A Nun, a Bishop, and a Sinner
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St John then Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
August 18, 2019
Today I will tell you three stories, two of them true. This is the first, “The Nun.”
The summer I was twelve, Mary Elizabeth Fristinsky’s sister Martha left for the convent.
This was the 1950’s, when nuns were abundant and visible. We would see them walking outside churches and parochial schools, their black habits streaming behind them, each face framed with a circle of white linen like a halo. They were visible on the campus of what is now Hamline-Mitchell Law School on Summit Avenue, then a Catholic girl’s school called Our Lady of Peace or OLP, which we sometimes called “Old Ladies’ Penitentiary.”
Mary Elizabeth Fristinsky was my very best childhood friend. Together we spent hours cutting out paper dolls and movie star pictures, rearranging our dollhouse furniture and dressing our pre-Barbie dolls. We watched Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on TV and Annette was our favorite Mouseketeer.
But the most intriguing thing about Mary Elizabeth Fristinsky was that she was a Catholic. My stern German Lutheran sensibilities were titillated and wide-eyed at her rosaries, holy water, missals, and Bibles with extra chapters. There was a picture of the Pope hanging in the kitchen (I couldn’t imagine Martin Luther in the kitchen) and Mary Elizabeth’s parents spoke in hushed tones about Cardinal Mizinsky who had his bowels frozen by the Communists. (I wasn’t sure what that meant but didn’t want it to happen to me.)
Mary Elizabeth and her sister Martha wore plaid uniforms and attended St. Matthew’s grade school where they were taught by stern-faced nuns. At St. Matthew’s, you got your mouth washed out with soap if you swore. Mary Elizabeth never swore.
At age seven, Mary Elizabeth made her first Communion and got to dress up like a little tiny bride. I was afraid to ask but wondered if she thought she was marrying Jesus (who was Lutheran) but decided that it probably had something to do with the Virgin Mary since Lutherans knew that Catholics liked Mary better than God.
The summer I was twelve, I arrived at Mary Elizabeth’s house one day and noticed that her eighteen-year-old sister Martha was in the living room, smoking cigarettes. In answer to my startled look, Mary Elizabeth whispered, “It’s because she’s leaving for the convent.”
“Oooohhhh,” I nodded, knowingly.
Mary Elizabeth explained that Martha also was now allowed to drink wine and beer.
“Because she’s leaving for the convent,” I said.
“Right-o,” said Mary Elizabeth.
“Leaving for the convent” allowed Martha possession of the previously-banned “Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t be Cruel,” very racy Elvis Presley records which looked strangely out of place next to the pile of Mario Lanza records on the family hi-fi.
But who could begrudge Martha this tiny taste of the forbidden for there would be no more cigarettes, beer or Elvis Presley in the convent, even Lutherans knew that.
Like her sister Martha, Mary Elizabeth, too, went on to become a nun. I wasn’t surprised because Mary Elizabeth was the first really joyful, the first really good person I ever knew. I heard that she spent her life teaching little children and serving God. I am proud to have been her friend. But her story is also about me, and who I was at a certain point in my life.
Today’s epistle from Hebrews is about “the cloud of witnesses” that surround each of us, inspiring us to run the race that is set before us, that is to live our lives.
I like the term “witness” better than “saint” because a “witness” can be alive or dead, fictional or real, a family member or friend, religious or not. A witness is someone with whom we feel a connection; they often reside in stories.
The magical words “once upon a time” can bracket our lives, from those times when our parents read to us before bed to “story time” in kindergarten to very old age when being read to may once again transport us.
Our religious faith begins in many different places, when observing the natural world and its splendors, with burning questions about pain and purpose and why we’re here and where we go next, or in hearing the stories of the Bible which is basically a history of the faith. Sometimes stories unfold before our eyes.
Here is the second story: “The Bishop.”
I was her deacon for over ten years at a church in Minneapolis. I watched her grow from a know-it-all young rector, making her share of mistakes, to being selected as a bishop in the Episcopal church.
When she was fifty years old, she felt called to be a bishop. She was nominated for Bishop of Minnesota but lost on the fifth ballot and we were all shattered, especially Mariann.
Yet six months later she was elected bishop of D.C. on the first ballot, and we all knew that is where she belonged, on the biggest stage in the American church, at a place where they bury presidents and host international leaders like Desmond Tutu. I was beyond honored to be her deacon at her consecration at the National Cathedral ten years ago.
Mariann’s greatest gift, besides her eloquence, is that she makes Christianity intellectually respectable, showing that you can be brilliant and faith-filled at the same time. She gained credibility with hard-core college professors, doubting Thomases, and me. And the little parish of St. John the Baptist grew and grew.
