of elections, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise our voices when we have concerns, and that shouldn’t keep us from living faithfully, sharing the love and grace of God with all creation, even though these values seem to be cast aside by our leaders and society at large.
And then there are those things we really can’t change. When we experience how our children or grandkids grow up and see them go their own ways, ways we wouldn’t necessarily choose. In general, we can’t control the lives of others – and we shouldn’t. And then there are the issues of illness and death. Yes, we can fight and even beat many illnesses today that would have been a certain death sentence just a few decades ago. But with some things, like an aggressive cancer, or Alzheimer’s, there usually comes a point when we have to give up. And, again, it is so hard to either let a loved one go – or to surrender ourselves to dying and death. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
12 step groups have adopted this prayer as a very important instrument to help battle addiction. Often, alcohol, drug, or food abuse stem from deep psychological, emotional or seven spiritual wounds. There are many abuse victims who try to numb their pain. There are those who feel guilty about something. There are those who were rejected for whatever reason. There are those who have problems dealing with a loss of some kind. There are those who experienced unimaginable trauma – just think of combat veterans. In short, there are so many things in life we wished were different – but the past cannot be changed, no matter, how hard we try. So people battling their addiction also deal with many deeper issues, and so an important step is to accept the things that cannot be changed. To surrender instead of battling the demons of the past.
12 step groups are very spiritual in the sense that there is the surrender to a higher power, the entrusting of things we have no control over to God or whatever deity one believes in. And I think that’s something most, if not all of us, could learn and benefit from, even if we don’t deal with addictions. There are things we can only entrust to the care of God, and in our case, this is a loving, forgiving, gracious God.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and we know what that means. He stops outside the city gates at the house of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and his friends serve dinner for Jesus and his disciples. Everything seems normal, nobody seems to really grasp that Jesus is just days away from dying on the cross. Nobody – except Mary.
Mary, we hear, takes a pound of costly perfume – in fact, so costly that a laborer would have to work almost a year to afford it – and anoints Jesus’ feet. Now today we may not really grasp what Mary was doing by anointing Jesus. But using perfumes in Jesus’ day were special – and you can already tell by the cost of perfume that it was not used on a daily basis. Kings and priests were anointed. Bride and groom on their wedding day were anointed. And then, the dead were anointed and embalmed with perfumes and spices.
What Mary does is a very symbolic thing – a sign, as John the Evangelist would call it. Mary acknowledges Jesus as king, she acknowledges him as the bridegroom who invites all to the heavenly feast – but then, her action also foreshadows his death. Mary knows. And she surrenders in this situation. Her entire action, in fact, is a sign, a symbol of loving surrender to the will and providence of God. She entrusts this situation, she entrusts her beloved friend to the grace of God. I can imagine that she is hurting and grieving deeply – and yet, she lets go, trusting, that God cares and God will take care of all those involved in this grand story of salvation.
Judas Iscariot would be an example of someone who cannot surrender, someone, who holds on fast to his hopes for the Messiah. Money and fraught issues aside, it has often been pointed out that Judas may have betrayed Jesus because he was hoping for something else – for a political revolt, for a war against the Roman occupiers. Judas may have hoped that the arrest of Jesus would lead to Jesus stepping up to the plate as a revolutionary, a Messiah like the mighty kings of days long gone, and that all his followers would be ready to fight a bloody fight. Judas just can’t accept the things he cannot change – and his grumpy remark that the money wasted on the perfume should have been given to the poor is but an expression of his unwillingness and his inability to give up and give in – and to surrender to the will of God.
I have a hunch that most of us, and I include myself, are more like Judas in most aspects of our lives. We follow our own agenda and try to make God fit into it, instead of truly surrendering to God’s loving provision. And that’s why I think it may be a helpful and even healing spiritual practice for all of us: to accept the things we cannot change, and to surrender them to the grace of God.
By the way, the serenity prayer as we know it from its use in 12 step meetings is just one small part of a much longer prayer by German American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In its entirety, the prayer says:
God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change…
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
And let God’s people say: Amen!