Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jesus the Artist

Guest Preacher: Theresa Henson

Psalm 111
John 20:19-31


God of divine imagination,
Your are so brilliant.
You create beautiful beings 
that then go create beauty upon beauty.
Guide us together this morning.
Let our time together be a work of art.
Deepen us in our awe and wonder —
our ability to be utterly struck by beauty
and deeply inspired to follow 
your never-ending inspiration.


What is an artist? I don’t believe an artist is someone who just paints or sculpts. Artists aren’t simply making objects. I believe an artist is someone who is bringing a message and uses a variety of media to convey that message. I think it is a divine message. Michelangelo had a unique vision of Jesus’ death and his mother Mary’s sorrow that he shared with the world through marble in his piece the Pietà. Monet invited us to see with more feeling, diffusion, and enchantment. The sculpture on the front of your bulletins by Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is an exciting interpretation of movement. As an art student I looked at that sculpture and was amazed at how a static object could convey so much movement. It made me want to be a sculptor. It helped me realize I had a call to art. Even more, there is something about the movement in that piece that also shows me how I want to move through life. 

Artists take life to the next level, entirely new.

In college I double majored in English and Art — yet for some reason I ended up in seminary for graduate work rather than in a master’s program in fine art. It turned out my professors were always encouraging me to creative responses to our assignments, and to ministry in general. Learning how to be a better ministry leader is also making me a more creative person. My Christian formation, my formation as a human being, and my formation as an artist often feel the same. It is a humble path, full of adventure, ups and downs, fear and courage, and great, great beauty.

Some of you may be wondering how I intend to connect art with Jesus. We do not have any accounts of him painting or sculpting — yet, like artists, he is a creator of beauty. Wherever he goes, he transforms whatever he encounters into beauty. Just as artists do, Jesus is always taking life to a whole new level, entirely new:  Sick and wounded are healed, the grieving are comforted, the agitated receive peace, the misguided receive leadership, the disempowered understand themselves as God’s children, relationships deepen, lack of understanding is replaced with wisdom, desolation is filled with love, despair is replaced with hope and new possibility.

Jesus’ artistic tool is his presence, his radical and extraordinary identification with the creativity of God. He knows his creativity is God’s creativity and he does not shy away from radically transforming the world. Jesus’ artistic tools are his words that he uses to teach, tell stories, and comfort and correct. Jesus’ medium are human beings. He reaches deeply into people and brings transformation in extraordinary ways.

Have you ever noticed how Jesus is always using the imperative tone? Grammatically, this is known as the command. “Follow me." "Feed them." "Be still!” With words, this is the most direct way possible to get people to move. You are literally telling them what to do. I feel like every command and teaching of Jesus has the same deliberate and precise intention as the swing of Michelangelo’s mallet at the tool to carve the marble that became the Pietà. Jesus is trying to transform this reality. He is trying to create something beautiful.

What does Jesus do after he heals someone? I’ll tell you, not much. He doesn’t put a bandaid on it, chitchat about further recovery modalities, or check in on your mother. After he heals someone, the two most common things Jesus says is “Get up!” and Go!” …go to the temple and give thanks, go home to your family, take up your mat and go…when Jesus raises a boy from the dead the scripture says Jesus “returns him to his mother.” 

Jesus doesn’t waste words. He tells stories of beauty, truth, and mystery that are always enlightening us in new ways and that we are still trying to figure out — and it takes up about two inches of space on a page in the bible.

Jesus is always, and with urgency, trying to return people to life, restoring the balance in a whole new way. Get back to life! Life is a cycle of being hurt/sick/out of balance and then finding healing or a new peace and balance wherever you are and engaging with life at a whole new level. Of course, he demonstrates this to us ultimately by he, himself, passing through death to a life and love that now happens to be expanding through all space and time. Here I am, 2,000 years later, talking to you about the creativity of Jesus with a heart that is soaring. I tell you, this unique life and love is expanding. Jesus never promised it would be a smooth ride. Stars collide and explode. How we may organize ourselves as churches and communities around the expanding wisdom and love of Christ may transform, but like our universe, it is expanding.

Throughout time, artists have had the role of opening our hearts. We look at a beautiful painting and we can feel it. Our hearts open to greater wonder and tenderness.

Jesus is an advocate for the heart. He comes into a society full of violence, classism, sexism, racism, legalism, imperialism — all the things that would make any human heart want to shut down. A society so contorted it makes people go insane with heartbrokenness and heartlessness. Death is everywhere and even in his own impending future. Jesus comes reconnecting the heart to the mind and with an artist’s touch, he puts the heart back in the body. I believe this is what Jesus was doing in his healing ministry and in casting out demons. He was taking all the broken parts and, in absolute artistry, creating something new. Jesus is so fully identified with the God of absolute imagination he can see life where nobody else can.

And he says, he insists, don’t shut down your heart! He tells stories, he listens, he welcomes the children and everyone else. He says: Let your heart feel the beauty of God’s grace, let you heart receive healing, let your heart feel loved, let your heart expand in love for God, others, the world. Let your heart feel empowered as a creative agent of life’s, of God’s, pure imagination. Just as in this morning’s Gospel reading, we are invited to believe again. Believe that our beloved teacher is alive, believe in beauty, believe that it’s okay to open our hearts again after so much violence and terror.

One of my favorite artists is Agnes Martin. She concluded her long life a few years ago with all the things considered success: fame and wealth. In my twenties I went to a show of hers in San Francisco and each 12” x 12” drawing was priced at a million dollars. Yet she lived like a monk and refused awards because she claimed she wasn’t the one responsible for the beauty in her work. Over the course of her artistic formation, she had made herself completely a servant of beauty. And you know what her work consists of? Freehand drawn grids, usually in pencil with a wash of some light color. She confounded critics who were always trying to put more into her work than was there — but she wouldn’t let them. Sister Wendy (remember her? ...of PBS' Sister Wendy's Story of Painting show), who had so much to say about art, echoed many critics dismay when she stood in front an Agnes Martin painting and could not tell you why she felt so drawn to it. I believe Agnes Martin’s paintings, in their own unique, simple way are full of devotion to the mystery of life, to God. And people feel it. What we are each called to create could be that simple, and that full of magic and mystery.

The 20th century mystic and interfaith leader, Chiara Lubich, wrote this while meditating upon Michelangelo's Pietà, “the content of art is beauty, beauty is harmony, and harmony is the highest unity…who knows how to compose in harmony the colors and shapes of a picture if not the soul of an artist who is one in the image of God who created it?”

Artists create something from nothing. They bring something into existence that often has no precedence, that simply did not exist before. It can sometimes be lonely as there sometimes is nothing in the external realm that reflects the vision you have inside to bring forth. You don’t know if what you are seeing with your heart’s eye will be received. Perhaps each of us can relate to that somehow in the work we are called to do, relationships we are called to heal, or a just a new way we are called to be. But remember we are called to be a light even if we are the only light shining in the room. Jesus’ vision was God’s vision and Jesus trusts it and he trusts God. He dares to imagine a world of love, justice, and healing in a world where this did not exist. Activists and advocates dare to imagine the same. Artists dare to bring new beauty in the world. Jesus dares to imagine a world of beauty where people understand themselves as sons and daughters of God and who feel empowered to be expressions of this beauty themselves.

Like you and me. No matter what we are called to do, we are called to be creators of beauty — the kind of beauty that takes life to a whole new level.

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