Harrowing Of Hell
May 3, 2020

In the Vestibule

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I want to begin by re-quoting some of the 1st Letter from Peter we hear today: “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly…For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Pet 2:19-21). How poignant and timely are these words…and yet problematic and particularly uninspiring at least to me. 

We may be followers of Jesus, there may even be moments when we choose to follow in his footsteps, but the suffering we are enduring today, this came upon us; it was not chosen by us. In some ways this pandemic was almost imposed upon us. That is my opinion, and if I sound mad, that is because I’m mad about that.

Maybe some of you are mad about how this whole crisis unfolded as well. We may blame different people, but I am sure that we can agree that this pandemic was not of our choosing, and that things could have been done differently to diminish its impact.

And maybe you have said, or at least thought, at least I have, that if I were the king of the world, this would not have unfolded this way. But it turns out, as you may have noticed, I am not the king of the world. I am just a guy, like you, trapped by a stay-at-home order, stuck behind a mask, and doing my best (which is often not that great) of social distancing.

And this is all hard to admit because last week I preached about how we are not supposed to blame anyone, and here I am playing the blame game, even though I also really do believe everyone is a WOW! And I believe that, and I am still mad… Umm, umm: That is what it means to be human.

But we are also Americans and we don’t like limitations put upon us. We don’t like being told what to do. We don’t like our freedom being impinged upon. “We are for virtue, liberty, independence;“ “Our liberties we prize;” “We live free or die.” If those sound like State mottos to you, they are. Maybe you know which ones (New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Iowa).

Freedom. Independence. “Don’t tread on me!” That is the American way. It’s been a part of our culture for almost 250 years…at least some of our cultures. At least my culture. I mean, truth is, things haven’t always been equal for everyone;and this coronavirus is calling out that reality. COVID is an equal opportunity disease targeting special interest groups:from those suffering with mental illness and underlying health conditions,to the elderly,to the homeless, to first responders, and those asked to keep our critical infrastructure up and running. While COVID will attack anyone who gets in its way; the reality is some groups are more in its way than others.

And yet, while inequalities and divisions are being highlighted by the virus; it is also reminding us that we are all in this together.Poll after poll shows that regarding all things corona, America is more united that it has been since 9/11. Here we are, together, waiting for it to go away.Some of us are praying, I hope, and if you are, keep at it.And a dedicated few of you are there in the trenches developing vaccines, or inserting breathing tubes, or driving buses, or delivering packages. Thank you.

But wherever you are, and whatever you are doing during this time of corona, we are all in the same waiting room, the same vestibule, hand on the doorknob, ready to walk into a better future. I borrow this vestibule imagery from today’s Gospel. We hear the word “gate” used a few times. In Greek it is thyra which means a waiting room. We learn in the Gospel that the vestibule is both something that Jesus leads us through, and a thing that Jesus is, as in: he is the waiting room itself. So, here we are in the vestibule, and we are being guided through the vestibule toward a door, that will be opened at some point to a new future.

We can follow whomever we like into that future, but I want it to be Jesus, because Jesus knows us by name. There are other shepherds. They are thieves and bandits. They are hired hands. They are in it for the money, they are in it for themselves. Jesus is in it only for you. He is calling you by name.

“For he came that you may have life and have it abundantly.” So, follow Jesus, but also, in this time of waiting, sit with him in; let this time of staying home be a time to let the mad dissipate, and shift to hope for the future. For how we are and how we act right now very much determines who we are when we cross the vestibule threshold to a new age.

Now I made a confession earlier that today I am mad about the state of our nation, but I have another confession: I am also impatient with being in the vestibule. I want that door to open right now. I know you are restless as well. Restless about being inside. Restless about not seeing people. Restless about all of the unknowns: like how long this will last? like when things will start to reopen? like will we ever be able to shake hands again? I find myself shaking hands with my dog a lot. She is getting pretty good at it, but it’s not quite the same.

