Why all this waste...?

What follows are my sermon notes for this coming Sunday. They build on a host of ideas that have been swimming around in me for a long time and recently errupted in my three part reflection on U2's "Dirty Day." They form the introduction to a worship series re: beauty, justice and redeeming culture that we are starting at First Church this week. Hope they make some sense. Please note that some of these are pix Dianne shot during our recent trip to NYC and St. John the Divine. This one, of course, made me think of St. John who still helps me make it through the night from time to time.

Please consider three inter-related insights concerning the importance and value of beauty and art both for the wellbeing of our souls as well as the healing of God’s creation. The Jewish sage and mystic, Lawrence Kushner of Sudbury, Massachusetts, tell us that:

Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this: no one has within themselves
All the pieces of their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
All the pieces were there.

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.

The Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in his 1956 little book about Mozart confessed that “… if he should ever get to heaven, he would first of all seek out Mozart, and only then inquire about Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher… (For) the music of Mozart offers us a parable of the kingdom of heaven… he heard – and causes those who have ears to hear even today – what we shall not see until the end of time: the whole context of providence.” (Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, p. 1)

And Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his unspoken but published lecture to those who had awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, asked us to recall the Russian Orthodox Dostoevsky who, in The Brothers Karamazov, said: “Beauty can save the world” to which he added:

For a long time I considered (this) mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved? There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender… a work of art bears within itself its own verification…So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply the empty, faded formula we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three? In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy.

One tells us that we are created by God in such a way that we only become whole and healthy by connecting with others who carry within themselves something of our salvation. Another says that artists like Mozart allow us to experience what “thy kingdom come on earth” could be like as it is already realized in heaven. And a third affirms that beauty is God’s chosen way of saving a world rent by fear, propaganda, torture and moral confusion.

Unfortunately, because we have done precious little serious thinking about the intimate connections between the Holy Spirit and art – the power of God to bring healing and hope into the world through inspiration and beauty – we are, to use the words of theologian Patrick Sherry, impoverished in both imagination and vocabulary. So what I want to do today – and over the course of the next three Sundays – is share with you some of the ideas that our best thinkers have discerned when it comes to the meaning and importance of art and beauty.

You see, I have been persuaded that one of the true challenges of our generation – especially in these post September 11th days – has something to do with reclaiming beauty as the mission of God’s Holy Spirit. Gregory Wolfe of the IMAGE Journal puts it like this:

How often do we say the Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of faith, reason and imagination? (Too often) we treat beauty as the Cinderella. “Go make pretty pictures,” we say to beauty, “but don’t start acting like you are a pathway to knowing the universe…” (And yet) a work of art, while never inventing truth, does make truth accessible to us in ways that are not normally available because words and images have been tarnished by overuse or neglect.

Wolfe adds one more important insight that warrants another quote when he writes:

…art is deeply related to the prophetic dimension and the place where it connects to truth. That prophetic shock, that challenge to complacency, that revelatory reconfiguration of the way things are, gives us a truer picture of the way the world is. Truth without beauty is fleshless abstraction, a set of propositions. Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh. Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things… (Because) its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament. Beauty tutors our compassion, making us more prone to love and to see the attraction of goodness. Art takes us out of our self-referentiality and invites us to see through the eyes of the other, whether that others is the artist herself or a character in a story. And because beauty endows goodness with mercy, in enables us to see how difficult it is to achieve goodness, how often one good exists in tension with another.

I think that is brother Kushner’s point: art and beauty put us in relationship with those who can make us whole – people who hold some of the missing pieces of our puzzle – and help us get over ourselves. And that is what the apostle Paul seems to be calling to our attention in the first reading of the day in Philippians 4:

Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Now remember something: Paul is writing these words to his friends from prison. He isn’t out on vacation by the pool or taking a massage at a resort; he is being held against his will by Rome for challenging the status quo – and yet he still tells us: “Don’t fret… fill your minds on things that are true, noble… compelling and gracious – the best, not the worst – the beautiful, not the ugly.”

Why? What did Barth say: the beautiful puts us in contact with both God’s truest nature as well as God’s plan for us all in the kingdom so that we can see “the whole context of providence?” And nowhere is the importance of beauty made clearer than in our second reading – the story of Mary who anoints Christ’s feet with expensive perfumed oil – in Matthew. I had forgotten that this story is retold in each of the four gospels – with important variations and distinctions, to be sure – which suggests that it is one of the essential stories for knowing the heart of Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let’s review the details so that we are all on the same page:

+ John’s gospel tells us that the woman who pours the perfumed oil on the Master’s feet is… Mary – sister of Martha and Mary fame as well as Lazarus whom Jesus has just raised from the dead in a previous chapter. Luke’s gospel reshapes the identity of the woman – calling her a sinful woman from the street (that is, a prostitute) – but the other three maintain that she is the sister of Martha and Lazarus from Bethany.

