The following sermon was given by The Reverend Jill Beimdiek and is published here with her permission. I hope it inspires you as much as it has inspired me. If you feel so moved, please consider sending a generous, tax-deductible gift to the Haitian people via Episcopal Relief & Development (http://www.er-d.org/) or to the Society of Saint Margaret (http://www.ssmbos.org/). More information on donations can be found at the bottom.
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O God. You are our Rock. You are our Redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel reading this morning [John 2:1-11] is a wonderful story of abundance and transformation. The account of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana is found only in John’s Gospel; it is the first of seven “signs” in that Gospel, events that function to reveal something of the person of Jesus that in turn enables others to believe in him. In Jesus’ time, wedding celebrations were commonly spread over several days, even a week, and at this one, the wine has run out. Mary, referred to only as the mother of Jesus, sees the problem, and knowing of her son’s true identity, urges him to make it right, to spare the wedding family the embarrassment of no more wine at a good celebration. Jesus initially demurs: “Woman,” not a disrespectful address, as it may sound to us, “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” In John’s Gospel Jesus says repeatedly “My hour has not yet come”; he knows from the beginning what will happen to him when his hour does indeed come. At this wedding, though, he does respond, instructing the servants to fill six large stone jars, used for Jewish purification rites, with water, and then he miraculously transforms that water into better wine than had been offered earlier at the wedding celebration.
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Several weeks ago, when I downloaded today’s lections and began my routine of reading and re-reading and praying the lections as preparation for writing this sermon, I wasn’t at all sure what I would do with them. This week, I was struck by the juxtaposition of a story of God’s amazing generosity and abundance and the horrific devastation in Haiti. And Thursday I read an account in the New York Times that made this juxtaposition all the more powerful. Wednesday night in Port-au-Prince, the second night after the earthquake, was described by the reporter this way:
“With no electricity, stars offered the only illumination in the city, which, with its suburbs, is home to nearly 3 million people. For some of those lying on the asphalt or in the parks, cell phones provided a brief glimpse of light.
“Then the singing began. Those gathered outside tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.
“’Beni Swa Leternel,’ they sang. ‘Blessed be the Lord.’” (Simon Romero, “Agony Sets in as Medics Focus on Survivors,” NYT on-line 01/14/10)
I don’t know if I would have characterized this singing as if the people were trying to “make sense of the madness.” From what I know of the Haitian people, they consistently see themselves as recipients of God’s generosity, even in the face of unimaginable poverty, and maybe, apparently on Wednesday night, even in the face of incredible devastation and untold loss. God is good and their response is to praise God. Beni swa l’Eternel. God is good and should be praised even though more than half of the Haitian people live on less than $1 a day (80% live on less than $2). God is good and should be praised even though the unemployment rate is estimated to be 60%. God is good and should be praised even when basic infrastructure was insufficient to deal with human waste and when potable water was in inadequate supply before the earthquake. Beni swa l’Eternel. God is good and should be praised even when the effects of four major hurricanes in the late summer and fall of 2008 hadn’t been remedied 17 months later.
Haiti is by far the poorest and least-developed country in the western hemisphere, a country that has no ability to deal with major storms and less ability to deal with an earthquake that levels most of its largest city. And the people sing beni swa l’Eternel. Beni swa l’Eternel.
Several people at Holy Trinity have connections with Haiti. Nancy, Jane, and Phil have traveled and worked there. Phil was planning to return to Haiti in just a few weeks with a group from First Presbyterian Church downtown. When he retired, Phil offered his dental equipment to the Sisters of St. Margaret in Port-au-Prince, who then passed it on so a dental clinic could be established there. These Sisters of St. Margaret are part of the order of which I am an associate in Boston; I know the three sisters who were in Port-au-Prince this week, Marie-Margaret, Marie Therese, and Marjorie Raphael, who are, thanks be to God, safe, and as of Friday staying, living on a soccer field. Several other sisters in Boston are Haitian, and I have heard their stories, and those of other members of the order who have ministered among the poor in Haiti since 1927. And the theme that comes through again and again are the words heard by the Times reporter: beni swa l’Eternel. Blessed be the Lord.
