Harrowing Of Hell
March 17, 2024

How to Glorify God: Negative x Negative = Positive

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Sometimes we have to go through a bad place to get to a better place. And that’s what I want to talk about today. Sometimes we have to run the rough waters to get to the best fishing hole…to use a river metaphor, (sitting backwards in a canoe).

I don’t know why it is the case that sometimes we have to go through a bad place to get to a better place, but it just seems to be the case; almost a universal principle, which would indicate that somehow it is woven into the fabric of creation. And yet, if that is the case, then it makes me wonder about God. I mean, I believe that God is a loving God, and love is always predisposed to the best life for each person which makes the idea of moving through a tough place to get to a better place a conundrum in the Kingdom of God.

And so, maybe we’ll just have to agree today to sit with the tension that even in a creation made by a loving God, with love, so love can be known, sometimes we have to go through a bad place to get to a better place.

Sadly, I’m not a good enough theologian to get to the back side of this mystery. I’m just a Jesus follower and Jesus gives us enough to know how to live in a world where sometimes we have to go through the bad thing to get to the better thing. That’s what the Gospel is about today, which is a great coincidence given that that’s what my sermon is about.

Jesus and his disciples are in Bethsaida in Galilee. Some Greeks are there, and they want to see Jesus. So, Philip and Andrew went and told to Jesus. To which he replied: “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn12:25).

Falling and dying in this parable sort of remind me of elementary school math, where I learned that a negative x a negative = a positive. That’s how one grain of wheat becomes many grains of wheat. It falls… terrifying – negative. It dies… incomprehensible – negative. And something better is born… something awesome – positive. That’s the math.

The bad thing, the falling if you will, that Jesus is experiencing in the Gospel is a world that has rejected his message that the Kingdom of God is here, right here, this near, closer than an electron to a proton. That God is present, with each person in our practical living, in our moving, in our breathing. That God is in that space in between, holding all things together. That’s the Kingdom of God message– and the bad news is that it was not heard by the thousands of people that Jesus encountered during his three-year teaching spree.

Jesus finds himself falling, and he knows he is going to die as well. A negative x a negative. And it turns out he’s like me, in that he doesn’t like falling, and he’s not thrilled at the prospect of dying. He is human, like us. And so, he goes and prays. He gets down on his knees and says as I would say: “Father save me from this hour.” And then, as his prayer continues, he seems to move to a new place, a more familiar space; arriving at that singular, solitary place deep within himself, a cavern where he can sit on a cool rock dangling his feet into the underground tributary of his soul.

As Ilia Delio writes in her book Re-enchanting the Earth: “Since the soul has the imprint of God within it, it has the capacity to return to God by awakening to its true nature through contemplation” (pg. 38). Jesus’ soul pours into God in the exact same way ours does. We are all tributaries connected to the river of God. And what we find as we sit with our feet dangling in the underground tributary of our soul is an immutable connection to God a connection that gives us an unshakable confidence that God is not only with us, but will lead us to a better place.

Now I say that, and since I know you, I suspect what might be running through your mind are all of the bad, unresolvable things in your life, or in the world writ large. And, to that, I’ll say: “yes,” there are unresolvable things, there is evil slinking around the world; and yet, I’ll also want to remind us what Isaiah wrote: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9).

God has a different timeline. God has a different point of view. And Jesus knows how to connect to this perspective in an instant, because of his lifelong habit of prayer. In an instant he can arrive at the running waters of his soul which enable him to say: “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name” (Jn 12:27).

And we can do the same. We can train to close the gap in an instant between our fear and anxiety and anger and insecurity and shame and the cool, connecting, eternal, loving tributaries of our souls. Indeed, it is the only place we can go when we are falling, when we are dying, when we are going through a tough place, a tight space that empowers us to still proclaim: “Father, glorify your name.”

Now what does that mean to glorify God? Well, when I think about glorifying God I think about three things:
1) Fighting the good fight;
2) Surrendering to God;
3) and giving thanks to God.

Let’s look at all three. It begins by fighting the good fight, which means employing our talents and resources to push back against whatever seems to be closing in on us. To never give up until we must. To give it our all until it’s over. That’s number one – using our skills, talents, and resources to push back against what is pushing in on us.

The second is to surrender to God, and to go to that place where we dangle our feet in the tributary of our souls. To sit on the cool rock within the deep cavern of our most beautiful selves, trusting in God. And we can do these two things, fight the good fight and go to our soul at the same time, incidentally.

And finally, we give thanks to God. Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude. And this too can happen as we sit with our soul and fight the good fight. That’s how we glorify God. Let me give you an example.

In 1996 and I was the General Manager of a brand new factory in Streetsboro, Ohio. We were setting it up to be a sub-supplier to three other factories within the by Cleveland Steel Container group. I’d been hired as the General Manager to do this work. It was my first time stepping into such a significant operational role within a factory, and I was ready…29 years old and master of my universe. It was hard work. It was super hard work. And some of it I knew how to do, and a lot of it I didn’t know how to do, particularly around the mechanics of the machines that we are putting into place. Never been one of my strengths, and I had a sense that this wasn’t a perfect fit for me, and I had a sense that others had that sense as well. It was a tight space.

So, I worked harder. I often stayed at the factor for days on end. I doubled down on doing what I was doing. Including prayer. I had an active prayer life even then. After about 13 months the owner, my boss, fired me.

And that was hard. There was a lot about that I didn’t like. I remember going home that evening. Kristin was on-call at the hospital. I sat in the dark there, by myself and it felt like I was on a river, tossed out of my canoe, so to speak, and floating in fast moving water.

So, I did what you’re supposed to do. I rolled over onto my back, let the life preserver keep me afloat, turned my feet downriver, and looked up at the sky…talking to God. I just floated there, upon the river of my soul.

Then that Sunday I went to church and I gave thanks to God. With tears in my eyes, with great disappointment in my heart, maybe ever shame, I gave thanks to God. I knew where to go, to the table, to the sacred meal, to the bread and wine that nourishes my soul. Gratitude spilled forth.

It was a bad thing, for me, working in that plant. It wasn’t the right fit. I knew it, and I wouldn’t admit it. And then I got fired. It was a negative x a negative, and it drew me closer to God; a positive indeed. It eventually cast me into a career that is a better fit, so I say. I’d never be a priest if I had not been fired from CSC.

Sometimes we have to go through the bad thing to get to the better thing. Sometimes there is the negative of falling, and the negative of dying, that are multiplied together to reveal a new thing, a better thing.

And all we can do in the face of those tight places, when we find ourselves in them, is to fight the good fight; to seek the river of our soul; and worship God with grateful hearts. In this way, we are empowered to say, even in the midst of the falling, even in the midst of the dying, “Father glorify your name.”

And if we do and then listen I can assure you, we will hear, “I’ve glorified your name, and I will glorify it again.”