Harrowing Of Hell
November 13, 2016

Bright Light Dark World

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

The prophet Isaiah frames our reality this morning. It is God who saves US. It is God who saves US. WE will trust in God and not be afraid. For God is OUR strong hold and OUR sure defense. And God will be OUR savior.

We have a new President of the United States, and some of us are ebullient and some of us are deeply shaken, but the President is not God, and the President is not a god, and no President that was or is or is to come will ever be our Savior. Jesus is our Savior, and Jesus alone. The church exists to proclaim this reality. At Epiphany we seek to live it out.  In a time of distraction, it is easy to forget what that means, so let me remind you, it is simple and clear: The Kingdom of God is here, and accessible to everyone. The Kingdom of God, where God reigns and God rules, is here, right here, this near, and is accessible to everyone.

So what does that mean to you and me? It starts with choice, of course. God doesn’t make us do anything. But God does have hopes for us, articulated through the person of Jesus. Kate touched upon one of the great hopes in her sermon last Sunday: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To which you may recall the lawyer asked Jesus:  “And who is my neighbor?” Today let me remind you… Your neighbor is the person next to you in the pew.  You see a church is like a gym; at a gym we work to strengthen our bodies, at a church we work to strengthen our spirits.

Some of you may know I am runner, of sorts, actually more of a jogger. And what my daily jog makes me acutely aware of is that, despite my determination to stay fit, healthy and young, the battle I am waging is a losing one.  My knees hurt and my lungs burn and I know, despite my denial, that aging will prevail. But strengthening the spirit works on the opposite trajectory. As the trend line of the body slopes down, the spirit can, if tended, trend up and up and up. I remember my dear friend Barbara Himmelman who died this year. Some of you knew her. She was a parishioner at this church prior to the arrival of the great Dr. Elmer Christie in 1939.

When I’d visit her, inevitably she would be laying in her bed. The room would be quiet: no radio or TV.  I’d ask her what she was doing, and the answer was always the same… “I’m praying” or “I’m singing a hymn in my heart that I learned as a child.” The first time we met, before I left, I asked if we could pray together. She said: “yes.”  We held hands and I did what I do, I am a trained professional, I prayed.  And when I finished my eloquent prayer, she held firm to my hands, and then spoke to God. It was the spiritual equivalent to my lifting weights with Marshawn Lynch.

That person in the pew next to you is your workout partner. That is the person God has given you to love as your neighbor. When God thought about you before the beginning of time, God decided you should be born into this world at this particular point in history. This is where you were meant to be by God, and that is true for your neighbor as well. Your neighbor isn’t in Mississippi, or Texas, or Illinois, or Washington DC; your neighbor is right here, very near, sitting with you in the Kingdom of God.

I am not sure what to do about this divided nation. I am not sure how to knit us into a more perfect union. I don’t know what it means to heal as a country or how to better understand the pain and anger that has been lit in the hearts of so many people during this Presidential election. But I do know where I am right now and where you are right now.  And so I ask, “Will you love your neighbor as yourself?”  I know it is tempting to want to think of our neighbor as somebody else, somebody other, somebody far away. But the reality is that our neighbor is the person we are next to at any given time. Can you love that person?

On a regular basis people come to my office to talk, and I’m glad for it. And the regular issue I hear is that they are having a problem with this person or that person. And the problem person, it always seems, is a neighbor of sorts: a child, or a relative, or a spouse, or a colleague, or a parishioner in the pews. And my advice is always the same: work on your spirit first, and that will change the relationship. My favorite metaphor is Moving Furniture. Working on your spirit is like moving the furniture in your living-room. Everyone will walk differently, whether they want to or not. They might not even notice the furniture has been moved, but they will walk differently. Or it’s like when someone greets you with a robust “Hello.” If you whisper your respond they will whisper back, without really even noticing. We begin loving our neighbor by working on the fitness of our spirit. We know that while the trend line of our body slops down, the strength of our spirit can go up and up and up, if we tend to it.

This up, up, up trajectory works on the principle of indirection. Let me explain. As we seek to grow up in our spirit through the spiritual exercises of weekly worship, daily prayer, Sabbath, silence, solitude, study, fasting, and tithing, to name a few; as we seek to grow up in our spirit we become, whether we intend to or not, kind, charitable, honest and forgiving people. Not because we are seeking to be like that, rather kindness and charity and honesty and forgiveness are secondary effects of the life lived seeking first the Kingdom of God.

And when we are working out, as we are strengthening our hearts, as we are growing in the spirit, as we are moving the furniture, as we are whispering hello, we act, whether we want to or not, as a light on a hill, as a lamp on a stand, as a beacon of guidance, showing our neighbor by our actions that: The Kingdom of God is here, it is near, and it is accessible to everyone. We live that truth, by loving our neighbor as our self.

That is what the church was founded to do, which is why Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Community church in Chicago says: “The neighborhood church is the hope of the world.” I believe that with all of my heart, but I like to say it this way: you and your neighbor, here in this church, are the hope of the world. Every generation has to re-articulate what it means to be church in the context of their times. The followers of Jesus, from the very earliest days, irrespective of what Government was in power, sought first the Kingdom of God. And when the Government was noble and charitable, all was well. But when the Government was callous and tyrannical then seeking first the Kingdom of God became a way of life that spoke truth to power. Loving your neighbor is a radical challenge to any Government that seeks to exert power through division, exclusion, and deprivation. Fear, remember, is the opposite of love.

Next Sunday is in-gathering Sunday at Epiphany. It is when we make a financial commitment to this church. Between today and when you make your pledge think deeply about why this church matters in the context of our times. I believe this country is the greatest country on earth, and I respect and uphold our election processes and outcomes. But let me say this: What they, and here I mean Clinton or Trump, have to offer the world pales in comparison to what Jesus offers the world.

The neighborhood church is the hope of the world. We are an outcropping of the Kingdom of God, committed to following Jesus. What that looks like is light in the darkness, and the darker the room the brighter the light.

I’m not here today to make any sort of judgment on the darkness of these days. I am only here to remind us that Epiphany is the place we come to fuel our lamps. We were set here by God, in the context of these times, to be a lamp on a stand set high on a hill. Be a bright light. That is God’s intent for your life. Hear me when I say to you, you were made for this age. You were made to have impact in the world by seeking first the Kingdom of God.

You are a light to enlighten your neighbor by the love you show them. And when you are shining your brightest, as the scripture says, you are perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.

Let me say one final thing: as a beacon of hope in the world, be kind to one another. Listen to your neighbor. Let kindness and empathy be your watchwords. Don’t seek the last word. Let your opinions fall silence in the face of what your neighbor needs to say. Be gracious, so, by your example, they may know what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself. And maybe that will open to them the reality that the Kingdom of God is here, very near and available to all people.


Sermon Reflection Questions

  1. Make a list of your neighbors. How could you bring joy into the life of someone on that list?
  1. The spiritual disciplines at Epiphany involve focusing on your spiritual life, with the secondary benefit of becoming kinder, more charitable, honest and forgiving. What might you commit to doing in the season of Advent to move forward on your spiritual journey?
  1. How does Epiphany act as the hope of the world? What role do you play in that?
  1. As you reflect on Epiphany’s In-gathering on Nov. 20th, how does your pledge reflect your commitment to this church, and the abundance God has brought to your life?