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May 2023

Emotional Overload

Emotional Overload

John 21:1-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 May 2023

            I almost entitled this sermon “Gone Fishin’,” thinking of the Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby duet.  Reflecting on this text, I thought about my Dad going fishing.  He was a high school principal and a work-aholic, a type A personality (which is one reason he died of a heart attack at 41).  One of the few times he took for himself away from all his responsibilities was to go fishing with his friends, and drink a few beers, and relax.

            But I decided on “Emotional Overload” instead for the title.  This Easter season I’ve been focused on the reactions of the disciples to their experiences of Jesus’s death and resurrection—the running of Peter and the beloved disciple, the weeping of Mary, the fear of those gathered in the upper room that eventually led to their empowerment, the doubting and then believing of Thomas.  In this final, poignant story from the Gospel of John, we encounter a few of the disciples who’ve gotten away from Jerusalem and everything that has happened to them.  They’ve gone to the lake, to fish, and build a campfire on the beach.  This is a story that resonates easily with us, because we can identify with this act of getting away from it all, the act of rest and recreation, embodied in a fishing trip with friends.

            The title I did choose came from Gary D. Jones’s commentary on this passage when he says, of the disciple’s fishing trip, “This is how human beings often respond to emotional overload.”

            Think about it.  Their friend they spent pretty much every day with for the last three years was assaulted, arrested, tortured, and brutally murdered, and they were eyewitnesses to some of that.  They feared the same would happen to them.  Surely they have some PTSD? 

            And after all that horror, they then have a series of encounters with a living, resurrected Jesus.  How overwhelming must that have been?  I’m certain that they couldn’t wrap their brains around it.  I’m sure they were feeling all the feels—such a swirl of emotions that they couldn’t figure out which ones they were feeling at any given moment. 

            And, so, they just got away from it all.  Tried to take a break, have some rest, do something familiar.  They went fishing, as a way of coping with their emotional overload.

            And emotional overload didn’t seem to just be a great lens for examining this story, but also timely and appropriate for us. 

            For one thing, this is Mental Health Sunday.  We are a WISE congregation.  Which is an official designation of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  This congregation has committed to be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged for mental health and wellbeing.  And, a point of pride, we were the second WISE church in the entire denomination and the hosts of the very first WISE Conference.

One of the ways we are living into our WISE commitment today is through the town hall following worship to discuss and brainstorm about the current public health crisis in adolescent mental health.  I hope you’ll join us in Memorial Hall if this issue is of concern to you, or you are a parent, or you are part of the ministries of this church that care for, educate, or support our teens.

So, emotional overload seemed fitting for Mental Health Awareness.

But, then, it also became an emotionally overwhelming week for thousands of us. It was particularly a rough week for the local LGBTQ community and those of us who’ve spent much time and energy this year trying to thwart legislative attempts to rob us of our freedom of conscience and bodily autonomy.  Please check in with your queer and trans family and friends, for they are under assault, and they need you to be loudly and vigorously defending them right now.  This is a struggle for the survival and autonomy of queer bodies.

            And once I leaned into this idea of emotional overload, a number of serendipities occurred this week.  And I delight in serendipities.  Especially during an emotionally difficult week.

The first serendipity occurred on Tuesday—that rough and difficult Tuesday.  One of my Facebook memories that day was a post Kerrie Kleppin-Winn had shared on my timeline two years ago of “tiny sermons by tiny people.”   It was a post that she’d seen somewhere else on Facebook and then shared with me and Katie Miller. 

These tiny sermons were one sentence comments by children that resonate with profound meaning and humor.  Kerrie had originally shared them on May 16, 2020, right around that moment when we all knew for certain that the Covid isolation wasn’t going away soon.  The children’s comments resonated deeply in May of 2020.

But I also found the wisdom of these kids was helpful for me this week of emotional overload.  So, I was quite glad that they came to my notice again in my Facebook memories.  Here’s what these children preached:

2-year-old Henry said, “Don’t wipe my tears away; I want to feel them on my face.”

