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May 27, 2018

“Awkward Silence Inside the Art Gallery of the Bible”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden


>>Open our eyes that we might see wondrous things in your word, Amen.<<

Today we continue our three-week series on the order of our worship service.  Last week we looked at the “Gathering” part of the service.  Today we explore the “Listening” part – the “word” part of the service:  the word we hear in scripture, the word preached during the children’s time and from the pulpit, and the word sung by the choir during the Anthem.  This is the “Bible” part of our Sunday morning service – the center of the service that we gather to hear, respond to and then depart to go out and live.  The Bible is our “word,” but it’s a curated word – its contents were selected and arranged, like a collection of art in a gallery exhibit.

In the summer of 2012, some of Pablo Picasso’s artwork was on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario – the AGO – in Toronto.  I went with my family to see it.  You needed a special pass to enter the exhibit; and a security guard made you check all your bags at the door.  My kids were too young at the time to appreciate what they were seeing, but were pacified when we, their parents who wanted to spend time savoring the moment, promised them ice cream if they behaved themselves.  The Picasso collection included Man with a Guitar from 1911, The Kiss from 1925, Violin from 1915, a 1906 self portrait, World War II era sculptures (Bull’s Head, Death’s Head, The Goat), and a host of other pieces.  It was worth waiting in the winding lines to get in; and the glossy brochure handed to us at the door, provided a wealth of background information on each piece.  My kids got their ice cream afterword, and all in all, it was a good day.

But I was a bit unsettled after leaving the exhibit.  I knew going in that some of Picasso’s most well-known paintings would not be on display, but I still craved to see them.  Guernica, for example, from 1937.  Perhaps the most famous anti-war painting in history – a tapestry copy of which, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1955, hangs in the U.N.  Guernica hasn’t been in North America since 1981 when it was transferred from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Madrid.  At nearly 26 feet long and 11 feet tall, Guernica is a bear to move, and probably won’t make another trip across the Atlantic from Spain, but when I think of Picasso, I think of that painting.  Another painting I would love to have seen is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907, called by some art historians the most important painting of the twentieth century.[1]  Controversial when it first appeared – as it depicts women in a brothel – it is iconic.  The AGO exhibit had “studies” for that 1907 painting, but not the painting itself.  Alas, as those great philosophers The Rolling Stones say, “you can’t always get what you want.”  The 2012 AGO exhibit was wonderful and historic, full of history, inspiring, disturbing, perplexing, captivating – all the things one associates with a well-curated collection.  But it didn’t have everything I wanted.

That experience led me to reflect on another curated collection:  the Bible, the “word,” “scripture,” the sacred text we read week to week, and is the focal point of our Sunday service.  The twenty-seven books of our New Testament were first “officially” curated in an encyclical written by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in 367 CE.  The encyclicals were Festal Letters sent from the city of Alexandria – famous for its school of astronomy – to churches throughout the Roman Empire, and set the date for Easter each year.  In the 39th Festal Letter, Athanasius listed the twenty-seven New Testament books, calling them the “fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the words they contain.”[2]  This curated collection became scripture in our tradition, even though Christians continued to argue over its contents for many years – the Syrian churches didn’t include the Book of Revelation in their Bible until the 10th century; Protestant Reformer Martin Luther in the 16th century questioned whether the Letter of James should be included in the Bible at all.  And some of us today – while strolling through the art gallery of the Bible – might wonder why this or that piece was included.  Or, as with my experience of the Picasso exhibit at the AGO, we might wonder why a particular piece was excluded from the collection – a piece like the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Mary, or the Acts of Paul, or the Acts of Peter, or the dozens of other pieces produced by early Christians “artists” that didn’t make the cut, so to speak.

Much of our tradition has been curated for us.  The order of books in the Old Testament is a Christian order that differs from the order of books in the Hebrew Bible used in the Jewish tradition.  The gospel writers were curators of the life of Jesus:  collecting and organizing his words and deeds.  Hymnbooks are curated collections, and sometimes leave us scratching our heads about why one hymn was included while another was excluded, or why an included hymn was set to an unfamiliar tune.  The Revised Common Lectionary is a curated collection of scripture readings that repeats every three years.  I frequently puzzle over why such and such a passage was included while another was excluded, or why this or that Psalm was paired with this or that gospel reading.  (And I usually end up curating the curated Lectionary when preparing Sunday’s scripture readings.)

And, actually, if you think about it, many features of culture are curated for us.  There’s the 100 best films according to BuzzFeed, or the 100 best metal bands according to Rolling Stone Magazine, or the 100 best rap songs according to Billboard the online magazine, or the 100 best poets according to the website Poetry Soup, or the 100 best novels according to the website Modern Library; but, since novelists write in many languages, other curated collections, like that of The Guardian newspaper, specify – the 100 best novels written in English.  US News and World Reports annually publishes curated lists of the 50 best universities in the world, the country’s top law schools or business schools, the best Arts and Sciences programs.  Syllabi for college and graduate courses have curated reading lists.  There’s heated debate over what to include in the canon of great literature.  The world of fashion is a curated world – trending styles, must-wear colors, must-have men’s ties.  Type in the name of a favorite band or musician on the Apple Music app, and an album will appear called “Essentials”:  Radiohead Essentials; Neil Young Essentials; Antonio Vivaldi Essentials.  Who makes all these decisions?

