(Every Tuesday for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, we plan to send you all a transcription of one of our recent sermons. Today's offering follows.)
Greetings to all of you, it feels strange to be in a virtually empty room and talking to all of you. There are basically just four of us singing — I recall early in my career they did an evaluation and sent it out to all members of the congregation — it came back, turned out pretty well; they liked me and it was all good, and I was reading them and I got to the very last comment on the last evaluation and it said, “Please do not let Stephen sing near the mike.” So, unfortunately that’s where we are.
I want to talk a little bit about what art spirit means to the life of this congregation, and I believe to the life of spirituality itself. I’ve always said that artists are the channels of God’s truth into this world. Yes, there are the mystics and the sages and the saints and the saviors and, yeah, I’ll even throw in some preachers. But to be truthful it is the artist who goes deep enough to capture the tears, and the fears, and the hopes and the longings and the almost uncontrolled ecstasy of being alive. And for me that’s a lot more important in my religious life than the things we often think about as religious.
I think, to be truthful, that we are being our most religious when we are finding some way to tap into our creativity. That’s where we share in creation’s work. And churches and synagogues and places all over the world where people religiously gather far too often can be places of dust and shadows and dry talk. If we really believe in this invigorating energetic divinity, I think they should be places of life and activity, color and music. I’m pretty certain that a pottery class can be a more religious undertaking than a committee meeting (although, frankly, I like committee meetings. I’ve devoted forty years of my life to committee meetings, and they’re not bad!). We should be about the irrepressible message that there’s something divine living in us, sparking us, animating us, and we are part, always, of that greater life. And when we can be joyful — and Lord knows, it has not been easy lately to tap into that — but when we can it’s a deep grace that reveals something of that power within us.
So, Art and Spirit. I think it’s been a great program building on something that’s really been a part of the life of the church for a long, long time, long before I ever arrived. But when Margaret Shepherd and Tim House and other local artists began deep conversations about what could it mean to really work with a congregation, to bring in not just paintings on the wall but dancers and musicians doing special things and artists working with children...What would that mean? What would it look like? I felt it would make us an invigorated church, and a different kind of church, and I don’t think I was wrong in that.
Now, are we all great artists? I think that’s the wrong kind of question. I think that Richard Baydin’s meditations we shared today show us a different and a better way to look at that question.
In these tough days, my wife Liz has very lovingly been saying, “Stephen, why don’t you do a painting, or get back to that book proposal?” Frankly, I too have been surrounded by a sort of fog of anxiety about people I love and this church I love and serve, and it’s been hard. But I feel like I’m maybe starting to get my sense of balance—and this thing’s going to go on for a while. So maybe this sermon comes at a very good time — that even in our isolation, maybe we can go deep, and maybe we should go deep. That’s what our faith is asking us to do.
And I wondered if in highlighting the meditations of one member if some people might think, “Oh, Stephen and Daniel are just putting together a service to sort of salute one person.” But no, I don’t think that’s the truth at all. I think that Richard’s autobiography , the things that he’s endured, the mental illness, and a stroke and chemo and everything he has walked through and survived makes his meditations feel like — I don’t know — I feel like I’ve got William Blake in my congregation— that there’s something that is so powerful and innocent about what Rich writes about, because it’s hard won. So I think actually this is a great moment to highlight what Tim and Rich have put together. And I wish from the bottom of my heart that you could just come in and see the exhibit. But we can’t do that — so many things have been wiped out — I feel like there’s an alternative universe out there of things we would like to do, planned to do, and have been put on hold. But life itself cannot be put on hold, and you and I know that. So I want to talk about how we participate in the creation in which we find ourselves. I think, to be truthful that when we find some means to be creative— and we can be creative not just in art or writing or sculpture— we can be creative in our moral imagination.
We can be creative in our ability to bring people together; we can be creative in thousands of ways. And when we do that we live the Book of Genesis. Genesis is not just a document written four thousand years ago. Genesis is something that is going on around us, flowing through us. It goes on as something living, where we can share in the responsibilities and the joy of creation itself. It is a mysterious power that moves through us. Yes, with our hands we can create with pen and paint and stone, but we do more than that. We construct societies and families and governments. We create religious systems that contain both the best and the worst of human behavior. And scientists all over the world are working 18 hours a day in amazingly creative efforts to heal. And that’s where we are.
