Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn
It is times like these when we gather at church. It is where we come when we don’t know what to think and when we are uncertain about how to feel. It is where we come when we are not quite sure what to believe… we come here because we belong here. It is our place, this holy space. This is where we gather, where our souls sync together, unified through the power of liturgy.
When we gather we sometimes laugh, and we sometimes cry, and we sometimes just go through the motions, and that’s all OK. We are a family made so by divine love.
Over the last three months, or so, I’ve gathered 26 times with over 240 people to talk about our current context here at Epiphany, and where we are going as a family. I’ve heard many wonderful stories.
At the end of one gathering I fell into a conversation with a parishioner. We ended up talking about the columbarium in the Memorial garden right outside the Chapel. She was reflecting on how she lingers in front of it every so often, reading the names, some whom she knows, many of whom she doesn’t. And how the people set in those granite boxes were placed there with the expectation that we (meaning you and me) would keep their memory by caring for that wall.
I often linger in front of the columbarium as well. Particularly when I just need to feel grounded.
And when I do I sometimes hear the words C.S. Lewis said near the end of his life, “I feel like a sentinel waiting to be relieved of his duty.” And while I’m not quite ready to be relieved from duty – in fact I hope to be here for a long time – the image that flashes in my mind, maybe it is one you’ve seen on the internet or the news, is that of the sentinel standing his ground in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier during hurricane Sandy. Despite the weather, despite what the world throws at him, he walks his line, he never leaves his post. Rain running down his face like tears, he walks his line, never wavering, never walking away. That is who we are; we are sentinels of this place.
For whom do we walk the line? We walk the line for Christ, as those who came before us did. We walk the line for Christ, holding the space for those who will come after us.
They may be our children and grandchildren, or more likely someone who comes from far away, someone who went to church as a child, and then left it, because church was unnecessary, or because they were just too busy.
Then they moved to Seattle, and the reality that life is complicated set in. And all of the things they were taught to believe, like the rules of Pythagoras or the rhythms of evolution, seemed irrelevant in their daily life.
Maybe the questions: “Who am I?” “What do I believe?” “Where do I belong?” wandered into their mind, and a ready answer wasn’t found in their work, or the wisdom of other parents at play dates, or from the front pages of the newspaper. Then they wandered onto this beautiful piece of property, and stepped down into the Memorial garden, and paused in front of the columbarium, and read the names, and wondered, “Were all of these people weak-minded, or did they know something that I might have forgotten?
Then the bells from the carillon ring, and they come into church. They arrive not to certainty of belief, but to a warm “good morning.” They hear the music and join the choir, because they had sung in a choir as a child, and soon they come to realize that choir is the one place in their life where they can come, week in and week out, and be in community in a way that is bigger than themselves.
And then they realize it is this place they come to be in relationship, in community, in a way that is bigger than themselves. And their souls sync and their souls link to the past and to the future in a way that matters to them in the moment. And then, they too wake up to find that they have become sentinels, stewards of this holy ground, held in trust, where they come because they belong.
Aren’t there other places they could go? Sure there are… clubs & gyms & boards & charities. Is Epiphany really all that unique?
As we’ve been leading up to the ingathering today, I have been asking parishioners, “Why wouldn’t Epiphany be one of your top philanthropies?” It is a question that often gives people pause…Philanthropy, after all, comes from the Greek root words, philia, meaning love, and anthropos, meaning humanity. Philanthropy is a word that means loving ones neighbor. “Why wouldn’t Epiphany be one of your top philanthropies?”
One person responded, “I didn’t think the church needed the money.” – That’s wrong. Another answered, “It is so hard to measure the effectiveness of church. Other charities track their impact with charts and statistics.” – That’s true. Another replied that, “Well, I always just assumed the church would be here.” Imagine, if it were not.
Lately I’ve been listening to C.S. Lewis read from his book The Four Loves. It is amazing and worth the time. He speaks of four loves using their Greek names, storge, philia, eros and agape. Storge is the love of affection. It is an easy, familiar, unconscious type of love. Philia is the love between friends. Eros the love between lovers. And agape the love God has for humanity and we, as Christians, try to share with one another.
Storge, or affection, was new to me… not affection itself, but the word for this type of love. Storge is a base love Lewis says, part of the milieu of creation that even animals share. It is what we see in those photos of a lion and a lamb. It is a mysterious kind of love we only realize we are living in after we have been living in it for some time. We never catch storge at the moment of its beginning, like we might with philia or eros. We only become aware of storge by its continuing presence.
Christianity is something like that.
So is gin, according to C.S. Lewis. As a consistent Anglican, he furthers his point by making a reference to alcohol. Lewis says, “If we were talking about alcohol, our section on gin would certainly note the fact that besides being a drink in its own right, gin is an excellent base or medium for several mixed drinks” (some of you know that to be true). Storge is similarly the base or medium for the other loves. Affection, after all, always precedes, in every case, even when we are not aware of it, the loves of philia, eros and agape.
And so here is the point I am making. As storge is to philia, eros and agape, so too is gin to a martini, and Christianity to philanthropy.
Christianity is the medium in which philanthropy is mixed, and arguably the base upon which philanthropy was built in the first place. The word philanthropy after all means love of humanity. Now as foundational as that idea may seem, it hasn’t always been so. Until Jesus, love was reserved for the family, or tribe, or city-state.
Jesus busted that paradigm by claiming an equality of love for all people, as initiated first by God.
Now maybe this revolutionary, radical, world changing love of Jesus is so well entrenched in the human psyche that there is no need for church.
But I’m not so sure. Neither was Lewis, who asked: “If we really know our neighbor, how indeed could we really love them?” By Jesus’ definition neighbor means everyone, and so we wonder, “Does that really include everyone? Especially today, can that really include everyone?” (Adam Lanza)
And on our own, our answer would probably be, “no,” which is why Lewis makes the claim for the necessity of Agape love… saying. “All other love fails in their fullness without the love of God.” Here are his words: “All creatures are temporary,” Lewis writes. “Just as you can’t have a spoken sentence unless each word, after filling the air for a moment, passes away and gives room for the next,” so goes the loves of storge, philia, and eros. They go away. What remains is agape, the love of God.
If love is to mean, in the long run, happiness and not misery, love’s preference must be for the only beloved that does not pass away… that is God.
Jesus eternalizes this love through the resurrection, and by his love we are given an abundance of love to love that neighbor even when they are not all that loveable.
But would agape love continue if the church were to disappear? Is agape love so a part of us that if God were forgotten, philanthropy would remain? If God’s love were forgotten would any of the other loves matter?
I wonder this as I stand in the Memorial garden and read the names on the columbarium wall. As I stand in that garden I notice it as a garden, a place we tend, to weed and fence in, so food can grow, spiritual food, to feed the world. And it is a hungry world indeed. What we do here matters! No place else does what we do.
We are a little out-post for agape love. We hold this space, in this place, as a colony that reflects the kingdom of God.
We are an outpost where the love of God is articulated, practiced and known.
We hold this love so we can give it away beyond these walls to the world. We hold this love so future generations can know it and pass it forward.
We are sentinels of this place. It is where we gather, standing at our post, holding the line until we are relieved of duty.