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"Work of Art" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 11, 2018

posted Mar 12, 2018, 2:29 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Our reading this morning contains one of the first scripture passages I memorized by heart, “You are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.”  

I came across the verse while reading a Lenten devotion decades ago during a time when I struggled deeply with what it meant to be gay and Christian.  At a time when I was drowning in homophobia, this verse came like a life preserver thrown just to me. “You are God’s work of art.”

The verse, which I repeated even when I didn’t believe it, came as an assurance of love and grace.  No matter what people said, I was God’s work of art. No matter how I felt, I was God’s work of art.  And even if everything felt as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting, I was God’s work of art. And so I held onto that life preserver, reciting it until I memorized its truth.

Now, all these years later, it comes quickly to my mind, still etched on my heart, but I realize all the different messages I hear in this verse.  

At first I focused on the electric words, “You are God’s work of art.”  I think these words electrified the first readers of the letter too, because the letter came in the midst of a large, contentious, and divisive fight in the early church.  Some followers of Jesus thought his message only belonged to Jews; converts would have to become Jewish first before becoming followers of Jesus. Others welcomed Gentiles into the movement of Jesus.  

We largely ignore this conflict when we read the New Testament today; often we only have the voice of those who advocated for the inclusion of Gentiles.  But nonetheless this tension divided friends and families. The Apostle Paul’s greatest friend was Barnabas; they went everywhere together, until Paul started welcoming in the Gentiles.  At that moment, they went their separate ways: Barnabas to remain in Judea and Paul to travel on to Gentile cities like Ephesus and ultimately Rome itself.

Our letter - either written by Paul or one of his followers - addresses Gentile Christians.  The “you” in this letter is not simply people in Ephesus; but the Gentiles who wondered if they really belonged.  The “you” in this letter is all of us who’ve felt excluded and judged, shamed and outcast, on the wrong side of the line or the wall.  “You are God’s work of art.”

One of the challenges of reconciling being gay and Christian centered on the issue of pride.  In the LGBT community, coming out meant proclaiming gay pride. But in the church, pride got cast as sin, a deadly sin in the Catholic faith of my childhood, and the oft-named root of all sin.

But, “You are God’s work of art.”  How can we not take pride in ourselves when God so clearly delights in us?

Christian tradition often lifted up humility as the “correct” virtue.  But I realized the limitations of humility early on. Humility leaves us unable to question tradition; because it whispers in the heart, “Who are you?”  Humility leaves us unable to stand up to bullies; because it whispers, “Who do you think you are?” Humility traps us in destructive relationships; because, “Why would you deserve better?”

Certainly pride can be sinful, but the lack of pride can also be sinful.  I thought of this recently when a female pastor I know said, at the beginning of March, women’s history month, “I’m done apologizing.”  She didn’t mean that she’d never do anything wrong; but too often she found herself rushing to apologize for things she never did, taking responsibility that wasn’t hers, saying “I’m sorry” just to smooth over a rough relationship.  And so instead of apologizing further, she came to claim the pride, “I’m God’s work of art.”

This is the kind of meaning I long found in this verse; a call to be proud of who we are, to know ourselves as God’s treasure.  Each of us - in our beauty and our imperfections - art. Each of us - in our rich diversity, with toned muscles or wrinkles, good hair and no hair, whatever the shape and size, every orientation from sensual to asexual, all of us, all that makes up our personhood, all of it - God’s treasured work of art.

But, as I lived with this verse, I found my heart moving from the opening phrase to the closing one, from “You are God’s work of art” to “created in Christ Jesus for good works prepared beforehand.”

The message “You are God’s work of art” can come as a healing, restorative word.  But, as one Biblical scholar said, this doesn’t mean we stop doing anything, as if “the Christian life simply means relaxing by the swimming pool, sipping drinks with little umbrellas jutting out the top.”  

By no means.  Instead, Paul moves from assurance to action, from promise to purpose, from works of art to work to do.  