+ And they all tell us that this event took place at a feast just 6 days before the crucifixion. In other words, this was a tense and fear- filled time, yes? As the men are talking about serious matters like Passover and the building tension towards Jesus, a woman – someone from the periphery – breaks into the moment and offers Jesus an extravagant gift.

+ Scholars are clear that the perfumed oil she poured on Jesus’ feet was worth on person’s wages for a year – so depending who you are and where you live we are talking about $30,000 US dollars or more – and she just pours it over his feet and then caresses them with her hair. Totally wasteful. Extremely sensual. Intentionally beautiful.

+ And what are the reactions to all this waste and extravagance? Judas flips – this becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back for him and pushes him into his betrayal – as he cries: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” One artist wrote: “The passion of (her) extravagant act provoked an equally opposite and ugly emotional reaction in Judas; and as one disciple devoted herself to the master, the other betrayed him.”

You may recall that I used this text when I was courting you and trying to discern whether God’s spirit was calling us into ministry together. You may also recall that at that time I told you that I believed art and beauty were a part of God’s mysterious and healing plan not only for this congregation and community but also for our nation. Art and beauty are a way out of our debilitating cultural wars and into a deeper relationship with truth, goodness and community.

But art and beauty always look extravagant – even wasteful – to some. Why don’t we use that money for the p
oor? Why do we keep repairing this damn building? Why do we insist on fixing the organ – or painting the walls – or paying musicians – or poets – or preachers? Why…?

Because devotion to beauty – the act of extravagant creation – is giving voice a
nd form and content to God in our generation: it is entering the very mission of the Holy Spirit to make God’s word flesh within and among us so that goodness and truth thrive. In his essay, “Modern Culture and Christian Renewal,” Gerald Vann writes that art teaches us how to be still so that we can be inspired by the Lord.

Man (sic) was first made to be a gardener; and as now his art must turn wilderness and wasteland into fields and gardens, so instead of the primitive cave-shelter he must have the amenities of a home well built and furnished, and the primitive raw materials of speech and song must evolve into the beauties of language and music… Working these transformations, however, requires reflection, stillness, receptivity. The world today is shadowed by political fears and troubles and by economic anxieties and stresses that tend to blind us to the deeper psychological crises which mankind is passing. And perhaps the greatest of those crises can be expressed by saying that generally speaking the human psyche is forgetting how to contemplate.

by contemplation I mean taking a long and loving look at what is real. To use St. Paul’s words: Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life...Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

And then Vann concludes: “Man must be contemplative before he can hope with success to be active; he must receive and assimilate reality before attempting to give it out again. The artists, of course, know this, the poets and painters and sculptors and musicians know this: they beauty they create is a beauty they have first received.”

When I look at the New York Times and see how far apart the races still are in the United States – when I contemplate the tragedy and horror of the wars raging not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also against the Palestinians and Israelis and Pakistanis and all the rest – when I see our own citizens having to decide whether they can buy heating oil or medicine…

I am drawn back to Solzhenitsyn who has contemplated the prophetic challenge that “beauty can save the world” longer and harder than I ever will. And what he has discovered – and what I trust with every fiber in my soul – is that in the face of human suffering and degradation – in the presence of an evil that numbs the mind and fills our hearts with a fear that silences the conscience – in our epoch of darkness, sorrow and grief where truth and goodness are not only obscured but also sold off to the highest bidder…

… the mysterious but objective existence of beauty – in poems, music, cinema, literature, sculpture, painting, liturgy, architecture, drama and dance – “has it in its power to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties.” He is speaking of contemplation, yes? And he goes on:

World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another so that we might cease to be split and dazzled, that the different scales of values might be made to agree, and one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes. And perhaps under such conditions we artists will be able to cultivate within ourselves a field of vision to embrace the WHOLE WORLD: in the centre observing like any other human being that which lies nearby, at the edges we shall begin to draw in that which is happening in the rest of the world. And we shall correlate, and we shall observe world proportions.

He is speaking of how compassion is awakened – community, solidarity and hope, too – through our experience and encounter with beauty in all its extravagance.

“Why all the waste,” we ask? “Why preach to the starving when they need bread?” “Why pour out the perfumed oil – or the costly stones – when there is such agony and need all around us?” Because we have been called by God to restore and heal our very humanity – created from the beginning in the very image of the Creator – but we “cannot save others from brutality if we ourselves are subhuman.”

Beauty points to its source – the Lord our God – who has said to us: This woman has done a beautiful thing for the Lord… so I tell you that wherever the gospel is preached throughout the whole world, what she has done must be told in memory of her.” Let us be as wildly extravagant, too. Take a moment now to enjoy what Barth knew so well...


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the thoughts. A somewhat off topic question though - the cross painting did you have any info on it artist etc? Very powerful statement.
RJ said…
No and I've been looking for the artist's info, too. All I find, however, is the picture but no reference. Sorry... but I will keep up with the search.

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