“Not only with our lips but in our lives”.
Today we finish our series of sermons on Anglican Basics. My topic is “Being a practicing Episcopal Christian at Emmanuel”, taking what Mother Beth talked about over the last 3 weeks and putting it into practice, living it here in this place and within this group of people.
Having worshiped in this particular Episcopal community for nearly 48 years it is hard to know where to begin, or perhaps more importantly where to end!
It is just that I have so many stories from so many years. I look out on you from this pulpit and I see so many wonderful people, each of you trying your best to live out your faith, coming here week by week for renewal, for solace, for strength and then going back into your own part of the world to practice your faith. The thing is it’s not just you that I see from this pulpit; it is 48 years of people who have sat in these same pews and worshiped at this same altar. There are so many people who have called Emmanuel home. And it is the people who make each Eucharistic community unique.
Being an Episcopal church, we are led by a bishop (the root of the word Episcopal means bishop) and our current bishop is Daniel Martins. Emmanuel is a part of the Diocese of Springfield, geographically the area of Illinois east of Peoria, south of I-80 stretching to the southern tip of the state. The diocese is known as a traditional and more orthodox part of the national 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 and currently we have members on the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee, the Diocesan Council and the Trustees. Each year at the annual meeting of the diocese, the Synod, Emmanuel sends elected delegates to participate in diocesan decisions.
All of this is to say that Emmanuel is a part of the larger church and we take the responsibility that goes with that seriously.
So what is it that makes Emmanuel unique? How do we put into practice working and praying and giving for God’s kingdom in this particular place?
This morning I have decided to speak about some of the things that I see as characteristics of Emmanuel. I cannot talk about everything so if I leave out your favorite part, please don’t be offended.
When one enters here, whether for the first or the thousandth time the beauty of this space is striking. Having just celebrated the centennial of the building you may remember that this structure was given by the Polk family in memory of their three sons who each had a tragic death. That is why we are Emmanuel MEMORIAL in our full name.
Reminiscent of European medieval churches, this worship space 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. And the pipe organ which was added at the same time, gives a gorgeous sound appropriate to the structure. The carved wooden organ façade fits perfectly with the other wood throughout this space. The hangings and fabric appointments have a beauty of their own.
The new stained glass windows above the organ console as well as the Canterbury stone in the back fit in perfectly with the overall style and in my opinion look as if they had always been here. Everything taken together as a whole makes for a visually beautiful space.
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.”
The beauty does not stop with the building itself. The music and the liturgy fit with the style of the building. There is deep beauty and dignity to the music, the words and the actions of the services. Never shallow or merely a show, everything done here is with a great sense of reverence and understanding that we worship God in all we do.
So, one of the traits I find at Emmanuel is Beauty.
Another characteristic of Emmanuel that I have experienced is that we are a microcosm of the larger Episcopal Church and the larger world outside the church. On most any subject: polity, style of worship, political issues, economic issues, you name it, represented in this congregation are all sorts of opinions! And by the way, that includes 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 do not shed our own identity when we enter this place; we bring our differences together here to give glory to God. We have unity in what is most important, and respect for the diversity of people’s differences in the rest. All are genuinely welcome here.
So, the second characteristic of Emmanuel that I note today 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 utility expenses is part of the ongoing work at Emmanuel. In just a few weeks Emmanuel will participate in the empty tomb sponsored “Week of Grace” to deliver food to many families in these two cities. All of this is able to happen because of the generosity of parishioners, of your generosity and of those who have come before you.
Two long-term on-going outreach 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 second one.
The sack lunch program at Emmanuel began in the late 70’s at the request of the assisting priest, Larry Phillips. Because this church is located near West Side Park, Father Phillips would receive regular requests for food from people coming to the door. While he wanted to help them he did not feel comfortable giving out cash directly. So Father Phillips came to a small group of women asking them to make up bag lunches that he could give to the hungry coming to the door.
At first these 25 lunches a month consisted of actual sandwiches. Then due to health regulations the content changed to pre-packaged items such as pop top cans of fruit and the ever-popular Vienna sausages!
Now some 40 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 then assembled by various groups of dedicated people and handed out at Emmanuel’s door daily by a group of parishioners as well as staff. As I said, Emmanuel is known in the wider community for its generosity.
I will tell one story this morning; this happened at the office door this past week. A man came for a lunch that I had not seen in about a year. He told me he had been in Chicago and had fallen on hard times there. It ended up that he was in the “tent city” with other homeless people. He said that place had no hope in it. It was so sad. There were not people who offered them a smile each morning with a bag of food; there were no soup kitchens near-by. Everyone had a blank look and was fearful of others. This man’s brother encouraged him to come back to Champaign-Urbana where he would have help. And so he had come and was soon to move into a small section 8 apartment. He said that as much as he appreciated the food from this church, he appreciated the smiling faces of those greeting him as they gave him the lunch even more. Then he quietly said, “God has blessed me in this place today. Thank you, Jesus. God bless this church for the hope you offer each day!” And as he was leaving he turned back and yelled, “God bless you all!”
Lest we forget, God has and does bless us here.
Appreciation of beauty, historical connection, traditional worship, having unity of core beliefs through respect of diversity on issues, offering generosity, Emmanuel is this and much more. I know I am leaving things out. The way this community supports 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.
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 12 different opportunities to come into this space to pray corporately. While the group of worshipers is often small it is very faithful. Those who attend regularly find it an important part of their piety. Larger than this small group are those who cannot be present in person who regularly pray where they are, for the people of Emmanuel. Occasionally some person will come to pray in this space, when they have received good news and they come to give thanks to God. Other days someone will come who has received very bad news; they want to listen to scripture and prayer to be reminded of the largeness of God’s loving care. Sometimes one of our brothers or sisters who live on the streets will come in to get warm and to rest but they too want to give thanks to God 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 worshiped in these pews who are now a part of the 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 the root of everything else we may be. Emmanuel has now and has always had a foundation of Prayer.
We are a vibrant part of the Diocese of Springfield, a place of Beauty, a space of welcome and generosity and all our work is grounded in prayer; this is Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church.
Today I remind us that all of these traits were passed on to us by those who have gone before. Now it is up to us to carry out, to refine and to make happen what it means to be a practicing Episcopal Christian at Emmanuel. We must each work and pray and give to support God’s kingdom in this special place.
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.”
God has richly blessed us.
May it continue to be so.
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