Harrowing Of Hell
June 28, 2020


The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

So, today I’d like to talk about welcome. It is the perfect day to do so, because today we welcome some of you back to in person worship, outside.

Jesus tees us up for this by talking about a prophet’s welcome, and a righteous person’s welcome, and how disciples are to welcome by giving a glass of water to a child.

I hope we extend that kind of welcome here at Epiphany. I hope you feel safe and beloved here…those are two core characteristics of welcome. I imagine you do because folks that don’t feel welcome in a place generally don’t continue to show up in that place. Makes sense.

Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, reminds us that God doesn’t show up where God is not wanted.  That sounds odd, doesn’t it, given that God can go wherever God wants, and God is everywhere all the time? But, it’s about being known, and God doesn’t make God’s self known where God feels maligned or ignored. Just like you and me, God measures the authenticity of welcome on feelings of love and inclusion and acceptance.                                                                  

Most of us feel welcome wherever we go most of the time. At least that is how I feel. If I go to a store, or a hotel, or a bank, or a fancy black-tie party where I hardly know a soul, I feel welcomed. I feel like I belong. When I am driving down the highway and stop for gas, I feel welcomed. People are happy to see me, and you can understand why…because I’m a beloved child of God. Just like you are. That is a core feature of welcome; recognizing the other, whoever they are, as a beloved child of God.

It’s interesting: the places I am welcomed are places that I need, such as a bank or hotel or gas station, or they are places that I want to be at, like a party. They were made for me by people like me. I know the rules without ever worrying about crossing a line or being perceived as out of line…and even when I am out of line as happens on occasion (ask my children), I still know I am perfectly safe, because, of course, I’m in the Kingdom of God, and we are always safe in the Kingdom of God because God is king, and God, no matter what happens to us, is always with us. God made the world that way, so that we would always feel welcomed in it; at least that was God’s intention.

At Epiphany we try to replicate this Kingdom of God reality. But it doesn’t always work. We have a pretty quirky kind of worship, and sometime if you’re new you can feel out of sync…I mean I remember once seeing someone go down the center aisle after communion, instead of around the side aisle…Oh, the shame. Not true! We know that it doesn’t matter one wit how they get back to their seats…but, we also know, that if they suddenly figure out that they have gone down the “wrong” aisle, or if they see someone raising an eyebrow at them, a sudden sense of being an outsider can flood up inside them.

You and I know how this feels.  We’ve all been there. And if the newcomer happens to bring up their perceived faux pas, we have compassion, and say: “Don’t worry about it. This is Kingdom of God real estate, you are loved, you are safe, and always welcome here. Now come have a cup of coffee with me.” That is our version of giving a cup of water, which is the reward for having sat through an Episcopal service for the first time. (Might have been better had we given them the coffee before the service). I’ll give you my muted ZOOM affirmation for being such a welcoming place, Epiphany. (two thumbs up).  You are now free to go get a cup of coffee…just kidding.

Welcome makes a difference which is why we seek to make people feel at home, and safe, and like a beloved child of God. It is how God designed it to be. But somehow, someway, in this country that claims a Judeo-Christian foundation; somehow that welcome hasn’t worked its way into the core of our cultural sub-conscious. In fact, just the opposite.

So, God put us in this Great COVID Timeout to collectively consider the founding sin of slavery that infected our capacity as a national for authentic Kingdom of God welcome. There are millions of American citizens, whose families have been here for generations who do not always feel welcome in their own land. When they walk into a place they need, sometimes they wonder: “Am I welcomed here?”

If I could have one hope for all of us here at Epiphany it is that we are people who understand in our bones what it means to live in a world that is not always welcoming; and that we work, in all venues of our lives, to create an environment of safe, beloved, welcome; because to do this is to actively build that bridge from the world we inherited to the world that God dreams about.

Let me give you an example of what some bridge building has looked like for me. Follow me closely because we are going to traverse some bumpy terrain. Now, imagine in an effort to better educate yourself on racism, and in the hope of being in dialogue on this topic, you signed up for a sensitivity workshop. And when you get there you were told that, as a white male, you really have nothing to contribute to the conversation.  And you’re not use to that kind of welcome. Generally, people invite your participation.

During the course of this class, the instructor, a man with African lineage, said something you thought not quite right, historically. So, you raised your hand as you responded (which is typical white guy) with the “correct information”…just to be helpful. To which the instructor replied: “You can keep that to yourself. You have nothing to add, and you’re wrong, and you’re not helpful, and frankly, you seem like a privileged, typical white guy who actually, isn’t very interesting.”

That is not what you were expecting. And all you can think is that it’s more like insensitivity training. You’re tempted to leave, but that would make you seem like a big baby, so, you stay and resolve not to say anything else. You boycott the man, and yet, no one seems to care. Then you decide to just figure him out. You size him up. You make judgments and spend time spinning in your mind a narrative about him, which, I might add, isn’t very flattering, nor probably true. But that gets boring, so you decide to try to figure out how to still learn from the class you came there get something out of. You try to figure out how to be heard, in a way that won’t be embarrassing or penalize you. Now it has taken me years to figure out what was going on in that course.

So, let me explain. This is where the ground gets bumpy. What that instructor was doing (whether consciously or unconsciously) was inviting me to share the experience of what too many people of color experience way too often (overtly or subtly); even people of color here in Seattle.  What that instructor was doing was giving me a gift; a Kingdom of God gift; a gift of perspective and connection and compassion; particularly compassion, the kind of compassion Ruth Anne so powerfully preached about on Trinity Sunday. It was a gift that taught me, through inverse deduction, something about welcome in the Kingdom of God.

What that instructor was doing was inviting me to share the experience, even just for a few hours, of what many people of African descent too often experience in the regular routines of their lives.

Now my first response was to want to fight back. That is what I was trained to do. That is what I have been rewarded for doing, though I couldn’t (or didn’t) in the moment, I knew I had recourse. I could write a terrible review or give a bad reference or maligning his name. And then I can go home and forget about it and never put myself in that situation again. I have the power to do that. Some people, simply because of the color of their skin, do not have that option. 

My hope is that Epiphany Parish becomes a place full of people who understand that reality in our bones. What I hope for is that Epiphany Parish is full of people who understand viscerally what it is like to not feel safe in the Kingdom of God, and not being treated as a beloved child of God.

What I hope for Epiphany Parish is to be a place full of people who work tirelessly to change that reality in the world beyond these walls. And when we work hard to change it out there, we become even more welcoming to all people in here…

That is our calling. God is calling us to be people who get it; to be people who understand that all people are beloved children of God and that all should be made to feel safe and included and accepted and loved in the Kingdom of God. That is the kind of welcome we show up for; it is the kind of welcome God shows up for; it is the kind of welcome that is unfolding, I pray, in this Age of the Holy Spirit.