Welcome to the Feast of Epiphany. It is our family gathering. I am glad you’re joining me in person or online.
It has become the tradition over my years as Rector to use this evening as an opportunity to share with you what I see unfolding for us as a neighborhood parish, out here in the hinterlands of Christianity, perched on the edge of the Salish sea, in one of the most secular cities in the world.
One of the things that most excited me about coming to Epiphany long, long ago was that it sat at the water’s edge, and history tells us that evolution finds its most pliable partners where land and water meet.
What is notable about evolution is that it’s hard to see it when you are in it. I hardly imagine the Australopithecine were saying to one another: “Geez, Jeremy looks like you’re walking a little straighter lately.” Or “Golly Genoveva, did you bump your head, or is your skull getting bigger?”
Now it is obvious to me over these past 15 years that Epiphany is growing, but only recently did it come to my attention that we are evolving. This revelation was sparked by my anxiety over the slower than hoped for return of people to in-person worship post-pandemic.
That said, it needs to be noted Epiphany weathered the pandemic quite well. We did not skip a beat financially through COVID, and this year our 2024 pledge commitments are higher than they’ve ever been. Thank you! Similarly, we grew 10% year over year in Sunday attendance from 2022 to 2023. Thank you again! And yet, we’re still below our high watermark of 398/Sunday in the 2018.
That said our choir, and our Sunday form offerings, and our Sunday school, and our Evensong, and I even hope our sermons are worthy of firsthand witness. We are as operationally well-run as they’ve ever been. Great, stable staff. Great leadership on vestry and from ministries. Faithful and connected congregation. Thank you!
So, as I wondered about the post-COVID attendance, it occurred to me that this gem of Christian learning and worship was still too little known in the broader community. And I don’t think that is OK because what we do here matters, and, I believe, there are people out there who would like to be here if they knew what was going on.
So, Lisa Ozaeta and I were talking about this, and it turns out we both have experienced a program called Alpha. It was developed in England as a way of introducing unchurched people to Christianity. It was started by Nicky Gumbel in the late 70’s and since then over 29 million people have gone through this program and it has invigorated the Anglican church worldwide.
Lisa did Alpha. I was part of the Alpha program at All Saints Beverly Hills which caused that church to grow from 200 to 1000 people on a Sunday.
And so, we thought maybe we would try it. We called together a group of people to come and witness an Alpha demo, and give us feedback, and, more importantly, to get them excited about the program itself.
And here’s where I was hit by the revelation of our evolution. While Alpha is good, and the manner by which it talks about Jesus is good, it sounded out of tune to the people in the room. “We are Epiphany,” they said. :We think about God differently,” they said. “We believe that wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you have a place at Epiphany,” they said. “We believe that relationship is primary. We believe that belonging is more important than believing. We believe that everyone is included in the Kingdom of God. We believe that it is love, only love, that will save the world.”
And I realized that over the last 15 years this parish has evolved, concurrent with the patterns and the inspiration, and I believe the desire, that the Holy Spirit has for humanity in the 21st century. You and me and this congregation, on the shores of the Salish sea, are sitting at the front edge of something brand new. It has been percolating, now it is bubbling over.
Which is why I knew we couldn’t do Alpha. We had to do something new that reflected the identity of Epiphany; where relationship is core and primary’ where hierarchy is flattened; where everyone has an equal voice that splays out along the network of community that now webs the world.
We need a new way of doing religion. Alright!? But what does that mean? It doesn’t mean giving up the Bible, or forsaking choral music, or skipping the sermon…
But what does it mean, then, to do religion a new way? To start, we need to remember what religion does. Religions, and I mean all religions, are designed to harness the free energies of the cosmos and focus them, directionally, on a particular purpose. Religions have spiritual purpose with infrastructures that focus their direction.
Now, when I talk about religion, let alone a new way of doing religion, I run the risk of causing people’s hair bursts into flames. What they anticipate hearing, and not without cause, is new dogma and doctrine. Where God “desires,” through the hierarchy of men, to codify the perspective of yet another in-group who define God for their own benefit.
