Harrowing Of Hell
April 19, 2020

Seers of the World, Take Heart

Dr. Wellesley Chapman, lay preacher

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning. I’m going to begin this morning, as I often do, with a small request. I’d like to ask you to sit up straight. Take a deep breath in and out. And if there’s someone in the room with you, look at them and say “I’m glad you’re here.” If you’re alone, you can tell me you’re glad I’m here and I’ll say it to you. I’m glad you’re here. I am. That may be the most useful part of this sermon, but let’s press on and find out.

In today’s gospel we drop into the story of life in the aftermath of trauma. We join the disciples, in a house in Jerusalem. They have locked themselves inside for fear of who and what is outside.

They are living through a volatile moment. They are sheltering from danger. And they don’t know what should happen next. They are leaderless. Maybe you can relate.

If you’re one of the twelve, your world has just become dangerous to in an immediate way. You saw your leader, your friend, crucified for his beliefs, dying an agonizing, very human death. Presumably this fate awaits you too —just outside the door.

The disciples had been on a tremendous journey with Jesus, following a compelling teacher, witnessing extraordinary events, and coming to believe Jesus was the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for. And the journey was dangerous, too.

With Jesus around, those threats may have felt manageable, and uncertainty like an adventure. He was there to remind them that they were safe.

But I would also forgive any one of the disciples on that evening behind that locked door, for forgetting that they were safe. Because the twelve were just people, like you and me, and though people can do extraordinary things we are flesh and blood. We are neurons and neurotransmitters. Witnessing a violent death, especially of a loved one, sets off a neurologic storm in which our bodies are flooded with stress hormones: adrenaline, cortisol. We cease to think clearly. We feel and we act. It is also common for people to dissociate, experiencing an “involuntary disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.”

If you were in the house that night, you may have been feeling isolated and confused. So if any one in that house was able to look to another, to breathe,

and say “I’m glad you’re here,” I can imagine that was a most welcome invitation into a safe place.

In the autumn of 2001, I would drive most days down 23rd avenue on my way to the University of Washington, where I was a first year medical student. The closer I got to campus, the more anxious I felt. Because for me, medical school was scary. The sheer volume of facts to memorize was overwhelming. Learning to diagnose and treat actual humans felt incomprehensibly high stakes. And  most days I had no idea what I was doing. It feels inauthentic to say that I was traumatized by the experience—I wasn’t. It was a self-inflicted wound, and and a privilege. But for the first couple of years I was awash in stress hormones triggered by fear. I knew I wasn’t smart enough. And I knew that one by one others would know that too. I didn’t have what it took, and I let anxiety steer my days.

And then one day I saw a sign. Literally. Waiting at the stop light at 23rd & Madison. A sign. In front of the Madison Temple Church of God in Christ. A sign that said “Say ‘I have everything I need.” So I did. I have everything I need. And you know what? I felt a tiny bit better; a small release of tension. Like taking a deep breath. A moment of stillness that was…

better. I wasn’t ALL better. This isn’t a fairy tale. But that tiny moment of relief felt most welcome.

I started reminding myself, often, that I had everything I needed, and in that practice I generated enough space to invite joy and curiosity back in. It was slow. And non-linear. And still is. I have everything I need, not because of my degree or my job or possessions, but for the simple truth I was created by God, and by the grace of God I woke up today.

In this time of pandemic-stay-at-home-economic- disaster, and deep uncertainty about our future, it is easy to forget that we have everything we need.

Those of us who still have work and a place to shelter are extra fortunate. But if you woke up today, you’re off to a great start. It is a gift just to be here.

So I have a second request of you. I want you to take another deep breath, in and out, and say “I have everything I need.”

Turning back now to the Gospel of John and leaning hard into my status as NOT a biblical scholar, I will hazard that the people behind that locked door of that house on that night may have felt like they

didn’t quite have everything they needed. And again we can forgive them for it, because they didn’t know what would happen next.

You and I have an advantage on them: we know how the story turns out. (Spoiler alert: if this is also your first time through the story, stop watching now and tune in to last week’s Easter service. It will make a lot more sense.)

So what happens next? Jesus shows up! To all of them! All at once! It’s not a hallucination. Or it’s a shared hallucination. But they can all see it. He’s there. And he shows them he’s real by revealing his wounds.

And John says: “the disciples rejoiced.” What a relief they must have felt to be back with their teacher after such trauma.

This “Doubting Thomas” chapter in John is usually discussed in the context of belief in resurrection. Do you believe only what you can see and touch. And yes, the disciples believed when they saw Jesus.

And even Thomas believed—but he got what he asked for: to see and to touch. And what of us? Do we believe though we do not see? That is great topic

for a sermon by talented theologian and not an amateur like me.

The belief story that jumps out to me is the one in which the Disciples have to believe that they can do frighteningly hard things, because the thing Jesus asks them to do: it’s really hard.

“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send you.” He asks them to continue his ministry, which seems like a fair request of a disciple in good times, but things are dangerous now. Dangerous enough that they’re locked indoors for fear of violence.

Jesus asks the disciples to go into the world and act on his behalf. In order to do go into the world, they first have go through that locked door. When I try to see myself in that room on that night, I think I’d be frightened.

What does it take for regular to walk through that door? I think it takes a kind of outsize belief in our potential. A belief that we see the world as it is: God’s Kingdom is right here, right now, and to share that with others.

If you were in that room on that night, you would have had Holy Spirit literally breathed upon you, and

I imagine that would bring some measure of confidence.

But what about you? Does the spirit speak through you? Do you consider yourself a seer of the world? Are you comfortable saying so? Or does that seem prideful? Not very Episcopalian.

I am reminded of a poem called “The Minor Prophets,” by Michael Lind.

None of the minor prophets

knew that he was minor, of course. Habakkuk, I imagine,

thought that his visions earned him

standing as Ezekiel’s peer, if not indeed Elijah’s.

Then there was Obadiah,

who could be forgiven if he thought he might be a Moses.

How they would be remembered

Providence concealed from them all, though they could see the future.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

If you’re on a mission from God, sent to rebuke a city

or to redeem a nation,

where by canon-makers you’re ranked may be inconsequential.

Nor is the voice within you

any less authentic for not having a distant echo.

Seers of the world, be heartened.

Even minor prophets can have genuine revelations.

Even minor prophets can have genuine revelations. And so can Episcopalians.

The disciples did walk through that door into a world that needed to keep hearing the message about God’s Kingdom. They let the Holy Spirit to speak through them. A church took root. And we’re still here.

You and I spend a lot of time these days behind closed doors, following good guidance to be properly fearful of a deadly pathogen we don’t fully understand. But our doors will open. And we will step out into a changed world that needs us.

It is April 19, 2020, and you woke up today. That’s a gift. And today more than ever the world needs you to deliver a message. Your voice may not have a distant echo; no matter. Prophecies, will come to an end. Love never ends.

So my third request of you today is to embrace yourself as a seer of the world and to allow the spirit speak through you. I’m glad you’re here.