March 4, 2018 Worship Among the Art

Love Never Fails, JAC Redford  Chancel Choir

When I Met My Muse
I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
–William Stafford

Hafiz
It happens all the time in heaven,
And some day

It will begin to happen
Again on earth –

That men and women who are married,
And men and men who are
Lovers,

And women and women
Who give each other
Light,

Often get down on their knees

And while so tenderly
Holding their lovers hand,

With tears in their eyes
Will sincerely speak, saying,

My dear,
How can I be more loving to you;

How can I be more kind?”

I Corinthians 13:1-13 (Scholars’ Version)
if I were fluent in human and heavenly tongues
but lacked love
I’d sound like a hollow gong
or a crashing cymbal

if I could interpret oracles
had the key to all the sacred rites and secrets
and every insight
if I had all the confidence in the world
to move mountains
but lacked love
I’d be nothing

if I parted with all that I owned
if I offered my body to the sacrificial flames
but lacked love
it would do me no good

love takes its time
makes itself good and useful
love doesn’t envy
it doesn’t boast
it doesn’t bluster

it doesn’t make a scene
it doesn’t look after its own interests
it doesn’t throw fits
it doesn’t dwell on the negative
it takes no pleasure in injustice
but is delighted by the truth

love upholds everything
trusts in everything
hopes for everything
endures everything

love never falls away
though oracles will cease
tongues will fall silent
insight will fall short

we know bits and pieces
in bits and pieces we deliver oracles
but when the whole picture emerges
the bits and pieces will disappear

when I was very young
I talked like a child
thought like a child
reasoned like a child
when I grew up
I put an end to childish ways

now we look at a reflection quite obscure
then we’ll gaze face to face
now I know only bits and pieces
then I shall know as I am known

so then confidence hope love
these three endure
but the greatest of these is
love

Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Sermon Text (From Transcript)

You might be able to tell by looking at the Bulletin and hearing what we’ve done so far that the theme is love and I want to make a point today that art and love are very closely linked together. And to celebrate that I want to let you know how much love the people who put this art show together have. I want to thank some people. First of all I want to congratulate the winners of the Beaverton Arts Foundation scholarships Cody Stoltz and Tessa Plumb and Megan Bauman.

And if there are any artists who’ve contributed to the show this year here this morning I invite you to please stand. There we go. And and stay there if you would just for a second. I’m going invite some folks to join you I’m going to ask also the art show committee–those those who put this thing organized it all together. Please…thank you. And while they’re standing and I invite anybody else who wore a security badge or who took money for the financial part or who carried boxes in and out or moved chairs around or who had anything at all to do with this art show please.
Thank you all very much.

This Art Show and Celebration of Creativity has been going on for 40 years. A friend of mine Sarah, who is now the pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church was actually the minister who followed me when I was in my first church in upstate New York. Anyway she came to the art show and when she heard the art show was 40 years old, said, “When it started I was only one.”

There you go. Forty years, that’s very exciting. And for 40 years this congregation, Southminster, has been wanting to celebrate the arts and celebrate artists and celebrate appreciators of art. And that’s a very important thing to do because religion always has had a little bit of a shaky relationship with artists and I’m talking about organized religion.

The Presbyterian Chapel at Princeton Seminary where I went to seminary doesn’t have any artwork in it at all. It is very white with pillars and a federalist style. It comes from a tradition that believes that art or icons get you in the way of God or takes the place of God.

I think this art show and those who engage in art show the exact opposite, that actually art itself can be a vehicle to the sacred and to the spirit.

The first images, the first things that human beings used to do when they wanted to connect with the sacred whether it was burying the dead or celebrating some kind of life was sculpture and art. And those are the first aspects of religious fervour and reverence.

I want to talk with you this morning about what I think is the connection between the three basic virtues of faith that were read in the letter from First Corinthians today. Faith Hope and Love. And how art can be a vehicle for bringing that out.

And it’s also going to be a bit of a pointed thing because I believe sometimes our culture wants to put art as a secondary thing and we see it in the way we make our budgets. I’d love to have the Pentagon have a bake sale to pay for their products. Art and music are essential aspects of being human and essential aspects of our education. We must I believe resist attempts to turn us into robots.

And I’m thinking of the late Robin Williams, you remember of the film Dead Poets Society and he’s talking to all these young men in this case. Private school folks who will probably grow up to be financiers and engineers and college presidents and he’s saying you are being trained to build bridges? But why are you building the bridges? For poetry!! And he reads them poetry. And it’s the first time that it’s read to them with feeling. It’s read to them in such a way that touches the heart and brings out the passions of life itself. That’s why we do all this stuff we do!

