Jan. 20, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jan 20, 2019 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Second Sunday after
the Epiphany (Year C)

14th century mosaic from dome of the Church of the Savior at Chora, Istanbul

Most of you know I love museums and art, mosaics and icons in particular. I’ve been looking at centuries of art depicting Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana, and what surprised me is that many of them show her fading politely into the background or speaking to Jesus’ back as he turns away to do the important part, his head angled as if he’s maybe half-listening.    Others don’t even include Mary! [See image above] I noted also the servants who fill the jars with water are there, but are usually shown as smaller, diminutive, sometimes darker even or in dull colors, because, like Mary, they are of lessor importance to the ‘main event’ and that’s how a person’s importance was shown. They are usually bent over their task, not looking up at Jesus as the disciples do. Yet the servants are the first to see the miracle, and Mary is the one who initiated it, even arguing Jesus into doing it, yet they are crowded out by the ‘important people.’ As I listen to this Gospel, I’m reminded how very often Jesus is taught or turned around by women, and how nearly every miracle is about the wholeness of community and restoration of someone to it, showing each individual Jesus touches as vital and invited to that blessed wholeness. How do we envision wholeness of community, the completeness of the kingdom of God? I think for too long we have unthinkingly imagined ‘community’ as those who look or speak or work or live like ourselves. We like to think we’re blind to such things, or at the very least that we do better than our forebears — but can we look around today and still claim that? In so many areas we have a long way to go, and both as individuals and as a nation we have to be constantly alert and corrective to any slipping back into that self-important perspective that puts only the ‘important people’ in central focus, and fades other people into the background, diminishing or omitting them altogether.

Holy Absence II, by Titus Kaphar

Another person who preaches this sermon, only who does it with paint, is Titus Kaphar, and he also loves museums! One day he’s taking his sons to the Natural History Museum and out in front is an epic sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt up on horseback, looking handsome, bold and strong. Walking next to him on the right is a Native American and on the left an African American. Titus looks at the piece with an appreciative artist’s eye, somewhat awed. Then his nine-year-old son looks at it and asks “How come he gets to ride, and they have to walk?” Kaphar says “Stopped me in my tracks — so much history in the answer!” He circles back to his accidental discovery of art history and a love for it. To impress a girl, he registered blindly for college classes to show he was a serious guy and that was one of them. For the first time his visual attention was demanded, utilized, engaged, appreciated. So he keeps at it, taking a survey of art history with a 400 page textbook, where he discovered a 14 page chapter on “black people and painting” he said, “some in the painting and some who did the painting. Poorly curated to say the least!” But he was excited because no one had talked about that in any of his classes. “Oh, we’re skipping that part because we don’t have time.” The professor says. After arguing wither and the dean he realized, “If I wanted to understand this history, or those folks ‘who have to walk,’ I was going to have to figure it out myself.” 

So Kaphar’s work explores and wrestles with the history of slavery and racism. He’s fascinated by art history—how it is written, recorded, distorted, exploited, re-imagined and understood. His work explores the materiality of reconstructive history. “I paint and I sculpt, often borrowing from the historical canon, and then alter the work in some way. I cut, crumple, shroud, shred, stitch, tar, twist, bind, erase, break, tear and turn the paintings and sculptures I create, reconfiguring them into works that nod to hidden narratives and begin to reveal unspoken truths about the nature of history.” So, in his TED talk video we see his own reproduction of a 17th-century portrait of a wealthy white family and their black servant, a young boy. He explains how exaggerated height of the father, the mother’s heavy gold necklace and elegant detailed lace are all part of telling their story, light on their faces and richly colored silk clothing speaks of position, wealth, status. Kaphar points to the boy standing somewhat back in the shadows, all in brown and black, no light on him, and even his white collar is muted to grey, and he tells us, “Historically speaking, I can find out more about the lace [on the woman’s dress] than I can about the [black] character here.” He then changes the portrait with a wash of white paint so that the family details fade and suddenly our focus shifts and the boy’s character emerges. (TED talk “How Can We Address Centuries of Racism In Art?https://www.ted.com/talks/titus_kaphar_can_art_amend_history?language=en .)

