The Third Sunday of Easter E. Bevan Stanley
April 18, 2021
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Yesterday, I attended via Zoom a workshop that was part of the annual Spring Training series offered by the Diocese. It was called, “Parish Life After COVID: Psychological and theological reflections as we gather in new ways” and was led by a Dr. David Olsen, clinical psychologis. He focused on the psychological and emotional damage that chronic anxiety can cause. Anxiety can come in two flavors: chronic and acute. Acute anxiety occurs when some event is perceived as threat. We see a car coming out of side street and it looks like they are not going to stop. We get a letter in in the mail from the IRS. Our heart rate goes up, our breathing becomes shallow. If it is a large enough threat, our pre-frontal lobes close down and the reptilian part of our brain takes over offering only three options: fight, flight, or be paralyzed. When the threat passes, our body regains its equilibrium, the adrenalin dissipates, and our brain regains its ability to reason. When trying to help some one in acute anxiety, the first move is to help the person feel safe. They are not going to die. Help is here or on the way. It will be OK.
Chronic anxiety is when there are long periods of perceived threat. It becomes habitual.
Living in chronic anxiety tends to limit our creative thinking. We often become inflexible, and unwilling to try new things. Rabbi Edwin Friedman uses this analogy: Chronic anxiety might be compared to the volatile atmosphere of a gas-fume filled room where any sparking incident could set off conflagration, and where people would then blame the person who struck the match rather than having tried to disperse the fumes.
For years now we have been living in a country in which partisan politics has reduced the ability of our leaders to govern. The climate change is accelerating. Real wages for most workers have been stagnant since the 1970’s. Racism is being recognized by a larger part of our population. Mass shootings are increasing in frequency. We live in a sea of chronic anxiety without even being aware of it most of the time. Then comes Covid19, the murder of George Floyd, and one of the most divisive presidential elections in history. Three different sparks in our gas-fume filled room of public life.
As Christians how can the practice of our faith help? Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke shows us how Jesus dealt with it. The disciples were in much the same situation as we. They had been living with chronic anxiety for some time and then an event of acute anxiety was added to it. They had all grown up in a country occupied by tyrannical foreign power. The administration of law was arbitrary and harsh. If you were not part of the very rich and powerful, you were poor and had little security. For the last three years the disciples had been following Jesus and experienced many wonderful events that were outside their previous experience, and they had seen the increasing opposition to Jesus. Then Jesus is arrested, railroaded through fake trial, and executed all in about twelve hours. At first, they chose flight. Then they regathered in the upper room where they had last been together, and now they were paralyzed.
In the midst of this conflagration of chronic anxiety ignited by the acute anxiety precipitated by the death of their leader, Jesus appears. And what does he do? First, he says, “Peace by with you.” At first this did not help much. The educational scientist, Piaget, taught us that most of the time human being have a structure of thought or world view, and any new experiences or information is assimilated into that conceptual structure or world view. We tend to get our news from sources that share our values. We have trouble hearing information that is at odds with or challenges our assumptions. When we cannot avoid or get around a new piece of information then and only then do we adapt to this new reality. We adjust our world view or understanding of reality to make a place for the new idea.
So when their dead leader shows up in their midst the text tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” How else would dead man be there? He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. This is exactly what John describes in his version that we heard last Sunday. The Gospel continues, While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” In their joy they were disbelieving. The disciples are having trouble assimilating this risen Jesus into their conceptual structures. They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. By now the disciples are regaining the use of their brains and can hear what Jesus is saying. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He opened their minds. This is the transition to adaptation. The disciples are beginning to accept that their world has changed. They are discovering that death does not have the final say. That love can conquer all. In fact this is the way it has always been, but they had not seen it.
And he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. One of the things that can help us deal with anxiety is having a task that has meaning and uses our skills. Jesus sends the disciple out to bear witness to their new understaning of the way the world is. To ask people to rethink their fundamental assumptions about how God loves the world.
As we deal with our anxieties, what helps? Dr. Olsen offered these ideas:
- Connection with others and relationship. We are hardwired to make brain to brain connections with other human beings. We need to find ways to be physically present to each other and to be emotionally present.
- Clarify values and rearrange life. Think about our core values. What would the person we would like to be do and think?
- Avoid contagion. Not just the contagion of the literal pandemic, but the contagion of both chronic and acute anxiety.
- Work on adaptation. More of the same won’t work. We need to adjust to the new reality.
- Relationship, relationship, relationship . . . Call old friends. Find ways to reconnect. Make new friends. Practice hospitality and accept it from others.
Let us close with the last verses of the Psalm:
Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.
You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
As Jesus stands among us he says, “Peace be with you.”