Harrowing Of Hell
October 12, 2014


Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

We return to Gideon this morning from the Book of Judges. Over the last couple of weeks themes have emerged:

“We need to talk;”
“I am sorry;”
“You are forgiven;” and
“Just do it, I believe in you.”

A few weeks ago I asked us to “Think like God.” Then last week as we approached the end of the Book of Judges I said, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Today, I hope the theme that emerges is thanksgiving. Gideon will be our guide.

I return to Gideon because I have an uncomfortable affinity with him. We have a lot in common. I consider him one of my spiritual traveling partners from scripture. To start, Gideon and I both play the trumpet. So, instead of preaching today, I thought I’d give a concert. It is Stewardship Sunday, and if you make your pledge right now, I’ll stop playing the trumpet.

When I turn around and look back at my life as a trumpet player, I don’t see a scrapbook filled with accolades or a straight path to my current career. But I do see glimpses of God, mostly through the people I met along the way. Some were inspirational, others terrifying, but in each instance God was there. I actually wanted to play the French horn, but Mr. Milinki, my elementary school music teacher told my mom the trumpet better matched my personality. Some of my greatest athletic triumphs came from dodging the baton Mr. Erickson, my junior high band director, would throw at the trumpet section. There was Mr. Workman, my private trumpet instructor for years, who was the picture of patience. I sat next to Carolyn Bailey in the band. I was always ahead of her due to my range (and volume) even though she was better. We’d also give each other charley-horses as a way of counting rests, which probably accounts for the flying batons.

Looking back and seeing God’s fingerprints on my trumpet-playing days, as surprising as it might seem to you, I was not destined to be a world-class trumpet player. My experience with the trumpet as I see now from my place as an Episcopal priest was important in my falling in love with composers like Bach and Beethoven. It was important in cultivating within me a deep respect for musicians and artists and the passion their work provokes and provides. Those years with the trumpet, as painful as they were to many, had God’s fingerprints all over them.

That is how God works. It is not just that God uses everything, which may be true, but more God guides us into the future backwards as we look for clues, suggestions, and lessons from our past to guide how our feet move into the future. And this is true for everyone. None of us can see the future. Everyone moves forward blindly. Everyone’s past is completely unique to them in every way save one: that, if we dust the surface of our lives, we find the fingerprints of God. That unites us when we let it. That is why the church exists. It is a place for turning around, looking into the past, seeing the presence of God, and saying thank you. Every Sunday we celebrate the Eucharist. In Greek Eucharist means thanksgiving. That is what happens at church. That is basically all that happens at church. Everything else is a by-product of our common thanksgiving to God.

The church is not a charity. The church does not seek to achieve anything. The church does not try to fix, finish, or improve function. It does not exist to change the world. That is not our primary role. Our role is to say thank you to God. We are different from other mission-driven organizations. Most non-profits are hell bent, I hope, on putting themselves out of business. I hope the Arthritis Foundation goes out of business and the MS Society as well. I hope that one day the Gates Foundation puts itself out of the polio eradication business. You get the point.

But that is not the point of the church. The point of church is to be around forever and ever, or until God wraps up the entire enterprise. While we’re waiting we walk backwards into the future fueled and directed by thanksgiving to God for what has already taken place. Stewardship is the yearly exercise of looking backward at our life for the fingerprints of God.

Which brings me back to Gideon, because when I act my most Gideon-self is when I struggle most with stewardship. You see, Gideon was a man of fear, and fear is the fuel that undercuts thanksgiving. Fear provokes a mindset of scarcity and insecurity. Fear blinds us from seeing God’s fingerprints on our lives. Any Senior Warden will tell you when stewardship time rolls around, I get anxious, impatient, and sort of tired. I begin to worry about cash flow. I worry about having to support the staff, and the obligations we have made to them. This year I have been thinking a lot about lost revenue due to the construction disruptions. I am worried about the perfect storm of space dislocation, reduced rental income, and steady congregational growth as I wrote about in the Monthly Message.

My anxiety mirrors Gideon’s fear. He melted down earrings taken from the Midianites, and he made an ephod, which is a breastplate worn to signify authority and hold position, and in this way secure the future. I have the same impulse to achieve this kind of security, both in my personal life and my life as Rector of this Parish. When I focus on my personal future I think about my pension, equity in real estate, and I even consider the investment I am making in my children’s education. As I do I slip on an ephod as my guide into the future.

Being the Rector tempts me in the same way. I try to manage our future through rent, endowments, bequests, pledges, and offerings. As I do, I slip on an ephod as my talisman. Being responsible matters, that is true, but when fear becomes the gripping principle like it did for Gideon, then the risk is stepping into a snare where we thrash around, straining forward blindly, ephod to light the way, when in truth, idols shine no light. God casts the light, as seen in the luminescent fingerprints of God left all over our lives.

The antidote to fear is thanksgiving, which is what we practice each year during stewardship. It is a process that requires intentionality. The process of turning from fear to thanksgiving has three steps to turn us around and look for the finger prints of God.

  1. It starts with reflection on our financial situation. Every year since I have arrived at Epiphany we have ended in the black. And every year through your gifts of thanksgiving we have made budget, and I trust that will happen again.
  2. Next I look at the tough stuff we have been through together. I think about those who have died and faithful friends who have moved away. I think about marriages that have suffered and children hoped for, yet not born. I think of friends who remain out of work.
  3. I consider our blessings, beauties, and joys. The garden grows and flourishes. There were 46 dogs, 6 cats, 2 Guinea pigs, 9 pet photos, and a bunch of stuffies here last week. The music gets better and better. Easter was awesome, Christmas, sublime, the parish picnic, electric. We completed a wildly successful 100-year building campaign this year.

There are flashes of God all over the place. God is here, near and dancing with us. We find the fingerprints of God at Epiphany in the coincidences, moments of extraordinary beauty, the unexplained tears, swells of joy, and moments of enchantment. God’s fingerprints are all over this place. They are all over your life as well. So join with me today in the process of walking backward into the future as a way of seeing God’s fingerprints on our lives. Let’s look back at the material, the tough, and the sublime.

We begin with the material part of our life:

  1. How have you been blessed?
  2. What does the stock market look like for you?
  3. What is your income like now?
  4. How about your cash flow?
  5. Were there windfalls this year?
  6. Where do you see the hand of God in the material part of your life?

Now let’s examine the tough stuff from this past year:

  1. Where has there been suffering or conflict or pain?
  2. What have you lost this year?
  3. What dramatic changes have happened?
  4. What conflicts remain unresolved?
  5. Where did God show up in this grief, trial, and pain?

Now let’s go to the times of joy and beauty and abundance:

  1. Who has surprised you this year?
  2. What are the beautiful things you have seen?
  3. What trips did you take?
  4. What things did you acquire?
  5. How about friendships that endured, returned, or deepened?
  6. Where did you find, see, or acknowledge God in all of this?

This is the spiritual discipline of the tithe. It is a material action of “thank you” for the presence of God in our lives. The Book of Chronicles says it this way: “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chron. 29:14). This gratitude makes me feel a little less like Gideon. Maybe the only thing we have in common after all is our trumpet-playing process. Would you like me to play another song?

Here is the secondary benefit of walking forward blindly guided by our thanksgiving for the past; it energizes us to better understand the kingdom of God. It deepens our desire to worship in a way that liberates our souls, and it inspires us to pray with open hearts to hear God’s will for our lives. It motivates us to reach out to our neighbors, our spouses, our parents, and our children in love and charity.

These things happen in a church, but they are not the point of the church. The point of the church is to be a place where we come together each week to universally say thank you to God for God’s particular fingerprints on our unique lives.