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Fifth Sunday of Easter: “Learning to Fly”

 

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 

I’ve been on the road a lot over the past three weeks, and I’m happy to back home with you. Many miles driving to Lovelock prison and back; many more flying, to Texas and back—twice.

 

I enjoy flying. But I admit, I usually board a plane with a big book to shield myself from conversation. I’m not looking for friendship; just transportation. But this time, I heard a range of stories on my way. Perhaps I was more open; perhaps Texans are just more persistent.

 

Or perhaps I was meant to bring back some of this experience to share with you as we look at today’s readings.

 

I’m thinking this morning of a woman sitting next to me on my flight out of Las Vegas. She was terrified to be in the air, her startled eyes wide under her blue eye shadow. She was willing to fly just once a year to a required business conference, she told me. And having suffered one flight to Vegas, and having stayed in her hotel for three days, she was anxious to get home to Odessa, Texas. Very anxious.

 

Thinking that idle conversation would ease the tension, I idled over many topics with her until we started our descent. And then she abruptly closed her eyes and clutched her legs. “Would it help to keep talking?” I asked. “No.” A fiercely clenched “No.” She was shut down until landing.

 

No words from me were going to reach her in that state, whether they were entertaining or empathetic. Not even the gentle words that open our Gospel reading this morning from John.

 

In many variant translations, they are the universal voice of comfort: “Do not let your heart be troubled. Don’t give in to your distress. Don’t worry.  Don’t be upset. Don’t let this throw you.” But I knew they wouldn’t get through. How did I know?

 

Because I’d lived that state she was in. When my own fears had put me in free fall. When I couldn’t feel the ground beneath me or the comfort around me. When anxiety took hold. It’s a very physical state, this state of terrible insecurity and isolation.

 

And as I try to describe it, I wonder if you have memories that call up this feeling of fright in your body too. Perhaps, like me, you had a fear of intruders as a child. Or a sense of abandonment when left at school. Or later on, an anxiety that you would suffer an accident or relapse in illness or lose your job or a face the death of a loved one.

 

If you’re feeling even a shadow of such a physical memory in your body as I speak—a response to your own past or present fears—it’s because we’re wired this way as humans. It’s our shared experience of walking through a world of real and imagined danger. We learn patterns of anxiety.

 

And it’s our spiritual journey to unbind these fear memories and become more free. To take in the message, “Do not let your heart be troubled.”

 

How do we move toward this freedom in our spiritual development? How do we learn to live with an open, connected heart, rather than a closed, troubled one—especially when we’re facing our worst fears? It’s our challenge, day to day, as humans—as it has been for generations and generations of humans before us.

 

But this doesn’t have to be a lonely journey. This morning, I invite you to listen to the voices of other spiritual seekers from long ago, facing their own times of doubt, threat, and rejection. To hear their wisdom about how to unbind fear. Each passage we read this morning comes from a writer facing a desperate time and looking for a way to connect to a greater strength.

 

David, under persecution by Saul, pours out his terror in Psalm 31, exposing both his mental confusion and sense of dread: “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” He brilliantly names an anxiety attack: “a city under siege.”

 

Yet David’s outpouring becomes not just a record of his fear. It becomes the key to his relief. By naming his isolation, he is able to break through it. By acknowledging his fear, he is able to ask for help: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress. Incline your ear to me; make haste to deliver me.”

 

This is a simple, but profound, prayer practice we can learn from this Psalm: pausing when we start to shut down, when we’re in emotional descent. Interrupting our pattern of fear by acknowledging it. Naming that fear out loud to a friend or counselor, or pouring it out in a journal, or offering it up in silent prayer to God:  Just “I’m afraid. Help me.”

 

We do not need to know in that moment of prayer how that help will come or what it will look like. We simply need to open to its possibility. To connect beyond the isolation of fear.

 

That’s our spiritual journey: to reach for help, to practice connection. Over and over again, no matter what life brings.

 

It’s hard work to stay connected when we’re locked in fear, as the early Christians deeply experienced in their times of division and persecution. We hear their voices this morning also, as the writers of the Acts, John, and First Peter reach out to us from the second half of the first century. Each was writing from a different Christian community—each one struggling with an uncertain future, faced with “conflict, crisis, and alienation.”

 

Jesus had died a generation ago and had not yet come again to establish a new reign on earth. His followers had suffered deep distress: conflicts among their leaders, fractured views of who Jesus was, expulsion from synagogues, social discrimination, and persecution by Rome and their former religious communities.

 

For many Christians, this was a time of major trauma: threats to life, threats to faith. So their spiritual leaders wrote them messages with a clear purpose: to comfort and uplift a people in fear.

 

The author of Acts offered inspiration through the example of a person of strength—the first martyr Stephen, who had the presence to pray even under the most terrifying circumstances.

 

The author of the Gospel of John wrote comforting words in the voice of the good Teacher Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” He reassured his community that they were not alone and would never be abandoned. That Jesus’ Way of love would always connect them to a Higher Power. That even as vulnerable humans we are capable of great works if we keep reaching out toward God and each other.

 

And the author of First Peter, most likely the disciple himself, uplifted his frightened community with the reminder that, even when facing persecution, they were “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people . . . called . . . out of darkness into a marvelous light.”

 

In this message, there’s a shift from David struggling alone, reaching out for God to be his “strong rock.” Peter urges his Christian community to become “living stones” themselves, forming a “spiritual house” that can withstand division and attack.

 

It’s a beautiful collective image of how to overcome fear. By coming together in community, in the Way of love, we create a stronghold of support for each other. We will not let our hearts be troubled.

 

So I invite you this morning to consider whether there’s a pattern of fear always buckled in next to you on your spiritual journey. An anxious presence that keeps absorbing your attention, shutting down your Highest Self, saying “No” to your freedom to risk and grow and connect.

 

All our companions on the Way this morning say: gently, bravely, engage with your fear. Name it. Understand it. Pray with it. Connect with a person who overcame it. Share it with a support group. Bring it to God.

 

This is the Way, Jesus taught us, that we gradually unbind our fear. That we open our hearts to the great beings we are meant to be. That we learn to fly.  Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

May 18, 2014