Wednesday, 27 August 2014

God the Artist, We His Images

So, 31 August 2014 is my next preaching gig.  As usual, someone else chose the readings but this time it was a parishioner called Audrey, who will be preaching on the same readings earlier in the day.  It will be interesting to see what she takes from them.

The first of the readings comes from Psalm 139.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

This psalm celebrates God's deep knowledge of us, and his deep care for us.  Everything we are is by his design, everything we do is done in his presence.  In the section quoted here he describes God as an artist, and us as his works of art.  He uses two types of art to illustrate his point.  The first is the art of weaving, or tapestry, textile art.  We are knit together, intricately woven.  Just as a weaver takes multiple strands of thread, of different colours, lengths and textures and weaves them together into a beautiful design, so God makes us, bringing us together out of diverse strands of DNA, woven together in unique combination so that each of us is a stand-alone work of art, one of a series that currently numbers somewhere over 100 billion and is potentially infinite.

The second image is of God as a writer, and us as his story.  Our lives, formed and lived out under his care, are like a story or a play that is slowly unfolding and changing under God's hand.  Each of us plays our part in this rich drama, each part unique, so complex we can barely understand our own role, never mind the entire story of which we are a part.

The scope and richness of this artistry is so good that it's scary.  The NRSV says "I am fearfully and wonderfully made".  Some commentators translate the Hebrew word yare as "awesome" and it is the same word used when we are encouraged to "fear God" elsewhere in the Old Testament, with connotations of awe, fear and respect.  The artistry of God in creating us demands not just our respect, but our awe and even our fear.

Now Genesis 1:26 and 27 tells us then when God made us, with this artistic virtuosity, he made us "in his own image".  This one of the most important and complex concepts in the Christian understanding of humanity, and I can't really unpack it fully here, but one aspect of what it means is that we reflect God's creativity, his artistry.  We see a great example of this in our second reading, from Exodus 35 and 36.

In this story, The Lord sets aside two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, for the work of making the Tabernacle, the place where the Israelites came to worship the Lord.  Moses says of Bezalel that God  "filled him with divine spirit,with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab....".  These two master craftsmen, inspired by God, gathered about them a team of artists and artisans to build the Tabernacle, and they were supported enthusiastically by the rest of the nation.

Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab and everyone skilful to whom the Lord  had given skill, everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work;  and they received from Moses all the freewill-offerings that the Israelites had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill-offerings every morning, so that all the artisans who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task being performed, and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.’

They had so much material to work with that they had to order the people to stop bringing more!

Now this is all ancient history, and the tabernacle is long gone as are the successive temples which took its place, but it occurs to me that the process has continued to this day.  When we come to worship at St Andrews, we are surrounded by works of art of all sorts.  The most obvious is the work of the architects and builders who have put together the building itself.

Like the building of the tabernacle, this involved a whole list of crafts - builders, carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, electricians, tilers, plumbers and so forth.  Much of this is hidden but you can see that they didn't just put up a kit home, they took care to create something unique and there are little touches of detail all over the place.

This is only the shell and over the years numerous people have filled it with all sorts of reminders of God's glory and challenges to our own understanding of God and ourselves.  Some of the most obvious and spectacular are the works of stained glass.  Over the altar is a massive and complex work depicting the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, built in the years immediately after World War 1.

This is possibly my favourite work in the whole place, a rich piece of visual story-telling in which each panel and section of window adds its own element of meaning to the story, presenting the heart of the gospel at a glance but rewarding close inspection.  I have to confess, when the sermon is a bit boring I often sit looking at this window and thinking instead about what the artist was saying to us.

Other windows are less spectacular but some also contain things you could think about, even things that might make you dubious or pose uncomfortable questions.  Like this one, installed in memory of those killed in 1939-45.

The full window, of which I have only shown a detail here, shows a soldier kneeling and presenting his sword to Jesus.  Those who paid for its installation were expressing a very real and deep grief - members of the church lost loved ones.  I imagine their were tears at its unveiling.  Yet its inscription presents us with a highly debatable question.  Was it really these soldiers who "died that we might live"?  Undoubtedly Jesus is ready to welcome those soldiers who lost their lives, but does he want their swords or does he ask them to leave them behind, or perhaps beat them into ploughshares?  We should stand here and have this debate sometime, in a way that is respectful of the grief of those who installed the window.

Other pieces of artwork are more pragmatic.  Like the pews.  There's a limit to what you can do with a wooden bench because it has to be the right size for the human bum.  Yet the furniture makers have still taken some care here, making the sides of the pews match the overall shape of the building in which they sit, including placing the emphasis on the cross which sits on top of the building, reminding us whenever we look at it of Christ's service and the lengths to which he was prepared to go for us.

Various other woodworkers have practiced their art here too.  The roof beams are carefully shaped and carved to match the shapes around them.  The pulpit, which we rarely use now, shows us the apostles, reminding us or our connections back to the beginning of the Christian story.  Even the little lectern we use now is not a mere piece of board, but has been carefully carved and fretted with tiny windows that reflect the large windows all around us, with a heraldic rose in the centre, symbol of love to remind the speaker of the spirit in which he or she should be delivering the message.

