Harrowing Of Hell
January 8, 2015

Epiphany: Carrying the Gospel into the Future

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn

On Christmas Eve at the 9 pm service we had a little scheduling snafu; we were down one torch bearer. It is a leadership role often held by younger people, but none were available. So Steve Clemons stepped in. His son Hal was on duty as the Gospel bearer anyway. They often serve together, so Steve volunteered and did a nice job. I suppose that is enough of a story, but that isn’t the story I want to tell, because it is what happened next that made me think of tonight, and why we are here.

A few days after Christmas, Steve received a letter from one of you. It was a short reflection on the symbolism of Steve carrying a torch and walking a few steps behind his son as he carried the Gospel. The image memorialized for this witnesses the point of church—to pass it on, to give it away, and to light the path to follow the child and to humbly serve. The image of Steve, the father, carrying the torch to light the way for his son, as Hal carried the Gospel into the future is like a Rembrandt painting made right here at Epiphany.

We all have our place in this painting as Christianity marches through time. That reality hit me the other day when Dave Walker, our Senior Warden, recounted a conversation he had with one of you. He and an older gentleman were talking about the church. And in the course of the conversation this man said to Dave something to the effect of, “Now this church is yours to energize and vitalize, and I’m happy to pay for that.” And Dave reflected, “Someday I suppose I’ll be saying that to someone.” And I thought, “I hope so.”

There is a deep sense of continuity here. That is what we are celebrating tonight. That was the point the Next 100 Years Building Campaign: to prepare this place to be passed on. When I arrived at Epiphany it was an open question in my mind as to whether or not Epiphany would be one of the surviving Episcopal churches. Make no mistake about it—there are a lot of struggling Episcopal churches. The question I ask when I reflect upon this is, “Why?” God is still here. Jesus is still known. The Holy Spirit still inspires. And since I couldn’t find a good reason why any Episcopal church should be struggling, let alone why Epiphany should be struggling, I resolved in partnership with Tom Foster to just keep doing what this church was designed to do: to preach as well as we can, to sing beautiful choral music, to teach our children the stories, and to be careful and thoughtful about our liturgy from the Altar Guild, to the acolytes, to the Eucharistic ministers, to the ushers.

We gather here as one people for the glory of God, and we wrestle with the questions:
+ What does it means to be good?
+ How does one live the good life?
+ How do we live together?
+ What is ethical and moral, and how do we pass this on?

This is where we come to wrestle with these questions as a community in relationship over time. Jesus illuminates all of this. He is the light of the torch, and he is the words of the Gospel. And this light and these words are alive at Epiphany today as they were alive here 100 years ago, and as they will be alive here a 100 years from now. I believe this with all of my heart because of what you have done to make today a reality. This is what we are celebrating today.

The vitality that normally and naturally accrues to a church when it does what a church is designed to do, has positioned us to do what churches have done for 2000 years. It has positioned us to prepare ourselves to pass the Gospel on to future generations and to prepare ourselves to greet those who have yet to know the beauty and vitality of the Christian way of life.

Over the last three years we have prepared for the restoration of this campus. We didn’t set a dollar goal. We simply had a family conversation. Our goal then naturally became family participation. What I said at the time has proven to be the case that whatever the family gave would be good enough to prepare Epiphany for future generations. Furman Moseley and Anna White jumped on board as leaders to champion the effort. Linda Maxson brought order to the process and Tim Schmuckal tested the assumptions and organized the message.

The family included 256 of you (and your families). I sat down and went through our directory and I asked myself, who here acts like they are part of the Epiphany family? The number I counted at the time were 256. That became our goal! And whatever 256 families gave that would be enough. We let God determine the amount. And I was right on one count and wrong on another (and this has nothing to do with my age). I was right that God would give us what we needed to prepare Epiphany for the next 100 years. I was wrong about the number of family members. It turns out we have grown. To date we have 289 family members who have contributed to the 100 Year Campaign, and the amount of money that equals is $9,189,000.

This is providential of course. It turns out—and this should come as no surprise—that after very careful planning by our experienced team of John Nesholm, Jim Crutcher, Ed Emerson, Bob Barnes, Laura Blackmore, Ben Bradstreet, Thad Alston, Jim Marlow, and Tom Foster, it turns out that we can do just about everything we believe needs to be done with that amount raised. And when I think about this, I think about this accomplishment as a small thing. I think of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:29) where Jesus says, “If you can’t be a good steward of small things, how can God trust you with big things?” Well, you have been trustworthy with this small thing, and so God has blessed our efforts. Yet know this, the small thing is God’s way of preparing us for something extraordinary.

