Harrowing Of Hell
October 15, 2023

The Necessity of Hope: The War in Israel & Palestine

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon, click here.

Good morning. This is the first time you’ve heard a male voice from the pulpit in a while who doesn’t have a British accent. I’m feeling a little insecure about that. Nevertheless, we will persevere, with hope that you can see me beyond my middle aged, mid-western, white guy locution…

Today’s sermon is billed as my reflection on stewardship at Epiphany as a means of encouraging you to generously contribute to this year’s Annual Appeal.

Lee Anderson-Brooke, last Sunday, spoke about why he and Debbie make Epiphany their top philanthropic contribution each year. He talked about what the church meant to him as a kid growing up in England; how it was there, perpetually casting a positive light upon the secular world around him.

Epiphany seeks to cast that light into our community with Halloween candy, and neighborhood picnics, and music in the courtyard… organized by the guiding hand of Amanda Eap.  Your pledge pays her salary. Thank you.

Lee talked about Epiphany as a Learning Church; a place for transformation through studying Jesus and worshiping God. That includes a lot, and absorbs much energy and time from staff like me and Lex and Lisa and Pam and Diane and Jad, and even through the wonderful work of our musicians Zach and Julian. Your pledge pays our salaries. Thank you.

Finally, Lee talked about the amplification of good works through our collective efforts. Those efforts are employed throughout the community and across the world, including the Holy Land.

I’ve traveled with 127 pilgrims to Jerusalem, and we have donated over $147,000 through the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ) to orphanages and rehabilitation centers and hospitals. Some of you have visited these places with me.

And so, we have eaten and drank in the Holy Land. We have walked the streets and rubbed shoulders with those who live there. We have met Jewish and Arab politicians. We dined in people’s homes. We have prayed in holy places. We have celebrated the Eucharist. We’ve had spiritual moments of insight, and spiritual moments of uncertainty as well, at least I have. And in those moments, I’ve met the hope of Jesus. Without hope life can become pretty dark pretty quickly.

Today in Israel and Palestine there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, as the cycle of revenge and despair that has so knotted these two cultures in perpetual conflict is reignited. Imagine for a moment what it must feel like to live in a world where there is nowhere else to go; where you feel cornered; where, where you are is all you’re going to get, and someone is coming at you to try to kill you and your family. What you imagine is the reality of the Israelis and the Palestinians, and that reality is the horror we are witnessing today.

Gaza is the most densely populated place in the world; two million people confined within a space the size of the five boroughs of New York; a place known as the largest open-air prison in the world; where the economy is driven by charitable donations and the best jobs go to those lucky few who stand in line for hours every day at checkpoints out of Gaza to work low paying jobs in Israel. There is a humiliation baked into the system in which they are trapped. I can only imagine how that feels.

I can see it. And I can also imagine the anger, and the demand for revenge that stirs in the hearts of Israelis. With enemies all around your country seeking your eradication, and then the evil that broke in and slaughter of innocent civilians… I can only imagine how that feels. I can see it… and I have no solution to offer to this cycle of despair and revenge that spins between the Israelis and Palestine’s.

But we do not come to church seeking political solutions. We do not come to church for confirmation of our point of view. We come to church  because it is the place where we seek to understand the world from a different point of view; where we seek to understand the Jesus perspective, the Resurrection perspective which promises the bad thing is never the last thing.

And sometimes that perspective is hard to grasp and integrate–as pain, anger, despair, confusion, flood our minds in the face of intractable problems, and sometimes the only response, it seems, is to fall backwards, to let go and trust God.

And when we do, we will be caught by the church, because it is the role of the church, indeed, it is the very function of the church, to hold on to hope for all the world. The church is designed to do this, to be an institution of hope.

Today’s Gospel is an example of how we move toward hope. At first glance it might not seem so. It sounds pretty dualistic and divisive; laced with violence, seemingly dedicated to division. From my regular, Midwest, middle-aged guy context, living in secular humanist Seattle, this Gospel sounds like an accountability decree dictated by a God who chooses winners and losers; and if you’re a loser there’s despair; and if you’re a winner there’s revenge…fueling a cycle that cripples so many corners of the world.

