[The following is the written version of a meditation that I gave at Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Hyattsville, Md on Sunday February 20, 2011. The scripture passages referenced are from the Bible and include Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48, and Psalm 119:33-40.]
One of my family’s favorite stories to tell about me from when I was little is about the time my mother took me to a store with her and as she was walking around she began to come across small random objects from our home in a trail on the floor behind me – upon further investigation she found that I had stuffed my diaper full of whatever I could get my hands on at home – including building blocks, toy cars and trucks and potatoes – yes I did say potatoes – and these items were now finding their way out of my diaper and onto the floor of the store and humoring and probably a little bit infuriating my mother who now had to pick up the trail I had created. I just wanted to have pockets like the adults around me and I was making use of the closest thing I could find! This small action was so unexpected that the memory of it has become a permanent fixture in the collection of my life’s story.
A life’s story is made up of all sorts of experiences – some more entertaining and some more educational than others – whatever they are they all come together to make each of us who we are as we find our way along life’s path. My path has led me to an insatiable interest in the connection between theology and the arts. I sometimes find this to be a surprising situation as I was brought up entrenched in the Mennonite community – a community whose history of appreciation for the arts spans the gamut from a refusal to allow pianos into churches, to an almost reverence for the prints and stories found in the Martyrs Mirror, to a slightly fearful apprehension of the theatre, to a rich tradition of handmade quilts and four part harmony, to the wonderful integration of the worship arts here each Sunday at Hyattsville. Yet I find myself grateful for this hodge-podge history – because it’s non-committal to one form of art appreciation has opened me up to an adventure of theological exploration of any and every form of artistic expression. And in particular I can see that the lack of the presence of literal imagery in the church I grew up in imbedded in me an appreciation for the abstract and it is often from abstract works that I glean theological insights and find lively expressions of meaning.
While not specifically abstract – the work of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are certainly not literal and in them is found a unique example of the power of the unexpected. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are a husband & wife collaborative partnership team that have spent their career altering environments with installations that open up new ways of looking at those environments. The works seem to spring up from the landscape they are placed in and draw people’s attention back to what is already present in that environment while also creating an entirely new experience within the space. They generally achieve this effect through the use of fabrics which are wrapped around, suspended over, or constructed into the specifically selected environment for each project.
The most recent project that was brought to life, which you may be aware of was The Gates in New York City in 2005. The Gates was a collection of 7503 gate-type structures that were each 16 feet tall and suspended free-hanging Saffron (most of us would call them orange – but Jeanne-Claude insisted that they were specifically ‘Saffron’ colored) fabric panels which were spread at 12 foot intervals from each other across 23 miles of walkway in New York’s Central Park. This installation, like all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works was temporary in nature lasting 16 days after which the gates were removed and the materials recycled.
Prior to the Gates the Artists’ installations included such projects as:
Valley Curtain – a 1,250 foot wide orange curtain that spanned Rifle Gap in Colorado
Running Fence – a white fabric fence that ran 24 ½ miles from the pacific coast inland through Sonoma and Marin counties in California
Along with these were many other projects consisting of the wrapping of various landscapes and objects including the coast of Little Bay Australia (yes, they physically wrapped the coast line rocks, sand and all), The Pont Neuf Bridge in Paris, The entire Reichstag Art museum in Berlin and a grouping of 178 trees in a park in Switzerland.
I think you can get a sense from this brief overview of the enormity of the work of these artists – they actually take over the environment in which their works are located. The Frequently Asked Questions section about their work on the artists website ChristoJeanClaude.net describes that the works don’t just alter the environment they are in, the works are themselves
“entire environments, whether they are urban or rural. The artists temporarily use one part of the environment. In doing so, we see and perceive the whole environment with new eyes and a new consciousness.
The effect is astounding. To be in the presence of one of these artworks is to have your reality rocked. You see things you have never seen before. You also get to see the fabric manifest things that cannot usually be seen, like the wind blowing, or the sun reflecting in ways it had not before.
The effect lasts longer than the actual work of art. Years after every physical trace has been removed and the materials recycled, original visitors can still see and feel them in their minds when they return to the sites of the artworks.”
