On November 16, 2013 I preached the ordination of John Russell Stanger, my colleague and friend. This was such a glorious day and I couldn’t be more proud and happy to welcome him to this ministry to which we are called. Below is the sermon:
The Rev. Mieke Vandersall
Central Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX
Sermon preached at the ordination of John Russell Stanger
November 16, 2013
I have had quite a few adventures already here in Texas since I arrived a day or so ago, and have seen and done things that I have never before in my life had the opportunity to see or do. There is much beauty here in this state, that is for sure, and it is remarkable to be here at this very moment in history in this congregation, this presbytery, this denomination and in the life of this remarkable man that has grown to be as connected to my heart as my definition of family. For those who don’t know, John has doubled our staff at our tiny organization in New York City that tirelessly works for LGBTQ people inside and outside of the church and so–let’s just say that we spend a lot of time together. Not a minute ill-spent. It is an honor, a privilege, a quite emotional gift to stand in this pulpit today.
I begin with a story.
There have been a few times in my life, when I have been so broken down, that I have been forced to pray. I have a bit of a prayer problem when it comes to a traditional prayer life, as in a day to day reading of Scripture and working my way through some formal prayer process. I know that people in clerical collars and robes are perceived to have all things prayer down like an expert, but if I am like any others, that is a complete falsity.
I do not stand here, though, to tell you of my prayer struggles.
One cold evening, a few years ago, I was walking to my home in Manhattan, I had many Avenues to go and therefore many minutes to walk, the first time alone in quite some time. It was one of the first beautiful crisp winter nights of the season, with the sky clear and the moon huge and full hanging low over the twinkle of the lights of the city, reminding you that while you live in a concrete jungle, nature is still apart of it. It was one of the first nights of the season that I gave thanks for the cold breeze on my skin that woke me up, and yet worried about the scores of homeless individuals who might not make it through. We had just finished worship at Not So Churchy, the new worshiping community that I had started, that God had planted in my heart the last time I was so out of vision on my own that I was forced to pray.
When this community gathers, it is always inspirational. Always. I leave fuller than when I came in. I leave with song on my heart and people on my mind. That night, it was a good time, and yet I was very, very tired. I had a remarkable group of underemployed uber talented New York City musicians helping me, but I had been doing much of it all on my own, not talking to God as much as possible, let alone listening very well. I was tired of the aloneness of this thing called ministry and I saw no discernible way out.
So I had to pray. It was all I had left. It was a simple prayer, a prompting, that finally was forced through my lips that night, which stopped me in my tracks and lean my back against a building on 10th Street between Greenwich and Hudson so that God and I could have a serious chat. It went like this: Dear God, Show Me the Money. Love, Mieke. p.s. By the way, God, just to clarify, I need you to show me the money so I can find a colleague in this, so I don’t have to carry the weight all on my own shoulders.
Now, after that came other expletives, and bargaining with God: if you do not help me know where to ask for more so that I can support this ministry with another person, with another vision, with more stability, I am out. I am out and I am done and I don’t know what might be next, but it isn’t this. We’ve got a good thing going on here but it is time you show me that you care. If you care about this ministry, and me most importantly, freaking do something. So God: Show Me the Money. I am tired. I need your support. Amen.
Now, I have already told you that I have a prayer problem, and that if you dissect this prayer of mine that it was kind of inappropriate in numerous ways. One is not to bargain with God, one should acknowledge that all you have already is through God, one should not pretend that through our own will we have more power than God, one should not think that when prayers are offered God will respond like God is some separate entity controlling all our moves, and besides this prayer felt pretty self-centered in the grand scheme of things.
But I have also found another way through this problem. My spiritual director, who I began to see because of my prayer problem, which I have begun to understand isn’t really a problem at all, has taught me that prayer can be about intention, discerning what you need, and what the world needs, to yourself and everyone else. For me offering simple if not exhausted prayers like this, when they finally stop me and force me to speak them aloud, it shows me that I might be ready to change something so that God can work. Or so that God can show me what is there already so I can work better. Or different. Or something.
