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February 19, 2006 (Sunday 7 · Time after Epiphany/Arts and Faith Sunday)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Isaiah 43:18–25; 2 Corinthians 1:18–22; Mark 2:1–12
Webmaster’s Note: February 19 was “Arts and Faith Sunday” at LCH. Selections of the art on display that Sunday are available on this page.
Grace and peace to you from God our loving and artistic Creator and our equally artistic Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
In today’s gospel lesson, the crowd responds to Jesus by saying, “We have never seen anything like this before.” For me, I think this exclamation sums up the essence of creativity and the essence of art.
Art is vital. It is fresh. It brings us a new perspective. And the way we are awakened by art and are invited into the artist’s vision is also the way we are awakened by God’s continuing creative work among us and in us.
God’s artistic vision is all around us, but we don’t always see work of the divine artist. Often it is in entering into the vision of a human artist that our eyes of faith are opened to see God’s creative work anew.
I went to a movie last week called The New World. It’s a film that takes closer look at the first meeting of Native Americans on the coast of Virginia with English explorers of the Jamestown colony.
The New World was directed by a man named Terrence Malick, an artist who in the film community is greatly respected, but who has not allowed himself to be kept inside the Hollywood box. In the last 30 years he has only directed three films; this film, The New World, is his fourth and, I think, his best.
In a Hollywood that produces so many poor films, it was incredibly refreshing to experience a cinematic production that seems to tell the truth—not one that tells the truth about any specific thing or aspect of its story, but one that tells the truth about us, the truth about who we are as human beings, and the truth about our own encounters of curiosity, of war, and of love.
When I was watching The New World, I felt transported out of the theater and into the story. It was as if Malick had rediscovered a world that had been destroyed and resurrected a story that I needed to hear.
When the movie ended I didn’t want to leave at first, but when I did, the way I looked at people, the way I looked at the modern world around me that had somehow grown out of the earth in this place—malls, coffee shops, fashionable clothing stores, people zooming past in cars—had all changed dramatically.
I realized that this movie, this art, had changed my mind. Not that it changed my mind about the tragedy of the Native American experience, or history, or any specific thing or subject, but the way I saw things before I experienced this art and the way I saw things afterward were different.
This film, as a work of art, changed my mind. And that is the power of art: Art has the power to wake us up, to reach us on a different level, and invite us into a new vision.
When was the last time you had an experience like that with art? Is there a piece of art that changed your life, that changed your mind? A symphony, a painting, a film, a book, a photograph...?
(Maybe we can have a learning ministry hour where we tell each other the stories of the art that has affected us like that. I would be very interested in hearing those stories, wouldn’t you?)
Art has the power to change our minds, to help us see our world anew. Our faith experiences can work in the same way, changing our minds and making us see all things anew.
Faith and art are much more similar than we often realize. Many people don’t realize that our Christian faith specifically informs us that creativity is a part of who we are. Art is at the heart of who we are as Christians, and we are invited to live in this world as artists.
Most of us are familiar with the text in Genesis in which God says that humans will be created in God’s image. But what is that image? What do we know about God at that point in the story?
We know God is a creator. When we hear this text, God is in the middle of creating the world and everything in it. That’s the first thing we learn about God. We call God “Creator” all the time but do we realize that means God is creative? And we as God’s prized creature, the reflection God’s glory (Heb.1:3), are the product of God’s creativity, and when we hear we are created in God’s image, that means we are created to be creative, just as God is creative.
Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah today tells of the story of God’s continuing creativity. God’s desire to make us see things anew. God says that the sin of God’s chosen people will be met with a creative outflow of love. God announces, “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you perceive it?”
God’s creative work in the world continues in God’s relationship with us, bringing us new experiences of forgiveness and love that bring us closer to God’s vision for the world.
In the New Testament, Paul gives us an even more artistic understanding of our identity, when in his letter to the Ephesians he describes humans as “God’s workmanship.” The Greek word that is translated “workmanship” can actually be translated as “poems” or “masterpieces.” How often do we see ourselves as God’s poems, God’s masterpieces?
The story of God’s relationship with us that we find in Scripture brings us to an understanding of God as an artist.
Scripture tells us of a God’s who is full of vitality. We meet this God in the person of Jesus and that story is also part of God’s art, and God’s creative work in us.
I have a friend who, if he is ever asked his opinion of a work of art, will always say, “It’s pretty.” “Yes, it’s pretty, but there’s more too it, Bjorn!”
I think there’re plenty of people that, when they think of Jesus, say pretty much the same thing. “Jesus, he was pretty a good guy.” “Jesus, he did nice things for people.” “Jesus, did his best; you should do your best, too!”
No one knows how art works. You can’t say if I add this color here and this color here, then this art will work. You can’t say if I hit this series of notes, it will make the audience members cry. Art cannot be reduced to a science.
