Works of Art
Psalm 139, Jeremiah 18: 1-11, and Luke 14: 25-35
Some of my fondest, early adult memories of living in Washington include going to the Phillips Collection for chamber music on Sunday afternoons. As often as I could get there, I’d visit the Phillips after brunch. My first stop was always on the landing of the old staircase for a look at Renoir’s “Luncheon at the Boating Party.” Then I’d wind myself back around to the floor where the music was being played. Not having visited the Phillips in over 20 years, when I went back this spring I was glad to find that the chamber concerts continued, but surprised that “Luncheon” wasn’t literally as large as the wall. I suppose that I imagined it as larger than life because of my stage in life when visiting it so faithfully in the 80s. – Happy, young people chatting in their lazy, fashionable clothes, the table set in bright white linen and bottles of wine and grapes… and the perfect shade of poppy on Aline Charigot’s hat. I could show you how Alphonse Fournaise’s straw boater was painted after the awning and speculate over why Renoir didn’t include it from the start.
Returning to the Phillips this spring, it was El Greco’s “Repentant St. Peter” that I found most arresting. I suppose once again that this is life stage driven. If you can imagine with me Peter’s drawn cheeks and eyes recessed in his long, anguished face, having denied knowing Jesus three times after his arrest the night before. In the painting, Peter’s draped image stands out from the nighttime background of a large tree trunk. His veined, grey forearms bring his hands together in a never-let-go grasp for prayer – the keys of the church dangling from his left wrist. This masterpiece was one of the first acquisitions of the Phillips Collection and became the subject of a Baltimore artist, Bernhard Hildebrandt’s, modern interpretation, “A Conjugation of Verb.”
In “A Conjugation of Verb,” Hildebrandt uses “photography and video, and Baroque themes of high drama, spectacle and spatial movement” to convey that “St. Peter is actively repenting.” Hildebrandt selectively orders a series of blurred images that capture specific areas of El Greco’s painting, in a way, he says that dissect and distort the picture into multifaceted events describing the passage of time and movement – a technique Hildebrandt borrows from Cezanne.
The installation of “Conjugation” is a penetrating, multisensory experience. A large, close-up image of Peter’s horrified face is prominently placed on a stark white wall on the second floor of the gallery. Turning right from this panel, you hear a loud, pulsing heartbeat that draws you down a corridor about 20 feet long, that’s lined with equally provocative, narrowly focused photographs of the painting. At the end of the corridor is a dark room that penetrates from the sound of the heartbeat. Also in the room are a hard bench in the center of the floor and a large, flat screen television mounted on the far wall. The television shows a 7-minute loop of blurred images of “Repentant St. Peter” demanding that you contemplate your own sinfulness through the lenses of time and space and the stark reality of everyday life.
While it’s provocative to watch St. Peter’s repentance unfold 2000 years later, it’s hard to look at every facet of our own sins so closely and comprehensively, as an artist with a multi-media lens and his audience in an intimate gallery. Few of us take the time to truly examine each area of our lives to identify all of our evil ways at once. Most reflect upon each unique experience of sin and the trouble that it caused and promise to never do it again. Most of us engage in empty reflection that has the depth of a flat screen tv (before HD). Then we carry on with a tug of regret, never fully absorbing the grace of God that removes all of our transgressions – maybe knowing full well that so many of our sins will be repeated in other ways that further drive a wedge between our relationships with God and one another.
Each one of us makes mistakes, rejecting God’s laws time and time again. The good news through the millennia is that God who is faithful still knows how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, forgiving us in spite of ourselves, and enabling us to be reshaped into the people God intends for us to be. When we have sought forgiveness of our sins and enter into such right relationship with God, this can set the grounds for a whole new beginning for ourselves and all of those with whom we have experienced some of the most challenging or gravest disruptions of life.