All the things I have illustrated so far are old, reminders, perhaps, of an age where people took a little more care over such things, before utilitarianism ruled.  But other items you can see here are more recent - like this one.  It's a quilt, made by a group of parishioners in 2008 to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the church.  Each panel represents something personal to the person who contributed it, their own little part on the life of the church or its part in theirs.  If we look at it we might imagine what we add to the patchwork quilt that is the life of the church.

Then of course there are some arts that can't be old, that have to be done over and over again if they are to be done at all.  Like, for instance, every week there are fresh flowers in the church.  Someone has gone to the trouble of choosing and arranging them, and then of removing them and replacing them at the end of the week so that we have a fresh set of blooms to look at and smell each time we come here.

Of course the examples of culinary art many people bring last even less time!

And then there are the items of performance art we have as part of our service each week - the music and singing, the reading aloud of passages of scripture (this week, examples of ancient poetry, story-telling and letter-writing), sometime dance or drama performances, those who practice the art of welcoming, and the art of public speaking.  This list is far from exhausting the artistic abilities of those present.

Why am I saying all this, and boring you with all these pictures?  Well, firstly because I want to say that this is what humans are.  Our likeness to God consists in our love of doing these things.  When God wove each of us out of unique strands of thread, wrote parts for us in his ever-developing story, he gave each of us these gifts, gave each of us the urge to create, to make something new out of the materials and skills around us.  As we come to know our creator we bring these things to him and offer them in his service and the service of his people.

And this is the kind of thing I think Peter is talking about in our final reading, from 1 Peter 4.

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. 

I'd just like to highlight three things from this reading which are pertinent to what I've been talking about.  The first is that all of these things we are doing need to be done in an atmosphere of love.  Whenever we serve, we do so imperfectly.  Sometimes we are just going through the motions, because someone has to do it.  Sometimes we might be a bit resentful that we have to do it.  Those of us who serve need to repent of these attitudes.  We need to present our gifts to one another as acts of love, with the same care and enthusiasm as we would put into a proposal of marriage, or the preparations for our child's wedding.

The second is that we need to be hospitable to one another. We often think this means that we should be willing to invite on another into our homes.  We do need to do that, but concept is much wider than that.  The Greek word Peter uses here is philoxena; philo meaning brotherly and sisterly love, xenos  denoting strangers or foreigners.  To be hospitable means to treat strangers and those who are different from us as our own family, literally to make them feel at home.

I once went to a workshop where someone explained the difference between "hospitality" and "entertaining".  When we entertain guests in our home, we put on a show - we dress for the occasion, cook a beautiful meal, place our guests in the seat of honour and wait on them, all the while making sparkling conversation.  We leave the dishes until they have gone.

Of course this can be fun, but hospitality is something else.  When we are hospitable, our guests will stroll in the back door, put on the kettle to make themselves a cup of coffee (and us one too if we want one) then put their muddy boots on the furniture.  Later they will share our baked beans on toast and watch the news with us.  There is no show, they are fully at home.

I think we need that in the church as well - the freedom to make your self at home, the freedom to be who you are, not to have to conform to someone else's image of who you should be.  This means that if someone is a musician, their music should have a home here, if someone is a quilter their quilting has a home here, if someone is a maker of beautiful woodwork or of lovely food, that has a home here.  And of course, if my siblings bring something to my house that actually I hate, I of all people have the license to say, "well I love you and all, but I'm not that keen on this one."  But I may be obliged to keep it in spite of that, to please a family member I love.  Over time I might even find that it grows on me.

The love that expresses itself in this hospitality is what covers a multitude of sins.  If I make a mistake while I'm playing music (and I make at least one every time I play, usually more) you still receive it with love.  If the preacher has had a difficult week and the sermon is uninspiring, or if they say something I disagree with, I still hear what they say with love and respond accordingly.  I rejoice when others contribute their own gifts, because it is a sign of their growth.  And if I fail to do any of these things (as I often do) the love of others covers it over and makes up for it.

Finally, if we do these things God will be glorified.  Jesus said "everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another".  In whatever ways we serve, whatever our art, if we do it with love, and if it is received with hospitality, God is glorified.  And the opposite is true - if we simply go through the motions, if we take one another for granted or receive the gifts of others with hostility, God is mocked.

God's work of creation is as yet incomplete.  New humans are being knit together in their mothers' wombs even as we speak.  New chapters are begin written in God's continuously unfolding story.  The art of St Andrews is also incomplete.  I spoke earlier about the stained glass, but if you look around the church many of the windows are merely place-markers, awaiting the hand of a future artist.  The two windows I highlighted were memorials to the two world wars.  What will we memorialise in our generation, and leave for those who follow on?  There are new speeches to give, new songs to write and sing, new people to welcome.  On a practical note, the furniture maker who made the pews never got around to installing padding.  That would be an act of love!

Each of us has our part to play in that.  We will only do it if we can learn the arts of love and hospitality, and lean on the strength of God to make up for our own weakness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Jon,

I have finally read it and it's terrific.

Bless you,