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The Rev. Emily C. Heath The Rev. Emily Heath
The Rev. Emily C. Heath is Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire (UCC), and a writer and public theologian. She is the author of 'Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity' (Pilgrim Press).

Member of:

United Church of Christ

Representative of:

The Congregational Church in Exeter UCC, Exeter, NH


Resurrection Phobia

Luke 7:11-17

3rd Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

June 05, 2016

About two years ago I moved to New Hampshire. I had always known about the New Hampshire primaries, but I had no idea what it felt like to actually live through them. 2016 has changed that for me. 

My study at the church looks out on the parking lot of the neighboring town hall. It's a favorite for presidential candidates who want to get a shot of themselves speaking to a crowd adorned in red, white, and blue. And all throughout January, candidate after candidate pulled up with their entourage and news trucks in tow.

I walked over to hear a lot of them speak. It didn't matter whether I particularly agreed with the candidate or not. Honestly, I wasn't there for them. I wanted to watch something different. I wanted to watch the crowd.

Usually town hall was filled with the candidate's supporters. They would hang on every word; they would cheer wildly at every promise that the candidate gave. And as I listened I became struck by the presence of two nearly-constant companions: fear and hope. 

Now every candidate knew exactly how to speak to the fears of the crowd, and every one of them promised that a vote for them would bring back hope. The ones who did this best left the people cheering; they ignited the crowds with palpable emotion. "Finally," the crowd seemed to be saying, "someone is finally on my side."

But by the time the morning after the primary dawned, the campaign caravans and reporters were already long gone from New Hampshire, never to be seen again--at least for the next four years. 

And all those people who were looking for hope? They're still there.

We are all looking for hope, whether we admit it or not. For some, it's more acute. That was certainly true the day that Jesus saw a woman standing next to her son's body. They were carrying it out of the town for burial, and the mother had lost everyone. She was a widow; she had no others sons. She had, in a very real way, just lost her very last hope.

Jesus approached her and he said, "Do not weep." When you think of it, that's really the most unhelpful thing you can say to someone who is in grieving: "Don't cry." But Jesus didn't stop with those words. Instead, he touched the slate that the young man was being carried upon, and he said, "Young man...rise!"

And here's the truly unbelievable part: he did!

Now I don't know what that young man's mother did. I imagine it was so overwhelming that she didn't even know how to process it all at first. But Scripture tells us how the crowd reacted, and it tells us two things: "fear seized all of them, and they glorified God."

It's that glory we tend to remember. Scripture says that the people called Jesus "great," and they shared the news with others. But it's that first part that I think holds a real clue to the power of what happened that day: fear seized all of them.

It's important to know that we're not talking about a "fear and trembling" kind of fear here. This isn't about the kind of fear of God that comes from an awareness that you are in the presence of greatness. Instead, we are talking about plain old, garden variety fear...the kind that can cause havoc.

The Greek word used here for fear is "phobos." It's the same root of the word "phobia." We've come to think of phobia as a way to describe our most irrational fears. Think homophobia or Islamophobia.

The people who saw that young man raised that day...some of them may have been glorifying God, but my guess is that others were moving past the general fear that anyone would have had when they saw the dead rise and they were getting downright phobic. 

Fear is not an uncommon response in the face of resurrection. That's especially true when we can't explain it or understand it. And sometimes we are so plain scared of new life, whether it's in ourselves or in others, that we try to squash it just as surely as some would silence Jesus. 

Sometimes that happens as violently as it did to Jesus. But most of the time it's a lot more subtle, a lot more insidious. 

In one of my early ministry settings, like most churches, we shared our space a couple of nights a week with a twelve-step group. That group was always the target of some displeasure. No matter how many other groups that we might have come through the building, they got blamed for everything from cigarettes left outside the door to coffee stains on the carpet.

So when some members of that twelve-step group started not just coming to worship, but joining the church, there was more than a little consternation. And one day one of the biggest complainers saw fit to voice her concerns to another relatively new member of the church. This was a well-respected and successful local business man. Everyone had been glad to see him come through the doors. And so that day she went up to him and said,

"These new people, they're not the kind of people we want at this church. They're all drunks, and they don't even put money in the offering plate."

The newcomer businessman paused and then replied, "You know...for over twenty years now I've been coming to this church on Saturday nights and sitting in a meeting. It's only been recently that I got the idea that I might be welcome on Sunday mornings too."

No one bothered the twelve-step group after that, but I certainly was struck by the irony of the whole exchange. 

We Christians are often called "Easter people." We live out our faith with the knowledge of the Resurrection. We know that new life is possible and that even the ones left for dead can rise again.

So why don't we believe it when we see it? Why do we look at all those people getting sober in our church basement with fear when we could be giving glory to God?

And why do we miss the countless other ways every day that God gives us signs of new life all around us?

I think the reason is this: I think fear is far easier than hope. 

Fear is an easy emotional state. It's one of our most basic, human default modes. It's reactive. Somewhere, deep in the most reptilian parts of our brain, we can tap into fear in milli-seconds. And that's not a bad thing when you are in a genuinely dangerous situation. But fear is a dangerous thing when it becomes our default mode. 

By contrast, hope is complex. It's not an emotion so much as a way of viewing the world. It requires us to be creative. It demands better from us.

A good leader deals in hope. But as I learned this year, a successful politician too often deals in fear. That's no wonder. Hope sometimes takes years to cultivate; fear takes only seconds. Fear is so destructive, so deceitful, that sometimes it even wears the clothes of hope. It wears a disguise that tricks you into thinking that it actually is hope. And when we start to believe that acting on our irrational fear is what can give us hope, that is when fear is at its most toxic.

Irrational fear is what killed Jesus, after all. Here was hope embodied, come to raise up even the dead, and it was so frightening that fear won...at least at first.

But as I said...we know how that story ends. 

That's why we who would follow Jesus as the church have to learn about other Resurrection stories too. And we have to learn how to tell those stories to a fearful world that could use some real hope. 

When I was a graduate student in theology I needed hope. I had learned to live in the easy emotion of fear and to quell those fears with the even easier solution of drinking. But by the grace of God, that wasn't the end of the story.

I learned that a lot of early sobriety means hearing the resurrection stories of others. Alcoholics help other alcoholics by sharing what we call our "experience, strength, and hope" with one another. We do this by literally talking about how our lives have been changed. As my days of sobriety turned into weeks and months, I kept seeking out and hearing those stories. Some were incredibly different from my own. And yet, they were in so many ways familiar. We were all living resurrection stories.

There are so many times that I wish I had learned to tell the resurrection stories in a church sanctuary and not in a church basement. But now that I've learned how, I try to bring those stories into the sanctuary and out into the world. It's not always comfortable work, but if we, the church, can't do it, then we'd be better off handing over our church keys to the people in our basements who can.

That's because the work of the church, at its core, is to create and tell stories of resurrection in a world that desperately needs hope. The work of the church is to show that new life is real. And the work of the church it is to silence the loud and phobic voices that surround us by replacing fear with possibility. 

We live in a time where fear commands such power. This is a time where dangerous solutions come wrapped in the clothes of hope. 

It is the time when the voices of those of us who would follow Jesus must speak out and remind one another that when real hope comes it is never dressed in super inflated egos or the hatred of others or false promises of security. It comes only in this: the hope we proclaim when we utter the simplest of Christian creeds: Jesus alone is Lord. 

There is no better way for the church to declare this hope than to proclaim that resurrection really is real. And there is no more powerful way to resist the destructive forces of our world than to boldly tell these stories. In the face of such great truths, the lies that fear tells us will never stand a chance. 

Amen.

 

 


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