The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Advent 3—Year C; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 Video
Never has Advent seemed more important than it does this year. Last week, we were stunned by the shootings in San Bernardino. This week, we are stunned by rhetoric that would bar Muslims from entering our country and consider closing some mosques; some have floated the idea of registries. Leaders of all faiths, including a wide range of Christian voices, have condemned these proposals. Fear is rampant among us; we, as a people, have been triggered, and our brains are working really hard.
I was at a training with clergy a week and a half ago, and I got a quick lesson in some brain physiology. There is the thinking part of our brain that can reason and think and make choices. This includes our prefrontal cortex which controls our executive function (and, as any of you who have raised young people will know, this part of the brain is not fully developed until the late 20’s).
And then, there is this mid part of the brain, the limbic area, and in the limbic area is the amygdala, whose purpose it is to remember anything that has threatened us, scan the environment, and sound the alarm if it perceives danger.
When this alarm sounds, the survival brain swings into action—our heart rate goes up, we breathe faster, and chemicals flood our brain to give us the energy to fight, flee, freeze, and some add a fourth response, appease.
When our survival brain is kicked in, our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain, goes offline.
Trauma triggers our survival brain, being a bystander to trauma can trigger our survival brain, and the perception of threat is enough to get us there. The brain organizes the world by story, by looking for patterns of meaning, and it doesn’t even matter if the story is true or real—all that matters to the brain is that there is a story to grab a hold of, and when it latches on to a recognizable pattern, a little chemical reward gets released.
Why am I digressing so far into brain stuff this morning? Because I think we are at a really tough juncture as a people right now. As a country, we are facing traumas faster than our brains can process on multiple levels. Mass shootings, of any kind, fill us with fear because they are so random. And the 24-hour news cycle, with its constant replay of images and sounds and sound bites, not to mention all the stuff on social media, places us in a constant role as a bystander. We are living, breathing, eating trauma right now as a country, and our brains are on overload. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed, hyped up and agitated, or if you are feeling completely fatigued and worn out, it’s partly because our brains just can’t keep up right now.
So, call me crazy, but right now, we are going to stop and breathe. No, I mean it, I am going to teach you about box breathing because breathing is the fastest way to calm our survival brain and bring our prefrontal cortex back online. You breathe in to a count of four, hold for four, exhale to a count of four, hold for four—so the whole cycle takes 16. Try it with me, and picture the little box. In-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4, out-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4.
One more time, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, counting, and picture the box. In-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4, out-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4.
Now, feel the energy in the room.
Dear people of God, your first job right now, is to breathe, calm your brain down, and ground yourself. We don’t have a chance at being discerning about anything until we do that.
The next thing we need to do is to be very discerning about the images, sights, sounds, and narratives that we are ingesting. In fact, some measure of fasting is called for right now. Yes, we need to be informed; I am not suggesting that we go into a bubble and wall ourselves off from the pain of the world, but I am suggesting that we don’t need to be glued to our TV sets, our computers, our smart phones, or our radios to stay informed. If you feel your body starting to ramp up, or if you feel your energy dropping through the floor, fast from the news coverage, fast from Facebook, and breathe—get grounded in the here and now, in this moment, in this space.
Next, as you are fasting on the news coverage, feed on the scriptures we have before us today.
Meditate on the collect and fix your eyes on a God who has a capacity to stir up divine power and to come among us when we are sorely hindered by our sins and divisions, fix your eyes on a God whose grace and mercy are bountiful, who longs to help and deliver us.
Take the first two lines from the First Song of Isaiah as your mantra—Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense and he will be my Savior. Guns won’t save me. Building a stronghold won’t save me. Building my defenses three feet thick and ten feet tall won’t save me. God saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. I will not be afraid. I will not be afraid. The Lord is my stronghold, my sure defense, and he will be my way to wholeness.
Drink in Philippians. Hear it again: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. This will not be a peace that the world understands; in fact, the world will look at us and think we are crazy. It is a not the peace of uniformity, or unanimity, or absence of conflict, or papering over our differences—it is that deep peace that can stand still in the middle of the storm; it is that deep peace that is beyond our understanding and comprehension; it is that deep peace that holds our hearts and our minds even when chaos is swirling all around us; it is that peace that knows that death and destruction never have the final word, and that resurrection will not be denied.
And sit down with John the Baptist and let him speak some truth in your ear. Bear fruits worthy of repentance—in other words, do your work. Don’t be claiming Abraham as your ancestor—don’t be claiming your tribe as the best; don’t make the error that they made and think your tribe entitles you to some privilege and forget that God chose you for service to the world.
Have the humility to ask John what you should do. Maybe you need to give a coat to someone who needs one. Maybe you’ve got food you need to be sharing. Maybe you need to work on being content with “enough” and give the never-ending-race-to-acquire-more a rest. Have the humility to ask John what you should do.
And don’t be looking to him, or anyone else, to be the Messiah. His baptism was with water and was about repentance, but the One to come, he baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire—power and heat and passion—his baptism moves us forward and burns away that which gets in our way of living in the wholeness that God longs for all creation to know. Jesus’ baptism isn’t just about repentance—that’s a step on the way, and a vital one—but Jesus’ baptism knits us into a Body where we are bound to him and to all flesh, knits us into a reality where our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of our neighbor, near and far, and even more radically, holds a place at the table even for our enemy.
Advent takes seriously that the world is coming apart at the seams. All of that end-of-the-world-apocalyptic imagery is woven throughout this season, and yet, and yet, the mother of God is pregnant. Somewhere deep and hidden, life is stirring, a new something is about to be born, a something that will join heaven and earth, a something that can show us how to stand between the realms and in so doing can teach us how to stand in every tragic gap in this world. A hope, a hope, that is stronger than all that would try to deny it, a relentless hope is burning—one candle, two candles, three candles, four—a light shining out in the darkness. Advent…a blessed quiet in the midst of voices raging.
So, give your poor brain a rest. Fast from the fear and insanity. Feed on the scriptures, feed on this ancient wisdom that has seen it all before. Feed on those things that will calm your heart and quiet your mind and strengthen your soul. As Paul said, “Let the mind of Christ be in you,” and bring that mind, that consciousness, to all that is before us.
Our survival brain is a blessed part of our humanity, but it won’t get us to the peaceable kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together.
For the rest of Advent, give your survival brain a much needed rest and create the space for the peace of God that surpasses understanding to take hold, in you and in the world. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 13, 2015