So, I’ll be frank. I have always found the deepest access to divinity not through theologians or philosophers but from artists who know creativity first hand. They give you that joy found in creating something new that lifts us up above the chaos of daily experience. Robert Browning, the poet, wrote works that even he could not explain. When his wife asked him what he meant by a passage he replied, “When I wrote that perhaps only God and I understood it, and now, only God knows what it means.”
Churches are pretty rare beasts when you stop and think about it. They’re a place where art and music and science and friendship and faith and food and liturgy and dance and mercy and social justice — they all come together and they mingle. They create one atmosphere, one place where people can come and bring whoever they are into the mix. It’s a place where friendships between generations can happen. And whether you’re 80 years old, or 8, friendships do happen. Friendships that cut across social lines — that happens almost nowhere in our divided society. And it happens that we are each invited to uncover and discover something in ourselves that we didn’t know before. And I believe that these are seedbeds of what I call moral imagination, of creativity and acts of mercy, justice and love. And if we keep our hearts in the right place. So there you go.
Now I am an erstwhile and infrequent painter, and I have to tell you that I love a canvas when it’s raw and open and fresh and clean — expansive to my dream, and to the the touch of a brush. Each day I wake up, and each Sunday when we come together I experience, yes, each Sunday as a kind of blank canvas, waiting for the spark, waiting for the moment.
I remember a poem I read many years ago (I’ve since discovered that it seems to be someone’s variation on a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti), and it is wonderfully expressive. It’s called, “Instruction to Painters and Poets.”
And the first thing you have to do paint out a Post Modern painting.
And the next thing is to paint yourself, in your true colors,
in primary colors, as you’ve seen them without whitewash.
Paint yourself as you see yourself, without makeup, without masks.
And paint your favorite people and animals
with your brush loaded with light.
And be sure you get the perspective right, and don’t fake it.
Because one false line leads to another.
And so, paint all the dark corners too, everywhere in the world.
All the hidden places in minds and hearts
where light never reaches.
And don’t forget to paint all those who live
their lives as bearers of light.
And you can say, “Stephen, that’s lovely, but maybe it’s a little untrue to the realities of daily life. Life is not a blank canvas; it’s filled with facts. It’s filled with our character, it’s filled with our DNA and our history. It’s filled with history and circumstance. And that’s true. You’re absolutely right. But who we are right now is not necessarily who we will become. It is a part of a very long journey — past this day, past this time, past this crisis. I would never deny that truth. But there’s something fresh, in you.
Please don’t think we’ve gone off track this morning, because we’ve shared the spiritual meditations of just one soul.
Rich’s whole life has been one long rolling crisis, and yet he found the way to write something affirming and something beautiful. It was at a time of plague that Shakespeare left London and wrote King Lear, and it was at a time of plague when Newton left Cambridge and saw an apple fall on his head and discovered the Law of Gravity. In the midst of pain human beings dream, and we grow. And that’s the way it is.
There’s an old story about a minister who hires a team of painters to paint the parsonage. And he doesn’t pay close attention. And one day he walks in and he realizes that the entire building looks threadbare, and shoddy, that the old paint is just showing right through. And he sees them pouring water and he says, “Repaint, repaint. Go, and thin no more.”
Now because this sanctuary is not full of people laughing uproariously, I have to tell you that’s a joke. But I have to also say that Repaint, Repaint is a better message than the old Repent and Repent. There is something so beautiful about the invitation to stride into that new world. Yeah, to try to repress our anxieties so we can focus a bit — and think about one act, one outreach, one moment. But it’ll be something, and it could be something powerful. And if a life, even one life, can be expressed in the blink of an eye, one small act, how can you tell me that your canvas is dull? You have only just begun your life.
This is how I would like to live my days. And the poem that meant so much to me, as a variation on Ferlinghetti— it concludes this way:
And remember, that the light is within
if it is anywhere, and you must paint from the inside.
Start with pure white, the pure white
of gesso and cabinet white and flake white.
But before you strike the first blow on that virgin canvas,
remember its fragility, life’s extreme fragility,
Let it all come through.
And when you’ve finished your painting,
stand back astonished.
Stand back and observe:
The life on earth you’ve created,
the lighted life on earth, that you’ve created.
In this tough time, God bless you all, but let it also be a time of gratitude, let it also be a time when that one small act can make all the difference.
Amen. Repaint, repaint. Go, and thin no more.