Harrowing Of Hell
November 26, 2017

The Last Sunday After Pentecost

Preacher:  Kevin Mesher


The only thing we could do was dock and wait. It would be two long and uncertain days before we could disembark; the entire ship must be inspected, clearance received. A tropical storm in the Keys had prevented us from keeping to our snug itinerary, an itinerary which would soon be blown about and undergo some major revisions of its own. So we moored somewhere on the Florida coast. And waited. On the starboard side, swirling dark blue and green ocean, made so by the soiled canopy of impossible clouds and sunlight, signaled a coming storm. To the port side, an expanse of diesel fields, empty of people that day, looking all the more menacing because they were silent and still. On board, the mood was hushed with shock, the opulent setting anomalous to what was relentlessly developing into a new reality. Some, like one elderly couple I passed coming out of their cabin, took off for the breakfast buffet–they were tired of watching news cycles with no answers, no meaning to the events had surfaced—what meaning could possibly surface? Meaning was years off, still is, but we would have settled for a reason. The crew did their level best to keep up the line’s jubilant veneer. The cruise director hopped from group to group trying to scare up any takers for BINGO, but we were scared enough already. Making  blots with a daubing pen wasn’t going to alleviate that. Some swam and ate, disregarding the two hour rule. Some tanned. Some just milled around giving each other funeral smiles. Most huddled around flat screens chocked with talking heads, simply because there seemed to be safety in the talking…

It was September 12, 2001–the day after that unforeseen pivot on which our country spun; slo-mo and spittled, like the slack-jawed flop of a downed boxer; like towers collapsing in their own footprints. On that and the subsequent days following the gruesome attack and to the present, I believe the collective American psyche experienced a trauma the effects of which are still being played out to this day especially in how we treat and communicate with our neighbors. And every new terror event continues to further distance us from each other.

PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s not that new of an idea, actually. It just hadn’t been named yet. The Iliad describes warriors consumed by feelings of guilt, rage and grief. WWI had “shell shock” and WWII, combat fatigue. And its prevalence in our military veterans today is well documented. Daily, soldiers return home with both external and internal scars–of the two, the more troubling. For many, rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, homelessness, violence to self and others will continue to rise. Most distressingly, some turn to suicide. A 2016 report charts the suicide rate at 20 veterans a day. We owe all in the military a great debt for their service; because, really, their battles are just beginning upon their return home.

Trauma in the civilian sector is also surging at an alarming rate. A noted PTSD specialist reports that this trauma surfaces because of early childhood abuses of all kinds, major accidents, dental work; essentially if one feels it to be traumatic it is, and can, years later pay out negative psychological dividends in adult life.

For both soldiers and civilians, PTSD looks very similar. Survivors become stuck and cannot integrate new experiences. They reorganize life as if the trauma were still happening. The present becomes contaminated by the past. So much mental energy is focused on suppressing the chaos of memories that spontaneous involvement in life is severely constricted. There is a sense of dissociation, of numbing, all the while the memories continue to churn and intrude.

As a psychotherapist I have seen an increase in the  diagnoses of PTSD and Major Depressive and Generalized Anxiety Disorders. It speaks to a climate of expanding insecurity and mounting dissatisfaction. So their doctors toss them colorful pills with promising, mythical Greek names. They either don’t work very well or for very long. One cannot medicate an existential crisis. At the end of 2017 it seems the American psyche is fractured, desperate, and, quite possibly, just plain bored.

Born in 1968, I grew up in the age of the impending nuclear holocaust, Jaws, killer bees, and an abusive parent. I was terrified by the TV film The Day After, a graphic and cautionary tale about nuclear war staring Jason Robards. It hovered around my young worldview with the low level buzz of insecurity and fear. Could this be true today for our nation? Have we really processed the events of September 11th and more recent attacks? Today, I seem to look at the clock at 9:11, at a rate that is too coincidental. That low flying plane above, seems too low-flying and a cool splash of adrenaline elevates my heart rate; just like on that day. Staunch, anti-gun friends are buying guns to be ready for people with guns. Neo-Nazism is making a comeback. Globally. Today we can speak our latent thought without having to weigh the consequences, without considering the living Soul inside the other, who is just trying to make it through the world. Something is breaking down. There is fear and division. Driving a car into a crowd, pressure cooker bombs; these acts were somehow justified as means of communication. On a more mundane level, internet trolls, like playground bullies, bait far too fragile egos, and, much like a drone attack, are emboldened by the bravery of being out of range. And media coverage. Did you know, those who watch endless news cycles are at a greater risk for developing at least one symptom of PTSD?  I can only speculate on the level of trauma inherited by our youth today. An age of insecurity breeds scarcity, a primal fear that there will not be enough for me. So we must war and faction and grab. And when we don’t get what we want, we try at least to get in the last word. It is clear that we have, as a species, drifted off course. We’re not just lost at sea, we are in altogether separate boats.

I’m sorry. Got a little dark there. I am well aware I am preaching with my back to the choir.

I mean, Can’t we just get back to that situation comedy—you know the one—the one where no one ever wins too big or loses too large, they just stay the same, unusually happy, despite their best efforts to dream?

No, says St. Paul. As Christians we cannot.

In Ephesians, he offers an antidote.

Briefly paraphrased, it is “Unite or perish!” Using the theme of reconciliation of the Jews and Gentiles, Paul makes an argument for unity. Make peace with others and the warring factions in ourselves. Paul tells us that we were not meant to be perpetually divided against each other but, rather to know the oneness of things. Psychologically this could be known as wholeness. It is God’s gracious purpose to bring all things in the fullness of time, into harmonious unity with Christ. As we are already sanctified by Christ’s death on the cross, we are now all on equal footing; marked as heirs and inheritors, we are already what we struggle to become. We are God’s work of art. We have a new way of being human and it eradicates the privilege of one group over another. We are equally able to access that very power that raised him from the dead. We all must grok it, says Paul, then we will know true unity and wisdom. Our work is to become what we already are—the temple of God. Knowing this as fundamentally true, how do we behave in a world in which this is true? It speaks to our present predicament.

So how do we do this? It is a quality of the soul. First we must open ourselves to God. Surrender. Stop running the show for a bit. We must adopt a spirit of wisdom and of revelation. The eyes of our hearts must be enlightened. We must become strengthened in our inner being, and put off our old self. Let us each celebrate each other’s talents. And probably most important today: anger is normal just don’t sin because of it and don’t let the sun go down on it. It is imperative if we hope to be filled with the fullness of God who fills all in all.

I’ll close with this. There happens to be a lot of ship imagery in my sermon–and not a few boats. Coincidental, really. In fact, St. Paul uses the word pleroma, to connote the active and passive meanings of the ‘fullness’ of God. Digging a little deeper, it also has an Ancient Greek meaning of a ship that is heavy laden with crew and cargo, and it makes a nice segue to one final ship.

If you know how to read a church, then the symbolism of this very building will not be lost on you. The church is, above all intended to be a reflection of heaven arrayed in signs and symbols–and how to get there. Church architecture very often represents the church as a ship. I’ll draw your attention to this area here. If you don’t know, it is called the nave. From the Latin, navis meaning ship, because its ceiling is often represented like a sea vessel with an inverted hull. It sails the celestial mystery, its crew–you and I and the Church universal looking, not for safe harbor—at least not yet—but, like an ark, to bring new life and new hope to where it is needed most. Jesus works ceaselessly to bring everyone and everything together. We, too, are participants in this work. Bon Voyage.