Art Appreciation

The First United Presbyterian Church
“Art Appreciation”
Rev. Amy Morgan
February 2, 2020

Micah 6:1-8
Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.
 2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
 3 "O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
 4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
 5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD."
 6 "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Those who vary their brushstrokes and experiment with color shall paint water lilies. Those who paint the same scene at different times of day will create Impressionist landscapes. Those who experiment with color and composition and break all the rules will find their works of art on display at the Denver Museum of Art.

This would be an absurd approach to the works of Claude Monet: relating to his paintings as prescriptions for Impressionism and fame; assuming that it would even be possible to replicate his genius and his success. It would be silly to walk through galleries of masterpieces looking to derive a formula for creating works of art of that stature.
Not that one wouldn’t want to learn from the techniques and methods Monet used. Not that it isn’t useful to study his successes and admire his courage. But if that is the whole of what we bring to our experience of Monet’s paintings, we would be entirely missing the point.

One art historian noted that “Monet sees the world different from the rest of the world.” He took stacks of wheat, and painted them 15 times, in different seasons and different times of day, and from different angles, so that we could see them as more that blobs in the middle of a field, something not worthy of our attention. Monet allowed us to see stacks of wheat as something sublime, eternal.

Monet’s paintings are meant to evoke an emotional response. They are a perspective on the world. They are a reflection of the truth of his experience.

We often approach the Beatitudes, the blessings Jesus pronounces upon certain groups of people, as though they are prescriptions for living as a follower of Jesus or growing in our faith. If we want to paint like Monet, we must use flicks and flecks of color. If we want to lower our blood pressure, we should take a pill. And if we want to follow Jesus, we should be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, merciful, persecuted, and so on.

There are two problems with this prescriptive approach, as I see it. First, there is the logical concern that this prescription includes a number of things over which we have no control. Poverty of spirit is not exactly something we can aspire to or acquire by our efforts and willpower. We can’t just decide to mourn, whether we have reason to or not. And it seems strange that Jesus would ask us to find something to be mournful about if nothing seems immediately tragic. And I also sincerely doubt Jesus was encouraging his followers to seek out persecution and abuse for his sake.

These are just things that happen to us, states of being or situations in which we find ourselves. They are not, for the most part, prescriptions we can follow.

The other problem with this approach is that it causes us to miss the true beauty of these Beatitudes. Like a piece of fine art, the Beatitudes deserve our appreciation not our aspiration. I went to see the Monet exhibit so I could appreciate his genius, not so I could aspire to replicate it. The Beatitudes, like the Water Lilies, deserve to be studied deeply and experienced emotionally. They invite us to view them from different angles. We can see them from the perspective of the meek or the viewpoint of the powerful; we can appreciate how the mournful would understand them differently from the glad; we can notice how they impact the peacemakers differently from the warmongers. The Beatitudes, like a piece of art, or music, or film, or other artistic expression, might be interpreted differently at different points in our lives.

If we reduce the Beatitudes to simple prescriptions for a healthier spiritual life, we will miss their nuance, their evolving meaning, their awe-inspiring revelations. The Beatitudes were never intended to be a regimen to make you a better Christian or 12 easy steps to heaven. They aren’t prescriptive. Instead, they are descriptive. Or, perhaps they, like Monet’s paintings, are reflective, or even, as the director of the Denver Museum of art put it, “atmospheric.”

They describe and reflect the atmosphere of God’s coming reign on earth. Jesus can see this landscape that began with creation and will continue until the new creation is complete. But his newly minted disciples are not yet able to perceive this grand and glorious vision.
At this early stage in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples have been traveling around with Jesus, who is drawing crowds from hundreds of miles around. He is healing every disease and pain - ailments attributed to demons, people suffering from epilepsy, even those who are paralyzed are restored to life and community. He’s a miracle-worker, a faith-healer. It’s easy to understand why so many people are flocking to him. It’s the same reason 6 million people travel to Lourdes each year. They are looking for healing, for hope, for the impossible to become possible.

And it would be easy for the disciples to feel like this is the whole point of Jesus’ ministry. It would be awesome to be a part of the road crew for the miracle man. It would be even better if he could tell them how to do what he does. At this point, they are likely looking for the prescription that will allow them to create what he has created – life, and healing and hope, not to mention fame and power and adoration.  

But then right in the middle of the miracle show, Jesus heads up a mountain, away from the crowds. And the disciples follow. Like good disciples.

Jesus sits down and begins to teach them. This is the first thing he teaches his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. Before turning the other cheek, before loving your enemy, before you can’t serve two masters. The first thing Jesus teaches his disciples is how to appreciate the reign of God that he is proclaiming and inaugurating. Not how to do anything or be anything. Just how to see and interpret and rejoice.

