December 21, 2002
Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-5, 9
Revelation 21: 2-7
Matthew 10: 32-33, 37-39
``...And whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.'' In the name of the one God who created us and gave us life, who redeemed our brokenness and shortcomings and who sustains us in the midst of the many assaults and temptations which draw us away from God. Amen.
Several years ago, there was a story circulating in the church about bearing one's cross. An individual complained his cross was too great to bear. He appealed to Jesus for relief. Jesus sent him into the closet where all the crosses were stored and invited him to pick one more to his liking. In the closet he found many different cross of various sizes. As he was roaming through them, his eyes came upon a particularly small one in the corner. As he went to lift it, Jesus asked him what he was doing. He said, ``I want this one, the small one in the corner,'' and Jesus said, ``But that is the one I gave you.''
As we journey through life, all of us will have crosses to bear. I know from personal experience that we often think ours is the largest and the heaviest, but the fact is most of our crosses are the small ones found in the corner of the closet, thank God. This was not so for Stephen or for any gay man or lesbian woman or for that matter any person who has experienced prejudice, bigotry and hatred in their lives.
It has only been in recent years that a gay person would even begin to contemplate living an openly gay life style. In many places it is still not safe to be gay. Being gay in the wrong place at the wrong time can cost a person their life. I cannot imagine anyone willingly choosing to be gay if they had any other choice. But the fact of the matter is that some people are born gay and they have no other choice.
Stephen Dula was such an individual. Reluctantly and with no other choice he carried his cross despite the intense life long hurt that it caused him. He taught us a lot from his example, and I hope and pray that as a community of faith we will have the wisdom to continue to learn from him, even though he has left us. His death is a huge loss for us at St. Andrew's, and I am sure it will be for you, Manny, and for you, Raymond and Steve and for your families as well.
It was many years ago, at least ten or more, that Steve and you, Manny, first visited St. Andrew's. I still remember the day well. You and Steve were quite friendly and outgoing. After the service, we talked for a bit and before leaving you and Steve invited me to visit with you at your home because you wanted to talk further.
I went, and we talked. It was then that Steve and Manny told me they were gay. And, in almost the same breath, they told me they didn't want to cause me or us any grief and if their presence were a problem they would not return. I assured them it would not be a problem and that they were welcome to worship with us and be part of our community. In the back of my mind, I was wondering how our congregation would react.
Isn't it sad though to think of having to introduce yourself to a new priest and a new congregation by saying - ``if our presence is a problem for you, we won't come back. We don't want to cause you any trouble.'' As I look back upon that conversation, I am troubled that they would have to even think their presence may be a problem for a community of faith. But friends, that is the nature of the cross they were given to bear. Prejudice, bigotry and hatred know no boundaries and even in a faith community they can thrive.
Well Steve and Manny were true to their word and people quickly learned St. Andrew's had an openly gay couple worshiping with us. Some people were supportive while others were less so. The years passed by quickly and there were several ups and downs along the way. I remember at one point, Steve accusing me of ``wimping out.'' He said, ``You are just afraid of conflict.'' I laughed, because by that point in my tenure here at St. Andrew's, I thought most people assumed the C. in my name stood for CONFLICT!
I remember after one of our more tense confrontations, someone asked me why I didn't just let them, Steve and Manny, go. ``Why not let them go, you don't need this grief,'' said the person. I responded, ``I cannot let them go because they are wounded and we are wounded and we need each other.''
But you know, for all the times Steve pushed me, he never once pushed in anger. Steve had ample justification for being angry, but when he pushed and when he spoke, he spoke from his heart, a heart that was deeply wounded and wracked with hurt and pain from having to live as someone he was not. That is a huge and heavy cross to bear. And isn't it coincidental that he would die from a broken heart?
As we know, Steve cried easily and often. When I looked into his face and into his tears, I saw Christ. I saw the face of Christ and it was crying but not for Steve or for gay or lesbian people. The tears were for us, all of us, because the body of Christ was broken. It was not whole. Christ was weeping for us. Our Lord did not need to weep for the Steve's of this world for the Gospel makes it clear that those who are cast down will be raised up. Indeed, theirs will be the Kingdom of Heaven. Today, Steve is with Christ who promised he would return and take us to be with him.
The cross Steve bore for so many years has finally, for him, been laid to rest.. Today, he is once again with his beloved Donald, and he is at peace. And we, at St. Andrew's have lost a wonderful man, a beautiful human being and a caring, compassionate child of God. He challenged us. He supported this community and he did so even when we disagreed and when we refused to support him. Stephen loved us and we loved him.
Ray, Steve I have known about you and your late brother Richard from that very first day I met your Uncle Al and Manny. He spoke of you as a father talking about his favorite sons. His heart ached for you, Steve, and your brother, Richard, and although he could do nothing about getting you out of the orphanage, he was determined you would never again experience rejection. I wonder if he cared so deeply about you because he himself knew the wounds rejection inflicted. Less than two weeks ago, he explained to me that he gave up a good job with Atlantic Richfield because it required a move to the west coast and he would allow nothing to come between you and him. You needed him and he wanted and loved you.
Can you imagine coming home from work and finding your soul mate for the last 35 years dead on the kitchen floor and having nowhere to turn? Steve had no church. His employers didn't know he was gay and may have fired him if they had known. Even you, his family did not know the true nature of the relationship. He was not open about his sexuality because our society was not tolerant of alternate lifestyles and so he had no choice but to suffer Donald's death alone.
One of the greatest acts of Christian love I ever witnessed took place in the front hallway of this church. It was the day of Al Corfield's funeral and despite the fact that Al went out of his way to say some very unkind things about gay and lesbian people, Steve came to the service, and out of respect for Al, served as an usher and consoled Alice, Betty and Chip in their grief. This incident will remain etched in my memory and it was typical of Steve who reached out in love to those who were less than loving to him. Truly Steve practiced and put into action those words we often reaffirm in our Baptismal Covenant to ``...seek and serve Christ in all persons... and... to respect the dignity of every human being.''
Last year, when we placed the three flagpoles on the front lawn of this church, it was Steve's hope - his dream -that the rainbow flag would be raised just below the Episcopal Church flag as a visible tangible statement that this community welcomes all people who seek to follow and serve Christ. Once again, it raised considerable controversy despite that fact that it is not controversial in light of the gospel imperatives to love one another.
For Steve, I hope some day in the near future we at St. Andrew's will have the courage and the moral conviction to place a small rainbow flag under the Episcopal Church flag at the front entrance of our Church and fly it proudly as a statement that we are an open, welcoming and inclusive community of faith where all people may come and worship without fear of being judged by the color of their skin or by their sexuality. On that day, Steve will know that the cost of bearing his cross was worth the anguish and perhaps those who carry similar crosses will find their loads lightened. Amen.
The Rev. Alan C. French
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
New Providence, New Jersey
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