The Monday before last as I was driving home from one of my church’s Bible studies, I heard a comedienne interviewed on NPR. Her name is Aparna Nancherla, and on her newly released album she tackles some pretty heavy stuff – like mental illness. They played an excerpt of her work, and her piece on anxiety really resonated with me. She said, “Having anxiety is like having an edgy improv group in your brain, and it just needs a one word suggestion to spin countless scenarios that no one’s comfortable with. And the whole time you’re just like, ‘when will this show be over. I just came to be supportive!’ None of these thoughts have a future.” Alone in my car I burst out laughing because it’s true!
Of course, if you’ve never been to an improv show, this might not make sense. So let me give you a little context. If you watch an improv troupe, they often ask for a one word input from the audience to get a scene started. And then they take that word in some of the wildest directions imaginable. I’ll never forget the time where, in an improv class that I was taking, the word “fries” got turned into an elaborate scene about two ex-lovers who reconnect over a mutual love of gravy-and-cheese-covered-fries known as poutine. It was ridiculous, which made it hysterical. But radically running away with a word to a completely crazy place is also pretty much exactly what my anxiety feels like.
I remember being home alone at my mom’s house once – after I graduated from college so I was very much an adult – and hearing some sort of thump from downstairs, and you know where my mind went? Not to, “It’s just the house or the boiler or something totally normal and rational.” No, it went to, “Clearly a serial killer has just entered the house in the quietest way possible, and now he’s coming up the steps to attack my dog and me with a silent but deadly chainsaw.” Like an adept yet terrifying improv troupe, my mind spun out a fantastic story that thoroughly placed me in “fear mode.” And the problem is, once I’m afraid, it becomes very difficult to consider positive outcomes. I remember wondering the next day why it hadn’t even crossed my mind that the sound might be something good – like my mom getting home early or Jesus showing up at my door (which was probably about as likely as the silent chainsaw). I know the answer, of course. It hadn’t crossed my mind because fear and anxiety hadn’t let it. Fear and anxiety like to silence the hope in my head, especially when I’m alone.
Which is probably why Luke wrote the deeply unsettling passage that I found myself reading in the lectionary last week just before I went to vote: Luke 21:5-19. Jesus speaks of the wars and insurrections that are to come – of violence and earthquakes and plagues. This must take place, Jesus says, before the end (though that won’t happen immediately).
Over the centuries, many have taken this passage and used it to explain why bad things happen in the world. As one commentator pointed out, in the wake of both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, there were Christian leaders who used this text and others like it to defend their view that God enacted these catastrophes in order to punish the United States for its amoral, unchristian way of life. It makes sense – after all, the text seems to be implying that God will bring calamity on the world before God ushers in the Kingdom. So why not point to the wars, insurrections, earthquakes and plagues around us and say, “Clearly this is what Jesus was talking about”? It seems like a reasonable way to interpret it. It seems like the passage was meant to predict something that would happen in the future – which could be our present.
And it did predict the future. Or more accurately, it recounted something that happened in the past. With a text like this one, it’s vital to remember when Luke was writing – namely in the 80-100 A.D. range. Why does this matter? Well, consider the reference to the temple being destroyed. That temple was destroyed around 70 A.D., or at least 10 years before Luke wrote his Gospel. Luke isn’t predicting the future, he’s commenting on the past and preaching to his present. He’s using traditional apocalyptic imagery to speak into the fear and anxiety of his Christian community. Because there was fear and anxiety – the temple was destroyed by the Romans, which raised alarm within the Jewish community of which the church was a part. On top of that, fear of Rome annihilating them completely is part of what motivated the Israelite authorities to winnow out internal groups that could be seen as a threat to the peace of the empire, which included Christians.
