1 Peter 2.1-5,9-11
+ I am going to do something this morning that is a bit hypocritical of me. I once knew a preacher who loved to preach with a Bible in his hand. He would walk around as he preached, holding that Bible, maybe occasionally raising it up, or waving it at people. But…never once during his sermon did he ever actually open it. At one event at which this preacher was preaching, Mark Strobel, the current Dean at Gethsemane Cathedral, leaned over and motioned to the unopened Bible this preacher waved at us, and whispered, “Prop! That Bible's a prop!”
Well, I hate to admit this but…I am going to use a prop this morning in my sermon. And I apologize in advance for my hypocrisy in doing so. But, this is a photo of the dedication of St. Stephen’s way back, 60 years ago, on September 9, 1956. This was the day congregation first gathered to break ground. They would go from here to celebrate Holy Communion at the El Zagel Clubhouse earlier in the year, before the building was built. The church building that we are in would be completed by Christmas Eve, 1956.
But, it’s a great photo. After Mass today, I am going to invite you to look closely at
Now, the names of these people are on the back on the photo and I looked them all up the other day. It seems, from the information I was able to find, everyone in this photo, except for the little boy in front, is no longer with us. They have all passed on to the nearer presence of God. In the case of Bishop Emery, some of them died in particularly unpleasant circumstances (his vehicle was struck by a train in Grand Forks in February 1964).
But in this photo, in this one instance, in this one frozen moment in time, as they stood there in an open field north of Fargo, with the VA Hospital in the background, all that was to come, all that was to be, this moment we are gathered here today right now, is all in their hopeful future.
In many ways, those people in that photo were kind of like prophets. They trusted in God enough to know that what they were doing that day would gain fruition. God would somehow work through their actions, even if they would never live to see that fruit.
And we, today, 60 years later, are thankful for those people who gathered together to look into the future, and to hope. The future that was laid out before those people in 1956 would be very different than anything they could have imagined.
Now, I’ve done this before, but I’ll do it again. Let’s go back to that first Sunday in September 1956. Let’s go back to Sunday morning, September 9, 1956. On this particular Sunday in 1956, it was truly a different America. The number one song in the country that Sunday morning was “Don’t Be Cruel” by Elvis Presley. In fact, that very night Elvis would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show—“coast to coast with your favorite host.” The number one book in the country that morning was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. 1956 was an election year—a very different election year than this one, let me tell you. The current president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would be going up against the Democratic hopeful, Adlai Stevenson, who would lose that November. What I wouldn’t do to have an election like that one!
According to the records, there were 51 people at that service. By the end of that year, there would be 51 communicants (39 of whom came from Gethsemane 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.
Those are things those people in 1956 no doubt expected and hoped for. But there were things in the future they could never have expected. Now, if you look closely at the photo, you’ll see that almost half of the people were women. Women who, in 1956, were not allowed to hold any official governing position in the Church. But women were instrumental in making sure this congregation was formed.
Within 15 years, life and society would change drastically. And within twenty years, St. Stephen’s would be the first congregation in this diocese to have a woman lay reader, a woman Senior Warden and a woman acolyte.
That lay reader and Senior Warden were the same person, Elthea Thacker, who died on November 29, 2002 (I actually assisted at her Requiem Mass at the Cathedral when I was there—her ashes actually showed up “fashionably late” for that service). That first female acolyte was Susan Frear, who is here with us this morning, along with her mother, Clotine, who also was a very instrumental parishioner in this congregation. And by 1985, St. Stephen’s would be the first congregation in this diocese to call a woman priest as their rector. And she is here as well this morning, Sandi Holmberg.
Now for us, here and now, in this time, it seems amazing that these were issues at all. For me, as a priest who has only known an Episcopal Church in which women always had equal leadership with men, it still baffles me to think of a time when this was not the case.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shared this tory with Sandi, but the first time I ever attended any Episcopal church was way back in January 1995. And it was here in this congregation of St. Stephen’s. And one of the reasons I was so drawn to the Episcopal Church that morning was because Sandi was the priest. A woman was celebrating Holy Eucharist. It was amazing and wonderful to me, as former Roman Catholic. A woman could be a priest in the Church and no one seemed, at least to me on that cold morning in 1995, to even think otherwise about it.
But as Sandi, and Susan and Elthea would tell you, what they did was a BIG deal. And it wasn’t easy, at times. To be the first to do anything is hard. It involves breaking ground that has never been broken before.
We are grateful this morning for them and for their vision, for their foresight, for prophetic witness and for the fact that each heeded that call from God to move forward and to do what needed to be done. Even if it meant facing the unfairness and the inequality that existed (and, sadly, still exists in some places). It meant exposing themselves to criticism and scrutiny that was, no doubt, extremely difficult.
15 years ago today, on September 11, 2001, among the many brave and amazing people who died that day, one very great man died in the attacks on the Twin Towers. He too was a pioneer and prophet in the Church. Father Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and Fire Department Chaplain, also was a maverick to some extent, as an openly gay (though celibate) priest in the Roman Catholic Church.
The day before the attacks, he preached a sermon in the Bronx. In that sermon, he said this (and it’s really amazing when you think about it):
“You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and surprise. You have no idea…what God is calling you to. But [God] needs you…so keep going.”
This sounds so very much like the quote from St. Catherine of Siena that we find on our newly dedicated window this morning:
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”
Those first women who bravely did what they were called to do did just that. And we too are called in just that way.
We, this congregation of St. Stephen’s, we too are prophets. We too are mavericks. We too are looking forward into our future with bright and hopeful eyes, just like those people back in 1956. We do what God calls us to do, even when it is not popular, even when it is difficult, even when people and the organized Church and society opposes us and snubs us and turns their backs on us and tells us, “You can’t do that.”
We know God has called us. We know that because God has called us, we have to show up, we have to put one foot in front of another, and we have to do our job as Christians, as lovers of God and followers of Jesus. And it all is a mystery and a surprise. But, on wonderfully good days, it is also a joy.
God needs us. So we must keep going.
Those who have gone before—those who stood in that open field on that day in 1956 and heeded God’s call, who knew God was planning something wonderful for that space of ground in the middle of that field—they are still with us. They are here today with us as we gather to celebrate God’s mystery, to share this Body and Blood of Jesus. They are here, just on other side of that very thin veil that separates us from them. We are thankful this morning for them and for their vision. And we are thankful for those who are on this side of the veil who also led the way. We are thankful to Susan and Sandi and all those people who listened to God as God called them.
This morning, we are God’s own people who, according to our reading from First Peter this morning, are being called to “proclaim
the mighty acts of [God] who called [us] out of
darkness into [that] marvelous light.”
That was the same call made to Elthea and Susan and Sandi and Bishop Emery and those people who smile back at us from that black and white photo from 1956. We are each being called to continue to their vision, to continue to do what God calls us to do.
So, let us show up. Let us put one foot in front of the other. Let us do the job God has called each of us to do. What we are doing is a mystery. And every day is certainly a surprise. But God needs us. So…let’s keep going. And if we do, if we keep going, if we keep being who God meant us to be, we—all of us—will set the world on fire.