Harrowing Of Hell
October 3, 2021

Battle for Christianity – Annual Appeal

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I am so glad to be here with you today. I just returned from a board meeting for the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Atlanta, and then flew to Essex Connecticut where I preached at Kate Wesch’s installation as Rector at Saint John’s Church. Incidentally, Kate is doing very well, as is her family, and they all send their love.

I got home late Friday night, and woke up Saturday morning to rewrite my sermon for today. The last time I rewrote a sermon on Saturday was after Sandy Hook. I think I just heard Jad flip off the live stream, and my editor passed out in the pews.

Anyway, I felt compelled, to share with you experiences I have had over the last four days; my spirit has been convicted. We have a particular kind of Christianity we practice here at Epiphany that needs to be talked about, defended, and shared because if we do not, then we have acquiesced to what I have witnessed these past few days; a Christianity that is a tribal, anti-intellectual, aggressive perversion of the faith, that will not only repel thoughtful, curious people, but dishonor patterns and revelations natural to the Kingdom of God.

The kind of Christianity we practice at Epiphany has it’s back up against the wall. While we are not the only bulwark against Christian pugilism, we are certainly an outpost that honors the love, unity, beauty, inclusion, and connectedness articulated and modeled by Jesus Christ.         

This wasn’t the topic I plan to talk about the first Sunday of our annual appeal, but it is what the Holy Spirit stitched up. So let me tell you what happened.

I get on the airplane, and I am surprised to see that I have a middle seat. Ugh, how did I make that mistake? As I scooch into my seat, I barely brush up against the woman by the window. She is on the telephone and makes a nasty comment about me to the person she was talking to. I pretended not to hear.

Shortly thereafter I see her struggling to plug in her phone cord. So, I think to myself, I could just ignore her, or I could help her out.  WWJD? After she gives up, but before she put away the cord, I offered to plug it in. She says it doesn’t fit, but I encourage her to let me try anyway. Of course it fits. I put my headphones back on and begin to edit to the sermon I’m not giving today.

Somehow, four hours later, I find myself in a conversation with this woman. She is now much nicer to me. Turns out she is from Mississippi and likes to talk. She starts off by telling me how she doesn’t believe in wearing masks, and in Mississippi only black people wear masks. She also doesn’t believe in vaccines, though she didn’t learn the truth until after she had been vaccinated. And when she did, she cried for days. But she’s a Christian, so neither the vaccine nor COVID-19 can affect her.

There is a battle, she continued, between good and evil, where Satan is spreading the vaccine, as a way of controlling people, and stealing their freedom… and it’s all right there in the Bible. That is when I decided it was worth investing in this conversation. I could hear my wife’s voice in the back of my mind saying: “This is a moment to get curious.” I decided that patience and connection we’re going to be my spiritual allies. Knowing I wasn’t going to change her mind, I sought to understand a perspective that I almost never hear. I continued, “I know a little bit about the Bible; where does this Satan battle begins?”  “Right at the beginning,” she announced. That is when I knew she didn’t know her Bible.

Turns out she left her parish because they were not teaching the truth and now attends a congregation online. That lead to a very interesting conversation, and, I might add a bit of a friendship and warm feelings.

Here are my two takeaways:

  • We need to engage illiterate Christianity with patience and toward connection;
  • This means increasing our own the biblical literacy. If we were uncertain about the Bible way may have acquiesced to the woman’s assertion about Satan, and thus reinforced her misconception, while possibly diminishing our own view of scripture.

Or if we weren’t a Christian at all, this conversation could have easily reinforced an opinion that Christianity is whack-a-doodle. And Christianity has real answers to real world issues that are both sublime and effective, and can be discerned in that space between the ancient text and our daily lives. I’ll come back to this idea in a bit.  

OK, so now I’m flying home from Atlanta to Seattle Friday evening. I’m blessed to get on an earlier flight, but the price I paid is another middle seat. So, now I’m working desperately on my sermon for this coming Sunday that I don’t give. I have the paper text in front of me on the precarious tray table and I’m going through it with a pencil crossing things out and adding things. I am working on the Genesis 2 story of the man and the rib and the woman.

And I’m at the point in the sermon that references “the man” that God made, working on God’s behalf to name and care for all of the animals in the garden. The translation of “the man” is Adama, which is a gender-neutral word meaning “earth creature.” Now within the context of the story the creature being gender neutral makes sense. In the garden of Eden there would have been no need for reproduction because God makes all things, and besides, there was no death, not yet at least. Both death and childbirth came when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Genesis chapter 3.

Then I get a tap on my arm. The person to my right, a man probably about my age, has his phone open with the Bible on it. He had been reading my sermon and saw the part about there being no need for reproduction in the Garden of Eden. He had highlighted Genesis 1:28, which reads: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; and fill the earth and subdue it.’”

It takes me a minute to realize what was happening, and when I do my annoyance switch gets flipped. I respond, “I see that, but I’m writing about the other creation story. You know there are two creation stories. He said, “There’s only one story,” and he continues, “Every word of the Bible is true.”  I reply, “Yes, depending on your view of truth, but just as there are four Gospel stories, and multiple Epistles, just like there are the Chronicles and the Kings, telling the same story in the Old Testament, so are there two creation narratives. “And here is why,” I continued rather assertively, “It has to do with the royal priesthood of humanity, and how we are called to be both caretakers, Genesis 2 story, and High Priests, Genesis 1 story.”

I continue in monologue blah blah blah blah blah. And at this point I realized I had shut him down, and I backed off, not feeling particularly good about myself.

I apologized for being so assertive, to which he responded: “That is what you have to do in defense of what you believe.” I asked him what he thought, to which he responded, rather graciously I might add, “We were probably too far apart to have much of a conversation.”  The small talk then quickly dissipated.

Here I am with my second encounter of illiterate Christianity. This time Christianity was wielded as an uninvited cudgel to codify opinion in a way that stultifies, rather than expands and reveals the Kingdom of God.

God is not static. Revelation continues to happen in that space where the ancient text meets our current life. God is not done with this world, and as God’s stewards, neither are we. We can continue to learn new things from an old book. If someone does not know much about Christianity, and meets the man of fundamentalism, they might’ve come away from a conversation thinking rather poorly about Christianity. Which is a terrible shame, because this is an incredible religion; deep and rich and thoughtful revealing patterns of understanding that can move us toward a better world; towards God’s vision for this creation.

And I fear we are at risk of abdicating the beauty and effectiveness of Christianity to an inarticulate fundamentalism that is hijacking the mission and turning off people who otherwise might find Christianity meaningful and helpful.

We are called to be a people that can patiently meet or assertively pushback on thin, thoughtless, divisive, fundamental misinterpretation of Christianity. And this place, this church, Epiphany is our training grounds. We now have the capacity, because of your support, to share Epiphany Christianity online through sermons, and Bible studies, and classes, and hopefully, soon, podcasts.                    

Finally, I do want to say that Epiphany Christianity is not monolithic. We have and should have a broad range of understanding of Jesus, because it is in the range that the new revelation most readily emerges. What we do have in common, however, is worship that nurtures and refreshes the soul. That is what draws us together soul to soul, Sunday after Sunday, knowing that God is not static, and God is not done, and neither are we.

Consider this on the first day of our annual appeal.