April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45
+ Today is, of course, a very special day here at St. Stephen’s. Today, we dedicate and bless our third stained glass window as part of the series of windows that will decorate our nave. As you’re probably guessed by now, these windows are commemorating ministries we do here at St. Stephen’s. And certainly with the window previous to this one you can see that we, as a congregation, have never shied away from controversial issues. In fact, if there’s a controversial issue, St. Stephen’s usually at the forefront of it. We have, consistently, stood up for issues that were cutting edge and potentially shocking, by some people’s standards, anyway.
The Mary and Martha window that we dedicated in September commemorated the ministries women paved here at St. Stephen’s. It was a great day to celebrate those women who were the first to serve as acolyte, and Senior Warden and priest here.
And today, we dedicate and bless our Integrity window.
Now, for me, what the Mary and Martha window represented seems to be a part of history for the most part. Dare I say, ancient history? To some extent, yes. Nothing about it seemed all that controversial for me. After all, I really, honestly don’t remember a time when women’s ministry—especially women’s ordained ministry—weren’t a part of the Church. So, what that window represents in many ways seems kind of like ancient history to me. By the time I came into active ministry in the Episcopal Church, women in ministry were very much the norm.
But…what we celebrate today in our Integrity window, well, now, that’s something else. I remember what it was like before.
Let’s go back, just a ways. Let’s go back twenty years. Let’s go back to 1997. Back in 1997, St. Stephen’s was already a part of my life. I had already attended my first Episcopal service, here at St. Stephen’s, two years before in 1995. The Episcopal Church was definitely a major part of my life by 1997. In that year, I was heading off to graduate school in Vermont to get my MFA. I was in my twenties. Life seemed pretty darn good. I was also very much into the latter stages of my own personal grunge period of life. (Let’s just say there was lots of flannel and unique facial hair and lots and lots of angst-driven poetry heavily influenced by the Smashing Pumpkins). I had aleady published two books of poems by that time and my third was due to be published that December.
And I can tell you this: nowhere, in any Episcopal or Lutheran or any other church I attended or knew of in 1997, would have had a window like this at that time. To have a window like this anywhere in any church I knew of would have been beyond cutting edge. Though, if any place would’ve had it in 1997, it would’ve been St. Stephen’s.
It was still the dark ages, for the most part, in the larger Episcopal church, regarding Gay Lesbian Bisexual or Transgender ministry. St. Stephen’s was certainly at the forefront of it all at that time. When other churches were either refusing to discuss issues of sexual identity, or were outright protesting or snubbing or excluding GLBT people, St. Stephen’s was talking about these issues. And were openly welcoming all people into this church.
St. Stephen’s was living up then—and continues to live up—to that all-important promise we make in the baptismal Covenant that is now proclaimed in that window:
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
And the answer here at St. Stephen’s has consistently been:
“We will, with God’s help.”
In 1997, I too was also there, at the forefront of it all too. Not here at St. Stephen’s (I was not a member of St. Stephen’s, and I definitely was not yet ordained) But I was in the muck of it then. And let me tell you—it seemed like an uphill battle at times. There would still be many years of struggle ahead. Many years of despair and a feeling as though nothing was going to change.
Unlike the time the Mary and Martha window represents, I can speak with some authority about what it was like being involved in GLBTQ ministry and life in 1997. I was there. I was doing it, as many, many of us here today were in 1997. We remember what it was like. And we remember how GLBT ministry in 1997 felt very much like that valley of dry bones we heard about in our reading from Ezekiel this morning. There was opposition. There was both open and subtle hostility. There was meanness and blatant discrimination. In fact, until that watershed year of 2003, that’s exactly what it really felt like. Dry bones.
And then, in 2003, came a change. It came in person of a very unassuming Episcopal priest. Gene Robinson. And everything changed.
In 2003, Gene Robinson, an openly gay and openly partnered priest, was elected the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. And the earthquake came. The bones rattled. And in the midst of that chaos and fearful clattering—and let me tell you, there was a lot of clattering—came a spark! A spark of life. Before we knew it, everything changed.
That summer of 2003, as General Convention met in Minneapolis and approved Gene Robinson as Bishop, the Church exploded over that decision. And St. Stephen’s was right there. Again, I wasn’t here at that time, but I remember St. Stephen’s being a vocal presence. In fact our very own Sandy Holbrook was a Deputy to that Convention, and several others of were present in 2003, showing their support for Gene Robinson.
