Today we continue in our series of sermons on Anglican Basics and my topic is “Being an Episcopal Christian at Emmanuel”. Having worshipped in this particular Episcopal community for nearly 45 years it is hard to know where to begin, or more importantly, where to end!
It’s just that I have so many stories from so many years. There have been many wonderful people who sat in these pews before, as well as many wonderful people who still are here. In all honesty the people are a large portion of what makes each “Eucharistic community” unique. That is our Bishop’s term for the churches in the diocese, “Eucharistic communities”. Episcopal and Bishop come from the same root word and that is part of what defines us as a denomination. All Episcopal churches respect and follow their Bishop.
Emmanuel is a part of the Diocese of Springfield, geographically the area of Illinois east of Peoria, south of I-80 to the southern tip of the state. The diocese is known as a traditional and more orthodox part of the Episcopal Church. Emmanuel is well respected in the diocese by both clergy and laity. Through the years, members of this parish have served in many leadership roles such as Department Chairs of Evangelism, Christian education, Stewardship, Communication, Anti-Racism, and other positions such as Trustees, Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, Deans and more.
Each year at the annual meeting of the diocese, the Synod, Emmanuel sends elected delegates to participate in diocesan decisions. The polity of the church defines all of these responsibilities in its constitution and canons. If you are interested, there are many opportunities to read more about it. This morning I mention it to say that we at Emmanuel are a part of the larger church and that we take the responsibility that goes with that seriously. When the Bishop calls, the answer is almost always yes unless you have a very good reason to decline!
So how best for me to focus my remarks this morning? I have decided to speak about some of the things that I see as characteristics of Emmanuel.
I will also tell a few true stories to illustrate and to help remember these characteristics. I cannot talk about everything so if I leave out your favorite part, please don’t be offended.
One thing that is noticeable from the first time one enters here is the beauty of this space. The current building, constructed in 1917 after the first building on this site was damaged by fire, was given by the Polk family in memory of their three sons who each had a tragic death. That is why the word “memorial” is in our full name.
Reminiscent of European medieval churches, this building was designed in the Norman Gothic style by Ralph Adams Cram. Light coming through the stained glass windows causes the colors to dance on the walls at certain times of the day and year. The stone flooring put in in the early 90’s has a beauty all its own. At that same time, the pipe organ was added which gives a beautiful sound appropriate to the structure. The carved wooden organ façade fits perfectly with the other wood throughout this space. The hangings and fabric appointments all add to the overall beauty.
Architect Crams wrote this about Emmanuel, “The building is intended to be a sermon in fabric, glass, wood, and stone. [A person entering here] should come away from the place knowing that they have been in the presence of the Holy.”
After a long period of hospitalization a young woman who had grown up here, came straight to Emmanuel upon her release and asked to just sit in the church. She had seen and experienced so much that was unpleasant and ugly during time she had been in the hospital that she wanted to drink in the quiet, beauty of the space.
Certainly the style of liturgy here fits with the style of the building. There is deep beauty and dignity to the music and the words and the actions of the services. Everything is done with a great sense of reverence.
After some diocesan event held here, one of the older clergy, well-trained in the practice of liturgy, came to me with a smile and said in his best British accent, “Good show, jolly good show!” Now one might not think that always a compliment. Our liturgy is never shallow or merely a show. But that is not what he meant and coming from this particular man, it was a great compliment. Our style of worship is a part of the traditional beauty found here.
So my first trait is Beauty.
Another of the characteristics of Emmanuel I have seen, is that we are a microcosm of the larger Episcopal Church. On most any subject: polity, style of worship, political issues, represented in this congregation are all sorts of opinions, including some who do not care about the subject, no matter what it is. On a proverbial bell curve Emmanuel has people on all parts of that curve and yet we come together week by week to worship the same God. We have unity in what is most important, and respect for the diversity of people’s differences in the rest.
Here is an example. Some years back contract negotiations at one of the nearby universities had come to an impasse and a mediator had been called in. The negotiations had been heated and lengthy. As it happened, the head mediator and the head negotiator representing the faculty were active, worshipping members of Emmanuel. On the Sunday following the first late-night session with the mediator, both men came to the same service. As luck would have it one of the prominent members of the administration was also here. Most others in the congregation had no idea of the heated contractual arguments because each worshipped the same God and were able to greet the other in the usual way that Christians greet one another.
They were vocal opponents on certain matters but there was a deep foundational agreement on the larger picture of belief and worship of God.
So, the second characteristic is unity through diversity.