Julie did a beautiful job of reading the scripture first Corinthians 13 from the scholar’s version of Paul. Just a quick thing about it. It’s from this book The Authentic Letters of Paul by the Weststar Institute or the Jesus Seminar and it’s a beautiful translation. If you’ve ever found Paul to be just a little dry and pedantic kind of a bummer at parties, then I invite you to check out this translation. It really puts him in context. It is careful to distinguish the authentic letters of Paul from those not by him but are claimed to be by him.

One of the scholarly arguments is whether or not this famous chapter on love really is from Paul. I want to credit it to Paul because he just gets such a bum rap. I want to give him something nice. But because grammar and all of that, some scholars doubt it goes back to Paul.

Nonetheless it certainly does talk about three essential aspects of faith. Reinhold Niebuhr in his book The Irony of American History wrote:

Nothing that’s worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. Therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in the immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith.
And nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we must be saved by love.

I want to let Reinhold Niebuhr be a lens through which we look at this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians chapter 13, the love passage, and its beautiful language. Paul isn’t putting down hope or faith when he is lifting up love as the one that is the greatest. They’re all great. But there is one that’s the greatest and that’s what he calls love.

And so when we think of faith we think of trust. You have to trust when you’re making a piece of art that this is going to be real and that it will communicate something real and honest. You may not know. So creating art and living life which I believe are the same things, have to have a sense of trust about it. You have to trust even before you calculate things that whatever it is you are creating in life is going to be something that is beautiful and that is good and that it will contribute to life, whether it’s even just just a sense of pleasure and enjoyment or a prophetic statement. It takes faith. Niebuhr said nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense immediate in any immediate context of history. Therefore we must be saved by faith.

He also said nothing that’s worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime therefore we must be saved by hope. And so all of the good works that we do all of the plans that we have all of the energy that we put into things. It’s going to happen after we go. And that is a bummer for the ego because we’d like to be around to get the applause for it. But if it’s really something that is going to change the world for good it’s something that we didn’t invent in the first place. We stand of course on the shoulders of people before us. Hope creates a sense of beautiful humility.

I have a hope the next revolution will be peaceful, that there will be a way in which non-violent relationships with one another will ultimately not just seem like some crazy liberal person’s idea but it will actually be the way that we practically work together as human beings in creating a life on Earth for now and for future generations. And so that’s my hope but it’s not likely to come true in my lifetime. So I stand on the shoulders of all of those who’ve worked before and we work together to create the sense of hope for our future.

And finally love and this is really what I think is the creative act itself, the creative act of life has to do with love and that is the connection that we have with one another and that is the love. We talk about love a lot, you hear the word a lot. but love at least according to St. Paul and all of his beautiful descriptions of love have to do with the connection that we have whether that connection is with other homo sapiens or with other species of Earth or whether it’s plant life or whatever it might be. Love is that which calls us together in intimate relationship. Love is more powerful than the forces that destroy that.

And so it’s love that will help us as human beings live together with each other. Live together regardless of what we look like or what language we speak or what values that we have. In terms of art, I said earlier that religion doesn’t like art often times and has had a rather iconoclastic strain through it. It isn’t that religion doesn’t like art, it just doesn’t like other people’s art. It’s a lack of understanding where art comes from in a different culture. And so once we recognize that art may not necessarily aesthetically grab us it’s because we haven’t spent enough time with it or we haven’t spent enough time with those who’ve created it.

And that is the act of love and that is the beauty of the artist because we all have the artist within us to make our creations to share that with one another and to be the example of love. For ourselves, for our family, for the community, for the human race.

One final thing from that quote from Reinhold Niebuhr. This is his final statement. This is often forgotten. We usually read the first three. But then he has he has a fourth one. And it says,

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

For a negative example, just watch TV and watch the politicians. How many of them ever sincerely offer forgiveness? It’s what’s lacking. It’s what’s lacking in political discourse. Saying, actually admitting, to whatever it is that we did wrong and simply saying ‘I did this wrong’ without a little string of excuses behind it. Just saying I’ve done this and this is a mistake and taking whatever might be from that is often difficult to find.

And so that’s why it’s such a virtuous act itself to forgive others, because at the end of the day, whatever it is that anybody does we can do the same thing. And we may have done the same thing. And so forgiveness is that ultimate act of love and that is seen in the work of art. I’m just amazed. I just want to give you a second because I need a second. Just look at this. This. These paintings that are I just I don’t even want to talk I just want to look at them. There’s life here right from animals to plants to human beings to emotions. They make us feel things that we can’t describe. There’s music. I can’t help but think of my beautiful bride right here. She’s the musician. It fills the heart. It’s the reason for life if I can say it that boldly that we create and we make art whether we do it in the fine art way or whether we do it in the folk art way or whatever it is we are creators and that in essence is what will keep us as human beings alive and thriving now and into our future. Thank you all for being creators.