“Give us grace, O God, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
As I thought about preaching at this Annual Meeting, one of the things I did was to read through annual reports for the past several years, just to re-live the journey we’ve been on together so far. I’m halfway through my 6th year as your Rector. It’s hard to believe I’m already entering into a longer tenure than many priests experience these days (in the Episcopal Church, 5 years is the average length of time a priest stays at a parish.) It strikes me in one sense how much progress we’ve made together as a community, and in another sense how many of the issues we all saw a need to address back in 2014 are still posing some challenges for us.
Year by year, we’ve answered the call of our Savior by widening our circle of influence and our visibility in our geographical parish and the downtown. When the members of our parish who are working with our consultant from Partners for Sacred Places began phoning community leaders, it was a real delight to see how many of them were now well aware of us and how readily they agreed to serve on our Advisory Committee. I remember well going to my first Champaign Center Partnership gathering shortly after I arrived and finding that some of the same individuals who in 2019 said an immediate yes to collaborating with Emmanuel, back then could not quite place what and where Emmanuel even was. We’ve made real progress. Good job, all of you.
We’ve also answered the call of our Savior by widening participation in our congregational life, seeing a steady stream of visitors and new members from all kinds of backgrounds and who represent all kinds of reasons for living in Champaign-Urbana. The pews, the frontlines of outreach and liturgical ministries, the Vestry, more and more places in our congregation show the kind of open mixture of shorter and longer term parishioners, and of different ages and generations, that Emmanuel had been hoping to build. 1662 Evensongs, the Easter Vigil, and the late Mass on Christmas Eve in particular now offer us major opportunities to show hospitality and love to people who come here drawn by things they can’t really find in other places. A yoga studio, a big box seeker-oriented church, a social justice organization, or a regular dinner gathering of friends all offer valuable things, but we offer something else, and people need it, and we can help them find it.
We’ve also answered our Savior’s call as we’ve seen steady, though small, growth in pledging every year, and as a group all of you have now begun outgiving the goals you set for yourselves, which is a great thing to be able to say. (Though there are still more people who don’t have any giving record here than who do, which shows we have a way to go in grasping God’s own generosity to us.) We’ve also seen steady, though small, growth in individual lay participation in outreach activities. As you look, in the 2019 annual report, through the comments you guys submitted during this fall’s Wonder in All focus, you will see these and other wonders God has worked here highlighted.
And that’s not even mentioning working with RIP Medical Debt to forgive the bad debts of over 3000 folks from Central and Southern Illinois, to the tune of $4 million -- a creative initiative of generosity for which Emmanuel was featured in Episcopal News Service and USA Today. The day we announced that to me went a long way in testifying to what kind of community we’re growing into, what kind of Gospel truths motivate us, and how much we all have to be proud of about how this congregation has answered the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Of course, there are places that call could be more fully answered. Nearly every year we’ve noted the continuing challenge of building bridges across the diversity we have here – taking the time to learn the names of and to open your hearts to people who are far older or younger than you, or who have been here less time than you, or who care about things that don’t interest you. We’ve made very notable progress in initially greeting and welcoming people, but if Jesus is truly our center and the thing that unites us, we just will want to really get to know each other. That’s what the Holy Spirit does in communities. Let’s ask for it to happen here.
And there’s another thing that is making community and buy-in here hard. In last year’s report for the first time I took note of a trend of irregular participation in Sunday Mass, something which has only increased in 2019. Any given Sunday morning, easily half of our active parishioners are somewhere other than at the altar receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus; in fact, if all of our active parishioners came at the same time they could not fit in the building! The barriers this poses to our answering our Savior’s call effectively as a unified community of believers are big – and the barriers it poses to each of you steadily growing in Jesus Christ are bigger, especially in this time where most people receive several hours of non-Christian spiritual formation a week through cable news and social media.
Another reality that is becoming increasingly visually evident is the demographic hole Emmanuel has had for a decade-plus of adults ages roughly (now) 40-55, and as a corollary the elementary and high school age children that would often come along with adults that age. This group of adults, Generation X, is numerically the smallest generation in American society already. But whatever was going on that kept us from drawing and retaining Generation Xers back during their church-shopping stage, they are even more underrepresented at Emmanuel. Our large population of Millennials (roughly now 25-39) is very heartening and very unusual in the Episcopal Church, but we will have a wait of some years before any children of that generation move into ministries here, and of course many folks that age are still in transition themselves; we’ve had at least 4 or 5 very active members of the parish in their 20s and 30s move away for professional reasons in the past couple years. However, we can be extremely grateful for the faithful continued participation of our many Baby Boomers and of the remaining members of the Silent Generation who have made this place what it is. As in most mainline churches, their dedication has been a mainstay, especially in their constant willingness to take on routine service week after week, and to give in a steady and sacrificial way. Thank you.
As 2020 moves along, the call our Savior gave us first through our own visioning and then through the fire in the rectory will be coming clearer. You’ll hear more details over brunch. The parish team working with our national consultant Partners for Sacred Places was delighted by the first meeting last week of our team of community leaders as we look towards a major asset-mapping event for late spring 2020. This event will take off from the new opportunities offered by the rectory space and help us partner with others to use it, but it will also engage a wider conversation in service to the entire geographical parish. It’s a big deal. I can’t wait to see what God does with it.
So as we move into 2020, if you want to be part of Emmanuel becoming more able to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, here are the three most important things you can do:
As is probably true of every church, we have blessings and we have challenges. We have victories, and we have barriers. We are very privileged that God has given us the chance to serve Jesus Christ together in such a beautiful place with so many interesting opportunities at our doors as well as inside them. I am grateful for God’s call to lead in his Name and for all of our talented Emmanuel staff, our Mission leadership team and wardens, as well as for each and every one of you! We are Emmanuel, all of us, and God is at work.
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.