Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More than Bread and Roses

a sermon for Oxnam Chapel at Wesley Theological Seminary 
on the occasion of my installation as Full Professor on October 21, 2014

More than Bread and Roses, 2014
copper and acrylic on panel, 16" x 16"
"The world is full of problems: war, homelessness, global warming, domestic violence, AIDS, hunger, drug abuse. The list goes on and on. In a world that seems to be always on the brink of disaster, there is an endless amount of work to do to help the earth heal from pollution of every kind; to insure adequate nutrition, housing, education, and health care to every person; to bring peace among the nations and in every city and village and home. And yet, if all of this is done, and there is no art, then the world will still be a sad, sorry, joyless place." [Sanctifying Art, p 11]

In todays reading from Mark 8:22-25, Jesus gives the gift of sight to one who is unable to see. It is one of six different Gospel stories about Jesus healing blind people. That there are so many suggests that seeing is really important. But it seems to me that these stories are not so much about the physical Inability to see than about seeing in the metaphorical sense, about sight as awareness. To me, they are about Jesus healing us from willful blindness, from all the ways that we refuse to see what is right there in front of us. One of the things that we as a society, we as a church, keep refusing to see is that we need more than bread, and more than the natural beauty of flowers and trees and oceans and mountains. We also need what artists give us: we need artists to help us face our nightmares, and to show us the shape of our dreams.

When I came to Wesley as Artist-in-Residence a little more than 20 years ago, I never dreamed that I would be standing here today, celebrating the publication of my second book and being installed as Full Professor of Art and Worship. As I carried my art supplies through the cold, January morning into the warmth and light of the studio in Kresge, all that I knew was that I was being welcomed into a place where I did not have to keep my art separate from my faith.

While that may seem like an odd notion to some of you, the secular art world is often not kind to Christians. In my own training and experience as an artist, I quickly learned that if I wanted to use Christian imagery and themes in any way that was neither ironic or critical, I would have to disguise it in some way. When I eventually became brave enough to be honest about my faith, I found myself in trouble, no longer respected or welcome in the place where I had been teaching. As James Elkins explains in his 2004 book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, the concerns of serious artists diverged from those of the Church in the last 500 years or so. By the 19th century, many artists, poets, and musicians had become so disillusioned with Christianity that they were openly antagonistic to it. There are many historical reasons for this, but I'm not going to talk about the art world and its argument with Christian art, because it would take too long and there is not much we can do about that here. If you would like to know more about it, you can read Elkins' book or take my class, Picturing the Church,in the spring.

What I would like to talk about today is why the arts, and the artists who practice them, are necessary to the Church for the healing of the world. But first, I want to tell you a story.

The first class that I ever took at Wesley was Larry Stookeys course on church architecture. I say at Wesleyadvisedly, because most weeks we piled into cars and drove all over the greater DC area so that we could experience firsthand church buildings as widely varied as the venerable Sandy Springs Friends Meeting House, built in 1817; the rigorously modern Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg; or the serenely ornate Saint Nicholas Cathedral, the seat of the Orthodox Church in America just down the street from us here in DC.

On those occasions when we were actually in the classroom, we looked at slides of fortress-like Romanesque country churches; towering Gothic cathedrals; the great Baroque Il Gesu, built by the then-new Jesuit order in 1580 in Rome; and the elegant churches designed by Christopher Wren following the 1666 Great Fire of London.

While I had, of course, studied many of these architectural styles in art school, I had never before considered how these buildings were responses to the theological and liturgical needs of the people who built them; and how they, in turn, shaped the way those who worshiped there encountered God. The saying seeing is believingdoes not mean only that we trust what we see. It also means that what we see shapes what we believe even when we aren't really paying attention. So what we decide about how our places of worship look affects what our children, our visitors, and even our own future selves believe about Gods relationship with us human creatures.

What I learned as I looked at those slides, and, even more, as I stood and sat and walked around in those varied church buildings, was that even before the first word is spoken, what a worship space looks like how it is arranged, the colors and shapes and sizes of the walls, floors, furnishings, and decorations tell us what to believe about God, about humanity, and the relationship between them. Is God far away, unreachable, formal, unchangeable? Or is God nearby, among us, living with us and among us and around us, and responsive to our changing needs? Does God really love us in all our human materiality and imperfection? And does God call us out of ourselves into some greater reality, so that we can aspire to be better tomorrow than we are today? What do the aesthetics of your worship space tell you about the nature of God?

Of course, as in any class, we had readings. One was an article titled Bread and Roses.Let me tell you a little about the song that inspired that title. The lyrics were originally printed as a poem in American Magazine in 1911, the same year as the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 garment workers most of them teenaged girls died because they were locked into a room on the 9th floor with inadequate fire escapes.

The poem was soon set to music and the following year, textile mill workersagain, mostly young womenin Lawrence,Massachusetts, took up the song and marched carrying a banner declaring "Bread and Roses" as they struck not only for living wages, but for the right to live and work in decent conditions, for food for the body, yes, but also food for the soul.

