A sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
February. 27, 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
In the name of God, who is light.
Thank you for showing up today seeking light in a world that that can seem so dark as the tragedy of Covid gives way to the heartbreak of Ukraine, and in three days we begin the journey toward Easter that we call “Lent,” a word that means “spring”.
Ironically, today’s Gospel is all about light, as Jesus is transfigured before his disciples, his face shining, his clothes “dazzling white.”. Is this an image that translates at all to our world? Last week Jered made a reference I want to describe in more detail….
On an errand for the monastery where he lived the monk and writer Thomas Merton had a profound experience of connection that changed his life. He writes:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. .. but there is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
From that moment on, Merton changed and became a passionate spokesman for peace, racial tolerance and social equality.
The light that transfigured Jesus may be the divine presence that animates much of human life. You see it on the faces of a mother and her child playing in the park; or on the face of a gardener seeing the tulips come up or on the faces of people coming out of a concert or on the faces of people in love. The writer Frederik Buechner says: “Every once and so often something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”
Many of us at St. Johns who are white are struggling with the issue of racial justice and what to do to dismantle racism. Should we reach out to a Black congregation? Do a project of some sort? Continue to read and educate ourselves? To that end, I want to take one line from the Gospel today as the main point of this sermon: “Now Peter and his companions were weighted down with sleep but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory. To see what we are called to see, we need to stay awake, to pay attention. The writer Simone Weil said that attention is the purest and most generous form of compassion.
I want to revisit four incidents that have had supporting roles in sermons over the years that have to do with race with the hope that they will shed some light in new ways, and illustrate the importance of paying attention. There’s another ongoing thread here also that I ask you to look for.
Number One: The Tea Cart
It was a rattan tea cart — or so the description said. Actually it was a hideous plastic contraption with wheels that didn’t turn. And a tea cart? Really? Even I’m not that formal!
I was going to return this online order to Target and I was pretty sure I could get it into my car.
It didn’t fit in the trunk, but I managed to wedge it into the back seat of my Honda and then quickly slam the door shut.
I shop at the Midway Target. Statistically, there is more crime there than say, in Highland, but I keep my head up and my eyes open.
So I drive to Target and I can’t get the darned tea cart out of the back seat. I yank on it, I push it, I move stuff, I say, “Are you freaking kidding me?” several times. I try forcing the front seat forward and ultimately the stupid tea cart gets stuck part way out the door. I’m thinking who to call, what to do, when an older Black man with bushy hair and a baseball cap comes up to me smiling and says, “I’m going to help you.”
“Just a minute here,” I’m thinking, because at that moment he was “the Other” — Black and male — and I was white and female and it was Midway. Before I could say anything, he started working on the tea cart. He asked me to go around to the other side and push it towards him. Walking around the car, I said, “I’m too fat to get through here.”
“You’re not fat. My wife’s always saying that. I’m fat. I’m fat. None of you is fat.”
His name, I learned, was Walter and after fifteen minutes or so of really hard work, the stupid tea cart was out.
“God is good, “he said. “Now I need a hug.”
There was a brief hug and I told him I could not thank him enough. He waved and went into the store.
Number two: The Restaurant
Back in the day, one Sunday I was having lunch after church at Fabulous Fern’s restaurant on Selby with some friends. Three beautiful Black women walked in and sat down at a table nearby. They were gorgeous, impeccably-dressed, having a great time, and I was mesmerized by their appearance and their energy. They even looked a little familiar.
So, not believing I was doing it as I did it, before leaving I walked over to their table and said, “I hope this isn’t inappropriate you but look a little familiar to me and you all look so lovely sitting here…” Pause. Then they began laughing, thanking me, and said they were all sisters (as relatives). They said they had been in the Guthrie production of “Crowns,” a term referring to the hats Black women wear to church.
Then one said, “Honey, you don’t look that great.”
And then I found myself confessing that because of a recent divorce (boohoo) I was conscious (sniff sniff) of women out together having fun and they were so inspiring—and I really had to go.
They said, “No, pull up a chair. Sit down.” They were all talking now.
“Honey, he’s just taking out your trash.”