So I did it that night. Walking myself into a sweat on a freezing cold night on 10th Street in Greenwich Village I put it out there. And then I heard God whisper back: Mieke, the money is there, you just need to ask for it.
It only took a few days, really. I was called last minute on a pouring rain depressing day to lunch with a donor who is so busy that it is always a big treat for me to be in his presence. He told me he would give us money so that we could grow this organization called Presbyterian Welcome. It was a special gift he had to give that year, and he wanted to make a big impact with it, he wanted this gift to be allowed to multiply into fruits we couldn’t predict. He believed in me and my leadership and I needed to believe in my own as much as he did—so I was challenged to pitch to him, to come to him with a proposal. I came back a few days later, and he in his lawyerly way grilled me with questions to see if I was up for the challenge. He made me give my first proper ask of my professional career. He determined I was up for it. And he kickstarted what has happened, the last two remarkable years.
Right after that initial gift, a month after, John came to New York to see if he could live in that magical city that has given me a home. He also was to meet with people to see what kinds of connections he could make post-graduation. He had a vision that his dream-job would be in working with us and organizing a youth program that kids like John and I and so many others could have used when we were kids ourselves. I also had a dream, a prayer, that I could have a colleague who had been trained by the retreat community we organized for LGBTQ Inquirers and Candidates. We had a dream that we wanted to work together, but I was gun shy on hiring people and I didn’t know if I could trust him. Which now makes me laugh. John Russell Stanger not trustworthy? But I didn’t know better and I didn’t think I deserved more than mediocre wine, or even empty wine jars like we find in our reading this afternoon, and so I was testing him and watching him.
Regardless of whether or not he passed my test, we still didn’t have money to hire an organizer, yet. That initial gift from the donor who has now been known around our office as the “magic donor” was to help us find more funds, but we didn’t have them at that point.
At the end of John Russell’s week in New York, where he met with more people than I meet in a span of several months’ time, where he had been offered other organizing jobs within three days of being there, he was told that he received the Pile-Morgan Scholarship from Austin Seminary that would allow him to engage in some kind of continuing education. And so, with the blessings of his Dean, upon graduation he sold all his things and moved to New York City to become my intern, to learn how to do community organizing in a more structured way, and to plant the seeds for God’s dream of a youth program.
And then once John Russell Stanger enters into your life, you work your tail off not to let him go. Turns out John Russell is a very, very good limited edition wine, the best vintage that is kept aside for special times, you can’t find this wine in stores.
Somehow I was able to live into the intentions of this “magic donor” and I found people and churches who would support our ministry that weren’t there before. I found the strength to ask for what we needed to support this particular section of God’s population, and you know what I finally got over myself to enjoy the asking, but more than anything the implementing.
Somehow, once I uttered the prayer, I had the rare experience of being able to respond to God’s creation around me, and within me, pretty quickly.
That said, I do not recommend this style of problem solving, unless you really believe in Jesus, as I only sometimes do. It is so very messy. It isn’t for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, and sometimes, ok all the time, leads to the death of your expectations and replaces them with great dreams.
And while I don’t recommend this style, it is however, the only one that has seemed to work for me over the years. It is how I have learned grace again and again.
And so we enter the Gospel according to a believer named John. We enter a text where the definition of grace, which is what I have found over and over again in the past two years, are found in good wine, the reserve wine, the wine held back, not the cheap stuff, which of course is what some of us are expecting and of which some of us think we are deserving. Jesus comes and throws over the whole entire system and structure of how the party of life is thrown, who is to be the host, what the host provides, and how the guests are to respond.
The thing about the word grace in this gospel is that it only occurs four times in all if its 21 chapters, and they were all in the beginning. Just maybe, only maybe the author used them those introductory times when he was throwing around all sorts of beautiful rhetorical theological words, and then he started telling stories about what grace really is.
It is the reserve wine that winemakers do not share. It is the premier wine when there is no wine left, not even the cheap stuff. It is a party for goodness sake, it is a party not a healing or a lecture or an exorcism but grace is found in John’s gospel first–in a party! Grace is in this sign that points us to who God is, the incarnation of the one who comes along in the middle of a time when it was dangerous to have others call you the Son of God and the King of Israel, and throws a party and saves the face of the family who put in a substandard wine order.
