I am grateful to Calvin for this opportunity to share with you some of my experiences over the last 50 years and how they were informed by Gospel passages that put a burr under my saddle, you might say, and directed my thoughts and my ministry. It’s all very personal. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you.
At the time of my ordination in May 1966, I was 25, but pretty much a child. I became rector the next year of a large church in Lynn, Massachusetts, where most of my children were born, and a few years later, rector of another large church in Providence, RI. I loved them, and they embraced me, but I had to persuade the search committees that youth is a curable disease.
At that time, pretty much everyone still went to church, usually the Methodist or Baptist or Congregationalist or Catholic or Episcopal Church. And most of us felt like Baptists or Lutherans etc. first, and Christians second, almost to the point of “Nyah, nyah, nyah…., we’re better than you are”– – almost. And there were more rules then. The Episcopal Church discouraged remarriage after divorce and excommunicated those who did remarry without a bishop’s permission, much as the Roman Catholic Church does now. That requirement slowly eased as our church realized that some spouses simply must escape debilitating or terrifying conditions that have nothing to do with canon law. As a church, our pastoral concerns began to inform our doctrine, and we awoke to the vast messy array of human life. Perhaps the change in approach to remarriage was the Episcopal Church’s first step toward the welcoming and inclusive church we have become.
So those more traditional church days gave way and took some members with them. In the late 60s and after, attendance and pledges declined, as the outside world tiptoed into our sanctuaries. Parishes and dioceses divided between people who supported and people who hated the Vietnam War, and between those who supported and those who hated the Black civil rights movement; between hippies and hawks. And within, we suffered divisions over a harsh decade of pressure to replace our 1928 Book of Common Prayer with a new liturgy, and we suffered through the Green Book and the Zebra Book, before arrival of the 1979 Prayer Book we have and love now. Many came to the new kicking and screaming – or left the church — mourning the loss of the Elizabethan English of 400 years’ usage and repelled by language that was certainly contemporary, but somehow less holy. And then came the passing of the peace, which we love today, but back then, many went apoplectic when unruly community invaded the old decorum.
So shrinkage set in, but, even so, many of us know-it-all, little boys in big pants clergy rejoiced over the 60s’ exploding new thoughts and their loosening of traditions that seemed insensitive to injustices that kept poor people, black people, and women in subservient places. It was a spring flood of change, and I had a wonderful time. No idea was too off the wall if it led to community enrichment or more equal rights and better opportunity for minority groups or pushed back old boundaries. We were enthralled by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. We wanted to “let the sun shine in;” we anticipated the “dawning of the age of Aquarius.”
As mainline churches shrank, some became more inward looking and self-protective, but those who remained with the Episcopal Church seemed more tuned in and committed than ever, and made it a new kind of jewel. Our church has really tried to keep faith with Jesus’ astonishing insight: “Inasmuch as you have done it (whatever you have done, good or bad) to the least of these my brethren (the most downcast and troubled), you have done it to me.” Over time, our Episcopal Church, which used to be sneered at as God’s “frozen chosen,” became a leader in contemporary movements for justice, music and liturgy. Again, our pastoral concerns informed and amended our doctrines.
So, my early ministry overlapped with that time, and even as I lamented the disaffection of many treasured members because of the juggernaut toward social justice, and modern language and liturgy; toward experimental music, and preaching that confronted world issues — still, I delighted in unearthing new ways of living out what I believe is the purpose Jesus set before us. It was for me good fortune and an honor to find myself in the thick (as far as a white person could be in the thick) of the black civil rights movement – in a multi-ethnic city and parish (St Stephen’s, Lynn, Mass.) preaching togetherness and affirmative action, starting schools for pre-first grade and for dyslexic neighborhood children, incorporating a foundation to fund black enterprises, building a couple of government-funded housing complexes for low-income people, all while gently confronting the parishioners who were reduced to doubt, confusion, and even anger by these directions. I played a small part, perhaps a little woodwind instrument, in the great orchestra of change, but I loved the music.