6-year-old Ezra remarked, “I know two things that are permanent: love and sharpies.”

An anonymous six-year-old commented, “Sometimes I fall down on purpose so that I can take a break.”

Gideon, 7-years-old said, “Sometimes when my feelings are big, I like to sing them.”

Keira, also seven, advised, “I’ll just take a nap.  That’s how you solve that.”

2-year-old Jameson wisely proclaimed, “I’m too sad for pants.”

And one 4-year-old cut to the chase and simply said, “This is an F word day.”

            I feel that 4-year-old.  I feel them all actually.  And what wonderful advice.  There’s something in those seven comments for most people, most days—taking breaks, singing, napping, cursing, crying, loving, etc. 

            Another serendipity occurred Wednesday morning.  It was the children’s spring concert at Field Club Elementary where Ashley Lidgett is the music teacher.  The theme of the concert was “Rules for Living” and included a series of songs filled with advice on how to live well.  I’m grateful to Miss Lidgett for sharing the lyrics with me so I could quote them in today’s sermon.

            Mrs. Riha and Mr. Jackman’s second grade classes sang “Positive,” which includes these words,

I can close my eyes and picture how I want my world to be.

I deserve and affirm, my happy thoughts are good for me.

I believe in who I am, I know my thoughts are mine.

I can change the script I write and positively shine!

            Ms. Noon and Ms. Head’s second grade classes sang a couple of songs that I really liked, and not just because Sebastian, my son, was singing them.  Though I’m sure that helped.  The song “Rules for Living” included this advice:

Laugh a lot.  Smile a log.

Eat your veggies and fruit a lot.

Work and play well today.

And say nice things a lot.

Read a lot.  Rest a lot.

Wash your hands a face a lot.

Miss Ropp and Mrs. Kerwin’s fourth grade class opened the concert with “Responsible.”

No matter what the outside throws at me,
I’m choosin’ to react responsibly with

Decency, fairness, honesty, respect.

Discipline, justice, courage, and respect.

Integrity, compassion, morality, respect.

Humility, kindness,

And did I say respect?

Those fourth graders also sang “Do the Good You Know” with this advice:

We all have sorrow.  We all have pain.

Sometimes our sunshine turns into rain.

When someone falls right next to you,

Then you must do what you can do.

Do the good you know.  Let compassion show.

You can’t save the world alone, but you can do the good you know.

            In a moment of emotional overload, the wisdom of children, singing, reminding us of all the most important things that truly matter, if we but listen. 

These disciples had had too much.  They’d felt all the feels.  And, now, they just needed a break.  And so they took it.

            Maybe we should also understand Jesus’s conversation with Peter differently than we often do?  Maybe Jesus isn’t shaming Peter.  Maybe Jesus simply wants Peter to realize that it is from an honest embrace of his own vulnerability and his failings that he’s going to be the best and most effective pastor and leader that he can be?

            I’m guessing Jesus was deeply aware of all the feelings that Peter was feeling, and Jesus is reminding him that it is those feelings which give us our power.

            The emotions that overwhelm and overload us are the source of our compassion, our agency, our strength.

            The other serendipity this week was that the next book up on my to-read stack was Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance.   I began reading it on Wednesday while eating lunch at the Crescent Moon, and it was also exactly what I needed in the moment.  It’s like the Spirit knows!

I’m still reading this one so I’m likely to have more insights from it in the future, but early on she writes:

We must see our bodies as a miracle, and a place of reverence where existing in exhaustion is not normal or acceptable.  The beauty of resting knows that we are blessed to have a body, to be chosen to be alive, to breathe, to make choices, and to proclaim that our bodies are our own, is a deep practice in care.  It is the beginning of a revolution, radical, and a resistance.

            One of the many voices this week saying “if you are emotionally overwhelmed, take a break, rest, relax.”  Breathe.  Go listen to birdsong (which the Washington Post recommended this week for its scientifically proven positive effects on mental health).  Taking a break when we are emotionally overloaded is one of the ways we love each other.  One of the ways we get in touch with the divine source of our strength.  Where we can meet Jesus, and find the sustenance we need.

