A Congregation of the Epiphany
| Ephesians 3:1-12
||Sun, January 5, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Seventy-five years ago a small group of people came together on this site to form “University Hill United Church.” The University was in its infancy and had only recently been located to the Point. The United Church of Canada was two and one-half years old. Seventy-five years later the rush of enthusiasm caused by that birth has given way to fatigue in much of the United Church of Canada. The heady optimism that came with visions of a national church has bumped into the painful realities of a secular, post-Christian culture of material wealth and technological prowess. Social gospel dreams of transforming the political landscape into an approximation of the Kingdom of God have taken shape, then decayed. With the United Church of Canada as a whole we, here, find ourselves in a season of transition and transformation. Of course, the historians and mothers in our midst remind us that our memories of birthing regularly forget the pain associated with that labourious exercise. It may be that these current days of struggling towards renewal and reformation in the church are more like our beginnings here than we realize.
Since its formation here three quarters of a century ago, this congregation has lived through three eras. Each era has been marked by a particular house of worship. For the first three decades we were an integral part of Union College of the United Church of Canada. For the first twenty-five years our ministers were the Principals of Union College. We worshipped in the chapel of “The Castle”, sharing it with the students, staff and faculty of the school. Then, for three decades we moved out on our own. We were a significant presence on the University Endowment Lands, our new large building a sign of our growth in numbers, size and influence. But there, over on University Boulevard, we were also one of the first United Church congregations in Vancouver to confront the end of the way things had been for the church in Canadian culture. The neighbourhood that had once come out of habit and convention and custom simply stopped showing up. We thought, at first, that we could solve the problem with a new program or with new music or with a new minister. But we began to realize that the changes were much bigger than that. Soon the structures that we had constructed - both the building and the institution - were no longer gift. They were now a hindrance and a burden. So, for the past decade and a half we have once more worshipped in the Chapel of the Theological College (making our live-in partnership with Union College and VST one that is nearing six decades in total. If not an official marriage, this common-law relationship surely represents a significant long term covenant). I am not sure what to make of all of this. But I am increasingly convinced that the peculiar and particular journey of this single congregation has importance for us and for the college and for the church of which we are but a small part. Something about the ways in which God has been faithful to us even while surprising us with unexpected endings and, even more, with a startling new beginning.
Like the college itself, our identity is no longer marked by its singular connection with the United Church of Canada. Instead, we are becoming a congregation that is representative of a diversity of denominations and cultures. I expect that those who were charter members of this congregation would be surprised by the number of continuing Presbyterians in our midst (given those very heated debates over union with the Presbyterians). But they would be even more surprised by the number of Catholics and Mennonites and Baptists and more who now call University Hill home. And they would wonder at our adoption of such traditional practices as the lectionary and the church year - a year which today brings us to the eve of Epiphany. I expect that this ancient festival of the church was little noticed in 1928 at the founding of this congregation. Today we can hardly ignore it, since it is the feast from which this Chapel takes its name. Unlike most United Church congregations we do not worship in a building which bears our name. This Chapel is not University Hill United Church. Rather, University Hill Congregation of the United Church worships in the Chapel of the Epiphany. This is not a trivial matter. It is crucially important that we have separated the building from our identity as a community. Our congregation is a people, not a location. But it is a people who are profoundly shaped by worship and by our worship space and habits and disciplines. In our brief history it is obvious that a significant component of our rebirth as a congregation occurred because we found a worshiping home in this Chapel of the Epiphany. These walls of glass opening onto the world, this wall of living stones, the sound of the bell and of the songs, the unhindered focal points of font, table and word - all these speak of the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ, in this place and people. So it seems right that our 75th anniversary falls three days short of the Feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany was once one of Christianity’s three most important celebrations. By the fourth Century it, along with Easter and Pentecost were the trio of major Christian holy days. In the Eastern church it marked the baptism of Jesus. In the Western church it has long been the day on which we celebrate the revealing of God in Christ to all outsiders. Epiphany is the festal day of outsiders, of those who do not belong, who do not know it all, who are for whatever reason excluded from the inner circle of the faithful. All religions and all politics and all cultures fall into habits of inclusion and exclusion. Even communities that call themselves “inclusive” necessarily exclude those who do not accept their terms of inclusion. In truth, the language of inclusion often hides all manner of fundamentalist exclusivity. On the festal day of Epiphany the church remembers and celebrates that on Easter and on Pentecost and at Christmas the God revealed in Jesus Christ continually breaks out beyond our habitual exclusions and our assumptions about ourselves. This is the mystery that astounds Paul even as he suffers imprisonment as a result. He still can hardly believe what he has come to know in his bones. “That is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Eugene Peterson’s translation of this same text says it well: “The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming, across the board.”
Here, seventy-five years after our formation as a Congregation, we are just beginning to comprehend the awesome mystery that lies at the heart of our life. We are, it turns out, called to something much bigger, much harder, much more wonderful and much more dangerous than simply being a congregation in the United Church of Canada. We are, like every other congregation of Christ’s church, called to be a congregation of the Epiphany. We are, like Paul, commissioned to “bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ ... so that through the church the wisdom of God in all its rich variety might be made known to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Do you hear? We once thought that the task of bring good news of the riches of Christ to outsiders belonged to the missionaries that we sent to distant lands. Now we see that those who are outside of the knowledge of the riches to be found in Christ are all around us. In truth, we ourselves are regularly tempted to trust in the boundless riches promised by the idols of ease and success and power. But “the wisdom of God in all its rich variety” that we are to make known “to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” is a foolish wisdom. It knows that the riches of Christ come through the sharing of another’s suffering and grief. The wisdom of the God met in Jesus looks like utter foolishness in a world of domination and coercion. A congregation of the Epiphany will reveal in its life together and in the world that God’s wisdom and Christ’s riches come are discovered in highly unexpected ways of being. A Congregation of the Epiphany resists idolatry. It trusts its life to the wisdom of God and invests its future in the boundless riches of Christ. Can this be? Can this be who we are and who we are becoming? It is a huge mystery. The historians and the anthropologists and the sociologists all have their logical, rational, objective explanations for the formation of communities like this one. But the theologians and the poets and the mystics and the prophets know what the scientists of culture do not see. They know that God in Christ is up to something terribly wonderful within every culture and beyond every boundary. They know that the mystery that is revealed in Jesus Christ changes everything and calls out congregations of those who will never be the same because of this good news. This mystery, this epiphany, this gospel is not of our doing. The good news is that it is not, finally, up to us. With our ancestors in the faith we live in awe and wonder at God’s promise to save this lost world and to make new our forsaken souls. It is a promise that God is keeping in Jesus Christ ... and in our changing lives and life together. Amen.