Harrowing Of Hell
September 10, 2023

The Gathering Church

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

I’m so glad to see all of you today. Thank you to everybody that brought this day together. Thank you to the liturgical team including the choir. It is so nice to have you back. Well done in England. Thank you to all of you who brought food. Thank you to all of you who helped set up. Thank you to all of you online, even though there are circumstances that cause you to be away from this place, your role of prayer and support matters very much. Thank you. And thank you to all of you who are in the pews. Your presence here matters more than you might think.

Occasionally, I get reminded of that… how presence matters. A parishioner dropped by my office the other day and told me this story. She said she wasn’t “feeling it” one Sunday morning. In fact, she confessed she hadn’t been “feeling it” for a while. COVID had taken the wind out of her church sails. But she came anyway.

Willpower won the day, fueled by enough data points, and self-awareness, to remember that she never regretted going to church once she got to church. It’s like going to the gym. Rarely does one come home from the gym having regretted the workout. The analogy works for church as well, which is why we call Epiphany a spiritual gym.

Anyway, she was going to leave after the service, but someone dragged her to coffee hour, where she ran into a young woman she knew… that is what happens when you come to church regularly, you get to know people. This woman shared with her something that was going on with her family. And it was in that moment my friend knew why she had come to church; to be a neighbor, and to listen to this story.

Sometimes to be a good neighbor means setting aside your plans to hear someone’s story. You know there are really only two reasons to come to church: God and neighbor. The God part is complicated. The neighbor part is simple.

God is complicated because there’s a lot to talk about, to think about,and to try to figure out; and besides, God is everywhere; in here and out there. That is a lot of God.

Our neighbor, on the other hand, is right here. Our neighbor is always defined by presence. Person to person. God created us with bodies so we could be good neighbors, with ears to listen… to someone at coffee hour. The neighbor is a fragile concept. We saw it diminished by the pandemic; which put a hard stop to all but our most bubbled communities. We stopped going to the gym, and the symphony, and the theater. Sporting events came to a halt. Dinner parties died out. School went virtual. And we stopped going to church. All person-to-person interaction stopped; it had to for our health and the health of our neighbors.

For many of us this moratorium on meeting was a blessing. It put a screeching halt on the hectic. And we could still connect in ways…even more carefully curated ways through Zoom and Teams for the cocktail hour; on pandora for the Symphony, or YouTube for the sermon. For many of us we could work from wherever we wanted to, and then there was cocktail hour. That sufficed… and it was a little indolent, and that felt a little bit good, and maybe even needed.

The Great Time Out put a pause on our patterns and gave us time to slow down. It also allowed us to manage community when we wanted, where we wanted, the way we wanted. We could watch a sermon Monday morning at 4:00 am, in our pajamas, with a glass of wine. Not a pretty picture, but a possibility.

For so many of us who weren’t first responders, time became our time; and place became our place. We could be the kings and queens of our own dominions; no longer needing it to bow down to the community patterns of time and place.

Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America, noted after his visit to the United States in 1831: “that American’s habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, is apt to fill their imagination with the idea that their destiny is in their own hands… thus, believing their life rests upon themselves, which threatens, in the end, to confine them entirely to the solitude of their own heart” (America has romanticized a John Wayne paradigm of heroic loneliness for decades if not centuries – and it’s killing us. By Ted Anthony, The Associated Press, para).

Ted Anthony, in his May 26 Associated Press article, called this the John Wayne paradigm, and argued that it may be killing us. John Wayne may have ridden in to save the day, but at the end of the day, he wandered away, making it, it seems, more about him than the neighbor  he happened to serve… Because to be a good neighbor is more about shaking a hand, than shooting a villain.

That is what a neighborhood church is all about. I know this from experience. When Kristin and I moved to Cleveland Heights we started going to Saint Paul’s Episcopal church. And we would sneak in to the 8 am service, and sit in the back row. Very Episcopalian. And we did that every Sunday for years; even on the weekend our family was there to celebrate Kristin’s graduation from medical school. It was our habit.

And that particular Sunday, in that very small early morning congregation, Bill Fuller the priest, at the Peace, announced that Kristin had graduated from medical school. And all of those old people many, if not most, whose names we didn’t know, gathered around to shake her hand.

It was one of the most beautiful expressions of neighborliness that I’ve ever experienced. And here’s the odd part, that 8 am service was the only un-curated community we were a part of. And maybe that was what made it so special. We didn’t pick it, God did. We just showed up.

What I mean by un-curated community is every other community that we belonged to had a barrier to entry. To live next door to us, you had to be able to afford a house there. To go to graduate school with us, you had to be accepted into the program. To be a work colleague, you had to be employed by our employer. To be a tennis partner you had to be able to play tennis. All curated communities.

Only church wasn’t. Maybe that is why church is weird. No buried entry. No status to it. It is even little risky, because you might find the only thing you have in common with someone is God. But here’s what I’m seeing: there’s a deep thirst for un-curated community. I was reminded of this when in London this summer.

A young man from Epiphany, who was studying abroad there, joined us for Evensong at Saint Paul’s. And when he arrived, he said to me: “It’s so good to be back with my Epiphany family.” And this wasn’t said because he knew everyone there, or even recognized all their faces, but because he had stepped back into his un-curated community that cared about him because they have worshiped with him in these very pews in which you sit this morning. Your presence in this place matters more than you might realize.

The presence of unqualified community, however, is fragile. I recently read a book called The Great De-churching and in it statistics cite the demise of the church. What the authors found is the shrinkage of church wasn’t the specific result of the church being too political, or too judgmental, or too hierarchical, or even too archaic. While some churches are these things, none of these things were the thing itself. What the authors found was less dramatic and sadder: that people were just sort of fading away. And not because they don’t believe in God, they say they do, but because, I suspect, they’ve forgotten that they are needed as neighbors.

I suspect the de-churching of America has a lot to do with the success of the John Wayne paradigm…which may be why we have an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in this nation. And where it is most chronic, and probably most unreported, and most critically concerning, is with our young people. There’s a deep thirst for unqualified community; where they don’t have to be great, where they don’t have to be only with people their own age, where they don’t have to apply, where they are not judged, they are just loved by a community that God chose for them. And that is weird in a world that is all about status and achievement and control, but I’ll take weird over John Wayne any day.

Which leads me to Jesus, who is no John Wayne. He didn’t wear cowboy boots. Didn’t even have a cowboy hat. He wore beret, I think…I don’t know, read the Bible in a Year with me, and we’ll find out. But what I do know is Jesus has instructed us to bind and to loose as the methodology for inviting people to experience God’s community. And the binding and loosing that we’re hearing about today is about the things we take on, and the things we let go of, as a way of making space for our neighbors in our lives. The binding and the loosing are different tools toward the same end, for holding gently the fragility of human community in a place that reveals the love of God.

The church is about two things: loving God and loving neighbor. And what I know about you, is that you know how to be a good neighbor and I know that because I know you and I witness the vibrancy of this community.

Next Sunday at the forum (10:00 am) I’m going to talk about what’s going on in the broader Episcopal Church, and why it is shrinking and why Epiphany is growing…but the short answer is this: that you know how to be a good neighbor. So, keep at it. Keep up the good work. Your presence here has a greater impact on your neighbor than you might think…which is why I am so glad to see you here today.