I’ve been asked to preach three sermons about art and theology at a local church, and I’m finding that as the date of the first one approaches, the task is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be when I agreed to do it. Of course, I talk about art and faith in my classes, and when I’m asked to give a talk at the Adult Education hour at a church. And I’m always happy to talk about the role of faith in my own work as an artist.
But preaching is a different kind of task. The primary purpose of a sermon is not to teach some particular subject matter. Nor is it to be a platform to talk about my own approach to art. Rather, it is to help open the Word of God to the congregation.
I do preach from time to time in my own congregation, so standing in the pulpit is not completely unfamiliar. However, in that setting, I rarely say anything about art. Rather, I simply allow the appointed lectionary readings to speak to me, and try my best to bring what I have heard into the midst of the assembly. Since I know pretty much everyone who is there, and we are all already engaged with one another and with God in an ongoing conversation, it is simply my turn to bring the Word as I have received it.
So the question is, how do I bring my art-self and my preaching-the-lectionary-self together in one (or three) sermons? I always tell my students that, if they want to use art in a sermon, they should not simply grab any old artwork that fits the text and use it as an illustration. Instead, they should take the time to read the painting in the same way that they would read any written commentary on the text, and decide if the artwork supports or undermines their own understanding.
Now, it’s time to follow my own advice.