In our sermon series, we have been focusing on Faith and the Arts.
First, this series is about how art gets to places where words alone can’t… the creative, messy, holy places where we meet God.
Second, this series is a way to think of today’s installation not so much as my being affixed into the church building like a Verizon box, but that we are part of an art installation, where God is doing something beautiful in this community.
Third, and most importantly, this series is about the intrinsic creative artistry of God. And, according to this vision, so beautifully expressed in Revelation 21, the reno of this world has begun.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church:
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
Let us pray. O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
Michelangelo was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. His painting, called “The Last Judgment,” is one of his masterpieces. He began this painting when he was 67 years old and it took him 4 years to complete.
Though it is hard for us to imagine the topic of The Last Judgment to be “trending,” many Renaissance artists had a version of it. Though it is hard for us to imagine church art as anything but safe children’s programming, this version was also instantly controversial. Critics were scandalized by the nudity and demanded flowing ribbons be painted on right away for the protection of more delicate audiences. They were offended by a beardless muscular Jesus who was not on a throne above it all but swirling in a sea of humanity. They were disturbed by non-Biblical, pop cultural characters, like Minos from Greek mythology, creeping their way into the image. And then one man in particular, who had given Michelangelo a hard time along the way, was shocked to see his own face painted on someone at the gate of Hell, with a snake biting his nether regions. The man complained bitterly to the Pope, who in amusement or agreement with Michelangelo told the offended man that the Pope’s jurisdiction did not extend to Hell, so he could not interfere. 500 years later, the image remains.
And as if the content wasn’t complicated enough, the timing was bad. Coinciding with the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation was causing cracks in the foundation of the Church. Church leadership desperately wanted a sanctuary free of divisive content, if possible a sanctuary free of messy humanity altogether, except that Michelangelo had painted his own face onto the discarded skin of one of the saints in the painting. That was the ultimate breaking of the 4th wall. They had to face the permanent intrusion of humanity as it actually was on the wall nearest the altar.
I find all this so fascinating. I am not an art history person, but I do know that as often as human beings project ourselves and our preferences and our culture onto God, we can still get offended when we are called on it. We still want Jesus hovering far above our messes. We want Jesus out of earshot when we lob insults at each other. And yet, his name told us he had other plans: Immanuel, God with us.
Then there is today’s text, a sparkling vision from the book of Revelation. John of Patmos writes that the home of God is among mortals. God is at home with us. Not the angelic Olan Mills church directory photo of us, but God at home with us when our actual faces need to be wiped of actual tears. God is making a new heaven and a new earth here, not in some nebulous elsewhere, and God promises that death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. That sounds amazing. Stupid obituary paperwork, no more. Sobbing in the car, no more. Being scared of that date on the calendar, no more. Morphine and those pleather hospital waiting room chairs, no more. In a week marking 1 million Covid deaths with horrible pictures from Ukraine and another shooting, we ache for God to be the artist in residence, renewing all of it, from floor to ceiling, alpha to omega, beginning to end. Sign me up.
But if we are honest, life doesn’t let us linger very long with that beautiful vision, kind of like we don’t get to linger too long in the Sistine Chapel. If the crowds coughing with humanity don’t push us along, our impatience does. We really want God to paint faster. When some awful diagnosis happens, we want God to paint that situation to something better immediately. When conflict happens, we want God to make our face look angelic and cast the other person as the one with issues. Even at church, we want peace and maybe a few keys to fixing our life, not a messy swirl of humanity with culture and conflict mixed up in it.
And I’ll confess I have often tried to grab the paintbrush from God’s hands. I admit how often I paint people and situations with a broad brush as if they are simple, when I know how complicated I am. I know that I can be wildly pragmatic, hurrying through that which is meant to be profoundly enjoyed. I’d be the one to suggest God might want to use a roller, to just get that wall done, too often neglecting the delight and beauty and story and contrast and worship and wonder that are even more important than a fresh coat of paint. How often do we look at the wall and miss that we are part of the renaissance?
There is this line I love in the Presbyterian Book of Order. Maybe it’s not quoted in cursive on your mug, but it should be. It says, “In Christ, the church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table.”
We don’t get to project upon God, but we do get to participate in the artistry of God. God is an artist in residence. That makes the church a paintbrush and easel for God’s artwork.
A member of this church told me this week that she landed in a life of math and science and yet something in her was always drawn to the creativity of God. For many years, her only creative outlet was excessive cake decorating or going overboard on group projects. But lately, she has let herself get lost in art projects for church. She has let long runs be “ruined” so she can stop to gaze at every beautiful stone or perfect flower. She quiets that part of her that insists on being productive because her soul wants to participate in something creative.
Here’s another example. [Mary] and her husband were some of the most joyful people I know, but on a bad day, Mary said to me, “I feel like everything I touch turns to dust.” Her son had major behavioral issues, and her husband had a long list of health problems, and this combo was exhausting and scary and hard on their marriage and expensive and lonely. They asked for help from everyone they knew. At one point she said, “Becca, it’s so hard. I just wonder where is God in all this?” Apparently I told her, “[Mary], God… is in the response.” She has quoted that back to me so many times over the years it has taken on a life of its own. She told me about the time she was crying in the car and a friend called her at that exact time. And, the time her son and his friend made a complete mess playing at her house and she found herself cackling with joy because she finally realized he had friends, they had friends. And she was a generous part of the response. She quietly funded the youth mission trip where her son had felt welcomed all those years and mission efforts to help struggling people in the town. She led support groups. She sent flowers to probably hundreds of people on their good days and bad ones. The other day, we had coffee. She said, “An earlier version of me would not have known how to find peace with the slightest disruption. But I tell you what, I have learned that grief and laughter, beauty and pain, aren’t these opposite things, where you get one and not the other. They come at the same time, and when I look back, God is in the response. I see God’s fingerprints all over this story.”
As for myself, I rarely paint. I do a fair bit of cake decorating. My drawings are simple enough that people attribute them to my kids, and I don’t correct them. But the time I feel the most like God’s paintbrush is on Ash Wednesday. That is when I get to dip my finger in this black dust, mixed with frankincense oil because it smells nice and feels Biblical and makes the dust stick. And then, one by one, I draw crosses on people’s foreheads. Older people with lines on their forehead, middle schoolers who are concerned about pimples. Sometimes the cross is faint, other times it is so thick that ashes fall on the person’s nose or eyelashes like the grimmest of snowflakes. Some people cry, others flash a smile, and others remain stoic. And through it all, we are a swirling mass of humanity, with artwork on our faces. We become artwork that mocks the power of death and crying and mourning because of the cross of Christ and the new life he unleashes over and over again in the world. It’s gritty and beautiful at the same time. Often, I drive home from that service with hands still smudgy, ash under my fingernails. Then, I tuck in children with those smudgy hands. I send an email to the mission team with those dirty fingers. I scan the Washington Post before tucking it into the recycling, my smudgy hands meeting the ink of the day’s news. I find faint fingerprints for weeks around the office. And because of that, I realize that my humanity was what God gave me to work with. It was all I ever had to work with. God made a home here, among mortals, and that means this life, with all its intrusions and conflict, this body when I love it and when I don’t, this church full of human faces, is offering enough. Being a paintbrush in God’s hands means staying for longer than preferred and not dodging the darker smudgier things. But it also means we get to be part of the magnificent response, the strokes of love that make this city and this world new.
Michelangelo was known for saying “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That sounds about right to me.