Exodus 19. 2 – 8; Psalm 100; Matthew 9.35 – 10.8; Romans 5. 1-8
1 This sermon was preached to mark the end of an art exhibition at St Mark’s, South Norwood, London SE25, from 22 May to 14 June 2002. It included 38 works from the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art (see the guide by Roger Wollen, ISBN 0-9538135-0-9), plus sculptures by David Moore. http://www.methodist.org.uk/prayer/creativearts.htm
2 See ‘Telling our story: woodcarving and sculpture’, by Richard Smith and David Moore, May 2002.
3 A collection of stark and moving portraiture of members of the congregation by Charlie Taylor remains on display at St Mark’s.]
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5. 3 – 5)
If you’re one of those people who loves football and identifies with England, hope is certainly riding high at the moment. [The sermon was preached just before the quarter finals of the soccer world cup in 2002] ‘We’re just two games away from a place in the World Cup final’ intoned a breathless Gary Lineker at the end of the BBC’s coverage of the victory over Denmark yesterday. Of course, if you’re Irish your hopes will be elsewhere today. And as we speak there are still nine other nations keeping their fingers crossed. Judging from one or two blank or pained expressions in the congregation this morning, there is a slightly less obvious nation of hopers too: those who pray that all this wretched football will be over as soon as possible so that life in Britain can return to what passes for normality once more!
What distinguishes genuine hope from simple wishful thinking? That is the question that confronts TV pundits as they survey the chances of eleven men facing another eleven men on a football field. Rather more momentously, perhaps, the issue of hopefulness lies at the heart of our readings this morning. It also runs through many if not all of the extraordinary works of art that have been on display here in St Mark’s since 22 May.1
‘Where does our true hope lie?’ Well, this is an exhibition of Christian art and I am speaking in a church, so surely we’re staring the obvious in the face with that one? I’m not so certain. I don’t think we pious few can let ourselves off the hook quite so easily. Looking around the world at the moment it isn’t at all obvious that religion equals hope. On the contrary, religion is very much about suffering – and, moreover, the infliction of suffering by one group of believers (hopers?) on others, in the name of God. The twin towers in New York, Israel-Palestine, and yes, as a reminder to us Christians, Rwanda not so long ago. These are all places where dreams lie fallen and people lie in graves because somebody had a particular kind of hope and decided to take a short cut towards it at somebody else’s expense.
It’s all there in these beautiful but far from simply entertaining pictures and sculptures. In the midst of the glorious colours, the life, the energy, the sharing of food and the human and divine exchanges of love lies something much darker, much more dangerous. Hatred, enmity, betrayal, anger, scapegoating, state execution. Heaven for some can be the path to hell for others. How you see and develop the relationship between these two impulses – life and death, if you will – depends upon your point of view. Art is all about perspective. Not just ‘seeing things’, but also the angle we choose to take on them.
According to St Paul in our reading today what gives true hope is the death of Jesus Christ. Christians throughout the centuries have agreed with him, and it is no surprise that many of the paintings in the Methodist Art Collection deal with, prefigure or allude to the crucifixion. A stark example stands in front of us this morning: Theyre Lee-Elliott’s ‘Crucified tree form – the agony’. We will consider it in more detail in a moment. But first let us remind ourselves that when we are baptized we are, symbolically and sacramentally, buried in the waters of death in the hope that we will again rise with Christ. It is this peculiar action of faith that enables Paul to make his extraordinary declaration: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Whatever this is, it is not optimism – frivolous wishful thinking. And it is not common sense, the kind of folk wisdom that any of us would come up with if only we put our minds to it. Frankly, it sounds like the opposite of those things: dangerous hope, non-sense. After all, isn’t the root of so much human devastation in the world today the insidious illusion that suffering can be justified, accepted, and even sanctified – if only we baptise it with a little God-talk? I’m not meaning to put my own learning above St Paul’s here. It’s just that if we are to have any possibility of comprehending what he is saying we need to be very careful to understand what he is not saying.
He’s not saying that suffering is good. Or that suffering is OK. Or that suffering should be welcomed in some masochistic sense. Or at least I’m pretty sure he’s not. For St Paul, like us, is all-too-human, and as he himself points out elsewhere in his writings, good and bad can get hideously twisted up within us at times. So we have to be especially careful about these distinctions. But no, what lies at the heart of his message is the idea that, in the transforming presence of God, even suffering and death cannot obliterate the gift of life – if we develop the right perspective, one informed by the love that flows into us (note the parallel with the waters of death in baptism) through the Holy Spirit.
