Genesis 28.10-17; 1 Peter 2.1-5,9-11
+ We’ve been doing this a lot lately in our sermons. We have been traveling around a lot through time. We went back a few months ago to 1974, to 1964. Well, today, we need to go back too. We’re going back to a bit more stable time—a more innocent time. Our trip is taking us back 58 years.
It is Sunday morning, September 9, 1956. On this particular Sunday in 1956, it was truly a different American. The country was caught up in Elvis-mania. In fact, that very night Elvis would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show—“coast to coast with your favorite host.” The number one song in the country was “Que Sera Sera” by Doris Day. The number one book in the country that morning was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. One of the top movies was The Bad Seed withNancy Kelly and Patty McCormack. It was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, who was from Jamestown, ND.
1956 was an election year. The current president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would be going up against the Democratic hopeful, Adlai Stevenson, who would lose that November.
But on this morning, the congregation of St. Stephen’s was officially dedicated. According to the records, there were 51 people at that service. It we think hard enough, we can almost imagine how people looked in church that morning. The women in hats and skirts, the men in suits and ties. And no doubt it felt like something was truly beginning.
By the end of that year, there would be 51 communicants (39 of whom came from the Cathedral) and a total of 94 baptized members listed. By 1958, there were 144 baptized members and 45 families and by Jan. 1, 1960, there were a whopping 214 members with 60 families.
Over the years, those numbers just kept going up. Within ten years, in 1968, the membership reached its number of 243 members.
Now, the story of St. Stephen’s is fascinating. In these almost 60 years, there have been ebbs and there have been flows. And throughout those 58 years this seemingly small congregation has been the first do many wonderful things.
+ The first woman Senior Warden in the Diocese.
+ The first woman priest to serve a congregation in the diocese.
+ The first congregation in the diocese to openly and unabashedly welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
+ The first to establish a chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.
+ The first to have a labyrinth.
Of course, there were hard time too. I have heard with great sadness the stories of what is called the “Exodus out” in the 1980s. It is sad to look through the parish records and see those numbers drop and dribble away for various reason throughout the 1980s.
But, here are, back in our own day. Here we are on this glorious morning in September of 2014. Here we are, 58 years into our ministry to the Church and the world. And we have a lot of celebrate this morning. I’ve had to catch myself a few times over these last few years so I do not fall into the trap of taking for granted what God has given us here at St. Stephen’s.
Just six years ago, in 2008, our membership was 55 members, which had remained pretty steady for about ten years previously. But this year, we can rejoice in the fact that we have more members here than we did in 1958. But we are more than just any of those things. We are more than just membership numbers. We are more than just an Average Sunday Attendance (which really has been good, by the way). We are a congregation that makes a difference.
Now, I know some people have joked about my so-called “cheerleading” of St. Stephen’s. But I take my job as cheerleader seriously. I have no problems with boasting about what God has done here. I have no qualms about boasting about what all of us are doing here at St. Stephen’s.
In our wonderful reading this morning from St. Peter, we find him saying,
“Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.”
When we look around us this morning, as we celebrate 58 years of ebb and flow in our congregation, we realize that truly we are on the receiving end of a good amount of mercy. We realize that mercy from God has descended upon us in this moment. And it is a glorious thing. And, as unbelievable as it might seem at times, we cannot take it for granted. We must use this opportunity we have been given. We realize that it is not enough to receive mercy. We must, in turn, give mercy. And we have done that here.
Now, I know some of us get a little uncomfortable when words like “liberal” or “progressive” are used to describe us. But, I think we should embrace our “progressive” title. Progressive for us means embodying mercy. When we look around us at other congregations, we realize we have something special here.
I hear stories again and again (and all of you have too) of churches that judge, that alienate, that become so caught up in rules and dogmas and following the smallest interpretation of the word of scripture, that they ride rough shod over others. Many of us were members of those churches before we came to St. Stephen’s. Many of us came here with our bruises, with our scars from those churches. Many of us came from those churches in which they forgot that the Church is not an exclusive country club for the elite few who all look alike, but rather a glorious and wonderful meal at which everyone—no matter who they are or what they or what they’ve done—are welcome.
I think we have done that very well here at St. Stephen’s. To those other churches, we might look like some ship of fools. But to God we are what the Kingdom will be like one day. If you want a glimpse of what awaits us, just look around as this morning. This is that place.
Here, mercy dwells. Mercy, as we all know, is elusive. We can’t pin it down. But we know it when it comes to us. And we know how to be merciful to others.
The way we properly and truly celebrate 58 years of St. Stephen’s ministry to the Church and the world is by giving thanks for the mercy we have received and are receiving at this moment. And we turn around and share that mercy with others. That’s what we’ve been doing here at St. Stephen’s from that very beginning way back in 1956.
We, this morning, are being called to echo what St. Peter said to us in our reading this morning. We, God’s own people, are being called to “proclaim
the mighty acts of [God] who called [us] out of
darkness into [that] marvelous light.”
We proclaim these mighty acts by our own acts. We proclaim God’s acts through mercy, through ministry, through service to others, through the worship we give here and the outreach we do from here.
I love being the cheerleader for St. Stephen’s. Because it’s so easy to do. God is doing wonderful things here through each of us. Each of us is the conduit through which God’s mercy and love is being manifested.
In our collect for this morning, we prayed to God that “all who seek you here [may] find you, and be filled with your joy and peace…” That prayer is being answered in our very midst today. And although it may seem unbelievable at times, this is truly how God works in our midst. God works in our midst by allowing us to be that place in which God is found, a place in which joy and peace and mercy dwell.
So, let us continue to receive God’s mercy and, in turn, give God’s mercy to others. Let us be a place in which mercy dwells. Because when we do we will find ourselves, along with those who come to us, echoing the words from our reading from St. Peter this morning,
“once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.”