Sermon by Bronson de Stadler
Good morning. I am honored to speak to you on this holiday weekend celebrating the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King, a monumental figure in the Civil Rights movement and an important contemporary Christian figure for his commitment to justice and change through peaceful means. In fact, as you may already know, he is considered a saint in the Episcopal church. His name is listed in the Book of Lesser Fasts and Feasts, a list of those, who by general church consensus, exemplify Christian values and are worthy of honoring as saints. Many other leaders in that movement are also saints, though not in the book, and we celebrate their spirit through Dr. King.
I want to talk about Dr. King and his legacy, but, first, my attention is caught by our gospel reading this morning, the Wedding Feast at Cana. I have the great good fortune not to be a theologian or a priest, and not even someone that well versed in the Bible. I have learned more about scripture and religious thought in the past fifteen years at St. Paul’s than I did in the previous fifty years as an on and off Episcopalian, and even a Christian in my youth.
I am less taken by Jesus’ miracle, his magical ability to turn water into wine, than the family dynamics being played out in the story. If you have adult children, you may be able to follow my lead. So Mary is invited to a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee. My thought is the mother of the bride or groom was a friend or relative of Mary’s, so of course she was invited, and even obliged to attend. Jesus, her oldest son, was in town (the third day of his visit) so, of course he too was invited. Likely he was an honored guest because, as one writer put it – and I love this phrase – Jesus was “a well respected though unconventional rabbi”. With Jesus came, of course, that scruffy band of followers, the twelve disciplines who followed him everywhere, so of course they had to be invited, or maybe they just showed up. What choice did the parents of the bride and groom have? And these follwers were a motley band of “bros”, probably not very well dressed for a wedding feast with all their traveling around, probably always hungry because they depended so much on free food and the generosity of others, having given up their jobs and incomes (imagine how their parents felt about that), and probably thrilled to put down some good quality alcohol that was pretty scarce the rest of the time. No wonder the wine gave out.
Now Mary, in my mind, was likely not very happy about this entourage of misfits coming along and consuming so much wine, so she goes to Jesus to report to the problem. Like sons for millenniums, he replies to his mother in a gruff, irritated voice, “It’s not my problem.”, and grumpily” I’ve got other things on my mind.” Poor Mary. Haven’t we all been there. In fairness to Jesus, he did have other things on his mind, namely the great meeting with his destiny. No doubt Mary, as mothers do, persisted he do something. So like a good son, he grumbles and gives in. “Alright if you want a miracle, you’ll get a miracle. Maybe then you’ll leave me alone”. Low and behold the water is transformed into wine, not just any wine, but a fine wine, a very good quality cabernet let’s say. Everyone can get drunk, as was the custom at these affairs, Mary is proud of her son, and the disciplines believe in Jesus’ glory as they raise their goblets to down the abundance of newly found wine.
I hope my playful interpretation is not too disrespectful. Brian, you can speak to me after the service if it is. Fortunately, other thoughts also come to me about this piece of scripture. One of the things I cherish most about our Episcopal faith is it’s encouragement to apply reason to what we see, hear and read. Perhaps you remember the analogy of the three legged stool upon which our Anglican authority and faith rests: scripture, tradition and reason. When I apply reason to this story it becomes less about whether you believe in miracles or not, or grouchy yet dutiful sons, but it becomes a powerful story of transformation. Something very ordinary, though life sustaining, namely water, becomes something very precious and special, namely fine wine. This mystery of transformation through the spirit of God in the person of Jesus, becomes less a story about magic, and more a story about the capacity of the ordinary to be transformed.