Art is the language of history, and he wonders —if we change our focus can we better answer his son’s question; “why do those two have to walk?” Can we amend how we see…our whole world? “Not erase, but amend” Kaphar says. On this Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, having the reading of the miracle of water into wine at the wedding in Cana is one way people of faith get to encounter Christ’s story in our midst right now. We get to notice Jesus speaks in a dismissive even flippant-sounding way to his mother, and then think of times we’ve done so—what opportunities or wisdom did I miss? We hear Mary (far from a mere background character!) as central; she’s in-the-moment, her attention on all those gathered, and she sees the opportunity for Jesus to begin showing himself in such a joyfully generous way! The start of his ministry becomes a harbinger gift of the abundance of his love for us all. Did he look back and feel chagrinned at his words to his mother, after realizing she was right? Although the world of art tends to diminish the servants, Jesus never does, and they are the first to see the miracle even if not the first to proclaim it. Where do we see ourselves in this scene, as guests, disciples; usually. But today I want to be one of the servants, helping bring that holy water, witnessing the miracle up close! We hear the steward, also usually tucked in the background, acclaims the reversal of order that Jesus will bring to the world throughout his ministry; the best wine saved for when the people are running out of the inferior stuff, and that finest wine is in lavish abundance for all; guests, the disciples, the wedding party—everyone. Jesus teaches we are all invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb, of which this is a foreshadowing; do we believe that? Live that?

One of my favorite pieces by Titus Kaphar is called Holy Absence II. [See image #2 below] It features Jesus cut out from the cross and a black male peeking through the opening. What presence do you see in the figure of Christ cut out, the expression of the face looking up? What about the women below with no faces, as if empty of identity? When we look past the surface of our expectations, look beyond what we are used to seeing, what might come forward? Who do we look at without really seeing their faces? Why does Jesus usually look more Nordic than Middle Eastern, and does it bother us? What helps shed light on those things which our accidental blindness hides? The psalmist answers that question today saying, “In your light, O God, we see light.” It isn’t enough to trust our own perspectives, yet looking through the lens of God’s light, through scripture, through the eyes of each other as in this faith community, we truly see light. Anne Lamott said she made her son Sam go to church “to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path, and a little light to see by.” (Traveling Mercies, Anchor, 2000) That’s the Light of God Martin Luther King Jr. helped to shine into our world, and it still does.

These days we talk far more about King as a civil rights leader than as a pastor and preacher, and yet that’s where I go today, because his call from God burned so brightly, and through it he zealously called us to become something greater—he called us to be the kingdom of God and to live the gospel with courage. Seventy years ago, preaching in Brooklyn New York he said, “The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.” It still does, and the world needs it more than ever now, and you know we still have plenty of work to do on that demand. He spoke of the need for us all to come together, to be one people even if many nations, he preached relentlessly of the imperative that we love those we want to hate, those who hate us. There’s nothing about that in our gospel reading today, and yet it’s the quiet reality that Jesus’ first miracle was to make the best wine be served when most needed, and to them all. We need the miracle of that wine in our world today; For the Lord to transform our ordinary water-like selves into the best wine.  King’s preaching emphasized a change of heart, saying that although “science gives [us] knowledge which is power, religion gives [us] wisdom which is control.” While “science deals mainly with facts, religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.” (Strength to Love, 1963). He preached those values even when living them was tough, to love our enemies even when we don’t want to, even when we don’t think it’s our problem to solve. How did Jesus put it? “What concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Well, Mary knew better; his hour had come, and for us too – the hour has come. Jesus taught us to expect and participate in miracles, to live faithfully and love inclusively, all in his name. And so, Mary’s last words spoken were spot on; “Do whatever he tells you.”

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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