“SHIELDING THE JOYOUS”
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
January 20, 2019
Shortly before Christmas, I realized I had made a rare but serious shopping mistake with the gift I had bought and wrapped for several good friends, a book called Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Nothing screams holiday joy like the words “Soviet Prison Camp.” Nothing conveys merriment like the word “lectures.”
The thing is it was a really good book – I’d read it. It was about a group of elite Polish officers rounded up by the Bolsheviks in 1939 who kept their sanity by giving lectures to each other about what they remembered. The author’s lectures were about the writer Marcel Proust (the guy who wrote about the cookie) and the book says, “His lectures were an act of resistance…” Important stuff! The Times loved it, though it didn’t top their holiday book list. Okay, it might not have been on their holiday book list….
But it had humor! The author writes, “He would be charming if he weren’t so stupid.” That’s funny! It has pictures – or more drawings of the camp and diagrams of the lectures – but they are in color!
Yet I was embarrassed when I realized that I had wrapped these downer books up, inscribed them, and delivered them to four different people. So I wrote them little emails warning them about the title and making some stupid joke about myself (“Don’t worry—heh heh heh – I’m fine)…”
But I started wondering if I was fine or if I am really a dark person and no one is telling me? Have I moved from “serious” into “grim?” Did the intellectuals at Blake wreck me? Am I depressed? Why didn’t I buy copies of the the book I wanted—the one about Twin Cities department stores? No, I went with the prison camp option.
And now it’s January and it’s cold. And the government is shut down and every day there is a new outrage and the world is full of heartbreak and guns and it seems there is no savior, no leader that has enough courage and skill to break the standoff, to inspire. We are worn down as a country, I think, at least I am. And none of this is one bit funny.
And yet the sun pours in my home office window, and my kitty Finley and I put our heads down together on the desk and rest in its warming light. And Jamie Closs is back home and the tulips are appearing at Kowalski’s.
Dancing into this post-holiday January landscape is today’s lesson from John: The Wedding at Cana. It is so perfectly placed in this season that even a dark person is heartened.
You cannot locate Cana on a map now, but it was said to be a small town in the home province of Jesus, Galilee. Although the story appears only in John’s Gospel, it is widely considered Jesus’ first miracle.
It is a miracle for social reasons: Mary did not want the hosts of the wedding embarrassed for running out of wine during the five-day celebration. No one was sick, no one needed healing, no one required an exorcism or forgiveness of their sins, no one was being chased by the Romans. This was to save face.
The first way of looking at this lesson involves Mary. She is nervous about the wine, so, in the best stereotypical tradition of Jewish mothers, she whispers to her son to step up, do something. He says, “Not now.” But she seems to know he will relent and tells the servants (in her best New York Jewish accent), “Do whatever he tells you.” And they do.
The Anglican C.S. Lewis has this take on the story: “God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine.”
So was this simply a speeded-up natural process?
Some say that it is a lesson about the abundance of God’s blessings: Jesus provides the best wine and probably more than was needed; Jesus fills our emptiness. God in Jesus gives us an abundance of blessings and grace.
Or there is the poetic take, “And the water, beholding its Creator, blushed.”
However, the two most important parts of this lesson for me are that first, it presents a face of God we tend to ignore, and secondly, it emphasizes the importance of unsung heroes
This miracle reveals a face of-God-in-Jesus who smiles at us and cares about aspects of ourselves that we might think God would find insignificant: Our happiness and our social well-being. It reminds me of the beautiful prayer in the nighttime service of Compline: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.”
The night time can be perilous, a time when evil forces move more freely under the cover of darkness, when fear and sadness gather force; when the vulnerabilities accompanying sickness and depression are amplified; when the cold is colder and the minutes seem like hours.
This amazing prayer acknowledges that there are these who must keep working in the night hours – police, nurses, factory workers, as well as those who weep or watch at the bedside of the dying. And yet, added to this ominous list are the words “shield the joyous.”
Why would the joyous need shielding?
Because we know that happiness can be short-lived, that pure joy is a tender and holy state that needs protection from what may come before and afterwards, that threatens it, compromises it, even may end it prematurely. Because sometimes we shortcut our own happiness with our fear and anxiety.