There is a scene in the movie Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ character plays an English teacher at a private school. On the first day of class he has the class read a chapter entitled “Understanding Poetry” by J. Evans Pritchard in which Dr. Pritchard informs them of the proper way to chart a poem’s greatness on a horizontal and vertical scale.
The teacher patiently waits for the chapter to end, and when it is over, he tells the class to take the pages of that section of their book and “RIP IT OUT!”
Many of us are living our lives according to some type of J. Evans Pritchard Scale. And when that kind of thinking gets in the way of our seeing God’s love for us, Jesus comes along and helps us see the true art of His Father. When he sees other [“false teachings”] at work, like a good teacher he tells us we should “RIP IT OUT!”
When we think about our identity in Christ and our identity as God’s masterpieces, we have to think about the alternatives.
God could have had us all be stick figures, but we are not. God is a God of detail, and we are detailed creatures. We are complicated.
In The New World the Native Americans and the English spend their first years together in curiosity; there are misunderstandings and exchanges of peace and of war.
The relationship between these different nations and different cultures is complicated.
Can we expect anything different in humans’ relationship with God, where God meets man in the person of Jesus Christ?
Is it any wonder that our interactions with God be just as complicated, full of misunderstandings, exchanges of peace and war?
When we hear God has entered our world and is not kept from us at a safe distance, of course we will wonder has Jesus come here to heal me or destroy me? Similarly, we ask when we interact with powerful art, is this going to build me up or tear me down? And sometimes the answer is “both.”
One of the experiences with art that changed my life most significantly was when I went to “The Studio of South” exhibit at Chicago Museum of Art. This exhibit featured the greatest collection of paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin ever assembled and told the story of Van Gogh’s dream of setting up a studio in the South of France and having artists of a similar vision live there together to inspire the creative visions in one other. Gauguin joined him briefly and for awhile their time together did just that.
At this exhibit, I found myself alone in a room staring at Van Gogh’s two “Starry Night” paintings, side by side. The first was painted the night before his friend Gauguin came to stay with him at the Yellow House. The painting is full of Van Gogh’s hopes and dreams, and love and friendship, and optimism for this time with another artist.
The second staring at me from the right side was the other “Starry Night,” the famous painting of swirling stars and black towering buildings, painted the night after Gauguin left.
It is full of loneliness and despair and missed opportunities. I remember looking at these two works of art and thinking, “That is life. That is reality.”
I carry those painting with me [up here, in my head], because that experience changed my mind! It helped me understand my reality. One that wasn’t always “pretty”—a reality full of both joy and pain. Hope and frustration! Sin and salvation.
To me that is the best art: one which expresses reality fully, the bright beauty of hope, the sad beauty of tragedy, up there side by side and intermingled into our own reality.
That experience helped me to realize that I don’t want art that just tells me, “I’m ok, you’re ok.” I don’t want art that is just “pretty.” I want art that tells the truth—not just telling me a specific truth about someone else, about someone else’s experience, but entering into my own experience. I want art that tells the truth about who I am.
And I don’t want a faith that tells me “I’m ok, you’re ok.” Or that says, “Art is pretty, you’re pretty too.” I don’t want a pretty god. I want a god of reality. A god that tells me the truth.
And that is the God we have! A god grounded in our reality not a fantasy. That is the God who died for us and who lives in us!
When you only see art as “pretty,” you are only seeing two-dimensions of something that is vital, that has power to tell you a story and tell you about yourself in the process.
Art is interactive. It’s new for each person. I believe our relationships with God are also interactive, with a creative connection that is different for each of us, making each of our stories a unique work of art.
God is always doing a new thing in us. God is always creating a spring in the desert of our lives. I think art is one of the most significant ways that God speaks that Word to us.
Through the creativity of art, through the surprise of how art affects us, God tells us of the joy and pain of reality. And in the middle of it, God reaches out to us so that we might enter into a renewed relationship with Jesus that makes us say, with the people of our gospel lesson, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”
Jesus meets us in our realities, even as we poke at him and question him and wonder, “What do you have to do with me.” Christ is with us, in our joy and our pain. In Jesus, we know God is here with us, reaching into our realities with a beautiful love that could only be created by God.
Trying to express what that love means to you—trying to tell that story through music, or a painting, or a dance—could take a lifetime to do. But isn’t that part of what we’re called to do as Christians? Maybe that’s how we can respond to grace with the gifts we’ve been given. Maybe our art can witness to the gifts we’ve been given through Christ and invite others into that story?
Do you love good art? Seeing God at work in the world—seeing God at work in our lives—is like seeing the greatest artist of all time immersed in the work of creation. God still tells us “Behold I am doing a new thing.”
God is doing a new thing in you and in your neighbor: creating faith anew, creating clean hearts anew, everyday.
As you look at the art at our exhibition in the courtyard today and look at all the ways people in this congregation have used their gifts to create, remember that you are also a beautiful, complicated, unique work of art.
You are one of God’s masterpieces. And you are a part of God’s exhibition in this world!
May the Peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org