In 1974, Mimi Fariña set the words to music again, and  after it was recorded by her more famous, elder sister, Joan Baez, it was taken up again by the poor women who worked in not only in textile mills, but also in sweatshops, as domestics, and in other difficult, dirty, dangerous, underpaid jobs. They, too, yearned not only for enough money to feed their families, but also for the kinds of small graces that more affluent people take for granted: a small bunch of flowers on the mantelpiece; attractive dishware on the kitchen table; a fresh coat of paint instead of a peeling wall; or even a few new pillows to liven up a faded couch. In those days, I myself was a poor, uneducated, single mother, working as a weaver in Venice Beach, California, and the song became my own, personal anthem. 

So when Larry assigned an article with that beloved, evocative title, I was eager to read it. Sadly, I lost my only copy in some fit of clearing out old study notes, and I have never since been able to find it. But I remember clearly that it recounted the struggles of an affluent Georgetown church as they planned to do some necessary repairs. One faction, aware of the historic importance of the building, wanted to do everything possible to restore its former beauty, to make it a showplace that visitors to Washington would want to see. Others, all too aware of the abysmal poverty in other parts of the city, wanted to do only what was needed to keep the building from falling down, and give the rest of the money they would have spent on renovation to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and emergency aid. The author was clearly sympathetic to this argument, but also offered the observation that in many poor communities, people dress up on Sundays and make their churches as beautiful as they can, precisely because there is so little beauty in their daily lives. It is only the affluent, those who can afford fine things in their own homes, who  want to skimp on the furnishings for the church.

This is even more true when we create places for those whom we say we want to help. Too often, in the church as well as in other areas of society, social justice and art are set up as opposing forces, as if it were true that to work for justice is to be oblivious to shape and color and even comfort. It certainly looks that way whenever I visit the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free clinics, and housing projects that are set up to feed, clothe, shelter, and heal the body, but have no regard for what makes people's hearts sing.

Too often, the places where poor people are served are ugly, bare, graceless spaces, with gray, cinderblock walls or aged, dirty paint; and filled with castoff, broken, rickety furniture and beat-up flooring. If there is any artwork at all, it is likely to be grimy, ragged drawings by clients or by children who grew up years ago, tacked up crookedly with pushpins years ago and long ignored. Most often, there are countless signs and placards telling both clients and staff what to do and not do, with no thought to how to help anyone make sense of all the visual noise. Rarely are there any roses at all.

What do the aesthetics of the places where poor people live and work and receive help tell them about who God loves?

When I use the word aesthetics,I am not thinking so much about beauty, but about the qualities that make one place feel welcoming, and another harsh and sterile. These qualities are what artists think about, notice, and use to convey meaning. When artists attend to color and form, order and rhythm, contrast, harmony, and unity, they help us become aware that our bodies our material selves are the locus of our spiritual lives.

Scripture reminds us that we need more than food for our bodies, and also more than what the natural world offers us. We also need embodied meaning, which is another way to say art.

For example, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they were homeless, refugees from a place of poverty and oppression and danger. Then, as today, refugee camps tend to be ugly, makeshift places, with little thought given to anything more than mere survival.

But Exodus 31:1-11 tells us that out there in the harsh desert, God commanded that a place of grace and elegance be made, a place where the people could refresh their spirits in the presence of the holy. God understands that hearts starve as well as bodies. Yes, when the people were hungry, God provided manna for food. When they were thirsty, God made water flow out of a gray, unyielding rock. But when the people needed a place to encounter the living God, Holy One also commissioned Bezalel, Oholiab and others to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft  to make the Tent of Meeting as ornate and beautiful as possible.

Was it wasteful to use scarce resources in this way when the people were living with so little? Apparently, God does not think so.

I think that its not an accident that Paul was a tentmaker, too. In our reading from Romans 12:1-8 this morning, Paul says that just as in our own bodies each part does something different, so too the various members of the Body of Christ do not all have the same function, but that all are needed. While Paul doesnt include artists and artisans in his list of essential parts of the Body of Christ, his own skilled use of tools and materials required aesthetic as well as practical decisions. Its hard for me to believe that what he learned from his craft did not carry over into his understanding of the Church. In fact, that is exactly what we hope will happen when students learn to paint or draw or make prints or sculpt or sing or dance or act that something from the studio experience, from working with matter in an intentional way, will carry over into their work with words, ideas, and people. As I tell my students, every artwork that I make is a compromise between the original inspiration, the properties of the materials and tools I am working with, and the degree to which I am able to make my hands do what my inner eye sees.

Bill Rock, "The Fish Trees" (detail), 2014
That ability, however faltering and imperfect it may sometimes be, to make visible and audible and palpable what the inner eye sees, what the inner ear hears, with the heart feels, is what artists bring to the church.  And we ignore them at our peril.  When we make ourselves willfully blind to  the truths that artists tell us, we lose sight of the full humanity of everyone, rich or poor. When we forget that hearts starve as well as bodies, when we hide from our nightmares and run away from our dreams, when we pretend that the spiritual is not grounded in the material, we deny the mystery of the Incarnation.

So thank you to all the musicians and dancers and storytellers and poets and visual artists who keep bringing your gifts to the Church, even when nobody pays attention. Thank you for showing us how to celebrate and how to lament; how to remember the past as well as to be present to this moment; how to face our nightmares and see the shape of our dreams. The Church needs you to keep showing us what we refuse to see: that all matter shimmers with the light of God.

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