In early June, I found myself at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC with the happy gift of four hours to explore it on my own. At one point, I came into a room of Pop Art from the 1960s. There were seven large canvases on the wall and a bench in the middle. I sat on the bench and just stayed there for half an hour. I took in the art, but I also took in the other people coming and going from the gallery and their encounters with the art. A dancer came in with someone (her mom?) and had her photo taken with one large canvas. Lots of parents used the colorful artwork as a backdrop for photos of their children. Most people only really looked at one or two pieces in the room They rarely stayed there for more than a minute before moving on.
Three teenage boys walked in together, made a circle around the bench where I was sitting, and without changing their pace, they left as one of them was saying, “OK. Let’s go. I don’t know what this is.”
In contrast to this were the small children. Several school groups came through, and each time, the children were filled with joy and energy and wanted to linger with the art. They pulled one another to various canvases, saying “Look at this!” But their chaperones corralled them and rushed them out, no doubt on a tight schedule.
Those children were on to something — something sacred. Art enlivens, connects, challenges, and reorients us. Let the school bus wait while we stand in the presence of a huge canvas of pop art. Let this piece question us, challenge our assumptions about what’s possible and what’s not, and awaken in us a God-given gift for blessing the world. That’s why Jesus speaks in parables.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. That is first-century pop art.
All through scripture, the emptiness and false peace of empire is undercut with the most radical, powerful weapon in our spiritual armor: poetry. Scripture tries to give voice to the groaning of the Spirit which is too deep for words not in statistics or ideology or vulgar swear words but in poetic visions, art, metaphor.
God is a rock that keeps us out of the swirling waters. The kingdom is like a table where all are well nourished and honored in the face of their enemies. The work of doing justice will feel like water rolling down. The kingdom coming will seems like the dawn from on high breaking upon us. We will know we are onto something good when our tiny community grows into a scruffy, diverse, but very capable parish filled with people we never thought we’d relate to or need, live a mustard bush.
All of this challenges the forces of empire. What is empire? Here is today’s Boston Globe. Read it and you will learn about empire: forces of totality that turn people into utilities, that demand unswerving conformity and loyalty and have no interest in the beautiful particularity of individual lives. Empire consolidates power into the hands of the few, serving itself rather than extending loving-kindness to all.
Empire is the “communications director” of a branch of government “communicating” through threat, slander, and vulgarity to cultivate allegiance and fear. Empire is trading the human rights of transgender persons for a few votes to protect funding for a wall designed to separate people. The most common responses to empire, wherever it emerges and whatever the official ideology propping it up are two: (1) denial – pretending it’s not happening, and (2) despair – not being able to imagine anything other than the oppression and limited horizon we know.
Many people I know are having a hard to reading or listening to the news these days. It’s just so bad. Empire is disheartening. How do we cultivate hope now?
Today’s gospel is a mosaic of images, artwork, meant to point the way to hope.
Hope is a tenacious act of imagination given in dream, narrative, song, art, rooted in the authority of the divine purpose of love. “Hope is given in an imaginative way because it is out beyond what we know.” It is poetic, rather than absolute because we are called to make it real and particular using our real and particular gifts and adding our own beauty as co-conspirators with God. (Walter Brueggemann, “Reality, Grief, Hope,” 2014).
The kingdom of heaven is not a place we go to after we die (although it does extend into our life beyond this life). It is a web of relationships within us, between us, and with our God in which everyone thrives and experiences loving-kindness. In the kingdom of heaven, everyone – the child, the immigrant, the transgender person – everyone is honored and seated at the table and, beyond that, known and invited into the community not just as part of a category of people but in the particularity of who they are. As people of faith, followers of a loving God, we are called to live into this vision, to help kingdom come. We need our imagination.
An important note: Imagination is not illusion. It is not just a consolation. “It is deep realism about our circumstances in which we …practice our faith in God” (Brueggeman). The way of empire is not working. The anxiety and fear swirling around us and within us are realistic reactions to trying to make our way in empire. The way of self-giving love in partnership with the God who gave himself for us for love’s sake is the way of freedom and joy.
The images, ritual, poetry, metaphor of our faith is not a backdrop for us to have our picture taken with or a quick pitstop on our way back to the bus. Of course our reaction to Jesus’s images of the kingdom is, at first, like the teenagers in the gallery. “OK. Let’s go. I don’t know what this is.” It’s the small children who’ve got it: rejoice, linger, pull your friend over and say “Look at this!”
To find this treasure hidden in a field we need to sit down and stay a while. Dwell in it. We might do this through practices like contemplative prayer. This could be as simple as taking one of the images of the kingdom of heaven from today’s gospel and praying with it all week. Letting it sink into us, maybe painting or writing our own poem about it, wondering about it as we do the dishes or walk along Mt. Auburn St.
We might take a steely-eyed look at how we use our time and think about making more time for connecting with others. Get involved with a group that is working to defend human rights or defend those on the margins who are most vulnerable to forces of empire. Maybe making more time for art and poetry and other creative pursuits that water your soul and give you access to deep feelings.
When I left for my sabbatical, I intended to read a lot of theology. But rather than pick a bibliography ahead of time, I let myself decide each Sunday what I would read for that week. As my sabbatical continued, what I found was that I was gravitating towards books about art, creativity, and people who had continued Jesus’ practise of lobbing parables into the world to orient others and themselves — people like Michaelangelo, Leonard Bernstein, Albert Einstein, Bridget Riley, and Bruce Springsteen. These people also faced empire; they rejected denial and despair. They pointed the way to the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is our inheritance as sons and daughters of a loving creator. It is God’s intention of all of creation. Let us join with all those throughout history who have engaged in the tenacious act of imagination that is hope, knowing that God is with us and in us and beside us always.
Artwork featured here is “Beta Kappa,” by Morris Louis. This is one of the pieces in the gallery where I sat at the National Gallery of Art.