There was good reason for the early followers of Jesus to be afraid. And I’m sure that they had their own improv troupes in their heads spinning some pretty wild stories about what might happen to them. Luke gets this. And Luke speaks pastorally into this fear – as all good apocalyptic literature does. “Do not be terrified.” This is what Luke reminds his people that Christ said, “Do not be afraid. Even when they persecute you and bring you to prison, don’t fear and don’t blame them; don’t retaliate. For I am with you, and I will turn this catastrophe into opportunity.” In the face of the peoples’ pain and worry, Luke preaches hope and peace.
I think most of us can commiserate with those early followers. Most of us know what it’s like to be in a state of anxiety and fear. It could be because you’re watching the physical or mental decline of someone you love. It could be because you’re in a place of grief, and it feels like your world is falling apart. It could be because you aren’t sure that you’re going to have enough to get you through the next few weeks.
For me and my household in this past week, it was because of the election. Even if you were feeling relieved on Wednesday morning, I imagine that my story is one that you can relate to because you’ve experienced something similar at some other point in your life, in some other context. It went like this: Upon hearing the news that Trump and Pence had won, my fiancée Lauren and I thought immediately about our future. Pence has made no secret of his feelings towards the LGBT community – he openly opposes same sex marriage, and he passed legislation in Indiana to make discrimination against LGBT persons legal. Trump said that he would support such legislation on a national level. He also said that he would strongly consider appointing a justice to the Supreme Court who would oppose marriage equality. Now I trust our political system. I trust the checks and balances of our government. I trust the Supreme Court – but these facts still inspire fear. We fear that our upcoming marriage could be threatened. We fear that our ability to raise children together could be threatened. We fear that our future children or we could be the targets of discrimination. On a deep level, we are afraid –whether you consider that fear rational or not. On top of that, Trump vowed to defund the Environmental Protection Agency. Lauren’s job as a private environmental compliance monitor is dependent on the EPA being funded. So we have the added anxiety of not knowing what will become of her career. Now you might be thinking, of course, that will never happen. And the truth is, you might be right. But I bet you too have been in a situation like ours – a situation where the threat felt very real to you, even if others in your life told you not to worry. There are many in our country who would have felt this same way if Clinton had won.
So what does Luke have to say to us who have experienced fear and anxiety? Is it as simple as “Do not be afraid and do not seek retribution”? Is it as simple as “Christ is with you, and the Spirit will turn catastrophe into opportunity”? Well, yes and no. Those are the promises of Christ. But they may fall flat if they’re spouted as platitude. Luke could speak pastorally to the people because he knew the fear that they felt. He experienced it with them. He lived it with them. And so standing beside them in their fear, he could offer the words of Christ as hope – not just for them, but for himself as well. And alongside them, he could look for the opportunities that Christ promised; he could look for evidence of God’s Kingdom springing to life around them in the midst of fear and chaos. Standing with them he could say, “Why are we listening to this edgy improv troupe instead of trusting Christ’s promise for new life?”
And this is the message for us. We need to listen to the fears and anxieties of those around us. We need to hear what our friends, our loved ones, and even our enemies are saying, and we cannot discount those fears out of hand, even if they seem to us irrational (or even if we morally or theologically disagree with their perspective). We cannot look at them and say, “Your improv troupe is crazy; that will never happen; put your mind at ease.” Instead, we need to follow Luke’s example and join them in their fear. We need to stand with them and humbly listen to their anxiety and their terror. As CNN contributor Van Jones said, “If people want unity, you have to hear the pain first.” We have to hear the pain first. We have to hear the fear first. And only then can we proclaim the good news – that Christ is with us. That Christ is at work in the world around us. That Christ is even now ushering in the Kingdom of God, and that even in the midst of whatever feels like a catastrophe in this moment, Christ is creating opportunities for the love of God to be shared. Indeed, in our presence beside those who are afraid, in our listening, in our watching their crazy improv troupe with them, we proclaim the presence of Christ more loudly than our words ever could; we proclaim the hope that the Spirit is even now building the Kingdom more powerfully than any sermon ever could; and we proclaim the love of God more profoundly than any preacher ever could.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.