“On the far side of fear” 01/14/2018 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 and John 2:1-11


Will you pray with me?  May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and redeemer.  Amen

This past week I was out walking with a friend of mine.  We had not seen each other for several weeks and were getting caught up on what was happening in our lives – we talked about how was work going, what’s new with the kids, how the parent’s health is, what the latest headlines on the national and world stage may mean.  As we talked, there was a lot of sighing.  Things had not been particularly easy for my friend.  

And then my friend, who is this really remarkably talented, smart and accomplished woman turned to me and said, “You know, most mornings I wake up with a kind of low level dread.  And I go into my day with its undertow dragging on me as a kind of worry about whether I’m going to be able to handle all of what I know the day is going to throw at me.”

Her words struck me.  I have been thinking a lot about them.  How many of us know that low level dread?  How many of us know that pull of worry or ripple of anxiety about what the day is going to ask of us? 

Turns out a lot.[1] According to the National Institute for Mental Health 18 percent of adults will experience an anxiety disorder during the course of the year.  That that means that almost one in five of the people you meet may be suffering with what can be debilitating anxiety. 

18 percent is really high, but the number of people experiencing non clinical, every day anxiety is higher still.  Anxiety is all around us. 

When one suffers from anxiety, this apprehension that something terrible might happen can become so out of proportion to actual reality that there can be what is called “catastrophizing.”  This is where one gets caught in a loop of worst case scenario thinking. 

Anxiety can be treated with medication and learning to bring things down to scale through positive reframing and self-coaching. And thank goodness for that!  I have seen first-hand the new life that treatment for anxiety can bring to one who is suffering. 

But I am wondering if learning to live, if not free from anxiety then at least with less of it, could be also be  — not so much about reassuring ourselves that nothing bad is actually going to happen, but about assuring ourselves that if and when something bad does happen, we will have the capacity to deal with it. 


For the wine did give out.  Despite what surely must have been months and months of planning (a wedding is a wedding after all whether in the 21st century or the first), one of the worst things that could possibly go wrong in a wedding, did.  The wine gave out.  This would have meant that not only would the party have been cut short, but that the couple and their families would have been humiliated before their community.  The wine giving out is a really one of the worst things that could possibly have happened in that situation.  

And the interesting thing for me, is that Jesus being there at the wedding does not prevent the wine from giving out.  The worst thing that could have happened did. And Jesus was there.  

Sometimes we think that the presence of problems or suffering means the absence of God.  This passage hints at something different.  Jesus is right there, right there when the wine gives out.


At some time or another, the wine will give out for us as well.  In the course of our day we are going to encounter a situation where something has gone wrong.  We will experience it directly or we will hear about something that has gone wrong for someone else.  A diagnosis will be given.  A phone call of the passing of someone we love, will come.  A mistake will be made and accident will happen.  We will break a promise, hurt someone we love or be hurt by them.  Mudslides will take down an entire community. Our neighbor and friend will face deportation.  Nuclear arms agreements will be threatened. The bandage will be ripped off and the ugly, festering sore of racism in our national body will be revealed.   The wine will give out. 


The wine gave out for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  You may know this story well but it bears remembering. 

It was in the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott.   Rosa Parks had been arrested for her audacity.  Dr. King had been giving it his all, but it had become just too much.  The hatred was huge, the violence scary and ugly.  The monster of racism was too powerful and he was afraid.  Afraid for himself, for his family.  Afraid that he did not have what it would take to lead through such a dangerous and scary time. 

The wine had given out. It was late Friday night, January 27, 1956. He arrived home late.  His wife was asleep.  The phone rings and a voice tells him “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.”  (I pick up here from a piece from the national catholic reporter[2])

“With that King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table. King describes what happened next in his book Stride Toward Freedom.  [he writes]  

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
         The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
          At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”


The wine ran out.  Dr. King had come to his end and did not have anything more.  But it turned out that God was sitting right alongside him at that kitchen table, just as God was sitting right alongside of Mary at that wedding banquet.  Their need in that place of emptiness was enough to set grace flowing.  It flowed there at that wedding and it flowed there at that kitchen table and it will flow in our places of need and emptiness as well.


I know such an assertion is hard to believe.  It is hard to believe that the presence of suffering does not actually mean the absence of God.  It is so hard to believe and to trust that we can turn to God in our deepest need.  We are so used to thinking that what we will get us through the day is nothing less than our own tried and true competence.    

But the mistake we make in thinking this is that God is not already in our tried and true competence.  God is already, before we even are.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made because God has knit us together in our mother’s womb and loves us and is with us no matter where we may go and no matter what we may face, no matter if we were born in Africa, Haiti or Norway.  God loves us with a steadfast love and we can be assured that nothing can separate us from God.  Even now God is working for our healing and the healing of the world. That is the hope and the promise of our faith.


This past week, some of us went to the Russell school to talk with Principal Blake and Mr. Harrington, the chair of the Parent Council about our partnership with the school and what may be on the horizon for us.

We were sitting together at a table and were talking about the need for more volunteer time in the school and other things and then Mr. Harrington and Principal Blake began talking about how good it would be if the kids at the Russell school could come to know the kids at UCW.  I love our kids to pieces don’t get me wrong, but I was wondering why Principal Blake thought it would be a good thing for kids at the Russell school to get to know our kids.  After all the life experience of kids in Newton and that of kids in Dorchester are by and large, very different.  The racial, economic and opportunity gap looms large.

Both Mr. Harrington and Principal Blake acknowledged the disparities that separate our kids from one another.  But they spoke about how overcoming that gulf is not going to happen until real relationship happens.  Transformation happens in the context of trust and knowing the other as friend.   It could be precisely because of the vast gulf that separates the realities of these kids and the “isms” that are projected into that gulf by society at large, they pondered, that we have been given this partnership. 

As they talked I felt something very holy begin to fill the space between us in that room.  I felt a powerfully strong love for both Principal Blake and Mr. Harrington come over me, a love born not of my own heart but that came and found me from somewhere else entirely.  I felt something sweet, and good bubbling up, filling up, pouring over.  And I began to catch a vision of something bridging that chasm that lies between the zip codes of 02468 and 02125. 

I do not know what that is or could be.  Lots of conversation and prayerful consideration needs to happen for sure.  But in the national context of our time, it is pretty clear that the wine has run out.  There is a problem. There are failings that needs to be addressed.

So what would it be like for us to have the confidence to know that we can meet whatever the day throws at us?   What if we, like Mary had the boldness to keep a keen eye out for places of problem?  What if we too found our voice to proclaim where the wine has given out?  What would it be like to instead of fearing what may happen and that our own inability to handle it, we found the humility of King to ask God to enter in?  What if we too had the vision of Mr. Harrington and Principal Blake to begin to imagine that it may be in those gulfs of experience and places of emptiness that possibility lies?

I believe, with my whole heart, that if we dare to enter these questions and doubts; if we dare to enter the spaces that divide us from our neighbors and reach out for relationship, we will find ourselves with courage in our hearts, awe on our faces, and open arms waiting to embrace us in God’s full and overflowing love — which unlike the wine, — will never give out. 

Thanks be to God. Amen  

[1] America’s New Anxiety Disorder by Nitsuh Abebe, April 18, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/magazine/americas-new-anxiety-disorder.html?_r=0

[2] https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/god-dr-kings-kitchen-table