Over my ministry, I have become convinced that Jesus was more revolutionary than we used to think. He was inclusive before His time – inclusive of Jews and gentiles, of lepers and tax collectors, and of all religious and ethnic groups (when no one else did that) – inclusive of all, in short, who did not hurt others by hypocrisy and exploitation. His satirical invitation in John to those without sin to be first to throw stones at a woman caught in adultery paints a portrait both of His comfort of one in trouble and of His warning to hypocrites who judge others harshly and themselves not at all. John 8:3-4. In that narrative, Jesus combined the prophetic, telling it like it is, with the pastoral, extending a warm hand to the wounded. I learned that we must not separate His two ministries – different as they may seem — for even as Jesus threw over the tables of the cheating money-changers in the temple, He also told Peter that if Peter loved Him, he would feed Jesus’ sheep and tend His lambs. Even as He excoriated the arrogant Pharisees, He healed the sick of mind and body. So, I found as much joy in comforting the afflicted as I did in afflicting the comfortable.
A bit later, while I was rector of Grace Church in downtown Providence, the feminist movement took over the national consciousness, and again some in the Episcopal Church had their consciousness raised (that was the term that was used). No matter how clueless you might have been, once you had your consciousness raised, you saw that injustice and suppression permeate the roots of society and community. I learned to hate it when anyone got the shaft. And then those inequalities and glass ceilings and role limitations I had always taken as part of life stuck out like someone wearing a pink shirt and green pants to the opera. Once that happened, one could never go back; one could never again accept the status quo or Life with Beaver, because the cause of the victim had become one’s own.
So, those of us who looked at things that way found ourselves in a mighty struggle with traditionalists of both sexes – and, I regret to say, with some male priests in our church –for whom a priesthood open to women was unthinkable and anti-Christ and who grieved and fumed when our church conventions even considered priestly ordination of women. And then in 1974 that issue came to a sudden head when three retired Episcopal bishops ordained the so-called Philadelphia Eleven women to the priesthood in defiance of our canon law. Those ordinations blew the question wide open as a fait accompli. Those of us in favor asked, “What have we been missing? Women hold up half the sky.” Despite the outrage of some, we gradually came to where we are now. Women have increasingly served our church along with men as priests and bishops — even as the most recently retired presiding bishop of the United States. I do not believe that Jesus intended for women to be overlooked and shunned by His priesthood. No one built more bridges between ethnic groups, the sexes, and rich and poor than Jesus did, so using Him to justify glass ceilings anywhere – in cultural life or in business or especially in churches, is to me untrue to His spirit.
In the late 70s, I entered the hardest period of my life to date, and, for a time, I confess to you that I lost my moorings. In a way, I died to the person I had been, and those days grieve me still. But I learned a lot about who I am deep down and about how I wanted to live the second half of my life, and with God’s help, I moved forward. Very importantly, Sally and I found each other, and I owe her, not only my heart but my happiness.
Also, by 1985, I changed careers by going to law school, as I had long intended before my college chaplain’s grace and power persuaded me to pursue theological school and parish ministry. But in my new law career, which I also loved, I continued to pursue justice by representing women who had been discriminated against in pay and working conditions or sexually harassed at work. Again, my part was small, but I reveled in taking on corporations like Wal-Mart and Liberty Mutual and many smaller firms that treated women unequally and with hostility.
Neither of these battles for equal opportunity and justice is over and won. They require both a dogged prophetic vision and a determined pastoral heart. We humans are too clannish and too self-protective to make room freely for those different from us to share the rights and powers we demand for ourselves. So, as campaign rhetoric reminds us, in too many companies, churches, states, and countries and in too many threatened, frightened individual minds, people of color are still not comfortably received as equals with whites, and women are not comfortably received as equals with men. The struggles against bigotry and misogyny continue.
