Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’
There is so much I want to say today. I want to talk about the Genesis reading. That alone is a monumental task. If you’re interested in these stories, I invite you to the Bible study I lead Tuesday mornings at 7:15AM… We call it the Minyan. So I want to talk about Adam and Eve and the Garden. I want to talk about the US Congress and their inability to work together and to wonder what this means for us. I want to talk about the annual pledge drive and the building campaign. That’s all— so put away your watches.
As I look out at you, I can say, after being here almost 5 years, that it is a privilege to know you and to know so many of you well. What I know for certain is that in this church we have as wide a political divide as the US Congress… and yet Congress isn’t working and Epiphany is. Now I know this are not a perfect parallel and in truth I don’t really know why Congress isn’t playing well together. But what I can tell you is that Epiphany is working because we know where we are, and whose we are, and what we are made for. And that allows us to engage each other in a particularly graceful way. Look around. You are sitting in the midst of immortality.
Each of us was made by God, for God, in love, to be a blessing. That is the reality. And when we live this reality we are powerful, beautiful, gracious, compassionate, and fearless people; and so is our neighbor, and we think that is great!
We are growing at Epiphany. We are thriving, we are alive, and in the face of Congress that is struggling and a culture that has its issues, and an Episcopal church that is lurking about, I am provoked to ask; “Is it possible for a little neighborhood church to knit back together the soul of a nation through our prayers, praise and practices? Is it possible to hold fast to a moral orientation in Christ in an age of moral disorientation? Is it possible to pass on to the next generation the virtues of the kingdom of God so that they grow up to be people who know the difference between serving and self-serving, so they know the difference between principle and posturing, so they know the difference between graciousness and gratuitousness. Is it possible to be a people who grow up believing that relationship is primary and love is the currency of exchange? Is it possible?”
I think it is, and so do you, and that is what joins us together.
This is our vision and our mission and our providence and our task. And this is what we are living into right now at Epiphany. We are living into the possibility of the kingdom of God–Realized. That unites us. A thriving neighborhood church, I believe and you prove, is the answer to the question… “Is it possible?”
As Bill Hybels, Pastor of the mega-church Willow Creek often says, “If you are a neighborhood church we want to be you. For the neighborhood church is the hope of the world.”
The annual pledge drive and our building campaign are a natural, normal, necessary part of our living into what is possible. The annual pledge drive reflects our current vitality. And the building campaign is a particular event undertaken every so often in the life of a church to keep the place up and functional. We are doing both right now and that may seem like a lot. I understand, but this is your church so please participate in both.
Now the building campaign is necessary, because we have a campus that needs to be cared for. The building campaign is practical, as we seek to accommodate more and more people on our campus. The building campaign is honorable, as it is time to do our part as those who came before us did their part. But more than anything else, the building campaign is a point of departure. It is a beginning. It is a common next step into our common kingdom providence.
When St. Francis (of Assisi) was called to rebuild the church he went to St. Damiano, a decrepit chapel on the outskirts of Assisi. There with bricks and mortar he rebuilt that church, and when he was finished his work had just begun.
This building campaign is about bricks and mortar, but not toward an end, but toward a beginning.
I have heard that some feel conflicted over this campaign. Some aren’t sure about bricks and mortar. Some aren’t sure about new beginnings. I know what it feels like. I am conflicted in many areas of my life as well. I am conflicted about sending one of my children to private school when there is a perfectly good public alternative. I am conflicted about driving to work when it would be better for me and the environment if I biked. I am conflicted about passing a homeless person and not giving them a dollar let alone a dime. Maybe you know what it feels like to hold two separate ideas in mind, and then have to make a choice. Eve, in the Garden of Eden, had the same issue. She was conflicted.
Some would say she made the wrong choice. Some would say she was set up.
Some would say her actions were the will of God. And I don’t know the answer. All I know is how God responded.
You see, there was that moment in the Garden after the serpent beguiled Eve, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, after Adam and Eve stitched together fig leaf loin clothes; there is a moment after all that, when God, walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, called out, “Where are you?”
It is about as beautiful a question as can be asked. It is a question laced with longing. It is a question full of desire. It is a plea really, a cry, to be with someone who is beloved.
You and I have spoken these words before, “Where are you?” and in them we long to hear back, “Here I am!” “Here I am!” As God walked through the Garden, God longed to hear back from Adam and Eve, “Here I am.” Instead there was silence. Until Adam finally replied from a hidden place, “I was afraid, I was ashamed, I hid.”
Adam was also conflicted. It is part of our nature. It is what it means to be free. We get to choose. Sometimes we act boldly like Eve, only to regret it. Sometimes we hide timidly like Adam, and wallow in our shame. Sometimes we hit the nail on the head.
But no matter how we choose God responds the same, with grace longing to hear us reply, “Here I am!”
It is not an answer, or a resolution; it is simply the acknowledgement that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. “Where are you?” “Here I am!” They are the words that unlock our hearts to the grace of God, every time.
They are a first step back into relationship with a God that seeks us out. They are the words spoken by the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They all said it. They are the words spoken by the prophets. They are the words spoken by Mary, the mother of Jesus…she said it.
Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ananias. They all said it. And they are the words spoken by St. Francis, as well. “Here I am!” They are words that make a difference. They are words that knit the souls of a people back together. They are words that solidify a moral orientation in Christ. They are words that inspire a people to seek the kingdom of God. They are the words that have given Epiphany energy and vitality and life. “Here I am.”
Others have noticed it. The Dean of Westminster Abbey, who visited two weeks ago, said he found Epiphany to be one of the most energetic and vital neighborhood parishes he has ever seen. He said there was a beautiful confluence between graceful liturgy and evangelical spirit. And it is true.
Likewise Martin Pasi, our organ builder who was here last Sunday said to Tom Foster after the service, that this is one of the most dynamic liturgical experiences he has had in a long time and this is a man who has been in many churches.
I am glad for these kind reflections. They are a compliment to you, but that is not why we call out “Here I am.” We do so in response to a God that is seeking us out. This is our church. This is our spiritual home.
This is our kingdom of God outpost. It is where we come to pray and praise God and practice the Christian lifestyle. It is where we engage people like us and people who are nothing like us.
Don’t let the vitality wane, or the gardens over grow.
Finally, I would like to leave you with one more thought.
The church over the last 2000 years has built many things. The inspiration for these projects was to reveal the kingdom of God infrastructure that exists beyond church walls. That is noble, and good, and necessary. And so schools were built, and hospitals were built, and orphanages were built, and social service centers were built, and gyms were built, and penitentiaries were built. These were places built to care for souls.
Now many of them are more concerned with market forces than kingdom functions. And this happened not because the church lost, but because the church lost its way. We had forgotten how to respond to the question: “Where are you?”
Do you know what happened to St. Damiano, the church St. Francis built? It became the place he came home to. It became a place where people gathered to pray and praise God and practice the Christian lifestyle. It became a place where souls were fed so they could go out, as Francis did, to reveal the scaffolding of the kingdom of God; to share the good news that we live among immortals, that relationship is primary, and love is the currency of exchange.
Epiphany is the place we come home to, the place where we remember who we are, and whose we are. It is the place where we are reminded, week in and week out, of the question, “Where are you?” and inspired to respond, “Here I am!”