Harrowing Of Hell
June 21, 2020


The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I wrote this sermon while out at our place in Montana. I caught a huge fish, that I’d like to tell you about today, but it seems there are more important things to say.

Though I was glad to be in Montana; I usually go out in early May with my prayer group from Seminary. We have been doing so for about 15 years. A few years ago, two of them got out there a day before I did,       so I recommended a place for dinner. After I arrived, I asked them how they liked it? They looked at me like I was nuts.  “Are you kidding?” one of them replied, “we didn’t go in there! Do you think we are crazy?”

Now at that moment I was feeling crazy.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  He replied: “There were no windows in the place. There was a chain hanging from the door.” And as he is saying this, I’m thinking, “And… so?” And he then did this (air point to myself and someone else), and he looked at me, and said: “Look at us.” Then it hit me. He was Haitian, and my other friend Puerto Rican… no windows, a chain on the door.

These are worldly men. They are very well-educated men. They are brave men and accomplished men. And while, undoubtedly, nothing would have happened to them, and they would acknowledge this, still, they have been trained by experience and history to know that as quickly as a glance can fall, or a leg brush up against a chair, in the heart of a hater, their life could be at risk.

And none of that occurred to me because it is not my history. It occurs to my friends because it is their history. History matters, and experience has taught them to not tempt history if they do not have to.

These men are also my very best friends in the whole world. No doubt about it. They know me better than anyone knows me; and, as friends, they are loving and supportive, and as friends they have also said things to me about me that make me uncomfortable. They have said things to me about advantages that have accrued to me because of the context of my birth and the color of my skin; and that is always hard to hear because I like to think my achievement is about me, and my skill and hard work and winning personality…and in some measure it might be, but in many ways it is not. And that is uncomfortable to hear.

I do not like being uncomfortable. When I ski, I use hand warmers. When I fly I sit in Comfort Plus, when possible, and I use the Fast Pass lane at the airport. I find leather seats in my cars more comfortable than cloth seats. I like hot showers. I avoid red onions because they make me uncomfortable at night. I am an American, I am an adult, I have gotten to a place in my life where I deserve to be comfortable.

But let me say something to those of you who know comfort like I know comfort… get ready, we are entering into a very uncomfortable age. And if you are like me, your impulse will be to seek comfort when discomfort sets upon you. You may dodge and defend. I know, I do. You may find supportive voices that lash out at people that speak of your privilege; voices that reinforce your right to be comfortable. I know, because I sometimes seek those voices as well.

You may be tempted to break relationship with those who call out your comfort and the reality of other people’s discomfort; but, I will not break relationship when that happens, nor will you, because the discomfort we feel is what will give us the capacity to participate the healing power of Jesus in the world. (repeat) Because the discomfort we feel is what will give us the capacity to participate the healing power of Jesus in the world.

Your discomfort will give you insight into the lives of those who avoid a restaurant with no windows in a small town. And while, at least for me, my discomfort will never equal the discomfort that people of color know in the regular routine of their lives; my discomfort, at the very least, is something I can acknowledge, and own, and sit with, without breaking relationship, and so can you .After all, in the Kingdom of God, relationship is primary.

Here is what I want to say to you today… I love you. I know you, and you can trust me with this conversation. I am here to accompany you on this journey of massive social change. I am here for you and with you, but, not to assuage the discomfort, nor to make it all better, or go away; but to be your spiritual leader through the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.  And there will be many, but, you were made for this time, and you have everything you need to endure the discomfort, because you are Christians, and you are followers of Jesus, and God has placed you here, at this time, and in this city, and at this church, to be part of the sturdy bridge from the world we inherited to the world that God dreams about. God’s will cannot be thwarted.

What I commit to you in this time of massive social change is to preach the Gospel. We recently did a sermon survey, and what I heard back from many of you is that you love that Ruth Anne and I stick to the Gospel, and avoid “politics.” And that is not going to change.

So, let me quote Jesus: “…Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; rather fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Those are not words of comfort, but they are Jesus’ words. You may or may not consider these political, but they are Jesus’ words, so, we must contend with them, and wrestle with them, as we do with all Jesus’ words, and ask what they mean to us, in our lives, and in this world, as it is, right here and right now.

What does this Gospel teach us? Well, like with all Gospel teachings, many things; but where it meets us now is in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and the massive response to this murder throughout the United States.  Surprise, horror, revulsion, and cries for change fill the skies; and yet, as you know, many have been whispering of the horror and revulsion and calling for change for decades…. What had been said in the dark, is being told in the light; and what was heard as a whisper, is being proclaimed from the housetops.

And if we believe the Gospel and we believe Jesus then we should fear not those who kill the body, rather we should fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” God is alive in this cultural shift. God has pointed this out to us during this time of the Great Timeout. And God will not be thwarted, and we should take heed.

My calling as your priest is to prepare you to respond to Jesus’ words. My passion as your priest is to set the words of Jesus in the context of your life, in the context of this time. My mission as your priest is to lead you and this great congregation toward God’s dream for this world.

Jesus is very clear in his Gospel message today: Fear God. Respect God. Think of God. Put God first. And when we do, I promise you (in fact I guarantee you), that though there will be temptation to break relationships, we will not do so even when we are feeling uncomfortable; because in the Kingdom of God, relationship is primary.

And I’ll go further by saying in time, the discomfort caused by Jesus’ words, will turn our hearts soft, and joy will enter in a way that takes us by surprise. But you have to trust me on this.

To my siblings in Christ who find their history rooted in Europe – Jesus commands us to talk about what is going on, even when it makes us uncomfortable. We need to talk about this – BECAUSE it makes us uncomfortable. I know many of you have been at this work a long time.  Thank you. For me, the work ahead happens through prayer, education, and conversation. Prayer I’ve written about. Education you know about. Conversation we are all about; And a new conversation beginning here at Epiphany, curated by the National Church, is called Sacred Ground. Over 60 people have signed up for it. Well done Epiphany.

To my siblings in Christ, who find their history rooted in Africa, I am here for you. You know this by now, I hope. And you also know, because you know me, I may say the wrong thing, and I may hit the wrong note, and I certainly may say I understand something when it is clear to you that I do not. You have forgiven me more than once, I thank you. I have more work to do, and I am committed to it; through prayer, education and conversation.

To my Epiphany family; this is the Age of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is on the move. I am committed to Jesus and being his follower. I am committed to serving Epiphany through the days and years ahead; through the discomfort, for as long as it lasts, to ensure we are a beacon on a hill, that we live toward a new heaven and a new earth, that we honor God by being the people God imagined we could be when God birthed us into this world, at this time, and in this city, and at this church to be part of the sturdy bridge from the world we inherited to the world that God dreams about.

God’s will cannot be thwarted; and God loves you, and God intends for us to love all of God’s people, to be in relationship together, even when we feel uncomfortable.