God, Please, Let It Be Complicated—Feb. 3, 2016

John 8:21-29
“A Substance in a Cushion”, poem by Gertrude Stein

Sermon delivered in Marquand Chapel, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT

[Opening prayer: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.”]

I guess it’s not much of a coincidence that I find myself up here today, in the center of the week about “ritual arts.”

Yes, I was trained as an artist.

But these three years discerning my call to ministry and wrestling with a past in the arts has not been easy nor, to be frank, has it been very fun. But those wounds are still healing, and I don’t want to bleed all over you’all now.

Best not to think of this as a “Sermon”—There is only just a couple things I want to get across. A) I would like to make some comments about art in general. And B) I want to relate those things to God. Simple!

So we dive right in…

There is often a split that opens up between illustrators and painters in art school. Yes, I realize dichotomies are a bad idea and know that this one is a false one like most of them are, but it does actually happen. Future illustrators come in loving comic books—maybe reading graphic novels, and future painters come with Frida Kahlo art-books and maybe are would-be Marxists.

Illustrators always end up better at their craft, meaning they can draw really really well. However, they rarely push the boundaries of that craft. Illustrators usually get jobs after school.

Painters get labeled icky, mean-spirited, othering titles like “hipsters.” They become waiters and dog-walkers and art-movers, or they decide to go to divinity school. [wink]

But just so this is clear, when I say painters—I don’t mean literally only painters, as in people who put paint on things. It just sounds better to me than artist. I’m talking about sculptors, poets, installation artists, dancers, preachers, composers, etc. I mean artist’s whose work, for lack of a better definition, doesn’t illustrate anything.

Let me give an example of an illustration. New Yorker Covers. They’re clever and pretty. They’re topical. There’s a punch line. They graciously spill out all their information to the viewer.

But then, that’s it. Then they’re done. It’s a quick transaction.

New Yorker Covers that are only 2 or 3 years old are basically useless—the cultural-jokes fall flat, the information that they’re dealing out is external to the image. And if that information, that content, is lost, so then is the image.

A painting creates it’s own logic—it’s own information. Here’s the fun part: It’s an open-ended site of interaction, between artist and viewer. This is why abstract paintings are a thing. Work like this may come from the deepest soul of the artist. Or from the most shallow malice of the artist. It doesn’t necessarily matter.

Most importantly—and as a result of all these things—A painting has what is called a long read. Meaning: some works you can look at / listen to / read for decades and only slowly—in drips and drabs—does the information come out—like distillation.

Folks grow into these works—they change while the painting never does. Something you build a relationship with.

I hope this is sounding familiar. I mean, this is what every pastor says about the Bible.

(Footnote: These comments are not evaluative. Illustrations are extremely valuable and important. Many paintings are terrible. Bear with me)

Anyway, this kind of work , what I am calling paintings, are often baffling and troubling, or put differently—they require work and trust on the part of the viewer. For this reason, they are often absent from cultural institutions—not only the church, but definitely including the contemporary church—Cultural institutions that often see art as merely-object or decoration: Only beauty. Quick read. No relationship. Naked chicks, flowers and horses, lame abstractions, or what I like to call portraits of surfer-Jesus.

In summation: Illustrations—quick read, Paintings—long read.

Now, shifting gears drastically, bring your minds with me to that pretty intense Gospel reading from John. I ask, is God a painter or an illustrator?

Maybe I’m a little biased and maybe I’ve already given my position away. But, honestly, I consistently think of God as illustrator. When I feel like crap for one existential reason or another, I remind myself of simple little formulas: God is Love, God is Eternal, God is Jesus, God is here. “I’m ok, I’m ok.”

God as illustrator=God shows Godself most fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m on board with that. Over the generations the Israelites just didn’t get it. So, God says to Godself I will send the Son, Son says to Father send me—bingo.

So, IS Jesus a performance artist, commissioned by God, to die on the cross and be raised, to illustrate God’s point, God’s love? That is one of the take-away questions. I don’t know!

But if you really ask me, it doesn’t take 2 semesters of New Testament to see it’s more complicated. In John, Jesus is talking in riddles on purpose: “The light shines into the darkness and the darkness comprehends it not.” That’s us folks. We’re the darkness. I know I consistently think I’m on the light side, but alas, that is just not true—I am always in darkness. Maybe Jesus does say what he means, but he doesn’t give these poor religious leaders in the story any clues—he does a very painterly thing. He might give lots of information, but no key, no interpretive method.

Let’s back up. God as painter—so, what are God’s “works”? Let’s say Universe & Bible.

There is another hazard involved in this painting/illustration dichotomy that I think is helpful here. An overly short reading of a painting leads one astray, because it doesn’t get to the heart of an artist’s intent, which is—in essence—relationship. And on the other hand, to call an illustration a painting makes much more of it than the artist ever intended.

If we read a painting like these leaders in John do Jesus’ words then we read everything at face value. We’re now, us, training to be these leaders. Don’t forget that Christianity is still very much a hegemonic force in this country. And if you’re like me you’re taught that preaching is about clarity and face value: “Every sermon, give ‘em one scoop of law, and two scoops of Gospel.”

Words must illustrate. Illustrations give their meaning, the same meaning, over and over.

I don’t think I want the Bible—or preaching for that matter—to be like a New Yorker cover that can become an irrelevant, sun-faded relic. That’s the question, right, dispelling this irrelevancy—that’s “mission,” yeah?

Jesus groans, “Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn.”

When the leaders Jesus is speaking to think he’s going to kill himself—at first we think, “Oh, silly Pharisees, Jesus doesn’t kill himself, you kill him!” [cringe, *ahem*…]

But maybe a little Trinitarian thought, however anachronistic it is to the text, renders this reading of the leadership quite tenable. God is Jesus, Jesus is God. Jesus all powerful let’s himself die, right? Well, then the Hebrew-Leaders are right. But their not right.

It’s complicated. It’s bewildering. As Paul says, “It’s foolishness.”

 Is the Bible just the sum of its parts, a bunch of defunct violent texts, lots of laws, lots of names, a divided kingdom, one peasant nailed to a cross, a couple of communities on the Mediterranean, long weird poem about Dragons and incense… that’s it?

Furthermore, who are we to think that we have interpreted correctly the Word of God, the Work of God?—even despite tradition. I know I’m going out on a limb here. Still, that’s a lot of responsibility for an awfully sinful world.

Sounds a lot like a facile reading of an extremely complicated painting.

Jesus’ death on the cross is an illustration…? Of.. what? We’ve got 4 different accounts of it. If the cross of Christ is the precise center of our Universe, do you want to impoverish it with one meaning?

God, please let it be complicated. I’m asking God to increase our bewilderment.

If I think in this flesh-broken, sin-addled body of mine that I have gotten the message, may God always show me a new message. If only to humble me, and if only to confuse me.

But remember, always remember, a really good painting never leaves you stuck. Or what you think is stuck-ness is the sting of a challenging relationship.

Jesus goes on, “but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” That declaration is multiple, varied, and fluid and it drips into our lives sometimes very slowly. But it definitely drips.

A great work never leaves you cornered. I get cornered all the time with my homemade and half-baked theories about Jesus. But God never leaves me there. Because there’s always more. Pick up the text one more time. Pray one more time—talk with your friends one more time.

The light always shines in. It always comes in from outside, restoring, and freeing.

More color, more resonance, more relevance, more meanings, more connections.

I don’t know what they are. I’m sure you’all have some thoughts on this.

God is The Creator, The Source, of many many things. And, I promise you, I testify to you all today, God will always give you more ways of knowing God, if only you ask for it.

Amen.