5 Easter, May 22, 2011
The Reverend Lois Keen
Grace Episcopal Church, Norwalk, CT
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
My family moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1959, when I was fourteen. We attended St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and I was active in the choir and the youth group, taught Sunday school, played the piano for Sunday school worship, and played the organ at Christmas and Easter when Mrs. A. was on vacation.
As a member of the youth group, I attended the diocesan youth events and often Bishop Mosley would be there to give us a little talk. The big buzz always was the assumed romance between one of the Mosley girls and the son of the dean of the cathedral. These are the things that interest teenagers.
However, I do not remember ever knowing the bishop’s wife, Betty Mosley. And that’s too bad, because just yesterday I learned that Mrs. Mosley had a profound influence on my life and vocation.
Betty Mosley died on May 2nd. Her obituary reports that in 1972, when Mrs. Mosley and other bishops’ wives accompanied their husbands to the annual meeting of the House of Bishops, Mrs. Mosley was among those who invited four women who were seeking ordination to the priesthood to talk with all the bishops’ wives. Ordination was still closed to women in the Episcopal Church at that time. The bishops’ wives all heard from these three women and it caused a great stir. Some of the bishops were, as the obituary reports, livid.
A year later, while some men were being ordained in the cathedral in New York, the women who hoped someday to be ordained were meeting with Mrs. Mosley for refreshments and strategizing.
In 1974 the extra-canonical ordinations of eleven women to the priesthood took place in Philadelphia. “Extra-canonical” means “outside canon law”. Mrs. Mosley was there as the lay presenter for Carter Hayward, one of those eleven women ordained “irregularly”.
In 1976 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church changed church law to allow for the ordination of women to the priesthood, thanks, in part, to Betty Mosley.
So, you see, I owe the fulfillment of my vocation as a priest to her, and I give thanks to God for her advocacy.
I owe my vocation, as well, to at least two other women. I graduated from seminary in 1997 with no promise of ordination. The bishop allowed me to substitute for vacationing clergy during that summer so I would have something to do. In one of those places an eleven year old girl saw a woman leading worship for the first time when I was allowed to supply as officiant for Morning Prayer.
The child’s grandmother took me out to breakfast between the two services. In short time I was re-examined by the necessary committees and was shortly made a candidate for ordination. I have been told that the woman with whom I had breakfast was the most influential lay woman in the diocese and she had commended me to the powers that be. I had no idea until after I was ordained.
And then there was Blanche. Remember that irregular ordination service in Philadelphia in 1974? Blanche was there. She helped plan the service. In due time she herself was ordained a priest, and for my first two years as a newly ordained priest, she was my mentor. Blanche was a huge influence on me for good.
The collect for today contains these words, “…that we may steadfastly follow his steps…” I stand on the shoulders of countless women and men who have gone before me, who followed in the steps of Jesus, and these three symbolize them all.
Every Christian community, as they follow in the steps of Jesus, stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Take another look at the reading from Acts – that tiny, short reading about the death of St. Stephen. I notice two things right off: the witnesses “laid their coats at the feet of a young man…” and, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”.
When did we first read about the crowd throwing their coats at the feet of someone? Was it not Jesus, as he entered Jerusalem in triumph? In the gospel of Luke, who also wrote Acts, we read, “As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.” Luke also has, in some texts of his gospel, the words of Jesus from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke is building the story of the acts of the apostles on the story of Jesus, just as God’s Holy Spirit builds us on the story and acts of Jesus and of the apostles.
The young man at whose feet the crowd spread their cloaks was Saul, who would later become Paul. At the time of Stephen’s execution Saul was persecuting zealously the followers of Jesus. As Luke reports Stephen seeing the heavens opened “and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”, so Saul, on his way to Damascus, saw a great light from which came the voice of Jesus calling to him.
In God’s good time, Saul became Paul, a devout follower himself of Jesus, standing on the shoulders of those he persecuted and following in Jesus’s footsteps even to death.
The writer of the first letter of Peter reminds his readers that God promised to lay a cornerstone in Zion, one that would be rejected. We are to be built up as a spiritual house, with that rejected but precious stone as the head of the corner.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says that in God’s house there are many dwelling places. He doesn’t say, “In heaven there are many dwelling places”, he says, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places”.
You are some of those dwelling places when you are built up as a spiritual house, with Christ as the cornerstone. Whoever believes Jesus is promised to be able to do his works, and even greater works than Jesus has already done.
Some of Jesus’s works are St. Stephen, St. Paul, Betty Mosley, the grandmother in my old diocese, Blanche, me, and you.
I am still learning whose shoulders I stand on. On whose shoulders do you stand? You are a dwelling place in God’s house – what are the works of Jesus that you have done and still are doing?
Do you work to reply kindly to angry customers?
Do you work to overcome your antipathy to someone you know? Have you spent your whole life writing letters to people, giving them words of encouragement and support?
Have you given yourself to passing on wisdom and beauty to the young? Do you stand up for the underdog, the despised ones, the rejected ones?
Do you see in yourself, much to your surprise, a living stone of love, of light, of life, of joy? Have you worked to transform a life of pain and disappointment into a life of prayer for others?
You were baptized in Jesus’s name. Somewhere in your story are the footsteps of Jesus. What is your story of following Jesus? On whose shoulders, on whose stories, does your own life stand? Can you feel the feet of those who, even now, stand on your own shoulders?
I wonder what stories they will tell when they realize the legacy from which their lives came – “from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted”, from broken to whole, living stones, built up over the centuries as a spiritual house of many dwelling places, many rooms, stone on stone, with Jesus Christ as the head of the corner, world without end.