As the scholar says: we can think of that work as the “opportunity for us to live out lives we were destined to live.”  And that’s long left me with a question: what’s my purpose? What am I meant to do? Am I living the life God calls me to?  

An old essay by Frederick Buechner shaped my thinking on these questions.  He wrote about the “Journey to Wholeness.”

Buechner observed all the ways the world can wear us down:

The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we are in heaven; when bad things happen, we are in hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar...In other words, we are in constant danger of being, not actors in the drama of our own lives, but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments.

Many of those experiences are the very ones which make us crave the blessing, “You are God’s work of art.”

And there are people who responded to the brokeness and fragmenting pressure of the world with a sense of dignity; certainly Jesus did.  As Buechner explained, “All his life long, wherever Jesus looked he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness - a patchwork of light and dark calling forth in us now our light, now our dark - but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field.”  And elsewhere he explained further, “To be whole, I think, means, among other things, that you see the world whole.” I think he means that you don’t see brokenness; it’s there, undeniably; but that you see beyond brokenness, beneath brokenness, into brokenness; finding that hidden mystery, whole and holy.

Buechner didn’t claim that he had perfected wholeness.  Rather, wholeness was something he sought, not something he had, something he glimpsed in others, not something he grasped fully himself.  But he did see it in some other people; a kind of compelling spirit that set them apart, which even with their human imperfections, felt like wholeness.

I first glimpsed wholeness in my grandfather.  As a child, I listened to him tell lots of stories; he had one for every occasion.  But now, as I look back, I realize that I remember those stories because my grandfather spent so much time talking with me.  He was the one who would get down on the beach to build sandcastles, the one to let me play in his electrical shop, to teach me how to crack walnuts open while telling stories of picking nuts in Texas.

But I also remember how my grandfather responded to me when I came out.  My family and I went through some rough years before things started evening out.  As we got back to normal, I would test the limits. And one of those times was when I showed my parents and grandparents pictures of me in drag.  I left it to them to wonder if this was a one-time thing or a new passion; as I said, I was testing some limits.

My grandfather looked at the pictures of me decked out - my outfit include a faux pearl necklace - and said matter-of-factly, “Nice pearls.”  (This was a much nicer comment then one of my friends, who said, “Well don’t you Barbara Bush.”). It felt to me that my grandfather had said, “I see you, all of you, and however you try to be you, I love you.”  

I think our great work might well be a journey toward wholeness.  To learn to see the world, other people, and ourselves beyond all the brokenness that presses in on us, to see underneath all the fragmentary moments, to find a hidden wholeness.  

And for me this means that I not only need to hear “You are God’s work of art” but I feel called to say to others, “You are God’s work of art.”

Recently, because I continue to sit with this verse, I heard a third meaning in it.  For a long time I thought the author of Ephesians wrote of “God’s work of art” as a reference back to the first creation story, that moment when God the creator decided to make humankind in the divine image.

Many theologians have written about all the implications for humans as the “image of God;” this concept roots ideas of the inherent worth of people, of human dignity.  

Then I started puzzling over the middle of this sentence, “created in Christ Jesus.”  Now of course the author could have meant that Jesus was mystically present at the moment of creation.  But I wonder: perhaps the author meant we were created in the saving work of Jesus. So that this verse looks back to creation and forward to redemption: we were and we shall be God’s work of art.

I like this way of understanding the verse because it changes this life into an experience of God’s creative work in me.  Too often Christianity gets mired into a narrative of purity and purity lost; but what if we experienced it as God’s continual shaping of us, the artist layering depth in the paint, the sculptor chiseling away.  What would it mean to see those hardships we all face, the challenges that rock us to our core, as part of the process of becoming God’s amazing works of art? Was this why Paul said, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”?

I know this: I’m going to keep holding close in my heart this word of God, “You are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.”  May you keep that word in your hearts and share it with all you meet. Amen.


In addition to Feasting on the Word and The New Interpreter's Bible, I consulted:

  • Buechner, Frederick, “Journey toward Wholeness,” Journal of Theology, 1993.