“Girlfriend, you’re going to be fine. Sit down…”
“I can’t I have to go – my friends are over there” and it killed me to leave, but as I did one grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Girlfriend, you’re free.” Which proved to be correct.
Number three – Whispers
The day after Philandro Castile was shot, the air seemed more charged than usual. as I was shopping at Cub in Midwa. I was looking at the sweet corn, when a Black woman came up next to me. I was feeling so emotional and guilty about the shooting and I wanted to tell her: Look, I am so sorry for what my race has done to yours…. But I didn’t dare, and so keeping my eyes down I said in a small voice, ” I wonder if you keep corn in the refrigerator.”
Without looking at me, she said, “I don’t know. I think I’m going to cook mine up today. But it looks really nice.”
“Yes.” I said, “It does. Look nice.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Yes, thank you.”
Without a look at each other, even a glance, there was something so intense about that tiny connection on that terrible day. I wonder if it is in such exchanges that grace happens as we step up to the tomb and help each other push back the stone.
Fourth and finally, The Russian
Although there was a steady stream of international visitors through the school where I taught, it was always the Russians I loved… two years ahead in math and science, humble and respectful, speaking English with the most charming of accents. If you watched the Olympics ice skating you may remember the unspeakable elegance of the Russians — the pairs, the ice dancers. It always seems to be winter in Russia…
Tanya was a Russian teacher who walked into my Women’s Studies classroom one day to visit. I welcomed her and settled in for a predictable “so what’s it like in your country” exchange, but that didn’t happen. Tanya talked a little about her life in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the engineering and science center of Russia where her husband worked, but she seemed aloof and distant.
The next day we watched a film about weight and self-esteem in women and I asked her if Soviet women were as obsessed with thinness and appearance as Americans are. Tanya talked for twenty minutes about how hard it is to diet with the shortage of fruits and vegetables, about various diets she and her friends have tried, the problem of cooking too much food for holidays, the strategy of skipping lunch.
Tentatively, I asked Tanya if she would come to my house for dinner the next night. Tanya and eight American women connected instantly, talking for four hours..The next day Tanya and I went out to lunch and talked about marriage, children, the vagaries of teaching, and more.
Knowing she she was leaving soon, I wamted to get Tanya some gifts. Knowing about the shortages in Siberia, I wanted to buy everything for Tanya. clothes and shoes and shampoo and books. I wanted to share my appallingly-vast resources, to make a feeble and disrespectful attempt to even the score. I settled for an engraved silver picture frame with a picture of the two of us in the lobby at Blake. I also bought two bottles of Tea Rose perfume, one for her and one for me. It made me feel good, knowing we would be smelling the same roses. Earlier Tanya had invited me to visit her in Novosibirsk. I responded that I’m not real brave about going to communist counties. Tanya replied, “Well, Bar-bar-a, it might be time now to become brave.”
I lost touch with Tanya over the years. The language barrier ultimately defeated us. But whenever I hear about Russia, especially now, it is Tanya’s face that I see.
So I offer you these stories to help to illustrate that the purest form of empathy is attention, paying attention to what is happening around you and risking something. I just blundered through these situations.
And I hope you noticed that the discovery of common ground in these tentative connections is what made them work; laughing about of fatness or about shared experience with men; naming the pain out loud of another Black victim; talking about dieting with a Russian from Siberia. Discovering common ground with “the other” can be intentional or accidental but it can bring light to any situation.
Mountaintop experiences of any kind do not last but change you in ways you can come to trust. After Tanya left, I wrote an article for the Star-Tribune about our visit. The ending: “Dear Tanya, Soviet sister from half a world away …. friendships like ours are changing the world.” It didn’t change the world, but it changed me.
Speaking of the Transfiguration, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Today you have heard a story you can take with you when you go. It tells you that no one has to go up to the mountain alone, It tells you that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy. Above all it tells you that there is someone standing in the cloud with you, shining so brightly that you may never be able to wrap your mind around him, but who is worth listening to all the same — because he is God’s beloved, and you are his, and whatever comes next, you are up to it.”
This is our prayer today.
Barbara Mraz, “Soviet Sister,” Sacred Strands, 1991.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Bright Cloud of Unknowing,” day1 broadcast, March 2, 2014.