During these years, other words of Jesus grabbed me by the lapels. The story of the Good Samaritan insisted that I expand my definition of my neighbor. Luke 10:33 ff. If a Samaritan could be a good neighbor to his traditional Jewish enemy, even when doing so put him in peril, then the rest of us can neighbor the world of people very different from ourselves. In fact that story made me reverse the question. Never mind who is my neighbor, let me be a good neighbor — to everyone. We are each other’s neighbors; and we and even our enemies are members one of another. If love is elusive in that context, I hope we can grow to wish everyone the best of outcomes in life – and to respect and encourage them and even to pray for them.
Then Sally and I found ourselves drawn to the movement toward full civic equality for gay people: equal marriage, equal hospital visitation, equal inheritance rights, and equal adoption. We tried to show that the traditional straight person’s ridicule (which we all participated in at some time or other) of same-sex marriage is unjust, unkind, and untrue to the mind of Christ. To me, this is not a political issue, but a Biblical question of right and wrong. It is not a conservative-liberal dust-up but a matter of justice. It rose up in me to tell anyone who would listen that God created all of us with certain inherent characteristics. None of us got to the age of 12 or 13 and said, “Hmm, well I guess I’ll be a straight person or I guess I’ll be a gay person.” We just are. It’s part of us. Yes, God made us that way.
And then I am also staggered by the power of St. Paul’s description of Jesus in Philippians (2:5-11) as one who was endowed with equality with God, but who did not grasp or exploit that equality to gain power for himself. He emptied Himself; He gave himself up, and chose to be a servant to humankind, obedient even to the point of an ugly, horrible, shaming death on a cross / because God sent Him here for that very purpose: that is, to give us confidence that after all our little deaths, and after our final death, there is life – as there was for Him. In this, Jesus was the ultimate pastor, the perfect shepherd, laying down His life to make ours more abundant, and we aspire to follow Him.
If we apply the words of the Gospel to today’s struggles, we must be moved by calls for more mind-stretching and more neighboring that come from transgendering, transitioning people who plead for our understanding and acceptance. These are the ones who deeply believe that the biological sex characteristics they were born with clash with their deep personal conviction that they are members of the opposite sex. The rest of us probably cannot imagine how bad that out-of-placeness must feel. So, shouldn’t we try to ease and smooth the life paths of those who suffer abuse and shunning simply because who they are doesn’t conform to the way we’ve always done things?
And, by the way, if there are any more groups suffering injustice out there, just let me know, and, old as I am, I will be there with them.
So 50 years have passed since Ascension Day, 1966. Besides growing to see Jesus as the ultimate prophet and pastor, I have come to see God’s universe as unimaginably huge, probably infinite in time and space and forever – full of joy and suffering – confusing and wildly messy. I’ve come to believe that the God we worship is much bigger, much more all encompassing, much more pro-human, and layered and nuanced way beyond anything the fundamentalists and the young-earth creationists and even you and I can imagine. Truly, as far as the east is from the west, so far are God’s ways from our ways, and so too is the complexity and vastness of God’s creation beyond our mind’s power to contain.
Like all of you, the years have brought me doubts and uncertainties, and God knows I have sinned big-time and hurt others along the way. But I thank God for Sally and for some of the dearest friends in life we’ve made here, and for my vocation, for all our children and their spouses, and for the grandchildren who exceed our wildest imaginings with their enthusiastic and abundant lives and their love for us. And I thank God for this parish, which, with Calvin’s most Godly, gracious and unwavering leadership and his ability to attract all segments of the community, comes closer than any church I have known to Jesus’ radical welcome and inclusion – a beacon for HIs advocacy of peace and the welfare of children and adults. This place is to me a joy. So, I thank you, even you who have profoundly, but graciously disagreed with me over the years.
Finally, Luke’s Prodigal Son story assures me that you, and even I, unprofitable servant of God that I am, will be embraced like the errant son in the story, and welcomed into God’s nearer presence and loved and forgiven in full. Luke 15. Yes, I know that our redeemer lives.
Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is risen, Alleluia!