Preacher: Davis Walker
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
In the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning! I have a confession to make. My name is Dave Walker and I am a raccoon. It’s not that I spend my nights eating grubs out from under the corners of Doyt’s lawn, although that does sound like a pretty good raccoon feast.
It’s that I can relate to the shock those poor fellas must have felt when pledge cards showed up to ruin their dinner. Because who wants to think about pledging? To be perfectly honest, pledging has never really made sense to me. Now I don’t mean that I believe that giving to the church is a bad idea – that would make me an odd choice to be up here today. I mean that every year I struggle to create a mental framework that lets me come up with a pledge that I believe to be thoughtful and appropriate.
Some of this is sheer newness to the concept. My wife Elizabeth, son Matthew and I have been coming here for about 4 years. Our daughter Rosalie joined the family around 2 years ago. Elizabeth was brought up in the church, but this is my first meaningful church experience of any kind. I arrived with an attitude of extreme reluctance, to put it charitably, and there have been a lot of concepts I’ve had to get comfortable with over that time.
With regards to pledging, the process started that first year with a letter and a brochure. These described ways to think about giving, from donating in the plate when you’re particularly impressed by a sermon, to giving a gift beyond your comfort level, out of thanksgiving and sacrifice. We were told the average pledge in western Washington.
With this in hand, we tried to compare the church to other organizations that get our money. Do we consider pledging to be philanthropy, and give as we might to our favorite charity? Do we consider it to be a tip, a reward for a quality service? Do we consider it to be education, and invest as we might in kids’ piano lessons? Do we consider it to be a subscription, like season tickets to the Mariners?
It was particularly important to me to figure out the right answer on this topic, because I was raised to be a rule follower. (I see a few knowing grins out there.) I was taught that the world is a system, and I have my role to play within that system. Success was found by playing by the rules, doing a good job, and taking the rewards that the system offers.
Growing up, my role was to be a student. My assignments were clear, the rewards were clear, and when one assignment finished there was a newer, harder one out in front. Now it turned out I was really good at working the system, and my parents set me high standards. So this basic approach worked out pretty well. Pretty soon I was headed to the Ivy League, and after school I got a job out here in Seattle at a software company that grades all of its employees on a curve. Which was no problem – just another system to work. And so I was a pretty successful 20-something with a nice career and all the checkboxes on my record that I could want.
Unfortunately this also created a man with a decent amount of anger and a healthy serving of selfishness. Because if everyone has their own role in the system, there’s no reason to help your neighbor. I had this latent, never-expressed sense that the world was basically there as the field for me to play my life.
But with that attitude, when the guy next to you isn’t acting the way you think he should, or there’s an accident on the highway that makes you late for a meeting, or when any other realities of the world make the system stop behaving exactly right, the righteous indignation comes up pretty fast, and there’s always someone to blame.
And that’s where I found myself 4 years ago, dragging my heels through the front door of Epiphany. And it’s how I thought about giving. Okay, I understand that my role is to show up on Sunday because I promised Elizabeth I would. But I expect you to give me a unique and exceptional experience in return. If I think you’re providing a good product, then sure, we’re happy to pay for that. That first year we liked what we saw but figured out our pledge amount by valuing the ticket price of a lecture series with great music and free babysitting, and multiplying by 52.
Of course as God would have it, right about that time I was struggling professionally. My job was now more about charting my team’s course through uncertain waters. There were no assignments with right answers, just people with different opinions.
I got judgmental and hard to work with, particularly when it came to a few folks, who of course were subsequently put in charge. As this happened, my dominant feeling was that I’d been wronged. I had followed every rule, done everything the way it was supposed to be done. I spent my days rolling through all of the names of people I could blame.
To settle down, I started spending days working at Epiphany. I’d park, walk into the courtyard, spend a moment breathing in, remember the message I’d taken away the last Sunday and be inspired to spend a day trying to be my best, most gracious self. Today’s gospel reminds me of those days:
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This is the effect that Epiphany began to have on me. When I’m here, I look for the best in the people around me, and try to emulate as much of it as I can. I’m inspired to put aside what I expect the world to offer me, and to think about what I can offer the world. My greatest hope is that when I’m like this it inspires the same in the people I’m with, who spread it like a wildfire.
Why does the church have this effect while spending a day working at Starbucks does not? I think it’s because this place starts from the assumption that we all are deeply, profoundly good, and that if we ever forget that, all we need is a little bit of space, a little bit of peace, and a little bit of inspiration. There is no agenda beyond that, and if you come back again and again, those effects accumulate and become conditioned responses to just being here.
Everyone else who is here is trying to do the same thing, and so being here is to practice interacting with people at their best, which is uplifting. It reminds me that all those people I’m angry with have their own best self that I’m not yet able to see yet. I know this because they definitely aren’t seeing mine.
Last year, when Epiphany’s pledges initially fell short of our budget target, Elizabeth and I had the opportunity to reconsider our pledging framework. We thought about the comparisons we had used in the past to find the right level of giving, but none of them quite fit.
And in that process I came to the conclusion that Epiphany, like nothing else I’m involved in, is a home. These days, when those old feelings start creeping up again, I reflexively feel like spending another day in the Fireside room. And with Epiphany feeling like home, the pledging comparison that works for me now is the mortgage, or the home improvement budget.
As a family we allocate a big part of our budget to our home because it’s where our heart is. And when the water heater breaks or the paint starts to look a little tired we don’t hesitate to step in and get the home back to the way it needs to be. With this comparison in mind, last year we realized that we hadn’t been putting our money where our heart was, and we doubled our pledge.
You get to hear from me today because next Sunday is the in-gathering. The in-gathering is the day where we all turn in our pledges for the coming year. The hope is that we will all stand and come forward together with our commitments, much as we come forward to share a meal during the Eucharist.
As with much of what we do around here, there is significance to the ceremony of this day, and so I invite you to participate by taking one of the blue pledge cards in front of you and bringing it back next week. If you have already submitted your pledge, please consider taking one of the prayer cards in front of you instead to bring forward during the service.
With these in hand, we will stand up together and commit as one community to be the stewards of this place. We will celebrate a community of people finding their best selves, sharing a spiritual home, and the profound gift this gives us as we tackle the world.