While that is clearly not the Jesus way, the church has been doing this for 2000 years, and we must stop doing this. What needs to change, and will change in the Age of the Holy Spirit, is the transition from God as a noun, from God as defined doctrine; to God as a verb, where “doing God” happens as communal conversation.
“Doing God” in conversation reveals God in that space that exists between me and you and you, along the networks that connect us in a web around the world.
In the Age of the Holy Spirit religion will move from information to conversation, where theology is a communal spiritual exercise. This is the radical new thing I see emerging in this parish…theology as a communal spiritual exercise. Here is the foundational premise undergirding theology as a communal spiritual exercise: if you are, if you are here in this world right now, then you were placed here by God. And if you were placed here by God,then you have something important to say about God.
The process of “doing God,” or a word I use for it, “Godding” (G-O-D-D-I-N-G) will be a more compelling way of knowing, seeing, sharing, and feeling God than the process of memorizing and then arguing dogmas and definitions. In the spiritual exercise of “doing God” (Godding) we encounter the God that exists within the network, the God in between the nodes and data-points; and this God has a generative energy that we are intimately familiar with; an energy that holds all things together, we talk about it all the time here at Epiphany…
It has a name: in Greek it is agape, in English it is love. Love is the binding agent of the network that reveals itself in the process of the spiritual exercise of communal theology. Godding reveals God, and so Godding releases love…and it is love, only love that will save the world.
Here at Epiphany, we are in the process of designing the spiritual exercise of communal theology. The name we have given this process is Relata (R-E-L-A-T-A). Relata means: many relationships happening all at the same time. Relata is about convergence. It is about purpose and direction as it bubbles up in revelatory conversations about God. Relata is the spiritual exercise of communal theology as a recursive loop of “doing God;”that is seeking, then seeing God as the singular center that is the pathway, the network, the web that connects me to you to you, and to all of creation. Relata is a cosmic conversation that acknowledges the connection of all things.
Now Relata could look like just another class at Epiphany. It could look like an 8-week gathering where we eat together, and have a short presentation, and then a curated table conversation; for those will be some of the organizing attributes of Relata.
But for Relata to be a movement that invigorates the broader church, and more importantly, brings people together who are so divisively divided in this nation today, Relata must become our joint enterprise. Every single person in this parish is needed. We will need people to invite people to Relata. We will need people to welcome people when they arrive. We will need people to set up the tables and to set up the room and clear the tables and take down the room. We will need people to cook the meals. We will need people to hang posters throughout the city. We will need people to invite people to Relata…did I already say that? We will need people to be table leaders. We will need people to pray for the people that come to Relata.
We are in the process of writing the curriculum for Relata right now. And after Easter we will run a beta test of Relata populated by Epiphany parishioners, by you, to experience and then help us fine tune the process of communal theology. If you call Epiphany your spiritual home, there will be a role for you in Relata. If we step into this as a church, together, we will honor our place at the water’s edge, in the evolutionary development of religion in the age of the Holy Spirit.
It is my vision that Relata, as developed by us, here at Epiphany, becomes a script for how to be religious in the 21st century. It is my vision that Relata will facilitate a “doing God” movement, by modelling how, in conversation, God is revealed in that space between me and you and you,and all the cosmos.
Relata has sprung forth from Epiphany, because we understand a theology of relationship. We believe that relationship is primary. We know that the world is relationships connected to relationships, undergirded by the cosmic radiance of love. The purpose is love, the infrastructure is Relata, revealed at Epiphany because of what we have done together these past 15 years.
So, walk a little straighter, and buy a bigger hat because there is an evolutionary jump function happening in our midst on course with the Holy Spirit’s desire for religion to web the world in a new way. That is what I witness unfolding in our midst. It’s pretty exciting, and I’m glad to be part of this with you.