Mention the General Convention of 2003 to most Episcopal clergy and laity, and they will know exactly where they were. I was a fairly new priest in an old historic congregation in Mobile, Alabama that leaned a bit more right than I. But they were a fine community, a place in which I learned (again) that loving one's neighbor has very little to do with whole-hearted agreement on all issues. They were a community in which I took those first tentative steps into my official holy orders, even if some in the congregation were convinced I was a communist infiltrator or feminist. I loved and love them, and I loved working with Albert, the rector, who also leaned a bit more to the right than I. We were colleagues and are friends. And the latter part of 2003 was traumatic for both of us. Needless to say, when the 2003 General Convention confirmed the election of Gene Robinson to be the new bishop of New Hampshire, the number of us celebrating that decision at the parish and in my diocese could be counted on one hand.
The number sharpening their words like pitchforks and knives was considerably larger. Because I thought the full inclusion of openly gay and lesbian people to the ministry was a quite fine idea, the next few months were about as much fun as a colonoscopy. Without anesthesia. To be fair, the rector, who did not think the consent was a fine idea, also had about as much fun as a colonoscopy, too. Angry people don't care who they crucify, as long as they see blood flow.
Life went forward. Bishop Robinson was consecrated. Much like the ordination of women, the dire predictions of the bell towers of every Episcopal church imploding did not come to pass. Some of our family could not eat at the table with us any more, so they left. Time shared her gift of healing. Some people who had acted hurtfully apologized. Others did not. Some relationships were mended. Others were not. Albert retired across the Bay. I am now a rector, and I will be welcoming to the parish where I serve Bishop V. Gene Robinson.
I'm pretty darn excited about the whole event. I even get to host Bishop Robinson and his partner at a small dinner party beforehand. I'm making paella. And cheese straws will be served.
Cheese straws, for those of you not in the know, are basically cheese cookies with a dash of Southern. One cannot go to a cocktail party, luncheon, or dinner party in the Deep South and not find them in small crystal or china antique serving dishes. I don't know that they particularly go with paella, but that's not why they will be served.
Albert is making them and mailing them from Alabama. He is sending them as a gift, and one that will be on the table that evening.
I can make cheese straws. Every Southern woman I know has a family recipe. But these will be sent from a man who felt the lashes from those he'd called friends because, while he did not think openly gay men and lesbian women should be ordained, he also recognized they were beloved children of God and said so. His brother-in-law Sammy, a gay man, had died of AIDS many years earlier. He knew that "gays and lesbians" were not adjectives, but people - beloved people with beloved families. When Albert retired from parish ministry, he took a part-time position at a parish that is inclusive and welcoming. I believe he may still be of a generation that isn't as non-chalant about full inclusion as mine, but he is certainly not where he was.
I've always been impressed with those who could admit their journeys of faith, those who share their stories of, "I used to think this, but now I think this." Admitting that where we were is not where we are takes courage. Many people act like where they are is where they've always been, as if they have always been on the "right" side of things and never had to think, reflect, change, grow, or repent.
The fashion of the 70's and 80's alone prove otherwise.
Short of Jesus Christ, we've all been wrong. We've all let our prejudices take over, allowed our desire for comfort overwhelm our hope for justice, and ignored the pleas of the least of these because they interrupted our own agendas. One could argue that the whole episode with Jesus and the Syro-Phoenecian woman shows Jesus confronting his own assumptions and having them change. Jesus himself models the holy practice of hearing the story of another and allowing their story to change us.
Change is not a sign of weakness, but of immense strength of character. A willingness to be enticed on the journey by awareness and insight is an offering of the faithful. As my friend Albert has said to me many times, our present is often not our future. Even moreso, he lives it, even in retirement.
Albert and his family cannot be in Lexington at St. Michael's on Saturday, but they wanted to be a part of this evening and share it with Bishop Robinson, Bishop Sauls, and me. Not because it's a big deal, but because coming to the table with Bishop Robinson is a lovely moment of communion in its broadest sense for all of us. Sharing food together is sharing our story, laughing at the past (even if the laughter still covers a few tears), and coming together in joy and thanksgiving.
"Hey, pull up a chair. Have a Coke. Isn't the weather unusually hot for this time of year? Have a cheese straw. Tell me your story. Would you like to hear mine? Sit with me in friendship."
I will serve cheese straws from his mother-in-law's recipe in my great-grandmother's china bowls. I serve them and share the message that was enclosed with them: "These are from Sammy's family who send thanks and respect to all who work to make the world less of the hell that he lived in."
We will sit that night in prayer and friendship, in community that has hurt and healed into something changed, different, and still faithful. We will be together over the miles, my beloved friend in Alabama and my beloved community here, the past and the present, even with the whisperings of created faith yet to come.
And we will remember that God has an enchanting way of reminding us we are, indeed, all in this together. Especially when we are sharing cheese straws and words of thanksgiving for how far we have come to make the world more welcoming to all.