However, rather like success in penalty shoot outs, (if I can insert a bizarrely lighter thought in the midst of a decidedly heavy one) this love that changes things and the way they are seen doesn’t ‘just happen’. Rather, it requires the ‘endurance’ and ‘character’ that Paul talks about – those communal qualities that enable us to resist hopefully and love faithfully. (In Exodus the same sentiment is expressed as a call, echoed in the Christian Testament, for people of faith to be ‘a holy nation’.) These qualities are gifts of God, but they also have to be worked at painfully hard, by all of us, together: and not just in the big issues of life – perhaps with even more difficulty in the small things.
There is a good example of what this means in front of us.2 In his sculpture ‘Kingdom Tree’, David Moore has included in the upper hollow of a tree that grows from the mustard seed (echoing Jesus’ famous parable) a vision of the circle dance of heaven with contemporary and biblical characters. Moore writes: “The first figure to be carved was the man on crutches – Michael Sheridan, a homeless man – and about the most unpleasant person I have ever met. If there is no room for Michael, there is no room for any of us!”
This is precisely and starkly what the Gospel is about. There is suffering, there is unpleasantness. They are part of the fabric that constitutes the freedom and the terror of life. Without one we could not have the other. But they are to be embraced in love, however difficult that is, not shunned. This is not romanticism. It is hope. And as both the Apostle and the Sculptor know, it comes at a great cost. But it is the only hope worth having. The alternative, you see, is that we expel the pain, remove the Michael Sheridans from our midst – try and make them go away, just as we are doing with refugees and asylum seekers at the moment. But the agony is still there, it cannot be excised without an annihilation that also annihilates us. It can only be transformed. That is what salvation in Christ means. All else is death and illusion.
In the wonderful diversity of God’s economy of love this point has often been comprehended more readily by artists than by theologians; and by those on the edges of belief than by those fully in its grasp. One of the most moving moments I have ever witnessed was the last ever television interview with the playwright Dennis Potter. Taking gulps of liquid painkiller just to keep going he was asked about confronting death and about faith. He talked of how, to his immense surprise, the sheer vibrancy and colour of life shone through in the face of its extinction. How the simplicity of a blossom tree seemed almost overwhelming. As for faith, he still wasn’t sure. He disliked institutional beliefs. But he felt something had grasped him in his life and wasn’t letting him go. And besides, he added (and here’s the rub), “I’ve always thought that religion is the wound, not the bandage.”
… Now there’s a thought that puts World Cup hopes into perspective. “I’ve always thought that religion is the wound, not the bandage …”
Take that puzzling idea and bring it to this extraordinary painting by Lee-Elliott. What do you see first? Most of us, I imagine, find our eye drawn immediately to that black gash across the centre. And it doesn’t matter how long you look, it won’t go away. It is a gaping wound scarring the yellow, sun-like background. It is the wound which is at once a tree, a cross and a tortured figure. Christ is the wound. He certainly isn’t a bandage. There is no bandage here, just a huge weald across life, touched by pieces of barbed wire. Yet as you look further, more perspective develops. The wound is not only about death. Indeed this picture emerged out of the artist’s life-long interest in what he called ‘the living tree’. Moreover, its darkness is also woven into that luminous yellow background, where it is strangely lovely. And behind the facelessness of the crucified you can just detect, I think, the mysterious possibility – I put it no stronger than that – of a face. It is an echo of the divine promise that “all shall have faces”, perhaps ones as permanently full of character and life as those fleetingly portrayed by Charlie Taylor.3
Lee-Elliott’s painting is beautiful, it is disturbing, and it is mysterious. What’s more its tempera and gouache was applied not by a practising Christian but by someone who worked artistically in a way that didn’t draw him to the gathering places of the faithful – but rather into the struggle between life and death in the world. This, of course, is exactly where Christ was. His death resulted from his willingness to embrace the hated other (the Samaritan, the outcast) and from living a life among enemies he refused to kill but instead loved. It is for that reason that his wounds give hope. Not because suffering is good, but because when viewed in the light of Jesus Christ it points towards a risen life that is not captive to the forces of death, but rather seeks transformation. It is the art of hoping against hope – for “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Amen.