Memorial Service for Shirley Michienzi
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul Minnesota
July 2, 2015
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
In the name of God:
God, who gives us love
God, who gives us life
God, who gives us music.
“The mystery of a great artist,” says American composer Leonard Bernstein, “is that, for reasons unknown, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another…… leaving us with the feeling that something is right in the world.”
She could not keep from singing….. with songs of praise and sorrow, through storms and calm, she found her purpose and her truth in the notes, in the music.
I confess a special bond with Shirley. I was enthralled with her story and her talent. She seemed to believe in me beyond reason. I will really miss her.
“My voice was a gift from God,” Shirley told me when I interviewed her several years ago. “I had very little to do with it.”
Oh, but she did.
Our Gospel text today is the Beatitudes, that series of blessings that Jesus pours out on the most wounded and wonderful of the world: the poor of spirit, the meek, the pure in heart. Shirley saw her God-given voice as beatitude, a blessing, and then proceeded to use it to bless her part of the world.
Our text today is blessing. Our text today is music. How could it not be?
Shirley was able to turn challenge into blessing, what I see as some humiliating situations into opportunity. Her talent and intelligence visible at an early age, Shirley Hammergren attended an exclusive girls’ school with a city-wide scholarship she had won for her singing. She told me that she arrived at school by bus when most of the girls came by chauffeured car. At St. John’s she was enlisted to stand behind a screen to keep the boys’ choir on pitch. What grace it must have required to believe in yourself and just keep moving.
Her first husband was diagnosed with MS at age 30 and latter confined to a wheel chair. The blessing was that Shirley could go to several jobs while the children were cared for. And then, she told me, they had “wonderful times” on the weekends. They would go out into the countryside and he would set up a photograph and then because he couldn’t, she pushed the button on the camera.
Away she went…. To teach voice at Hamline, to solo with the great orchestras of the Twin Cities, to the largest of Jewish congregations, Temple Israel, where she was a paid singer for 25 years: Friday night services, The High Holy Days, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings. She served three senior rabbis, “all wise and learned men,” she said. She spent 44 years with the St John’s choirs, singing and directing a youth choir. Note after note, she composed her score…
Shirley told me that one difference between Temple Israel and St. John’s was the feeling of past oppression that pervaded the Jewish worship, a raw awareness of how often in history the Jews suffered persecution.
Today we will hear the anthem “I Believe,” with words originally found embedded in a wall in Auschwitz:
“I believe in the sun
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love
even when I feel it not,
I believe in God
even when he is silent.”
I have cherished these words ever since I found them to use as the basis for the first sermon I ever preached, 32 years ago at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. I think they are perhaps the ultimate statement of faith, and when I saw them on the program for today I felt a little wink and a blessing on my head from Shirley.
She found her blessings in her family, her children and in the power of music. But she knew, I think, that music, art and beauty are not ends in themselves. The writer Frederick Buechener: “Beauty always leaves you aching with longing, not so much for more of the same, as for whatever it is deep within and far beyond both it and yourself that makes it beautiful.”
I confess I’m a Broadway show tunes kind of person and I have wondered why certain music – “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I or anything by Sondheim makes me not only emotional sometimes but sad and aching.
I think that beneath beauty, inside loveliness, underlying art, within the sound of music is the deep ache and longing for the “More” that we call God. Music that sears our hearts both points to the More and intensifies our longing for it.
Music can be serious stuff, not merely pretty or rousing or cool. Bernstein again, with words for our times: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
This is a story I like to tell at times such as this:
It is 1700 and King Edwin was hosting a huge feast in the Great Hall in the Manor House of his English Estate. It was a cold and blustery evening in midwinter and as the dinner was being brought in from the winter kitchen, a little bird flew in through the open door. The bird flew the length of the bright hall and then out the door at the other end of the great room, out into the darkness of night, gone from sight.
And that is how life can look to us as well. We are in the crowd in the Great Hall watching the little bird; we don’t know where it came from and we don’t know where it’s going.
Nor do we know these thing about ourselves..
All that we are conscious of is our brief time in this lighted hall, this earthly garden with its glories and its heartbreak. This “luminous pause between two great mysteries,” as Carl Jung said.
So we are “middle people,” living here on Planet Earth, between the two great facts of birth and death.
But in the Christian Church we believe that what surrounds our earthly life is not the blackness of night but the fullness of the love that is God. We are born into this world and, if we are lucky, received into the arms of loving parents. We are birthed out of this work, if we are lucky, with the love of our family and friends surrounding us. And what, in your own experience, has been stronger than love? Yet in this world the sources of Love are battered and torn apart and yet our faith teaches us that some how, some way, love will win.
It may need our help. I like to repeat this Muslim story of a woman, sitting outside a mosque who says to God, “Look at the suffering and pain out there! Why don’t you do something?” I did do something,” God said. “I made you.”
Christians believe that in the person of Jesus, our Christ, the Creator sent us a message that our job is love, and that death is not the final answer, but that God’s love for us will endure, past the boundaries of this earthly life.
I do not believe any faith has a corner on truth but that we all see the same Light but through different panes of glass.
The poet Emily Dickenson wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all.”
And the little bird passing over our heads today in this great hall, on her way to the eternal mysteries and the arms of Love.…that bird is singing.