I was right there too, again in the muck of it all. I was working for the Diocese at the time. A Diocese that, for the most part, spoke out on an official basis, against Gene Robinson and the decisions of that General Convention. None of that mattered to me, of course. I spoke out too. And I ended up being quoted extensively at that time. Some of my comments were published on the front page of the Fargo Forum. Others were recorded for Public Radio and NBC radio stations. (My mother saved all these, by the way).
What I said at the time was this: in 2003 we were 27 years out from the ordination of women. At that point the issue of women’s ordination was no longer an issue for anybody I knew , even the conservatives I knew. So, I said, it was my hope in 2003 that 27 years after the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, in 2030, everything that was bound up in his election as Bishop would not be an issue any longer.
Who would’ve thought that say those words would be considered controversial? But sometimes, asking people to look at the larger perspective of something is very frightening to them.
People lashed out at me for that statement. And lashed out hard! There were some mean and very ugly comments made to me and against me, as you can imagine.
But, as you’ve heard me say before, sometimes, speaking prophetically isn’t always fun. In fact, it’s often dangerous.
Well, it’s not quite 27 years after Gene Robinson. In fact, it’s only 14 years. And we’re not quite to the same point women’s ordinations were at in 2003. We’re not fully out of those woods. As long as we still have to stand up to the Church and ask for equal marriage rites, and equal ordination rights, we’re not out of the woods. Yet. But, as you’ve heard me echo so often especially lately, we’re on the right side of history on this one.
This is where we are on this Sunday in 2017. We’re right here. Here we are this morning. Here we are celebrating this beautiful window and every single thing it represents. Proudly. Without fear.
This morning, 14 years after Gene Robinson’s election, I can tell you this: we might not be out of the woods completely, but we are no longer in the valley of dry bones. We are no longer out there, all alone, in the wilderness, crying out.
My hope is that in another 13 years from now—in 2030—some young priest is going to look at this window and say, “Wow! I can’t believe a window like would’ve ever been controversial. It’s ancient history to me.” Those words will be music to my ears. And I hope they will be to yours too.
Any ministry we do that is controversial, that is unpopular, that runs counter to the status quo often feels like this. But, if it is of God, if God truly blesses it, if God’s Spirit is at work in the midst of this ministry, it cannot fail in the long run.
How do we know if what we do is ultimately a success? Well, scripture is clear on this. It is not successful if it bears no fruit. And this window this morning is a very clear and loud reminder to us of this ministry bearing fruit.
But, I also want to say a word of caution this morning. We should not relax too easily into your pews this morning. We should not sit back and wipe our hands and say, “well, that was a job well done!”
We are not done. There is still opposition. There are still people who avoid St. Stephen’s because of where we stand and how we stand. There are still people who snub us and look at us as renegades and rebels and, dare I say, anti-scriptural anti-Christians (which absolutely boggles my own mind!). We are not at the point yet when other churches in this diocese could put up this window as proudly as we do this morning.
There will be critics still. Trust me. People will criticize us for what we are doing this morning. There will be people who leave congregations like this for making a stand like this. There will be hate mail (which we’ve received it). There will be Christians and clergy and well-intended people who will lash out at us.
We’re not quite there yet. But…we’re close. We’re excruciatingly close. So, let us not rest on our laurels yet. Let us do what we’ve always done.
The dry bones have taken on flesh and life, but they are sometimes slow in moving completely out of the valley and into the world. For us we just have to do what we have always done.
We have to love. Love fully. Love completely. Love without limits.
Why? Because God loves us. And God is saying to us again and again in scripture to love one another as you want to be loved. God loves us. All of us. It is this love we find again and again in the words of Jesus and throughout scripture. Love—love God, love one another as you would be loved. We can’t do one without the other. It’s love that prevails and trumps condemnation. It’s love—that holy love that comes from God—that ultimately wins out. It is this love that I will hope and pray descends upon all of us like a cool summer shower. It is love that puts us squarely on the right side of history. That—love—is what this window represents and what we are called again and again to do in our lives.
So, let us bless this window with every ounce of hope and joy and love we have in us. Let us bless this window knowing that we are on the right side of history. And let us bless this window with the amazing life we are all living, that same life that gave life to those dry bones, the same life that brought Lazarus back from death, that same life God has given us and will not take away from us.