The physical structures used by, established by the sisters were mostly leveled by this week’s earthquake. The Convent is gone; St. Vincent’s Hospital for Handicapped Children, which they founded, is gone. Holy Trinity School is gone. Also gone are Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Bishop’s residence, and College St. Pierre. In Trouin, some 20 miles outside Port-au-Prince, four people were killed during a service at the Episcopal Church when the quake struck. In Grand Colline, the church is gone. In St. Etienne, the church is gone.
And yet, beni swa l’Eeternel. Blessed be the Lord. These are a grateful, joyful, praising, praise-filled people. beni swa l’Eternel. Beni swa l’Eternel.
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If ever there was a time when a people need a miracle like the one at the wedding at Cana, it’s the people of Haiti right now. It would be pretty impossible today to get even one of those six stone jars filled with 20 or 30 gallons of water. What little supply of potable water there was before Tuesday night is undoubtedly disrupted. The Haitian people, mired in poverty for generations, arguably have needed a miracle for quite a while, but now is the time for that sort of miracle, an act of magnificently generous transformation.
And it’s not transformation of water into wine, or even non-potable water into potable water. No. The necessary transformation, the miracle, if you will, needs to be of us. We need for our hearts to be transformed so that we can respond generously, more generously than we might imagine. Like any major disaster, this one is not going to be resolved before it mostly drops from our consciousness: think about the tsunami that killed some 230,000 in Indonesia and along the Indian Ocean five years ago, or about Katrina’s still unaddressed effects in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, something I had mostly overlooked for maybe three years before our mission team went to Mississippi last summer. We pay attention to tragedies like this one in Haiti for a week or two, and then something else grabs the headlines and our attention. Current estimates in Haiti are that some 3 million people will need intensive assistance, and many of them will need help for a year or longer. I read that perhaps 50% of the 3 million people in and around Port-au-Prince are children, at least half of them malnourished before the earthquake, and God only knows how many of these kids are now orphans, perhaps the only surviving member of their family. Who will take care of them? Who will help them grow into the people God created them to be?
President Obama has pledged to the Haitian people that they will not be forgotten or forsaken, and other countries are pledging their support with both people and money.
But will they, will we, still be there two, three, ten years from now, helping to redevelop the infrastructure and the Haitian economy so that these beloved children of God—the young ones and the not-so-young—can have a chance to live and thrive and love?
In his New York Times column on Friday, David Brooks offered a comparison between this week’s horrors in Haiti and an earthquake of the same magnitude. Do you remember the earthquake that rattled San Francisco in October of 1989, during, I believe, the World Series? I remember an elevated freeway severing and crushing a few cars underneath, and some buildings damaged, a few to a point of being condemned. This week, whole sections of Port-au-Prince have been flattened, buildings simply collapsing like stacks of pancakes. In the San Francisco quake, sixty-three people died. In Haiti ,the Red Cross estimates at least 45-50,000 fatalities, and the Pan American Health Asociation has estimated more like 90-100,000 deaths. (David Brooks, “The Underlying Tragedy,” NYT online, Jan. 15, 2010)
Yes, it’s time for a miracle. It’s time for transformation. It’s time for God’s children in places like Holy Trinity, in [our city], in cities and towns across our country, to ask themselves what they can do to help our brothers and sisters in Haiti. Beni swa l’Eternel. Blessed be the Lord. The Lord has blessed us so very richly. One way for us to respond to God’s incredible generosity towards us is share some of our blessings with those who so desperately need them. Pray that we may be like the water in those stone jars, that God may transform us, use us, our hearts and minds and wills, to respond to the tragedy in Haiti. Pray that God will show you what you can do.
And let us join our voices with those of the people of Haiti: beni swa l’Eternel. Blessed be the Lord, whose love and faithfulness is more and deeper than we can even imagine. Beni swa l’Eternel, who alone can transform us to respond creatively, courageously, and generously. Beni swa l’Eternel. Blessed be the Lord.
Tax-deductible donations to help the Haitian people can be made to
Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD)
P.O. Box 7058, Merrifield, VA 22116-7058
Society of Saint Margaret
17 Highland Park St.
Boston, MA 02119-1436