Sermon for the 125th Anniversary of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Hailey, Idaho

Proper 23, Year A
October 12, 2008

Greetings from Episcopalians in Micronesia, Taiwan, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Europe, and the other 99 dioceses in the United States. They pray for you, and I hope you will pray for them.

Congratulations as you celebrate 125 years of constancy, endurance, and faithfulness to the gospel in this place. Have you ever though about the other Emmanuel Episcopal Churches? There are actually a significant number of Episcopal churches who call themselves Emmanuel – 90 of them, in fact. Dick and I were married in Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Orcas Island, WA, a church that’s been there since 1885. Emmanuel, Grass Valley, CA, is the oldest Episcopal church in CA, built around 1850, during the Gold Rush. Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Chestertown, Maryland has been there since before 1720, when the first wooden church was knocked down to build a brick one like this. In 1780, that church was the site of a convention that proposed the name “Protestant Episcopal Church” for the post-Revolutionary War Anglican presence. In 1789 that became the official name of our Church throughout the former colonies.

It’s easy for most of us to think ours is the only one. We’re pretty convinced that no other faith community can be quite as good. It’s something like the T shirt that says, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” Your name reminds us that God is with us, that we are all God’s favorites. The secret is that it’s true everywhere, even when we forget or aren’t paying attention. As you celebrate your anniversary, give thanks for the other 89 Emmanuel churches, and pray that they, too, may flourish as they seek to serve their communities, whether they’re in Switzerland or Puerto Rico or Hawaii.

Those wanderers in the desert were having a hard time remembering that God was with them. They’d been waiting for Moses for an awfully long time, and they were losing hope of seeing him again. If he’d been there, he’d have heard them whining, “why did you lead us out here to die?” They were so anxious they decided to build a concrete substitute. As the psalm puts it, they exchanged their glory, the glory of God, for the image of an ox that eats grass. How low can we go?

But the more surprising thing is the conversation between Moses and God. God discovers what Aaron and the escaped slaves are up to, and tells Moses to hurry down off the mountain. God even calls them “your people” (Moses’ people), as if to say, “they’re not going to be my problem any more. You go deal with them. I’ve had it.”

But Moses, wily soul that he is, works a deal. “Well, I AM, sir, do you really want those Egyptians to mess with your reputation? Do you want them to say you lured these people out of Egypt just to kill them? Aren’t you better than bait and switch? Don’t you remember those guys Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that you made promised land and descendants?” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

What kind of a God threatens to treat his people like that? Maybe a God beyond our understanding. It’s always seemed more important to me to notice how the story ends, rather than what happens in the middle. Somehow, God does seem to deal with us like that – judgment only comes at the end of all things, not in the middle, as riled up as God might get.

But what do we do with that gospel story? The king throws a party for his son, and nobody bothers to show up, and they probably didn’t even bother to RSVP. So he throws the doors open and invites in anybody off the street. When he notices that somebody has dared to come to the party in his workout clothes, he has a fit and says, “throw the bum out.”

Is this like showing up in a polo shirt at a restaurant that requires men to wear ties – and the snooty host won’t loan you one? Or is it more like a sixth grade dance, where most of us just feel incredibly awkward, knowing that we must be overdressed or underdressed, and somehow knowing that whatever we wear, we’re never going to be comfortable in our own skins?

When Jesus finishes his parable with “many are called but few are chosen” I think he’s trying to say that it’s about being ready for a wedding feast, no matter what we’re doing. It’s more like what Shug and Celie are talking about in The Color Purple:

Shug: More than anything God love admiration.
Celie: You saying God is vain?
Shug: No, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.

If we’re not ready to notice the glory of creation or the banquet that invites all comers, well, we pretty much toss ourselves into outer darkness.

So, how do we change our clothes? How do we get ready to admire the purple or go to the banquet? Changing clothes is probably more about a state of being than worrying about the outer garment – it is more like being aware of, and grateful for, our own skin. In some quarters, people are quite sure that the wedding robe is a baptismal garment. But being ready isn’t just getting baptized, but living a changed life. It’s a new way of living, it’s giving up your life in order to find it.

Several people have asked me in recent days how we can respond in this time of great financial crisis. Those who have put on their wedding garment are ready to share it with the naked – like the centurion who cut his cloak in two for the shivering beggar. The feasters at the party are ready to invite anyone who is hungry to share their table. The most generous folks I’ve ever met had the least in the world’s terms. Maybe having the bottom fall out of the financial markets can be seen as yet another invitation to the wedding banquet – for God does continue to invite us. Are we ready to accept the invitation?

Your readiness here in Hailey is an affirmation that Emmanuel, God really is with us, whatever the world dishes up. It is also an affirmation to your neighbors, here, in the rest of Idaho, and across the world. The invitation doesn’t come to us alone. The invitation comes to everyone in the street – strangers, friends, Americans, Nigerians, Koreans, and Iraqis. If we decline the invitation, we’ve only put ourselves in outer darkness. The party will continue, and like Moses, the folks at the party will continue to intercede on our behalf. “No, I AM, sir, you don’t want to give up on them – they’ll come around. Remember, you did invite everybody.” And what does God answer but, “Emmanuel.” I AM with you, whatever happens, whatever we may do, Emmanuel. May you show that to the world, in your thrift shop, in the way you greet strangers on the street. Emmanuel.