The door to our future is locked by COVID-19. But if you knock, I am pretty sure you’ll hear someone on the other side answering you by name. Jesus is holding us now; Jesus is leading us now; and Jesus is calling out to us from the future. He is the Good Shepherd and he knows us by name. Where we are, he is; where we are going, he is as well.

Saying that reminds me of my Grampy Clifton. He was a farmer in western Nebraska. My mom was his fourth daughter and final child, and once a year we’d get in the car and drive the 15 hours from Rochester, MN to Gering, Nebraska in the Buick Estate wagon, back in the day when Mom and Dad would let us take off our seatbelts once we got on the highway (great parenting).

Grampy always seemed old to me. He was big with a full set of gray hair and remarkably soft hands for a guy that worked with his hands. He was the kind of guy that, when he finally gave up his horse team and bought a tractor, it was the only tractor he ever owned. If it broke, he fixed it. 

We’d arrive at Grampy’s farmhouse, that he built, and we’d come tumbling in the door and he’d say, “Now who is this? And Grammy would say, “This is Doyt Jr.”  And he’d say, “Where did you come from?” And I’d say, “We drove from Rochester all the way to see you.” And he’d say: “Oh Doyt Jr., I remember you! You’ve come a long way. And who did you bring with you?”

And I’d say: “Mom and Dad and Valerie and baby Charlie.” And he’d say: “Well, I know all of you. I am glad you’re here.” Inevitably, by this time, he’d be sitting in his big reclining chair and we’d climb up in his lap and he’d hold us. I know you. Those are the words of the Good Shepherd (which fit Grampy because he had sheep, and he knew the Bible).

“I know you” are Jesus’s words and because they are Jesus’s words they are our words, to be stated as we stand in the vestibule; because when that door to the future is flung open and we go tumbling through. Jesus will ask: “And who did you bring with you?” Did you follow the bandit that most serves your best interest, or the Good Shepherd who knows everyone by name?

And so, I invite you to think about how you will answer that question; and  to think about what life could be like on the other side of that door because if we don’t do that work now we may fumble the possibility for a more abundant future.

And so, as an exercise to inspire this thinking, get a piece of paper and a pencil, or flip your computer open to a new document, then set a timer for 20 minutes. Now, in your minds-eye, think about all the people in the vestibule with you, and make a list of everyone you remember. Write as fast as you can, and don’t worry about spelling. Include Mr. Melinke the band teacher, and Mark Clemons, the lifeguard at the pool. Include Dave and Karen, your best friend’s siblings. Add Dan Berndt and Steve Smalley your Sunday school teachers, and Ann Malkowsky the cook at the fraternity house.

And when you are finished put your hand on that piece of paper, and imagine all of these people in the vestibule with you. Then go back and circle 5 names of very different types of people on your list, and then write down what the most abundant life on the other side of the COVID door would look like for them.

Now if you are like me, you already know what you want a post-corona world to look like for you. That took me about ten minutes to discern. But that is not the question Jesus is looking for us to answer. Maybe we are still in this corona mess because Jesus is waiting for us to look around the vestibule to see who is standing there with us and for us to ask the question: “What will their abundant life be like when the doors to the future are flung wide open?”

This is a moment in time. As I often say to those who will listen: “Never miss an opportunity to take advantage of a moment in time.” We are a nation that is suffering.  Together we are enduring. Our character is being formed, and even transformed toward a new hope. 

Jesus doesn’t want to know what that hope looks like for you. He already knows. He wants to know what you think that hope looks like for your neighbor… Because that neighbor is someone he is calling by name.

On the other side of the door is the possibility of abundant life…for you, for me, for everyone in the vestibule, so reach for it, hope for it, move toward it, seek it out, it is where we can go, and who we can be when the door opens and we hear the Good Shepherd say: “I know you. You’ve come along way. Who’s with you? Why don’t you all come in.