            Rev. Sarah Lund, who spoke at this church many years ago when we hosted that first WISE Conference for mental health, has written a new resource for teens to support their mental and emotional health and well-being.  She entitled it the “Blessed Youth Survival Guide.”  And the prayer it ends with I’ve planned on using in our town hall today, but I realized that the prayer is also the best way to end this sermon on emotional overload:

You are amazing.
You are beautiful.

You are complex (in a good way).

You are a beloved human being.

Your brain is different and good.

The fact that you exist is a miracle and a dream come true.

You are here for a reason.

You may not know your reason yet, but trust me, it is a really good one.

Your life is important.

Getting better takes time.

Be patient and gentle with yourself.

You are more than your disability, disease, illness, or diagnosis.

It’s ok to be different.

It’s ok not to be ok for a while.

Your life matters to me.

Try your best.



Essay on the Freedom of the Will

Essay on the Freedom of the WillEssay on the Freedom of the Will by Arthur Schopenhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though I disagree with Schopenhauer's position on the freedom of the will (basically, that there isn't any), I recommend this essay as a model of fine philosophical writing. Well structured, clearly written, with cogent arguments, and reflecting an incredible breadth of scholarship and reading.

View all my reviews

Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse

<a href="" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px"><img border="0" alt="Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse: Reading the Bible with Survivors" src="" /></a><a href="">Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse: Reading the Bible with Survivors</a> by <a href="">Elaine A. Heath</a><br/>
My rating: <a href="">5 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
This is an excellent book that I highly recommend. Both pastorally helpful and also full of rich interpretations of biblical stories from the perspectives of survivors of sexual abuse. So a helpful book for the preacher as well.
<a href="">View all my reviews</a>

Doubting & Believing

Doubting & Believing

John 20:24-31

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 May 2023

               Normally this story is preached the Sunday after Easter, as that is when it appears in the Revised Common Lectionary—the list of weekly Bible readings that most Mainline Protestant denominations utilize for worship.  It’s a fitting location, as one Sunday we celebrate the resurrection and the next Sunday we are already raising questions and doubts about it.

               This particular year we decided to spread out the resurrection stories in the Gospel of John, giving them closer, more focused attention.  So, here we are on the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide finally getting to this passage.  Throughout this season I’ve focused on the various ways the Risen Jesus is experienced by the various disciples and the effects that his appearances have upon them—Peter and the Beloved Disciple running to see the empty tomb, Mary weeping in the garden, those gathered afraid in the upper room who are then empowered to go forth, and now Thomas, the doubter. 

Thomas is known for doubting, even though Thomas never says that.  He never says he’s skeptical or doubting, he just says he needs empirical proof if he’s going to believe.

And the cool thing is, he gets it.  Jesus does appear, just for Thomas.  And many commentaries focus on this aspect of the story.  Jesus meets us where we are.  Jesus enters into our fear, our questions, our needs, even passes through locked doors, to come to us, to encounter us, to show God’s love and compassion for us.

The result of this appearance is that Thomas believes, and all the disciples believe, and then the author of the Gospel proclaims that all of this has been written so that we might believe.

So, what is being asked of us?  What does it mean to believe?

In my pastoral library is a book entitled The Predicament of Belief which actually tries to give an account of the resurrection that it believes will satisfy a contemporary, rational, scientific mind.  I don’t care for this book.  It just seems wrong-headed to me.  I pulled it down off my shelves again this week and perused it, trying to determine if there is anything useful in it.  I decided there wasn’t, and after a decade of it being in my library, unused, I decided it could be donated to the book sale.

Because I really don’t think the Gospel of John, or our faith, are trying to develop a rational, scientific account of the resurrection.

I much prefer Warren Carter’s commentary on this Gospel and how he describes belief.  Carter is a Professor of the New Testament at the St. Paul School of Theology, and he describes belief, as portrayed in the Gospel of John, this way:

Believing [is] the means whereby humans encounter God’s salvation.  It is the means of participating in God’s work of rescuing the world from its present way of life and transforming it to enact God’s life-giving purposes.