The next trait is generosity. People at Emmanuel give freely of their time and their money. We take seriously the gospel message to help others in need. Larger outreach through the years has included assisting “empty tomb” with their current building, helping the Crisis Nursery with a major financial emergency, providing funding for 20+ houses in Honduras, filling an ark with animals, giving to make shallow wells, solar cookers, and mosquito netting in poorer areas of the world, offering large food distributions locally and more. Helping individuals with unusual medical bills or housing expenses is a part of the ongoing work at Emmanuel. All of this is able to happen due to the generosity of parishioners.
A new relationship with empty tomb is underway now to meet the expressed wishes of parishioners to have more face-to-face opportunity to assist others.
Two long term regular programs at Emmanuel are participating in the weekly distribution of food to families referred by empty tomb and the daily sack lunch program. I want to say more about this particular effort.
The sack lunch program began in the late 70’s at the request of the then assisting priest, Larry Phillips. Because the church is located near West Side Park Father Phillips would receive daily requests for food from people coming to the door. While he wanted to help them, he did not want to give out cash directly. For a while he had an arrangement with the convenient store across the street. He could send someone there; they would give them a sandwich and Larry would go over later to settle up. The store changed management and no longer sold sandwiches. So, Father Phillips asked a few women to make up bag lunches that he could give out to the hungry coming to the door.
I was a part of that group of women. At first we made actual sandwiches and would give out perhaps 25 a month. Then due to health regulations the contents of the lunches changed to pre-packaged items such as pop top cans of fruit and the ever popular Vienna sausages! Now some 35 years later we give out ten dozen lunches a week; that is almost 500 a month. Items used in the lunches are purchased from the Foodbank, Sam’s Club and local grocery stores. They are assembled by various groups of dedicated people and handed out daily by some parishioners as well as staff.
As I said, Emmanuel is known for its generosity. So here is my story about this trait. For many years Urbana High School has provided a dinner on Thanksgiving for anyone who would otherwise be alone. Transportation to and from the meal was available, if needed. Some years I volunteered to be a driver. One year my pick-ups were in the general area of downtown Champaign. I had four people to get and most of the four had some level of mental impairment.
One of the women in the car was particularly talkative and gave a running commentary to the others of everything we were passing. It so happened that after I had everyone in the car, I drove down State Street. I had tuned out the conversation and was paying attention to the road. As we paused for the stop light at University and State the woman said, “Look at that red door on that church.” (Now, remember, she had no idea who I was other than the person driving them to the meal.) Then she said, “Now listen to me, all of you.” With this she pointed to me and said, “You listen too. That place is where you go if you ever need any help and I tell you, they will help you. That’s a real church”, she said.
Beauty, historical connection, traditional worship, unity of core beliefs through respect of diversity on issues, generosity, Emmanuel is this and much more. I am afraid I am leaving many things out. The way we support each other is phenomenal. In times of sadness and in times of joy we can always turn to a brother or sister, Emmanuel is right there offering whatever is needed. Certainly the long running Easter Egg project is a way of providing emotional and spiritual support to those who construct them as well as financial support to various church needs. All of these characteristics are part of being an Episcopal Christian at Emmanuel.
The final characteristic I will speak about is the most important for me personally. That is what is done here rests on the foundation of prayer.
Each week there are at least 13 different opportunities to come into this space to pray corporately. While the group of worshippers is often small it is very faithful. Those who attend regularly find it an important part of their piety.
Then on some days a person will come who has just received good news; they come to give thanks to God. On other days someone will come who has received very bad news; they just need to listen to scripture and prayer to be reminded of the larger picture of God’s loving care. Occasionally one of our brothers or sisters who live on the streets will come in to get warm and rest, but they too want to give thanks for continuing to survive. All of those daily prayers as well as the Sunday morning prayers are here, in this space. For me, I can sense the prayer that has gone on here when I open the doors. Standing where I am now, I can see those who have worshipped in these pews who are now a part of the great cloud of witnesses. The room is full of them and their prayers too.
Emmanuel is a place of Prayer, reverent prayer that includes us but also extends beyond any of our, personal time here. This is a sacred space where we can know and meet and worship God. And for me that is at the root of everything else we may be. Emmanuel is a place of prayer.
A vibrant part of the Diocese of Springfield, Beauty, Unity through diversity, Generosity, and being Grounded in Prayer; this is Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church. Remember Ralph Adams Cram’s words: “A person entering here should come away from this place knowing they have been in the presence of the Holy.”
For 45 years for me, that is true. May it always continue to be.