These unexpected manifestations leave an indelible imprint – on the memory of the landscape that they are a part of and in the lives of those who have witnessed the work of art – directly for those who are fortunate enough to get a chance to view one of these installations live and in person – and indirectly as the works continue to awaken the interest of those who encounter the art after the fact through the images and impressions of the experience recorded and shared by first hand witnesses of the works. These recordings allow the rest of us to engage in envisioning for ourselves what it would have been like to stand in the presence of such a creation.
These are the kinds of imprints that come from an encounter with the unexpected – they are rich and multi-layered – and the impact of the encounter continues to ripple outward through the stories and memories of the original encounter. These are the kind of perspective changing outcomes that stem from the unexpected actions suggested in Matthew 5 – turning the other cheek, walking a second mile, willingly handing over more than your settlement amount in a law suit – not to mention loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute. These are counter cultural actions that fly in the face of the ideals of entitlement and revenge prevalent in human cultures. When we choose to be counter cultural and take the unexpected action we leave an imprint on those around us who are impacted by and witnesses to such actions; and, like the landscapes of a Christo and Jeanne-Claude work of art, we too are changed from within each time we chose to walk in God’s way in the world.
Now these ideas from Matthew have been around for a long time – and have often been a fairly high priority on the teaching front for the Mennonite Church – so the ideas may seem old hat and very expected to us – and in fact they were not even new ideas when Jesus expressed them during the Sermon on the Mount – the heart of the matter is present in the Leviticus 19 text that was read this morning where God instructs the people of Israel to not reap to the very edge of their lands and to not strip their vineyards bare – but instead to leave remnants for the poor and the alien, and to be a community that honors truth, justice, and love. Even as familiar as the ideas behind these actions may be - the impact of actually choosing to live out such responses in the world is still unexpected and powerful.
Take for example the impact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates in New York City in 2005. At a memorial service honoring the late Jeanne-Claude last year Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed the following sentiment of renewal brought about by the installation - When the Gates unfurled in NYC in Feb of 2005 – “the following day the Gates was on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the world and that was important to us because for one of the first times since 9/11 all eyes were on NYC not because of something violent or terrible but because we were holding a massive celebration of life, color and the creative spirit.” The simple presence of the art was able to take a space, breathe life into it and reclaim it in an unexpected way.
Unexpected – like God’s wisdom in our world – a wisdom that at times seems upside down and confusing to our human understandings – it is a wisdom that, as it says in verse 45 of Matthew 5, makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. God interacts with and care-takes for us all with unexpected justice and a holiness that we are called to emulate and embody – In Leviticus God says through Moses - ‘Be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy’ – a sentiment that is echoed in Matthew – ‘Be Perfect, just as God in Heaven is Perfect’. Yet, how are we to grasp and emulate God’s holiness when the nature of God’s wisdom so often pushes us beyond our instinctual understandings of what holiness may be?
Fortunately, we are not left to our own devices on that front - God offers us presence and guidance and life gives us role models of holy living whose witness of living a life in connection with God can awaken in us the desire to actively seek out God’s presence so that we too can encounter the Holy first hand. And if this proves to be a daunting task - the psalmist reminds us that we can always ask for God’s assistance…teach me the way of your statutes – give me understanding –turn my heart to your decrees – give me life in your ways. We are not alone on this journey and we are well grounded in the grace of God as I Corinthians 3:10 reminds us that a foundation has been laid and that each builder must choose with care how to build on it. Our understanding of God’s holiness grows through a choice to actively engage in learning and living out God’s unexpected wisdom as we build our lives.
And just as a life story is built up over years of encounters and experiences – learning to live out God’s ways in the world takes time and is a constant ebb and flow. Sometimes we make great strides in our understandings and actions and we walk closely with a sense of the holy – and then there are times when it seems we can not envision God’s presence in our world at all. But there is inspiration to carry on found in the artistic process of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works – The project for the Gates was started in 1979 and was not brought to completion until 2005. And the current active project (which Christo is continuing to pursue even after the loss of his partner in work and life) is entitled Over the River (a project for the Arkansas River in Colorado) was begun in 1992 and there were public hearings and commentary just this last fall with a decision for public permits still forthcoming in April of this year. Each of their projects involves the intricacies of planning and the complexities of politics and yet, in spite of the years of work and preparation, when it finally comes to fruition – the effect, like a life lived in search of God, is astounding, fresh and unexpected.