My name is Lee, and along with my wife Debbie, we’ve been coming to Epiphany for just over three years.
I am going to talk to you about why Debbie and I make our largest annual donation to Epiphany, but I’m also going to pepper it with personal anecdotes, to make it more palatable.
Debbie and I had very different journeys to Epiphany.
For me, the journey started with Debbie.
I believe with my whole heart that Jesus came looking for me through Debbie.
Debbie and I met when I was in Finland working at Nokia and Debbie was working at Microsoft, here in Seattle.
Nokia and Microsoft were announcing a partnership and I was sent to Seattle with a group of lawyers and engineers to finalize the details.
When I arrived, I was ushered into a room where I was introduced to Debbie.
Over the next six months working together, I learned that Debbie is one of the funniest, kindest and most beautiful human beings you could meet.
She loves to laugh,
And she loves a good Vodka Martini – dry, no vermouth.
Now, I know what you’re thinking– that’s not a martini, it’s just neat Vodka. We all know it. We try not to talk about it –
She loves warm hugs and puppies.
What more could you want?
She’s also a Christian,
Thanks to her parents who took their role as stewards of their children’s faith very seriously.
I wasn’t a Christian.
I was baptized into the Church of England, which is Episcopalian, though I’d never heard that word, and we attended Church for weddings, Christenings and the occasional Christmas Eve service.
I did get a children’s Bible for Christmas one year.
I was an angel in the school nativity.
Ben Hur is one of my favorite movies. Jesus is in that.
But, that was pretty much the extent of my Christianity.
I do own a Bible that belonged to my grandfather. It’s filled with his notes and pressed flowers and I’ve carried it with me around the world. He died when I was young so I didn’t have the chance to get to know him, but I was told proudly that he was a lay preacher, which I didn’t understand at the time, but it seemed to be significant.
I also kept coming into contact with our local parish church – a church called St John’s, parts of which date back to the 11th Century and which I walked past every day on my way home from school.
I was Christened there; my daughter was Christened there, and that’s where I gave the Eulogy for my Nan when she died.
The reason I share these last two details is because, although I didn’t consider myself a Christian, Christianity was never far away.
That mattered because, at the moment when it became clear that my lack of faith – even dismissal of faith – might jeopardize my relationship with Debbie, I had enough positive associations with Christianity to ask myself the question, ‘could I be a Christian?’
How I got my answer involved an encounter with God that some people heard me talk about at Lent last year,
But the point is, although I believe with my whole heart that Jesus came looking for me through Debbie, I had to want to be found.
And I did want to be found. I’d been searching my whole life. That’s why I moved around so much.
But I had to be willing to be found by Jesus.
And thanks to the positive Christian associations in my life, I was.
That’s why I still donate a small monthly amount to St John’s back in England, so others can have that opportunity.
It’s why I think Epiphany’s efforts to be a positive influence in the community – even just a positive presence for children looking for treats at Halloween – are so important.
Just as St John’s presence in my life proved so important to me.
I want Epiphany to persevere for the next thousand years as that small English Church has persevered for the last thousand years.
To do that, it needs our support.
There’s another reason I believe Epiphany is so special – because of the way it cultivates the faithful inside these walls and the questions it encourages us to ask.
Debbie brought me to faith, but at that moment living in Helsinki, seven thousand miles away from Debbie, I had a lot of questions – the biggest of which was where do I go from here?
So, I went to Church.
Because I’ve travelled so much, I’ve attended a lot of different churches.
Thankfully the Anglican Church has established roots in over 165 countries around the world, and I’ve attended Anglican Churches in Finland, Luxembourg, and of course, now here in Seattle.
I’ve also attended non-Anglican churches, including one Church in England where I was one of only three members of the congregation.
I went to that Church for five months because I didn’t have the heart to abandon the other two members of the congregation or it’s poor Rector who rushed over from his own Church every Sunday to minister to us.
What I’ve learned is that the Anglican Church – or at least the ones I’ve attended – actively encourage questions – it’s central to the three Anglican pillars of scripture, reason and tradition. Reason being our personal invitation to discern truth.
