Harrowing Of Hell
November 5, 2023

Being on the Right Side of History

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Good morning. Welcome to the feast of All Saints. I love this celebration. There are children being baptized today. What a blessing to see the continuity of faith play out through the decision by Will and Bailey, Jeremy and Erica, Kasey and Evan, to name, honor, and give thanks to God, for the ensoulment of Bishop and Marigold and Ella and Clare.

It is my prayer that 100 years from now these four children will have lived into the faith bestowed upon them by their parents and this community; choosing by action to live their livesin harmony with the saints who have gone before them.

The world will need them to be saints, just as the world needs us to be saints,

faithfully living in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. The world is a hot mess, right now, in many ways; turn on the TV, swipe your phone, click on the radio.  I don’t need to tell you.

A thought that often occurs to me as I am bombarded by the news: “Is the person or nation or business or church being spoken of going to land on the right side of history? Is what they are saying or doing today going to prove prescient or moronic?”

Governor George Wallace is my posterchild for this thought exercise.  In my mind’s eye I see him standing in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama proclaiming: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Not the right side of history!

I think it’s good for our spiritual health to ask ourselves every now and then: “Is this stance I’m taking going to fall on the right side of history? Is this person I am supporting politically going to land on the right side of history? Is this diet I am proclaiming, or this economic theory I am espousing, or this workout routine I am evangelizing, or this theology I am prognosticating, or even the church I am worshiping at going to land on the right side of history? Am I placing the big rocks of my life on the right side of history?”  

We have role models for this. They have a title: saint. I don’t think there is a person upon which this title of saint has been bestowed who hasn’t landed on the right side of history. In fact, most of them have earned their saintly wings by standing up against a person, or power, or principality that was at odds with the Kingdom of God. The right side of history will land you on God’s side of history every time.

And if you’re not sure if you’re heading toward the right side of history, let me suggest one filter: ask the simple question: “Who wins if I go this way? Who loses if I go that way?”

And if the answer is that there are winners over there and there are losers over here, then you’re pursuing a course of action that will lead you toward the wrong side of history. Because there are no winners or losers in the Kingdom of God.  Because there are no insiders or outsiders in the Kingdom of God. Everyone is wearing the same robe, the soul robe, the white robe we hear about in the Book of Revelation today.

Now if you’re thinking to yourself: “Preach… winners and losers? What about sports? Doesn’t the Lord love sports? Or at least board games like chess, Go, checkers, Chinese checkers, mahjong? What about video games? The Lord’s got to love video games! Are you saying that the Lord is against these things?”

Yes, I am. No, I am not. It depends.

If your identity is tied up in whether you win or lose, then the Lord actually is against these things. But if you’re playing for sportsmanship, and relationship, and personal self-development, then the Lord is for these things. At their best sports and games aren’t about winning and losing, they’re about relationship, and self-actualization, and community, and fun! It can even be fun when you lose. I should know. I am an expert.

What about politics, Preach? What about democracy? Does that mean our democratic system puts us on the wrong side of history? Not necessarily. Having different political philosophies is good; it allows conversation, self-reflection, consideration, and debate, changing our minds because of a better idea. The democratic system can certainly measure up to the standards of the saints, as long as it earnestly seeks to care for all people under its jurisdiction.

We see the good of democracy play out all over the world; particularly when the process of voting itself is set as a priority for the common good; when the primary concern is participation for every citizen; when every vote has equal value. Democracy, at its best, is about radical equality for all people… it is a vision that has Biblical precedent as we see today.

In the letter from the Apostle John written from an isolated perch on Patmos, we meet one of the greatest visions ever captured in literature…The Book of Revelation. What John sees is a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, every tribe, every people, every language standing before the throne, white robed, peace palms in hand. 

Who are these people? They are the ones who have come out of the greater ordeal… They are the ones who have scrubbed their robes against the big rocks found on God’s side of history; They are the ones washing with the soap suds of the saints who have gone before them. If you don’t know where to find these big rocks; or if you find yourself leaning against a boulder and don’t know whether to push it, or which direction it should roll ask yourself: “Where would Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Desmond Tutu, or Teresa of Avila, or Dorothy Day roll your rock?

Or ask someone closer to home. In 1963 one such saint leaned up against a rock in Seward Park as they sought to buy a piece of property. No big deal, they had plenty of money to do so. And yet, it turns out there were bright red lines that kept them from buying a house because of the color of their skin–lines drawn by people committed to being on the wrong side of history. Clearly, these excluders weren’t familiar with The Book of Revelation chapter 7; because had they been, they would have known that in God’s divine economy everyone has purchasing power.

Instead, these excluders chose to tell lies and believe lies about real estate value, and educational quality, and criminal statistics; lies that ensured they would land on the wrong side of history…and they have. Now their grandchildren have apologized. Is that what any of us want?  To have our grandchildren apologize for us because we chose to land on the wrong side of history?

What does it take to be a saint? Well, it always requires seeing others in their soul robes… no matter who they are, or what they have done. It also may include throwing out the winner-loser paradigm prioritizing instead, a vision of unity as laid out in the Book of Revelation.

We seek to be on the right side of history not so we can be honored, but so, when we meet God face to face we hear: “Well done good and faithful servant.”

That said, every once in a while, someone is blessed to see the world changed because they had the courage to set their shoulder against the rock of injustice and roll it toward the right side of history.

Today we have such a person in our midst, someone who is also celebrated her 100th birthday last week… Mary Henry. She is the one that had the courage to pursue the right side of history against the powers and the principalities of human evil set to thwart her from buying a home in Seward Park. And while there continues to be skirmishes fought, around fair housing practices the rock of redlining has been dislodged, and is slowly rolling, toward the right side of history. Thank you, Mary.

My prayer for these children baptized today is that they will be sitting in church a 100 years from now; as white-robed saints honored because they had put their shoulder against the rock of injustice, pushing it, as Mary has, toward the right side of history.

That is the promise we are all recommitting to, today, in our Baptismal covenant. To stand up against Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness; To stand up against the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy; To root out the sinful desires that draw us away from God.

That is our calling as Christians, and my prayer for these children, and that is my prayer for you…to be a saint (maybe a little bit)…like Mary.