One of our parishioners was the musician Bobby McFerrin. One Christmas Eve a visitor – an older woman – was sitting in the pew behind him and tapped him on the shoulder, he in his cool blackness and dreadlocks, and asked, “Excuse me, but do you have a band?”
“Yes, I do.” he replied, “I have the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.”
I wrote down a lot of things Mariann said that were especially important to me, such as:
“All centuries are equidistant from God.”
“Some times the only healing you get is acceptance.”
“Someone walking away from you can’t hear you.”
Since becoming bishop, it is her courage that has defined her. Three times in the last six weeks she has been on the national stage: on an interview on NPR, in a widely-circulated statement from the leadership at the national cathedral (quoted in the latest New Yorker, among many other places), and at the offices of Senate leader Mitch McConnell. One statement was this: “We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society. Trump’s words give cover to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America…Violent words lead to violent actions. For faith leaders to stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words.”
With a dozen other clergy, at McConnell’s office last week, she noted that Congress could pass a number of laws to prevent future bloodshed (which McConnell was blocking) and said: “I am among those who believe weapons of war don’t belong in the hands of civilians. We’ve been lulled into this sense of false helplessness that I find to be one of the greatest manifestations of sin that we need to fight against.”
False helplessness as a sin? I hear that.
There are those who think that political statements have no place coming from a bishop of the church or any clergy person in the church. So we need a brief detour into Civics class.
The term “separation of church and state” is used selectively today, often to block arguments or ideas that people think don’t belong in church. I have heard it here more than once. Here are some facts:
First, Jesus made no such distinction and criticized the policies of the Pharisees and of Rome all the time.
Next, The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The term “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution but is from an image created by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a friend, where he suggested that these two Constitutional provisions were intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.
The term has been debated, repeated in courts. One finding is that you cannot endorse a specific candidate without loosing your tax exempt status. Be assured that we would never do that here. But evangelical churches have made a mockery of all of this, openly campaigning against Barak Obama, and reading statements in church about how to vote. One person notes, “Thanks to Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell and their cronies on the Religious Right, American evangelicalism has now become first and foremost a political rather than a spiritual enterprise.”
End of the legal detour.
The third story: “The Sinner.”
In my cloud of witnesses is a literary figure from an 18th-century noveI by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her name is Hester Prynne.
Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650, the tone of this tale of Puritan America is severe and judgmental. A young woman is thrown in the stocks and then into prison because she has born an illegitimate child and refuses to say who the father is. As a young woman in England, Hester had married an elderly scholar named Chillingworth (note the name), who sent her ahead to America to live but never followed her. While waiting, she had an affair with the Rev. Dimmsdale (note the name) and they are deeply in love. He is highly regarded in the village and, knowing she is already married, he is unwilling to acknowledge his part in the affair so Hester and baby Pearl are alone.
In addition to serving her time in prison, Hester, a seamstress by profession, is sentenced to wear a large red letter, a scarlet letter, on the bodice of her dress for the rest of her life: “A” for adulteress. Here is what happens on the day of her release, when a crowd has gathered for the event. Says one of the goodwives, “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that. But she—the naughty baggage—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown. Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or some heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever.”
Then the door of the jail is flung open, and Hester is shoved out in front of the jeering crowd, holding the three-month old baby in her arms. Hawthorne goes on, “With a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, she looked around at her townspeople and neighbors. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter “A.” It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, The Scarlet Letter had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.”
Hester Prynne inspires me with her spirit and her creativity, transforming shame into beauty. The late Toni Morrison wrote words I have on my desk, “At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.”
But much of that beauty is at risk. The backdrop, the setting for all of our stories is threatened. A previous president observed, “We are the first generation to notice climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” There is virtually no disagreement among scientists that this is true…
We are the characters in today’s stories and I think there is an obligation to be outraged (as Jesus is in today’s Gospel) when innocent people are victimized, treated unfairly and ridiculed; a sacred mandate not to be quiet when the survival of the planet is threatened, a responsibility to reduce the number of guns on our street which now threaten every one of us. The call today is to resist the sin of learned helplessness, and to look to our clouds of witnesses, including those in Scripture, for strength, guidance, and ideas.
So much is at risk now; a lot is demanded of us. Because in the words of the popular musical Hamilton, what is at risk is:
who tells our story…”
Politico, February 24, 2018.
David Remmick, “Words and Wounds,” The New Yorker, August 19, 2019
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850.