Harrowing Of Hell
January 26, 2014


Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Good morning, thanks for coming to the annual meeting. Some of you may be expecting a State of Epiphany address this morning. You might have come anticipating I’d speak about the successful 100 year building campaign and the time frame for the restoration and renovation of the buildings and grounds. You might have come anticipating I’d talk about the new direction we are moving with children and youth or that I’d unfold our concept of the Epiphany Parish Seminary that the +TEC committee is working on. There’s more as well, this place is hopping and if you want to hear about these things please stay around for the conversation in the Great Hall after the service. 

But this year I’m passing on the State of the Parish address, because I can do that next year and the year after and the year after that.  The annual meeting, after all, is an annual thing and I hope to be here for many, many more. This year we have a unique event in the life of our city that is just too good to pass up – the Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl. And while that, in and of itself, may not be enough grist for the sermon mill, it is when you have a corner back named Richard Sherman. 

Today’s sermon is about humility in an age of Reformation. Mr. Sherman is my avenue in, that’s all. The point I hope to expound upon is the tension, that marvelous, expanding tension that exists between being grounded in God and being inspired by God. Humility is the word and the way in which this happens. It is the word that captures the pulling sensation that exists between being grounded in the earth and reaching for the stars. This is humility.

I consider humility a bellwether virtue in guiding us through an age of Reformation. So today I’ll talk about the age of Reformation in which we stand and humility as a virtue, and what it is when it is grounded and what it is when it is set adrift. Mr. Sherman will help us out along the way. If you do not know who he is, I’m surprised. Richard Sherman is a 25 year old who plays football in the NFL. He grew up in Watts, went to Stanford, and is the gentleman who forced a San Francisco 49ers turnover with 22 seconds left in the football game last Sunday. This gave the Seahawks the victory that sends them to the Super Bowl, February 2, after church. Seconds after the game, still vibrating with adrenaline, Mr. Sherman made some condescending remarks about the wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, whom he had been covering most of the game.  The press and bloggers have been having a field day ever since. So there is a little background on Mr. Sherman.  He’ll show up again later in this sermon. Now I want to return to the idea of our living in an age of Reformation. I do so because to know where we are as a culture is important in helping us understand our mission as a church.

G.K. Chesterton made the observation in his book, Orthodoxy, “that when the moors of a culture get cast off their pillars, as they are each time a society undergoes a Reformation, both vices and virtues are set adrift, and both go ‘mad’ as they wander in isolation.” (26, para)  Let’s examine this quote for a minute.  Vices gone mad and disconnected to wander in isolation remain vices. Virtues gone mad, and disconnected from their source, become impotent like a squirt-gun used to put out a fire. In other words, a virtue not connected to a greater source or, to use Chesterton’s language, not moored to something larger than itself, is nothing more than driftwood as a life raft on the open sea. It is what the virtue is connected to that gives it value and in the midst of a Reformation that is what is up for grabs.

The question a society puts on the table during a Reformation is this, “what are we connected to? Are we connected to education, to a nation, to a philosophy, to biology, to technology? Are we connected to faith, hope, love and charity, to morality? Are we connected to humility or to football? Whenever a society asks the question, “What are we connected to?” it is asking a question about God.

In the 16th century the question was, are we connected to God through the Church, by its hierarchy and the Pope? Or could the connection be through scripture alone, Sola Scriptura? This caused wars and the restructuring of nation states, and all sorts of migration and upheaval and anxiety. And in the pursuit of this question, great discoveries were made as well. It was the age of the printing press and the advent of science.

We live in an age of great progress and discovery. We live in an age of Reformation and the question, “what we are connected to?” is on the table. In the West we ask, “Is there a God?” In the East the question is, “Which of the tribes of Mohammed gets to decide about God?” And there are wars and restructuring of nation states and all sorts of migration and upheaval and anxiety. When what we are connected to is uncertain anxiety runs ramped and often gets piled upon hapless victims like poor Mr. Sherman.

In the First Letter of Peter we hear today, we are called to use this anxiety to bore down in our relationship with God. It reads, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you…and humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that God may exalt you (lift you up) in due time.” And here is where we return to that marvelous tension that exists between being grounded in God and being inspired by God.

Humility is the word and the way in which this happens. It is the word that captures the tension that exists between being grounded on the earth and reaching for the stars. If we are not grounded we are set adrift. Humility in Greek is tapeinos, which means “a deep sense of one’s smallness.” Humility to the Greeks was a matter of perspective. What makes a building tall, for example, is the fact that it is bigger than we are. GK Chesterton makes the same point this way, “if humanity is to make this world great, they must do so from a perspective of smallness.” Smallness inspires to greatness, through the presence of great things and great people. (26, para) 

The Latin’s saw the word humble from a slightly point of view. It comes from their root word ‘humus’ which means “from the ground.” This is a definition that links us back to the beginning of the Bible. The original word for human kind, after all was adama, meaning earth being, or earthly animal, or dirt creature. And God breathed ruach, the breath of life, into this dirt creature and our spirits were inspired and our souls animated. The breath of God lifted the dirt creature from the ground, and in doing so filled it with tension, being both connected and lifted at the same time.

We are stretched from the earth to the stars. After all, God said to Abraham, “Look to the stars! My covenant with you is up there,” and still you will remain moored to the ground, adama, dirt creature. Humility is the virtue that stretches us to the skies, only because we are deeply connected to the ground. And during a time of Reformation knowing what we are grounded to and lifted toward matters. First Peter reminds us that “in the eternal glory of Christ is our support and strength and establishment.”  Humility connected becomes a gracious virtue that goads us to stretch a little farther, to endure a bit longer, to pursue with greater vigor, to reach our hands higher like Mr. Sherman did when he tipped that ball away from Mr. Crabtree with 22 seconds left. He reached his hands into the air and freeze-frame, the picture of humility, a moment in the stars given by the grace of God and in partnership, not isolation, in partnership with Mr. Crabtree.

Were it not for Mr. Crabtree, Mr. Sherman would never have reached this height of glory. Mr. Crabtree, in his own greatness as a wide receiver, pushed Mr. Sherman toward the stars. Mr. Sherman owes his humble, heartfelt thanks to Mr. Crabtree and that may well happen, it may well have happened, we don’t know.

Community, at its best, reminds us what our virtues are connected to and community, at its best,pushes us to our most inspired heights. We know the power of our virtues only because we know their connection and connectedness. And this is helpful in reducing anxiety during a time of Reformation. Which, I suppose brings us back to our Annual Meeting and our role as a church. It is simply to remain a place where the question, “What are we connected to?” is authentically wrestled with in a way that stretches us into a posture of humility. Here we are grounded so we can reach for the stars.