The point, you see, is not the miracles. The point is not relief from pain and suffering. Those who were healed at some point suffered in other ways, they died of other maladies. Jesus didn’t exempt them from suffering. He provided healing and restoration that demonstrated God’s grace and power, compassion and love. The miracles were part of the landscape, but they weren’t the whole picture.

Jesus has the disciples step back – from both the pain and the healing – to get a different perspective. To appreciate the view from a distance. To see the true beauty and genius of God’s work.

Like the way Monet made us see the peaches and ochre and green of snow, Jesus helps the disciples understand that we are missing the colors, the beauty, the blessing, of many people in our community.

The poor in spirit – those who are despairing, hopeless, faithless: look again, in a different light, in a different season. They reflect the kingdom of heaven. They know they don’t have the spiritual riches to buy their way into the heart of God. So they are going to be the first ones to realize that nobody can.

Those who mourn – those who can’t pull themselves together, snap out of it, move on: look again. They reflect the love and support and comfort of their community. They haven’t isolated themselves by having it all together or pretending everything is fine. They have a community that will hold them for as long as it takes for the gaping wounds of their pain to transform into scars of love.

And the meek – those gentle, humble, lowly doormats of the human race: look again. They reflect unimaginable riches. They’ve experienced the wealth of not having to cling to power and privilege and prestige. They experience the earth as an inheritance, a gift, something passed down and given to them, not a commodity or an entitlement.  

Look again, and again, from different angles, in different seasons. Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for right relationship with God and neighbor and creation, they are stuffed with the goodness that is a natural by-product of that desire. The merciful – those who forgive and show compassion and kindness – all those things will be reflected back to them. The pure in heart – those who haven’t clogged their spiritual arteries with the gunk of greed and cynicism and self-promotion – they will be able to see God and live! The peacemakers – those who make themselves vulnerable in the midst of conflict – will be named as the children of God that they so clearly are. Those who are persecuted for trying to live right and live well in this complicated and upside-down world – they, too, will have ownership in the kingdom of heaven.

And you. You, says Jesus to his disciples. You will not have an easy go of it. It isn’t all rock-star faith healings and hauling in miraculous catches of people. There is insult and injury, abuse and false accusations on the road ahead. Following Jesus is not about exemption from pain and suffering.

But look again. You reflect the prophets before you. They were treated like scum. And today, their words are immortal. Their names will never be forgotten.

These groups of people Jesus blesses are like Monet’s stacks of wheat. In blessing them, Jesus urges us to look at them, again and again, in different seasons, in different light, from different angles.

When we step back and view the masterpiece of God’s reign, our task is not to figure out how to replicate it. It is to see it and appreciate it and perhaps be so overwhelmed and moved by it that we live differently in the world, if only a little bit, if only for a little while.
And perhaps to try, in what rude ways we can, to describe or reflect it to others. This incredible reality where the marginalized, the oppressed, the broken, the vulnerable – are blessed. A reality where the pain and tragedy, the injustice and oppression, the bad luck and unfortunate circumstances of your life do not define your blessedness, and they don’t define your rank in the reign of God. A reality where you are not the sum of what has happened to you, the damage and abuse you may have experienced. A reality where you are beloved and blessed. And a reality where others are not victims or problems to be solved but are equally beloved and blessed, no matter their circumstance or situation in life.

That is a beautiful reality, if you ask me. That’s a masterpiece I’d love to gaze at again and again.

Folks, we do so much at this church. We work so hard. We do so many great things to follow Jesus, to be his hands and feet here in Loveland, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We heard about many of those things at last week’s annual meeting. And I know that some of you found it energizing, and others found it exhausting.

And so I think we need to be reminded that following Jesus isn’t only and always about the things we do – our activities and aspirations, our methods and techniques, our output and production. The first thing we’re called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ is look. And look again. See the reign of God that is already reflected around us. See that the despairing, mournful, meek, vulnerable, oppressed neighbors we seek to bless with our service and love are already immeasurably blessed and beloved in the kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bless and serve them. It just means that their blessedness doesn’t depend on us. And our blessedness doesn’t depend on us. Jesus has already blessed them, and us, and all those who are in need of blessing.

Monet became famous for exploring the relationship between the tangible and the reflective world. We’ve got the tangibles down. There are plenty of wheat stack people sitting like blobs in our midst. The question is not what we do with them. The question is how we see them. How do we reflect their beauty, their blessedness?

Monet saw the world differently from the rest of humanity. And so did Jesus. And thanks to their different ways of seeing the world, we can see differently, too. We may not paint like Monet or live like Jesus, but we can see the wheat stacks, we can know that they are blessed.
Thanks be to God. Amen.


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