Audio Sermon: Eternity in a moment

Audio Sermon on Racism at Cornell and Joseph’s witness

This weekend at Cornell, an African-American student was subjected to repeated racial slurs and then attacked violently resulting in hospitalization. In the face of this and the increasingly violent racism in our country, silence is not an option.

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Bearing the Armor of Light

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Sermon at Church of the Epiphany in Trumansburg, NY

The epistle was Romans 13:8-14

 

 

 

Fear and Shame in the Wake of Charlottesville

 

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This was in the background of my sermon 

Artistic Vision Requires Community

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Sudden Illumination

 

This post continues a line from my previous post about seeing the foundation of the Christian community as an act of artistic vision and commitment.

God’s call to new life and creative innovation  always happens in community no matter how much we as individuals experience this creative energy stirring very personally in our own hearts.
So in the crucial story in Acts 10 of God’s calling of the church to open its mission for the first time to the gentiles, both Peter and Cornelius have visions of remarkable power and personal impact that cause radical changes in their ways of seeing the world. What they have seen in their visions is undeniable, and they must act on it, yet, as Luke puts it so wonderfully, they remain “puzzled,’ about what their visions portend.*
Luke makes it very clear that neither actually sees what God’s call is apart from one another and apart from the gathered community. Even Peter and Cornelius meeting alone would not have been enough to clarify things. Though we often think of artists working in isolation, or romanticize art as the lonely call of a ‘genius’ hearing intimate things no one else can hear, the truth is that all art is communal of its essence, as it is about opening the aperture of a community’s heart to new things–it aims to communicate something fundamental about community and its blindnesses: “This is what I see, I don’t know quite what to make of it. What do you see?” If I as an artist see something previously unimaginable, I  work to bring this vision to life in order to have the community help me see what it means, what it intends, for all of us.
Art lives then at the intersection of profound insight and radical unknowing and is an inherently political act when we understand politics in its root meaning as the art of living together in harmonious creative play.
Because vision requires this shared discernment even as we have powerful intimations that God is doing something new and in a unique way with us each as individuals, we must gather and listen together to the word, behold the vision. This is actually the most important reason why the church gathers regularly each week and sometimes more often and why it is simply not possible to be a Christian or a spiritual being apart from some kind of gathered community. We don’t know the communal meaning of what we see otherwise.
What Acts 10 tells us is that we should be careful of defining that artistic spiritual community too narrowly, for God has a way of bursting open doors we didn’t even know were there!
“Then the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the Word.”
* for you philosophy types, the greek word here for puzzled is διαπορέω [diaporeo] a variant of the verb ἀπορέω from which we get the word aporia.

St. Peter’s Artistic Vision: The Spirit of not quite knowing who we are

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Gurdon Brewster’s Jesus and Buddha dancing ecstatically. Are you sure you can tell who is who? St Peter would be proud I think!

“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance ἔκστασις I saw a vision.” –Acts 11:5
We celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul today. To Peter we owe our militant refusal to identify God’s ways with our own. When he insists that we not judge or criticize God’s re-making of our very identities, he becomes the patron saint of all artists.
For art is above all the ‘ecstatic’ science, one that takes visions with ultimate seriousness, even when these visions undermine who we thought we were and where we thought we were going. True art is fearless, seeing possibilities for new life even in the monstrous mixing of categories, identities, and story lines. So Peter took and ate the unclean animals and his spirit was nourished and expanded. It is hard to underestimate the radical nature of Peter’s faithfulness to this vision, one which revolutionized the church’s mission and opened it up to continual revisioning and spiritual leaps of creative and often improbable connection.
His friends who wanted to keep everything in its proper place criticized him (διακρίνω) and insisted on being reasonable above all else–surely a vision by a man literally out of his mind cannot be the basis upon which we are to be reborn? We are who we are, who we always have been, and to suggest otherwise is to be more than ecstatic, it is to be a revolutionary. For some, he was undoubtedly seen as quite beside himself and mad. That’s our Peter, church. Are we so bold as to follow?
Peter insists that the vision he has seen is of God and then he holds relentlessly to the discipline of re-building his life and the life of the community around this vision. It will be hard work, full of mistrust, desires to clarify and codify and delimit what is a whirlwind, a colorful mixing of metaphors, not to mention  families, languages, peoples,  and nations. We will be tempted to cleave to the safe shore of our familiars, but Peter the artist will boldly lead us into the blooming and onto the whirling wheel of life.  “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction (διακρἰνω),” Peter insists.
When we think of that rock of the church,  Peter,  as a spiritual artist then we can begin to see art and artists in a different way.  Artists are not, as is often thought, impulsive dreamers, rogues, or ne’er do wells (well, okay, sometimes they are ;-)) but principled and discipline followers of visions and promptings of the spirit, and they tend to contemplative silence and communities of radical hospitality.  The are protean in their willingness to be re-formed, de-formed, and in-formed by their vision, and so they are often allied with the mystics and the misfits of society. But they are seriously grounded, as Peter was, upon the reality of what they see which is why they align with other scientists in their insistence on being true to what is seen and heard. Artists learn the hard way to either get out of the way of the work or be damned to ugly narcissism.
Contemplative silence is therefore crucial, a prayerful attentiveness in which self-aggrandizing distinctions, premature criticisms, and risk-averse judgments have little place. Vision and discipline together lead to humility and awe before the ways our creator gives us the task of extending the creation in our own lives.
And so we should not be surprised that Peter’s words lead to this outcome:  Hesychia (contemplative silence) and praise. All truly spiritual art begets more of the same.
When they heard this, they were silenced (ἡσυχάζω). And they praised God. —Acts 11:18