But I’m a little more than a regular guy walking around in a secular world. I’ve chosen to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and Jesus claims today’s Gospel is about the Kingdom of God.

So, let’s take a look. There is a father who loves his son and throws a banquet to celebrate his wedding. And the father invites their friends, who can’t come; they are too busy curating their own kingdoms. So, he throws open the doors to all people from all corners of the city. And those people are good, and they are bad, in other words, they’re just regular people just like you and me here at Epiphany. They fill the hall.

When they arrive, they are given an outer garment, a wedding robe. That was the custom in those days. The tradition behind those wedding robes is that they cover up clothing; the medals, the Brooks Brothers insignias, the fancy shoes, the $1000 brooches.

They are robes woven from a fabric called the soul. And there is only one distributor of soul robes… God. God’s got the corner on this market. And when they are put on, they reveal only one thing, the equality of all people.

The marriage celebration in today’s Gospel is about relationship between two people, and relationship between Jesus and his church; and relationship within the person of the Trinity; Father and Son and Holy Ghost. In a marriage there is no hierarchy, there are no insiders or outsiders, there are no winners or losers, there are only souls, equally known and equally loved by God.

And so, the guests arrive at the wedding festival, the good and the bad, and all of them slip on soul robes to honor the king and his son.

And yet, there is one guy who refuses to put on the robe. Maybe he bought a fancy Armani jacket for the party, and he wants to show it off. Maybe he thinks he’s just a little bit better than everybody else there inherently, and sees no reason to pretend he’s not. Maybe he doesn’t believe in the soul, and thinks that it’s all made-up hogwash. 

But what he doesn’t realize is that the robe allows him to see, and without it he is in darkness. To put on the wedding garment is to wear the soul on your sleeve; it is to live a soul-first lifestyle, which is a lifestyle that allows you to see the souls of others principally and primarily.

But he chose not to put on the robe, which reflects his inner rebellion against God, a rebellion that is binding; self-binding…locking him in a cycle of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The king asked about this decision, and the man had nothing to say because where he had set himself, by the decisions he made, put him outside the realm of easy answers and quick solutions. Hope was his best reply, but he had no words of hope because he did not believe in the soul.

Hope is built upon the foundational understanding of the soul, it’s equality, it’s belovedness, and it’s connection to God, by God’s decision alone. We have no influence over our souls. They come from God. They are sustained by God. They are returned to God. And the church simply is about the celebration of souls, which is why the church is an institution of hope.

If the church disappears, we will only be left with institutions that seek solutions… and that only goes so far.

Hope must remain, for it is hope that allows us to see the reality of the other person, not just their context, but their very souls. And that is not easy, even in the regular workaday world in which we live. Imagine how hard it is for the Israelis and Palestinians.

I struggle with it. I know what it’s like to slip into despair. I know what it’s like to be provoked to rage. And I know that within myself, singularly, as a regular guy, I do not have the capacity to hold onto hope by myself, which is why I bind myself to the institution of the church.

It is a superstructure of relationship connecting across time, wed to the common commitment of seeing every soul that is birthed into creation by God…Human to human to divine across time, that is the institution of the church. Human to human to divine across time, that is an institution of hope, soul to soul to soul.

And this hope is not just to be employed in response to big, geopolitical issues, but also to the everyday moments of our lives. Like when someone drops by your office to share what seems an intractable problem. And so, you enter into this knotty conundrum, employing your very best solutions, which only seem to stall out. So, you go deep, expressing another great idea, which only seems to stall out. And so, good friend that you are, you employ another and another solution, yet all seem impotent against the intractable problem.

Then it hits you like a prayer or a revelation or an epiphany, and suddenly you realize, all your friend needs is to be seen soul to soul. And you can do that because you’re a person of hope who knows the bad thing is never the last thing.

That is what your pledge to Epiphany, this neighborhood church for the city of Seattle, is, it supports an institution of hope. That is who we are. That is what we do. That is what we teach. That is what we practice. That is what the world needs; it is our duty to hold onto hope, no matter the crisis, no matter the context.

Which is why: the neighborhood church, and I’ll end with this, which is why the neighborhood church is the hope of the world.