A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
Matthew 33:31-33, 44-52
Once upon a time, there was a children’s book called Happiness Is a Warm Puppy by Charles Schultz. Schultz defined abstractions by giving concrete examples. So “sadness” is losing your favorite sweater. “Guilt” is knowing you broke your sister’s doll. “Happiness” is a warm puppy.
It is difficult to define abstractions like happiness, sadness, or guilt. yet religion is defined by abstractions: “faith,” “God,” “heaven”.
We may have outgrown some conceptions of heaven, like clouds and flowers and harps and angels. Schultz might say that “heaven” is “your grandma’s lap.”
In today’s Gospel Jesus also defines the kingdom of heaven in concrete terms: as a seed, as a measure of yeast. He defines it in terms of searching and finding – for a fine pearl, for a net full of fish. We find the kingdom of heaven now, Jesus says, in what is already in our household, the old and the new.
But our “households,” our daily lives now are consumed by sanitizing, masking, zooming, our old habits and routines starkly changed, restricted. It’s interesting that during this time of restriction, so many are discovering the words of Jesus in this lesson. We are gardening and growing, not mustard bushes, but tomatoes and zucchini and zinnias in a patch of ground that was just sitting there before or in dusty pots brought up from the basement. We are cooking more and baking. The rector of a church in Excelsior proudly posted on Facebook that for the first time she had made a loaf of bread! There was a picture…
Jesus says that what we need to grow closer to God (to heaven) is within our reach even now; it may be hidden in plain sight – like a mustard seed or cake of yeast. And it is what we DO with these everyday things that is where God is revealed – in a loaf of bread that nurtures life or a tree that offers shade from the hot sun.
One evening Dr. Kathleen Brandt was walking home from her job as a curator at New York’s Institute of Fine Arts and noticed a party going on in the old Payne Whitney mansion, built in 1906. The whole place was lit up. A three-foot statue of Cupid, which had stood there for 90 years atop an interior courtyard fountain, looked strangely different to Brandt in the bright light. Upon close examination, the art historian became convinced that she was in the presence of a Michelangelo sculpture at a barely-functioning old fountain.
The statue is very near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the irony is that for decades art historians have hobnobbed within touching distance of the Cupid and never noticed what a treasure it was. People used to think that the whole fountain was kitsch and laughed at the cute cheeks on the statue… until the light changed and the right pair of eyes came along…. And those eyes were open. When the light changed A world-class masterpiece from 1490 hidden in plain sight. 
Sometimes the light of God is embodied right in front of us. On Epistles & Epiphanies yesterday, I posted this statement by an Episcopal priest: “When I was a seminarian at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC, John Lewis was our guest preacher one Good Friday. It only occurs to me now that he’s the only person I’ve ever heard preach after the reading of Christ’s Passion who had himself been beaten by the authorities in his own day.” Yet Lewis talked about light in the darkness of racism: “You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”
Sometimes the light is placed in front of us only for a moment but that brief moment can be so monumental that everyone in its range has to notice. If you’ve seen the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” you know what I’m talking about.
Andy Dufrense is serving two life sentences for the murder of his wife (which he didn’t do). He’s an educated man, a smart guy, and gains the confidence of the prison staff. One day he sneaks into the warden’s office, locks the door behind him, and looks through a collection of vinyl records. He selects one and puts it on the prison loudspeaker. Ironically, it is opera, Mozart, from the “Marriage of Figaro.” One person writes, “The old vinyl record is played through the tinny speakers of the prison PA system whose normal function is one of repressive control. The hiss and whirr of the record, the distortion of the speakers, combine to create the effect of music heard from a great distance not just in place, but also in time, …. This music sounds like it’s from a different world, yet it enters the mind like a distant, long-forgotten memory, and the most fragile of future promises.”
Music can be so beautiful that it hurts, making the heartache with longing even as it brings a kind of transcendence, a release from limitations and boundaries. Maybe, in the spirit of Charles Schultz, a definition of freedom is this: ”Freedom is hearing the voice of Maria Callas soar through the prison yard at Shawshank Penitentiary.”
(The earlier source continues) “Allowing this music to sound through the bars of this ‘drab little cage‘ was a deeply transgressive act for which Dufrense gets two weeks in solitary confinement, and no doubt a beating. too.” 
Along with John Lewis, along with Jesus, punishment results from bringing the truth. And today, the truth is routinely so obscured, so twisted by a deeply-disturbed leader, a Congress lacking moral courage and a political campaign already rife with lies and innuendo, that we have to cling ever more closely to what we know is factual and real. Someone observed that “Beauty is how God comforts his broken children.” And that beauty can be in a statue sculpted in 1490 or in a piece of music written in 1786, in a plant growing outside of your window, a loaf of bread on the table or a political campaign based on facts and not fear.
“For I am convinced,” Paul writes in today’s epistle, “that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God we have come to know in Jesus.”
Yet Paul also acknowledges that sometimes there are “sighs too deep for words.”
We do a lot of sighing today. In those sighs, are our deeply-felt prayers for relief and patience, for solace for our loneliness and isolation. In those sighs is our fear for those we love And in those sighs, too deep for words, is God, who knows what it’s like to suffer. And like Jesus, like Andy Dufrense, like John Lewis – whose casket today will cross the Pettus Bridge with an honor guard 55 years after Bloody Sunday– we hold fast to the truth, committing to seeing the holy right before our eyes, and taking right actions as if our lives depended on it. Because today, they do.
- “A Michelangelo on Fifth Avenue?” New York Times, Jan. 23, 1996.
- The Shawshank Redemption, Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994.
- P Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Oxford University Press, 2002.