May 23, 2010

The Church's Greatest Art Treasures, Romans 8:14-17,  May 23, 2010

Heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ. (Rom. 8: 17)
In every family, at least one child becomes designated the "heir apparent." This child is not necessarily the eldest, or the brightest or the most successful. But there is something about the child that speaks to the parents and others that it is the one most likely to carry on the hopes and dreams of that family's tradition. From the moment the "heir apparent" is apparent, that child is shaped and groomed to step into the shoes worn by previous generations.

An heir apparent is an heir who, short of a fundamental change in the situation, cannot be displaced from inheriting.
If the "heir apparent" is lost, the family heirlooms and treasures are lost. Without an heir, there is no one to inherit the treasures. Alexander the Great had tremendous vision, untouchable military might and enough creative energy to stamp his image on all civilization in the Near East. But he had no heir apparent. The young empire died with its young ruler.
On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate what it means to become God's heirs, joint heirs with Christ, inspirited expressions of God's handiwork. God's creative energy is once again poured out and passed on to the world, transforming it and redeeming it. All those "led by the Spirit" are swept up in this new burst of creativity. Who cannot be changed forever by an encounter with this "spirit of adoption"?

What kind of heir are you? What kind of heirlooms are you bequeathing to your children? What kind of heirloom, art treasure, are you in God’s Gallery?

Since the first Pentecost, the birth of the Christian Church, the church itself has bequeathed a tradition of heirlooms, art treasures, to succeeding generations. Where would you go to see the church's greatest treasures?

Your first stop might be at the Louvre, where some of the greatest works of art in the history of humanity are on display.

Among favorites at the Louvre is Georges de La Tour's Saint Joseph the Carpenter (French, 1645). De La Tour (1593-1652) mastered artificial light, the mysterious shadows and shadings of candlelight. Rubens mastered the light of the sun and the moon. The Dutch Masters mastered the clouds. We could spend all day -- all year -- at the Louvre.
But to really discover the church's heirlooms, one needs to go to what started out as the private art collection of the Tsars, known as The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Its three million art works on display qualify it, some believe, for the status of "The World's Greatest Museum."

There are 24 Rembrandts in the Hermitage. The “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” which dates from the last tragic years of the artist, is, I believe, the best of them all.
It was Henri Nouwen's favorite painting, and the basis for his book The Prodigal Son. It shows only the penitent son at his father’s feet, the father’s hand on his head, in the light, with two shadowy figures standing off to the side.

In the best essay ever written on Rembrandt, Georg Simmel claims that "for the first time in the history of art," Rembrandt portrays the piety of the soul, not the religion of the church, and in this painting "people are no longer in an objectively religious world; they are subjectively religious in an objectively indifferent world."[i]
True religion is lived out in the trenches of life circumstances, not merely in ornate cathedrals.

But wait a minute! Are these really the greatest heirlooms in the history of the Christian church? What about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Frescoes, Rouault’s “The Holy Countenance” of Jesus, or Raphael’s “The Contestible Madonna?” Are these really the greatest art treasures of the church?
You don't have to go to the Louvre, or the Hermitage, to view the greatest art treasures in the history of the church. Pentecost Sunday proclaims that if you want to see the church's greatest art treasures, leave the museum and go back home.
Look all around you. Open your eyes to the acts of service, the acts of grace, and the acts of compassion going on all around you by heirs of Christ. Didn't Jesus himself say:

"I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; I needed clothes, and you clothed me"?

While God’s Spirit may have inspired Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Rouault, we know for certain that God sent his Spirit to be born in you and me.

God sent Jesus to be born in you. In the words of onetime Methodist, Vincent van Gogh, "Christ is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes men (and women) instead of statues."

God is calling this church to be the greatest art treasure. God is calling you to be the church's greatest art treasure. In the words of Ephesians 2:10, "For you are God's workmanship" (NIV). In other words, "You are God's masterpiece." Or as some translations render it, "You are God's poem" and others, "You are God's handiwork," which really means "You are God's artwork."

Let me introduce you to some of the church's greatest art treasures.

One of the church's greatest living art treasures is Dr. J. Howard Edington, Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. To have a child is to accede forever to "having your heart go walking around outside your body." That heart often walks the fastest, and wanders the farthest, during the growing-up years.
Howard used to stay up nights praying his only son home after an "evening out." One evening, while Howard was waiting up for his son's car to pull in, the police car arrived instead -- with the news that his son had been killed.

I asked Howard over lunch, on the second anniversary of his son's death, "How are you dealing with it?"

Howard replied, "Len, no one can even imagine the pain. The only thing that gets me through each day is knowing that I no longer need to stay up and worry about where my son is and whether he's safe or not. He's home now. He's safe now."

"But you know," he continued, "I have a lot of parishioners with kids my son's age who aren't safe. They're out "on the town" like my son was. So I ask them to let me know when their sons and daughters are out late so that I can pray them home. I still stay up at night and worry and fret and pray. But it's for the sons and daughters of my parish. It's the only way I can deal with the pain."

Howard Edington: one of the church's great living art treasures.

God’s art treasures come in all shapes and sizes. Let me introduce you to another heirloom of the church who is only 5 years of age. One day he was walking to Grandma's house after attending Sunday school. His lesson for the day had been Jesus' "Parable of the Last Judgment," and he couldn't get out of his head the teacher's comment "When you give something to another person, you're really giving it to Jesus."

Walking through a park, he noticed an elderly woman sitting on a bench, feeding some pigeons. She looked lost and lonely. So he went over to her, sat down, took from his pocket a package of M&M's, and offered her some. She smiled and took them.

The boy liked her smile so much that, after she had eaten the M&M's, he gave her more. This time they exchanged smiles and, for a while, they sat together in silence, just smiling at each other.

Finally, the boy got up to leave. As he began to walk away, he turned, ran back to the bench, and gave the woman a big hug. She gave him her very best smile.

When he arrived at his grandma's house, she saw a big smile on his face and asked, "What made you so happy?" He said, "I shared my M&M's with Jesus. And she has a great smile."

Meanwhile, the woman on the bench returned to her little apartment where she lived with her sister. "You're all smiles," said the sister. "What made you so happy today?" She replied, "I was sitting in the park, eating M&M's with Jesus. And you know, he looks a lot younger than I expected."

Today it is fitting to express gratitude for God’s works of art in our congregation. . . . Who are the people that have blessed you the most in their service to the church?

Of late, it has become a snide expression to say of someone, "He's quite a piece of work." But God says precisely that of you and of me.
As the Pentecost Spirit of God rests upon us, we are indeed a piece of work, God's work. You, me and those around us are works in progress that God is creating for his glory. Let us recognize the genius of the Holy Spirit in each of us and be open to the brush strokes of the Spirit in our daily lives. Amen.
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
First Presbyterian Church
Bastrop, Louisiana


[i] (Georg Simmel, "Rembrandt's Religious Art [1914]," Essays on Religion [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997], 78-97).

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