Before I talk about our future I want to repeat what I have been saying about the renovation of this holy space. We are going to love it. We are going to think it is awesome. We’ll want to tell people about it, and we’ll want to bring our friends here to see it. And it will be different. There will be a font right there. There will be a wall over there. The balcony will have rails. The floors will be hard wood. There will be chairs in the Chapel (not folding chairs) and a new organ against the Chapel wall. And for you and me, not for the people not yet here, it will take a bit of getting used to. But we’ll get used to it, most of it. There will still be a few things we won’t love, things that newcomers won’t even notice. But we’ll remember how it was and occasionally that will bug us. But this renovation is not about you or me, it is about the future and the people not yet here, which is why we are going to do a quality, thoughtful job with it.

Here is what we said about the renovation three years ago when we started talking about this project. Regarding the Church we wrote:

The hope is to further enhance the worship experience. And to hold our place as a church that honors our tradition necessitates paying attention to music and the spoken word. This attention requires the fine-tuning of the acoustic structure of our main sanctuary.

Regarding the Chapel we wrote:

Our charge for the Chapel is to hold the warm, secure feeling it currently has, while creating a flexible worship space that meets the needs of the next generation of Christians.

Regarding the Grounds and Parish Hall we wrote:

The next generation of Christians, in part, will arrive at Epiphany because we have made space for them. The beauty and warmth of this place evokes a sense of depth and strength and enduring peace in a world of anxiety, uncertainty, and inconsistency.

Those are quotes. Here is the plan, the extraordinary plan: To be faithful, to praise God, and to pursue the Christian lifestyle.

It is an old plan that has been working for 2000 years. It is not a grand plan. We are not going to save the Episcopal Church, or any church for that matter. We are not revolutionary or remarkable. The plan is to just be faithful, to praise God, and pursue the Christian lifestyle. This will continue on as a place where people gather for worship, learning, and fellowship. This will continue on as a place to practice seeing with the eyes of our souls. The church is not about achievement, the church is about remembering who we are and whose we are.

The church is about growing up. It is about becoming spiritually mature. It is about acting like the eternal beings that God made us to be; which means acting like Jesus would act if he were you or me. That is enough! And that is faithful living and in this ordinary world, that is extraordinary. Faithful living to God and the Christian lifestyle is the compelling, beautiful gift we have to offer the world. And as we have seen throughout time, it makes a difference.

So, here is what we are going to do next. For the next year, as the building is in transition, we are going to prepare and then we are going to fill the church with people. We are going to prepare by taking classes and learning more about Christianity. We are going to dive deeper into the spiritual practices. We are going to teach our children how to lead worship. We are going to send our youth on pilgrimage. We are going to go on pilgrimages ourselves. We are going to do a better job welcoming and incorporating newcomers. We are going to invite you to join a small group. Do so, for it brings the body of Christ to life.

This is our incubation time. And then, we’ll fling open the doors of this newly renovated church. And we will fill it. We will invite people to church. We will invite them to classes. We will invite our children’s friends to come to church with us. We will fill it with concerts for people who don’t give a fig about God. We will be hospitable and gracious and expose them to something beautiful.

There will be a bit of bait-and-switch going on here. The building is just a building, but it is a building that houses a workout center for the soul. And those people we invite will know there is something different about Epiphany, not because of the beauty of the windows or quality of the craftsmanship. They will know there is something different about Epiphany because they have met you. You are the light of the torch and the words of the Gospel.

When we leave this room tonight we are going out into the cold. There will be a fire. It is the light of Christ, and we are the living words. We will say prayers. We will sing with all our hearts. We will shovel sand. We will shout Alleluia, AMEN. And then we will have a toast. It is a tent revival, and that is what is happening at Epiphany. There is a revival going on because of you and your faithfulness to this church, to our tradition, to each other, and to Jesus Christ.

Tonight we celebrate as a family, even as we prepare to do what the church has done for a thousand years, to carry the torch for those who will carry the Gospel into the future.