Celebrating our Anniversary Year

The following was delivered by the Rev. Adam Yates at the Annual Meeting on January 31, 2016.

When I first moved to Connecticut, one of the things that struck me was the deep and profound sense of history. Unlike any other part of the country in which I have lived, here history has a real, almost physical presence. It is not relegated to museums and books, it is lived and shared in our daily life. It oozes from the rock walls that fill our forests and the ancient buildings that stand in our towns.

On one of the first Sundays at my previous church, I was standing outside its stone edifice after service. It was the fifth church building that had stood on that spot. As I stood greeting people, one of my parishioners came up to me, and nodding toward the building, mention to me in a tone that was both casual and with a hint of anger, “You know, the British burned the second building.” Mind you, this happened during the Burning of Norwalk in 1779, but it was as if it had happened only recently—a grudge not fully forgotten.

Old St. Stephen's, a church on the hill.

Old St. Stephen’s, a church on the hill.

I tell you this because this is a significant year for St. Stephen’s. This is our 225th Anniversary. In 1791, the very first vestry organized and gathered this community of St. Stephen’s into being. That’s a big accomplishment! In that span of time, a lot has happened. We moved locations, coming down the hill to our present home 120 years ago. This parish community was witness to the building of the Swing Bridge, it saw the rise and fall of the booming resort industry, it stood watch as steam ships passed up and down the Connecticut River. It was around when net-making was a major operation in East Haddam and when Main Street was little more than a dirt road in front of our steps. Through the years, our congregation operated several chapels in the surrounding communities. In that time, we had a bell that killed a man, and through a long and convoluted chain of events, we ended up with what some claim is the oldest bell in the Western Hemisphere!

These are fun and wonderful things to remember and to celebrate, and we will be remembering and celebrating them this year. And it can be easy to let these things distract us—bells and foundations, old books and artifacts tucked away in archives. It is easy to let them distract us from what truly matters.

What truly matters I am reminded of as I read the handwritten founding documents and traced the shapes of the signatures of that first vestry with my eyes. I am reminded of what matters as I read through the book of the Ladies Aid, which lives now at the archives of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut in Meriden. In its carefully written records of minutes and finances are interspersed loving memorials to our sisters who died. They are a written prayer to the lives and to the memory of the people of St. Stephen’s.

As we mark our anniversary, what truly matters is that for 225 years, the good people of St. Stephen’s have proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ, they have cared for the sick, the poor, and the dying, they have raised and formed new generations of the faithful, they have supported one another in the journey of faith, and they have sought to change the world, starting right here on the shores of a great river.

I believe that what inspired that first vestry 225 years ago was not a desire to produce relics and stories to be collected in museums and displays. What inspired them, indeed what has propelled our community forward through history and seen it through good times and times of hardship, what has led generations of our members to dedicate their lives to this community is the belief that we have something worthwhile and worth sharing. It is the belief that our faith matters and that it is worth sharing with future generations. It is the conviction that the Word of God can, indeed does, change the world.

My friends, this is an anniversary worthy of celebrating. It is a time for us to honor and remember all those who came before us. Indeed, we will do all of that and more this year and in the future, through celebrations of our history, through opportunities for formation, and through new forays into our mission work. And, it is important for us to keep in mind why we are doing it—because our faith matters and is worth of sharing with each other and with our children.

Our parish has endured for this long because generations of our members have remained faithful to the Word of God and to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

They have run the race and kept the faith so that we might take up and carry the mantle. As long as we remain faithful to the Word of God, as long as we listen carefully for the movement and direction of the Holy Spirit, then our community will be around for another 225 years.

If in the year 2241, St. Stephen’s still exists, and pauses from its labors to celebrate our 450th Anniversary, it will be because we have continued in our belief that our faith matters, that the proclamation of the Gospel matters, and that God is still relevant and still active in our world today. And they will honor us and all who have come before us by picking up and taking the mantle that we have carried to them.