When many of us look at wedding pictures of our parents or our children, or even of ourselves, it’s hard to ignore the innocent faces, the unfiltered happiness, the joy that is projected there. The same when we look at a picture of a child opening birthday presents or splashing in a puddle. For me, joy is my first trip to the garden store in the spring, with the lilies and the geraniums and the forsythia and the warm air.
When we think of God as only one who comes to us in a crisis or pain, we are missing a part of it, according to John.
So when we come to Communion this morning, “for pardon only and not for renewal,” we are offered the cup of salvation but also the wine of Cana, God’s blessing on the joy in our lives.
A second element of this lesson is the importance of unsung heroes. Coincidentally, the 9:00 Faith Formation series currently underway is exploring this very topic.
Mary is one of the heroes of this story, since it is her empathy with the hosts and her persistence that makes the miracle happen. But the only people to actually witness the miracle are the servants. They’re the ones who fill the jars with water; they are the ones who draw wine out for the steward to taste. He didn’t know where it came from “but the servants knew.” They are the unsung heroes of the story; they facilitate its happening. Just as the comparable unsung heroes of a church are the members of the altar guild who make it possible for the Eucharist to happen every Sunday; who set the table, lay out the linens, pour the wine, and do the dishes behind the scenes, week after week so that the miracle can happen for us.
Tomorrow is the celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, but I’m not going to talk about him today. Even though it feels politically incorrect to say this, initially the Civil Rights movement in America was sexist or at least didn’t break with the normative patterns of its time. However, Andrew Young, a close friend of King, points out, “The unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement are always the wives, the mothers.”
So it is fitting to pay tribute to those women, who raised the children, kept the churches going, cooked the meals, kept up the homes, tended the wounded who were beaten, prayed without ceasing.
*Coretta Scott King’s popular image has largely been detached from her lifelong politics, presenting as a sort of martyred mother figure who would redeem the nation by sacrificing her husband. “I am made to sound like an attachment to a vacuum cleaner,” a friend recalled her saying, “the wife of Martin, then the widow of Martin, all of which I was proud to be. But I was never just a wife, nor a widow. I was always more than a label.” She campaigned for global peace and for racial and social justice until her death, at age 78.
Scott King was hardly the only woman who sustained the bus boycott that catapulted her husband to prominence. The Women’s Political Council of Montgomery and its president, Jo Ann Robinson, were the first to call for the boycott, which had begun when Rosa Parks, a civil-rights activist for more than two decades, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. Groups of black women held food sales to raise money for the carpools that kept the protest going. Aurelia Browder and three other women signed on as plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that eventually prompted the Supreme Court’s decision desegregating the city’s buses.
In Boston, black mothers such as Ruth Batson and Ellen Jackson led a decades-long campaign culminating in a federal judge’s 1974 order to use busing to desegregate the city’s public schools. In Cambridge, Maryland, Gloria Richardson headed a campaign focused on economic rights and desegregation. Ella Baker served as the NAACP’s director of branch chapters and then headed to Atlanta to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Fannie Lou Hamer and other women led the fight to register voters in Mississippi. “Women have been the ones who have made it possible for the movement to be a mass movement,” Scott King said. We salute these unsung heroes today.
My own unsung heroes include so many teachers, clergy, people who work in nursing homes, people who fix things, and always artists who work for little pay but teach us about our world.
Who would be on your list?
We’re going back to the Soviet prison book now….
Actually this little book embodies both of the themes for today: the God-sanctioned gift of found happiness and the unsung heroes who populate the world: In this case a group of Polish soldiers who, after days of working outside in the brutal cold, found joy in their shared memories as they sat together in the evenings in the kitchen of the old convent where they were detained, stinking of dirty dishes and cabbage,”
Finally, the world is mourning for America’s most accessible poet, who died this week. She was my unsung hero before she was famous and quoted at endless events and ceremonies. I’m sure that this poem will be read at thousands of churches today but it just seems to fit here today.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
Rest in peace, Mary Oliver, and rise in glory. We will try not to turn the wine back into water.
*Excerpted from “The Atlantic” in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “‘Women Have Been the Backbone of the Whole Civil Rights Movement.”