Today’s two scripture readings are, for me, reminders that the Bible continues to be curated.  Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 6 is a well-known and well-worn text that especially resonates with clergy who feel a sense of call on their lives.  Isaiah 6 is the prophet Isaiah’s call text – the moment when he encounters God in mighty way, and feels compelled to preach to the people.  According to the story, Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple when the mere hem of God’s robe drooped down to fill the space, causing the entire structure to shake and quake.  Isaiah sees angels – Seraphim, they’re called – which terrify him; and he comes undone at the sights and sounds, as if the seams of his flesh are about to burst, because human flesh is simply inadequate to process this spiritual encounter – a bit like St. Paul’s vision of heaven, where he, according to his letters, encountered things that human speech could only grope to describe.  Following Isaiah’s vision in the story, there is a divine voice that asks, “Who will go [and preach to the people]?”  And Isaiah leaps up to volunteer.  “Here I am,” he says eagerly, “send me!”  The lectionary curates the passage, ending the reading here.  And, many clergy who feel a powerful sense of call – a sense of call like Isaiah – will curate the text, treating this part of the story as their “call” story.  But the rest of Isaiah 6 – the portion that follows the curated version, the part we didn’t hear this morning – might give us pause.  After Isaiah eagerly volunteers to preach, the story continues with God informing the prophet about the content of his message:  “Go and tell the people,” says God, you will hear but not understand; you will see but not perceive; your message, Isaiah, will shut people’s eyes and close their ears and harden their hearts, and will prevent listeners from understanding and being healed.  In short, the success of Isaiah’s message will be measured in how much he fails to convince his listeners.  It’s why I never wanted this to be my call story!

Today’s New Testament reading from John ch. 3 is another example of a text that continues to be curated.  The story tells of a conversation between Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus.  Readers of the story often find themselves slogging through the dense dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus – the confusion over being born from above or born anew, being born of water and spirit, the wind blowing where it wills, the testimony about heavenly matters instead of earthly ones – slogging through this murky dialogue to land safely on the solid and familiar terrain of John 3:16 – one of the Bible’s most oft-quoted verses:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  It’s the verse we sometimes see on placards at football games, or on people’s bumper stickers or yard signs.  It’s memorable and catchy – an easy verse to cull from the thick brush blanketing the rest of the chapter to join a curated collection of favorite Bible verses.

But what’s interesting to me as I stroll through the gallery of John ch. 3 – slog through the thick prose – is that Jesus keeps pushing Nicodemus to see more – to see more deeply, to look more carefully, to be open to something new.  Nicodemus approaches Jesus seeking answers.  “No one can do what you do unless God is with them,” he says to Jesus, and presses him to know more.  Jesus responds not with a clearly worded answer, but with poetic, symbolic language – the language of art – that shoves Nicodemus out of his comfort zone:  “You cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless you’re born from above, born anew,” replies Jesus – a phrase, like a piece of art, that perplexes and raises more questions.  “How can this be?,” asks Nicodemus, demanding clarity.  The point, says Jesus, is not to understand, but to keep seeking, to be open, to be transformed, like when you encounter a painting that’s difficult to describe but leaves a permanent impression.  Jesus calls it being “born of the spirit.”  This is the challenge we face whenever we stroll through a curated collection – whether in a gallery or in scripture:  the challenge of opening our restless, critical minds to something deeper, some new encounter, new impression, new way of perceiving.  It’s why I liken scripture to art.  Scripture is not a textbook; it’s an experience.  It’s why we pause in the middle of our service to listen – to open ourselves to something new, a new way of perceiving, a spiritual way of perceiving that occasionally answers our questions, but often challenges us to keep asking.  It’s a moment in our Sunday morning service when we pause in silence to open our ears and listen for that quiet voice of God that gently nudges us.

Let me close this morning with two, different stories.  The first is about silence, and appeared in The New York Times Magazine back in February.[3]  The story is about John Francis.  He “woke up on his 27th birthday in 1973 and decided not to speak for the day.  He found he liked not talking, so extended his vow of silence for a year. … In the end, [Francis, an environmental activist] didn’t speak for 17 years.  ‘I kept feeling I had more to explore,’ he says. … ‘A big part of being silent is being the recipient, not the broadcaster,’ [he says.] … A couple of times, he inadvertently said something [during those 17 years of silence], including ‘excuse me’ after bumping into a woman in a grocery store.  Once, after 10 years of silence, [he] gave himself an hour to call his worried parents before he set off alone to walk across the United States, a mute, African-American man with a banjo. … [S]ilence should be an experience, … he says. … Francis learned some sign language over those 17 years but also got quite good at miming and using nonverbal cues if he needed to communicate.  ‘[I] smile[d] a lot,’ he says, ‘and wave[d].’  He kept a pen and journal handy in case he needed to write something down for someone. … ‘[The silence] helped me find myself,’ says Francis, who within a few silent weeks began to realize that previously he only ever listened to people long enough to start formulating what he was going to say next; but, he says, his mind didn’t need to be filled up with endless chatter. … ‘You’re going to hear more if you’re not talking,’ he says.”

The second story is about a conversation that preacher Billy Graham had with boy in South Carolina.  “Early in his preaching career, Billy Graham led a revival in a South Carolina town.  Before the service started, he wanted to mail a letter.  So he asked a child for directions to the post office.  After the boy had given him directions, Graham said, ‘If you come to Central Baptist Church tonight, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.’  The boy replied, ‘No thanks.  You don’t even know how to get to the post office.’”

…The Bible is not a textbook – it’s not a map with precise instructions.  It’s a curated collection of human experiences of the divine:  some disturbing, some inspiring, some perplexing, some challenging.  A collection we encounter together in that silent moment on Sunday mornings when we listen, and open ourselves to something new.  Amen.


[1] E.g., http://www.nber.org/papers/w12058

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxv.iii.iii.xxv.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/23/magazine/how-to-take-a-vow-of-silence.html