Doyt often reminds us that Epiphany is a learning church. It cultivates our understanding by encouraging our questions and by helping us search for answers in scripture.
It is our vineyard, where we are safe and free to roam and explore, and where we are cultivated by our caretakers.
In the reading from Isaiah today, we hear that God prepared his vineyard – building the walls and digging the wells, but the grapes had gone bad and God intends to tear the vineyard down.
Obviously, this wasn’t the only time this happened since in Psalm 80, some 200-300 years earlier, the Psalmist begs God to restore the vineyard, which has been torn down; to protect the vine, which is Israel.
What’s interesting about the Isaiah prophecy is that obviously it isn’t God that caused the grapes to go bad or he wouldn’t be so upset about it and grapes don’t choose to be good grapes or bad grapes, so it must be the caretakers that are failing God – failing to cultivate the vine under their care.
When Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard in Matthew, I assume some of his listeners, particularly the educated Pharisees, recognized the reference to Isaiah. I’m sure they also recognized his reference to the cornerstone, which Isaiah said would be laid as a foundation in Zion, to conquer death for those who believed.
They must have wondered what he was getting at.
The vineyard in their interpretation was Israel. The cornerstone was the Temple of God. He wasn’t directly calling himself the Messiah in those passages, but he was connecting himself and their religious leadership to those prophecies.
Not surprisingly, they took offence at being criticized for not cultivating the vine by this outsider whose authority they failed to recognize.
It’s easy to look back with hindsight and judge the Pharisees for not recognizing Jesus, but if I’d been raised to read the Psalmists references to the ‘Son of God’, as references to Israel rather than an actual son,
Or to references to ‘the vine’ as Israel rather than a man, it’s hard to know if I would have seen through those interpretations to witness the truth.
It’s what gives me so much admiration for those who were able to see,
Especially those who were religious leaders, raised to protect and propagate those ancient traditions.
For me, it’s a warning not to simply accept an interpretation, but to apply reason.
That’s why it’s so important to exist within a vineyard where we feel free to ask questions.
If the presence of Epiphany in this community is important the attitude of its leaders – their willingness to entertain and encourage questions – is even more important.
The Prophecies of Isaiah and the Psalms of David show us the danger of religious leaders who do not have eyes to see or ears to hear and who cannot yield good grapes.
Our annual pledge to Epiphany directly pays the salaries of our caretakers and that feels like money well spent.
My final reason for making our annual pledge to Epiphany is the impact of its work in the community.
Debbie and I are blessed. We are surrounded by loving family; we have friends we’ve known for many years – including my friends and family who knew me B.C. – before Christianity – and didn’t blink an eye when I started attending Church.
We have our troubles.
I struggle with depression and earlier this week as I was preparing this sermon, it hit me pretty hard.
Debbie had to watch me disappear and I had to fight my way out of a hole to finish my writing. But Debbie waited for me to come back and with God’s help I did find my way back. In fact, writing this sermon helped me come back.
We are incredibly fortunate.
And neither of us are people who believe that our good fortune makes us special. We both grew up with and around people who had nothing and were some of the best and most generous people we know.
Everything we have is God’s and we are simply stewards, fortunate that he allows us to care for the things he grants us in his Creation.
We often worry that we don’t do enough.
We live in a house that is bigger than we need and its upkeep is time and money we could be using for other things.
When I think about that, I think about the moment when I will stand in front of God, with Jesus sitting on his right hand.
Can you imagine how that moment will feel?
I’m afraid of being placed on the left hand of the King and hearing those words Revelations tells us some of us will hear: “depart from me … for I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink … whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
I know faith will carry me through, but I don’t want to disappoint my savior, who loved me so much he sent Debbie to find me and bring me home.
We can’t and shouldn’t abdicate our responsibility to Epiphany, but Epiphany can be the platform and amplifying force for the work we need to do to take care of God’s children.
And to do this, Epiphany needs to persevere;
It needs faithful caretakers who do God’s work,
And it needs the resources to help those without resources and to reach those who are lost.
That’s why we make our largest annual pledge to Epiphany.
Because there are people lost and alone, as I was,
And we are the stewards of God’s good grace to us.