September 16, 2018 — Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost — 2 PM
Rev. Alison Quin
Note: Today we celebrate the ordination of the Rev. Steve Schunk to the priesthood. This is Alison’s sermon at the celebration of Steve’s first Eucharist at 2 PM
God Made You Beautiful, You’ve Gotta Let It Shine!
Even though the canon of Scripture was closed by the 5th century, I believe it is still being written. Whenever someone finds their way to faith in Christ, his or her life is transformed and it becomes another gospel—a story bearing witness to the life-giving power of Christ’s love.
Each of us has stories of death and resurrection in our lives—each of us has experienced healing through the power of God’s love. Each of us has been called to share that good news with others, to take our part in healing the world and bringing about a new creation. Just like the disciples, we are not perfect, and yet, we are God’s beloved, each with a unique part to play in God’s redemption of the world.
Steve’s gospel begins with his birth—or really, before his birth. As God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you.” Steve was blessed to be born into a family with faith—his grandfather was a Methodist minister and he was raised in the church.
But he claimed that faith as his own at the age of 14 when he found his way to the Church of the Ascension in West Park. He served as their paid organist at that young age and was confirmed as an Episcopalian. That early experience under the tutelage of Fr. Paul Parker, who later became the rector of this church, gave Steve an abiding love for liturgy and music, and that deep sense of belonging that the church offers when it is at its best–mirroring the warm embrace that Jesus gives to each of us.
Steve sensed a vocation in the church even at that early age, but the time was not ripe. He was called to wrestle with his identity as a gay man, and that journey led him out of the church, because it was not yet a place of welcome for openly gay men and women. The struggle for self-acceptance in the face of a culture that was not always accepting gave Steve a deep passion for justice, and for welcoming and including all people.
Steve lived out his deepest values of justice, compassion and service through the way he treated people in his work and personal life, and through volunteer service.
But something was missing. He longed for something more, for a loving relationship, for an abiding faith. In 2005, he met and fell in love with Doug, who was also on a spiritual quest.
Doug and Steve had a deep desire to make a commitment to each other, and to ask for God’s blessing on their relationship. It was 2006, and marriage was not authorized by the church nor legal in the state, but Rob Magliula, my predecessor, and the wardens at Christ the King, gave permission for a blessing ceremony, which took place right here in September 2006.
That was the beginning of Steve and Doug’s involvement with Christ the King. They embraced the community with enthusiasm, and began to sense God’s love as they made their home here. They offered their gifts with incredible generosity, from creating a website to offering pastoral care, from planning and participating in worship to inviting and welcoming new people to church.
To be known and loved by God, to be accepted just as you are, is the most powerful experience in the world. It is the difference between night and day. As the first letter of Peter says, God calls us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
And God calls each of us to be part of God’s great work of redeeming and remaking the world. Not too long after Steve and Doug joined the parish, Steve began to experience a renewed sense that he was called to the priesthood. He began several years of discernment, first with me, and then with a parish committee, and then he applied to the diocese.
The first time he applied, the answer from them was “no, not now.” That was a bad day. I had seen him face other challenges with equanimity but this was a real setback.
His healing began as we got on the subway after our visit to the diocese to hear the news. There was an acapella group singing on the train, and as we sat there, they sang, “This little light of mine.” But they added a verse: “God made you beautiful, you’ve got to let it shine.” God spoke to Steve in that moment—I will never forget that.
But it took him some time to regain his equilibrium. The temptation to give up was great. Doug supported him, family and friends supported him, and Steve turned to God over and over in prayer. His prayer at that time was the prayer of St. Francis and also prayers of gratitude—there is nothing like expressing gratitude to help heal disappointment, and cast out darkness. Gratitude is like a muscle—it grows whenever you exercise it—and you find more and more to be grateful as you go along. The reading from Philippians perfectly expresses this—rejoice in the Lord, always, again I say rejoice. Do not be anxious about anything, but make all your requests known to God, with prayers of thanksgiving.
It was during this period that Steve and Doug got to know Jim Kolessar and his two sons and they became family, as they helped them work through a tough time in their lives. If Steve had gone to seminary when he initially applied, he would never have had this added richness and blessing in his life.
Two years later, Steve felt ready to apply again, and this time, was accepted and went to seminary.
God will use all of Steve’s gifts and life experiences and seminary training in his life as a priest. His warmth and hospitality, his compassion and desire to serve, his passion for justice—all will be a gift to the church. His love for liturgy and music, his gifts of organization, recruiting and rallying people and seeing the big picture will be invaluable. Above all, he has been given the gift of knowing, really knowing, that he is beloved and precious to God.
He will need all that and more for this vocation—it is the nature of a vocation to stretch us and make us grow.
But here’s a funny thing that God has been teaching me about the priesthood lately. It is not only the gifts we have been given that matter—it is also what we lack. Our hunger for more is an essential part of our calling as Christians, and especially for a faith leader. We give thanks for the fullness of grace, but we long for more love in the world and in ourselves, more justice, more God.
I never noticed until yesterday that the litany for ordination asks God to fill priests with love, but also asks that they may hunger for truth and thirst after righteousness.
We hunger and thirst for the world to be what God created it to be, for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And we hunger for God.
Jesus says those who believe in me will never hunger, those who trust in me will not thirst. It is true and not true at the same time. It is true in that there is nothing in the world like Jesus to satisfy our souls—his love, his truth, his life and death and resurrection, his friendship with us, the food that he gives us through word and sacrament. Jesus does not disappoint.
But in this life, we are left wanting more. The world is not what it should be—there is violence and suffering that we can’t understand. We don’t feel God’s presence all the time, and we hunger for it.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the greatest gift you can give the people you will serve is your hunger and thirst for God, and for a renewed creation. People don’t need answers as much as they need to know that you too have questions. People need to know that you are passionately engaged in your own faith journey, in your quest for God.
If you share your hunger, your search, your longing, as well as your faith, people will know they are not alone, and that they have an honest guide, a guide they can trust. They will not be afraid to express their longing for God, their struggles, their hope for a healed and renewed world. They will know that they have a shepherd who shares their deepest hopes.
Steve, you are going to be a good priest. Never forget that God called you, the Church affirmed your call, and the Holy Spirit consecrated you. God has given you many gifts for this vocation—and will give you more as you go along. God made you beautiful, you’ve got to let it shine.
And never lose sight of your hunger, your profound need for God. Seek my face, says the Lord. Your face, O Lord, will I seek.