Now, I must tell you that as I read this story of abundant grace, of abundance period, that there are pieces that I trip upon. It is those trippings though, that might be a sign towards how we might engage in bringing forth this abundant grace in our own lives, through our clunky prayers that transforms ourselves and others.
So, here is one of those places upon which I trip: It always annoys me when in Scripture women are named as women but never by their name. We know so much context in this little story today but we never hear Mary’s name: we know the location where this happened, in the verses before we learn the names of new disciples. For goodness sake John the Baptist even gets all this airtime. We know more about Jesus’ cousin than his own mother in this particular gospel. I know it is my 21st century feminist annoyance, but still.
I recently read a book entitled A Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin (2012, Scribner, New York, NY) which, using some of his imagination but based from the Scriptures outlines Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Woman, from the wedding to the cross. From a fictional yet historical perspective he fills in her gaps, adds a great deal of context for what might have happened before we got to this wedding, this very first defining public act.
Leading to this wedding, according to Toibin, Mary was concerned. Jesus had been organizing and subverting the Roman order in private ways. He had been gathering disciples. Men had been coming and going from her home, and he had been teaching them, and she was simultaneously drawn to them and scared. She knew, for she had been warned, that there were spies, informers, middlemen who were watching as he was healing people, as he was teaching people to believe in their own voice. And she had been warned to stop him, for his life and for hers. And so she says, in her voice, which I am so curious and refreshed to hear: “I went to Cana not to celebrate the joining together with much clamour of two people, one of whom I barely knew and the other not at all, but to see if I could get my son home.” However, “when I arrived in Cana some days before the wedding I knew, or I almost knew, that I had come in vain. The only talk was the talk of him and the fact that I was his mother meant that I was noticed and approached…I understood that I had not missed my chance to take my son away from here, I understood that I never had such a chance in the first place and that all of us were doomed.” There were people there, watching, noticing, paying attention to not the bride and the bridegroom but to the table where Jesus and Mary sat. And “in all the shouting and confusion no one knew what happened until they began to shout that he had changed the water into wine. They begged for the bridegroom and the bride’s father to come and sample the new wine as one of them began to proclaim how strange and unusual it was for the host to have kept the good wine until last. And then a vast cheering went up and everyone at the feast began to applaud. No one noticed, however, that I did not cheer.”
What I appreciate about this rendering is the insight into the real danger that was in place as we saw this extravagant act of grace, of abundance, of saving face.
And so Mary arrives at this wedding, Jesus’ first public act where the definition of grace is displayed and not only talked about, and Mary, the woman who knows for real what will happen to her son, the woman who has no other appearance in the gospel of John until she sits at the foot of the cross, has two lines of text in this story for this afternoon. First, she points out to Jesus that, you know, there is no wine left and he can do something about it.
Now, let us think about this. It took a human, albeit Jesus’ mother, to point out to this human-divine creation named Jesus our Christ, that he has the power to do something about this crisis of no wine, this crisis of not understanding the extravagance of God’s abundant grace, even and especially in the midst of life-threatening danger.
In the midst of great danger swirling around, it takes a human to say to the divine: “do something about it.” “show us the money Son.” And then in response he retorts “woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not come.” She will not take this as an answer, for he can do something, she knows he can, and so she encourages him on with her confidence: “do whatever he says,” knowing that he will say something, he will do something, that he must do something.
Mary shows us that we have the power to, we even must prompt the divine, even with the knowledge that in that prompting we will find the end of our lives as we know them. That prompting, I believe, is prayer, in the multiplicity of forms in which it comes. It is prayer with our backs against the wall asking for the prompting that we see is necessary so that God’s grace can be revealed the world over.
John, right now at this moment in time you are the embodiment of this prompting for me. We have done it John, you have done it, God has done it. And in reality each of us are the embodiment of someone else’s prompting. It’s how we work as humans, it is how God works through us, through the one known as Jesus our Christ, the one who shows us extravagant grace and abundance through signs, pointing us closer again towards the otherworldliness we find here in this world.