When I last spoke to you on Martin Luther King Day in a sermon about five years ago (and forgive me if I repeat this part of the story), I talked about the woman who used to pull into my family’s driveway when I was a child in the big black Buick every Sunday at nine o’clock to take me to church. I would dutifully walk out in my charcoal gray wool, and endlessly itchy, suit with the clip-on tie to get in, while my parents were still groggy and hungover from whatever social event they attended the Saturday evening before. My Gram, Pauline Greening de Stadler, would take me to the large stone Victorian church with the wonderfully vivid stained glass windows, much like the windows in St. Anna’s, in a city in Southern Connecticut, the church in which she served on the vestry for many years, the women’s guild, where my grandfather was treasurer, and where her grandparents had attended and helped found the church itself. We always sat in the same pew, her pew and her family’s pew. In St. Paul’s the same tradition existed. If you look over to my left, you will see that two of the pew boxes do not have dividers in the middle. It was built that way in 1922 so two of the prominent families who played a historic role in the history of this church could all sit together as one block. It was their pew.
As the demographics of the Southern Connecticut changed, and the sprawl from New York City brought more and more economically changed people looking for jobs, cheaper housing, and a better life, the old guard of the church dwindled away in the flight to the suburbs. The church started looking very empty on Sundays, but then a few new people started coming. You would think that would be a good thing, but it presented increasing challenges for my grandmother which I witnessed play out.
The first insult was people sitting in her pew. Once or twice could be forgiven out of ignorance, but it began to occur on such a regular basis, we had to appear earlier and earlier to be assured we would get the her pew. At one point we were so early, I remember looking around to see we were the only people in the sanctuary. The second insult was a change in the church service in the late nineteen sixties or early seventies. The priest instructed us in offering the sign of peace to each other after the confession. To which my anglo-saxon grandmother grumbled, “Shake hands with strangers. People you don’t even know.” She complied, but her displeasure with the change was palpable. The third insult was the final one. It was the one she could not get over.
Among the new people who started showing up at church in the increasingly decaying inner city surrounding the church, were people of color, some of whom spoke English with a Spanish or other accent. The words “Puerto Ricans” was used a lot in those in those years, with many degrading variations. Worse than that, I remember a small group of black women with calico dresses and lace handkerchiefs, and noticeable perfume, who were very friendly and spoke English with a clipped Caribbean accent. They were lovely to the children like me, and tried to be friendly to my grandmother, but it was too much. She asked if she could have a word with the rector. She wanted to let him know that these people did not belong in the church, that they were likely under the misapprehension that this was a Roman Catholic church since our service was high church, that she wished he would speak to them with the unspoken message to ask them to leave. He was not won over, or pleased to hear these words about his now barely revitalized church. We stopped going not too long afterwards.
I tell this long story because it was a very meaningful lesson for me, one I think about now much more than I did as a young man. My grandmother taught me many valuable life lessons, and she took her faith seriously and genuinely tried to live by it, her phrases and scripture quotes stick in my mind to this day. She was a very good person, but she could not transform herself to a new way of thinking about others. She could not transform herself out of the racial prejudices and stereotypes she grew up with, and that were the norm in the milieu in which she lived. That miracle could not happen for her.
Fortunately for us, Martin Luther King and all the other leaders of the Civil Rights movement past, and those fighting for social justice to this day were and are providing opportunities to transform our thoughts, and therefore ourselves, to something that seemed quite impossible when I was wearing that itchy wool suit, namely a civil society in which justice is equal and preconceived notions of who people are because of their skin color or country of origin or religion don’t matter. “I have a dream”, that iconic phrase of an imagined future, comes to mind. I must confess to you, I still have a way to go myself to that dream. Change and transformation are not my long suit, but I keep knocking on the inner door, as do you who come to this place on the weekend and ask for help in your prayer life. We are all banging on the inner door.
Every so often a flash of light appears, a new way of seeing or understanding something, and I/we are lifted up. We all have these, our own individual flashes of light, our small everyday epiphanies, and every so often, one sticks and offers the possibility of real change.
I will share one from a favorite author, Toni Morrison, author of Beloved, Song of Solomon, God help the Child, and many more great books. I have not been able to get her response to a question out of my mind. When the commentator Stephen Colbert raised a question with her about race, she replied, “There is no such things as race. None. There is just a human race – scientifically, anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct…it has a social function, racism.”
Wow. I’m still digesting that.
In God’s name. Amen.