The analogy that we read today of a potter molding clay and God shaping and reshaping human lives is ancient and familiar. Our text from the prophet Jeremiah develops this analogy in a fresh direction to demonstrate the timelessness of our always-reforming nature that’s properly understood as the work of God. It’s as if God has given us an innate understanding of what is right and wrong in God’s eyes that manifests in a dissonance that will not let us go until we make amends with one another and our Creator God. God shows us the spoiled places in our own lives of clay and emboldens us to turn back from our evil way, amend who we are and our doing, and be re-fashioned into vessels of goodness who can share God’s hope for the world.
Throughout it all, we need to remember that ultimate forgiveness is God’s divine action toward all people. It comes with or without human repentance; however, our lives are more acceptable even to ourselves when we relieve ourselves of the tensions of our wrongdoing. And just as we know that God’s divine action doesn’t require human initiation or human response, God’s purpose allows our repentance to inspire the shape of our future once the pain of the past has been lifted from our souls. This is not to suggest that the effects of our evil will be wiped away at once; but it is to suggest that the manacles of our sin become unlocked, enabling us to walk more comfortably along the path to new life.
In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus suggests that even our most beloved possessions can become like evil in our lives holding hold us back from right relationship with right relationship with one another and with Christ. Who would think that we’d need to weigh the pressures of having family members as we evaluate our life in Christ? But God tells us anything that might separate us from God, or even insinuate that there’s a choice between how we spend our emotional, spiritual or physical energy, needs to be carefully considered as we live into the fullness God intends for us as Christians, integral to God’s plan in this world. This is important because it’s not just our possessions or the things that we accumulate that can trip us and turn us away from Jesus. It’s all of those competing priorities – and relationships, too – which can move us in a direction other than that which glorifies God. And actually, the more direct translation of the Greek New Testament tells us that the word that’s translated as a noun to become possessions in our NRSV is actually a verb construct that means that which is possessing. So this tells us that we need to repent and rid ourselves of even what might be possessing us, such as a family member who claims priority over our time in worship on a Sunday morning, or even a longing for a different job or better shirt, or an authority or power that is luring us away from honoring the sovereignty of God.
But then, as if it couldn’t get more complex, Jesus throws a zinger out there. He suggests that we’re a lot like salt. This image seems at once puzzling and illuminating. I think this is because you and I are hardly able to imagine that salt could, in effect, go bad. For us, a round, blue carton of Morton’s can stay on the shelf for a decade and still be just fine. But in ancient days, salt was mined from marshes or underground, so that it often contained equal parts of impurities and salt. A vessel of salt might lose its salty pungency if too much water seeps in and dissolves the composition – in those days of less pure salt – leaving behind ancillary, unexpected or worthless minerals that ineffectively take its place. So that then I think what Jesus meant in his analogy of our saltiness in the context of our need for faithfulness and singular focus on God is that we need to carefully consider what might be diluting our relationship with him in the same way that salt can become diluted and leave behind inconsequential rocks. Net/net, so much as we are a persistently sinful lot, diluting our ability to be the people God needs in this world, we need to be a persistently repentant people who are seasoned by God.
You and I are fearfully and wonderfully made vessels of God’s creation, ever shaped and reshaped by the one who has great purpose for us all. Just as El Greco’s “Repentant St. Peter” was reimagined by Bernhardt Hildebrant four hundred years later such that the noun repentant became on ongoing verb repentance, we are works of art in progress who need to be open to being reimagined in the way that only a master artist can foresee along each stage of our lives.
We are not mere artistry. Just as August Renoir examined “Luncheon” to determine that Alphonse Fournaise could use a straw boater to create his masterpiece, we are masterpieces of God’s creation who need to be actively reflecting upon our relationship with our Creator God. We need to actively examine our lives using different lenses and different media and the beauty of the light to understand the ways that we do evil in God’s sight, the ways we drive a wedge in our relationship with God, and how we allow our possessions and that which possesses us to dilute our communion with Christ in mission for the world. We are works of art – masterpieces of God’s creation. May our self-reflection be comprehensive, our repentance be forthright and our saltiness maintained as Christ’s seasoning in this world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.