Spirituality and the Arts: Why We Need Tragic Drama

This fall Ellen Gainor and I will be teaching Paula Vogel’s remarkable play Indecent in our course at Cornell. Vogel is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and a lesbian feminist of Jewish heritage.
I was struck by her comment in a recent interview when asked if she considered herself a spiritual person and if that affected her work. Vogel responded:
“I don’t think there’s anyone in theatre who doesn’t consider themselves spiritual. I don’t really know any secularists. In terms of spirituality when it comes to theatre, you are dealing with, literally, the undead. Characters are bringing to life the sense of humans that don’t exist. I consider myself extremely spiritual.”
It strikes me more and more that in the kind of death-driven political climate we live in, the spiritual resources of the arts are more necessary than ever. We need life and more life and the courage to explore the depths of human suffering and the joy that can come even in the darkest moments of our lives. Vogel’s play, which I saw when it was still off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, does exactly that.
So too for the Ayad Akhtar play Disgraced currently at the Hangar Theatre here in Ithaca. It was a bold and even dangerous choice by Michael Barakiva and  the Hangar to begin their season with this bracing tragedy, and it certainly stirs up for our attention the many forms of political and religiously inflected violence in the world today. disgraced image
But like all true tragedies, Disgraced does this with a deeply moral, political, and spiritual agenda. Here’s Rowan Williams in his remarkable little book The Tragic Imagination articulating the crucial spiritual and political role well-written tragedies can play:
“In this moment of my watching in the theatre, the only action that is going on is on the stage. I am both free from the necessity to act and bound to be still. I have surrendered this time to the action of others. And that, so Cavell argues, is where the tragic drama becomes transformative of my perception. I am enjoined as a spectator to allow to happen what the tragic agents on stage are struggling not to allow: I am affirming human separateness, the impenetrability of agents to each other, so that my/ our response to suffering is to some degree stripped of the corrupting drama of easy identification with the sufferer, the absorption of the terrible otherness of alien pain into my own story…
…my immobilization in the face of terrible pain has here a contemplative quality; and when tragic liturgy has decayed or disappeared, we are left with a toxic gap in our human repertoire. Once, as audience to a tragic representation, we had a ceremonial ‘doing nothing’ which showed us why we feel helpless in the face of pain and loss— because we are still learning the solidarity that comes out of recognizing the sheer distance between actual human persons, so that our stillness in the face of represented pain becomes a forced acknowledgment of our habits of avoidance and denial and a confrontation of the helplessness in the presence of catastrophe that we regularly experience and avoid reflecting about.
From this experience, we can recover a proper political ethic, we can learn better how and when to act. Without this liturgical moment, the only answer to the question of why we are doing nothing in the face of pain and terror— in the face, say, of constantly reported pain and terror, or pain and terror represented as entertaining anecdote; in the face of newsprint and screen— is that we have chosen to do nothing, a choice that ‘requires the same energy, the same cunning and avoidance, that tragic activity used to have to itself’.
And the implication of this is that a culture without tragic drama, a culture in which the tragic audience has been replaced by the assembly of spectators, is itself exemplifying tragic disaster; it is refusing to know what it knows about humanity, and so is at risk of dying from what it does not know, like any classical tragic protagonist.”
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