               In other words, belief is about entrusting ourselves, committing ourselves, choosing to join up and participate in something.

               Believing is one of the key themes of the Gospel of John.  The verb appears almost one hundred times in this Gospel.  John never actually uses the noun belief, Carter points out.  He thinks this usage is significant.  He writes, “believing is not static, not an inner possession, not a private disposition.”  What is it instead, then?

               Carter answers, believing “is an activity that constitutes and expresses an identity in an ongoing way of life, an active and continuing commitment.  It has the sense of living faithfully and loyally, of acting with fidelity.”  He adds later that it is an ongoing process, even an “experiential, relational encounter with God.”

               And as a relational, ongoing process, believing, according to Carter, includes “insight, adversity, and social interaction.”  Believing isn’t something we do once and are finished with.  It’s not even something we do alone.  Believing is about participating in the community of God’s mission.

               So, what results for those who believe is a commitment of their life to the realm of God and away from sin, death, and evil.  Believing is about an allegiance to Jesus and the life Jesus modeled.  It is claiming an identity as a disciple of Jesus and taking concrete actions to live out that way of life.  Believing brings with it insights into Jesus and his life-giving purposes, an understanding of ourselves as beloved children of God, and membership in a community of other believers.  SO much more than some rational acknowledgment of a set of propositions.

               And what is it that we are committing and entrusting ourselves to when we believe in Jesus?  According to Carter the answer is that other great theme of the Gospel of John—life.  We are committing ourselves to and entrusting ourselves to the life-giving, life-affirming, life-renewing mission of Jesus Christ.  Symbolized most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

               So, we normally preach this story as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. But theologian Shelly Rambo is critical of this approach.  Instead, Rambo invites us to pay attention to something else in this story.  She invites us into a different reading that focuses instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus.  For isn’t it strange, interesting, even provocative that the risen body of Jesus bears the wounds of the crucifixion?  Wouldn’t we imagine that  a resurrected body is healed of all wounds?  That it is purified, even the ideal version, the “perfect” version?

               But it isn’t.  The body of the resurrected Jesus bears wounds that Jesus even invites Thomas to touch. 

               What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection?  Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch?  And why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?  Or preachers to preach much about it?

               Rambo, in her book Resurrecting Wounds, explores all of these questions and leads us on a fascinating journey through Christian tradition.  Her focus is on how we can continue living beyond trauma.  She invites us to grapple with the questions: When we are wounded, how do we rise again?  How do victims find healing and hope?  How do we bear our physical and emotional wounds into new life? 

               Rambo concludes that we must surface our wounds, we must pay attention to them, acknowledge them, be aware of them.  And then we have to engage with them, but in contexts that are safe and compassionate.  So we need to foster and develop communities where each of us can engage our wounds safely.  The idea, of course, is that the church should be such a community.

               And when we engage our wounds, what need is healing touch from that safe and compassionate community.  And it is through that healing touch that we can integrate our wounds into new life. 

               I believe Shelly Rambo’s reading of this story is an example of what it means to commit and entrust ourselves to the life-giving purposes of God.  The act of believing isn’t about knowledge, but about participating in life. 

And one of the most important ways we can participate in the life-giving purposes of God is to be a community in which people can safely engage with their wounds.  Where people can share their stories and expect compassionate listening instead of a critical or judgmental attitude or unhelpful advice.  Where we each acknowledge our woundedness and vulnerability and our need of each other’s care.  A people who openly explore and share what we need to live well.  And who are committed to developing and strengthening these skills and ridding ourselves of attitudes and actions that are unhelpful.  A place where we can receive a healing touch and rise again into a new life that integrates those wounds.

               I go back to what Warren Carter said believing is:

Believing [is] the means whereby humans encounter God’s salvation.  It is the means of participating in God’s work of rescuing the world from its present way of life and transforming it to enact God’s life-giving purposes.

               So, lets be God’s agents of rescue, a safe and compassionate, believing people, offering salvation to a wounded world.