“Art and the Unknown”

June 5, 2016


Galatians 1:11-24


As I said a couple of weeks ago, during these late spring and early summer days, I will be preaching through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I do something like this every now and then. Summer is an especially good time to read through and preach from large chunks of a particular book of the Bible. You might remember that last summer we explored First Samuel and the light that it shed on what was then the early stage of a presidential election cycle that now seems endless.

This is a time-honored Protestant approach to preaching, but sometimes it gets me into trouble.

When I started to work through the Gospel of Luke several years ago, a long-term member came up to me and said: “You’ve got a lot of things you’re going to have to explain.” A series on Matthew showed me once again why I had been avoiding that book for so many years.

And now, here we are with the Letter to the Galatians. One member took my advice when I encouraged you to read through this short letter in its entirety. He came to me saying something like: “Whoa, boy! That was something! What was going on there? Paul certainly was upset.” Well, it is an odd and troubling letter at times. Read it if you dare—and let me know what troubles you about it. We’ll try to work through this letter together. Ultimately we find in it a message of the great hope that we have in God’s love and in what Paul calls “the faith of Christ”—more about that on another Sunday.

Today, I want to consider Paul’s bold statement about the good news that he preached: “I received it through a revelation.” It wasn’t of human origin, Paul says. He didn’t receive it from another human source. He wasn’t taught it. Those words remind me of the old Ozark Mountain Daredevils song that begins: “I didn’t read it in a book, I didn’t see it in a show…” This is knowledge that comes from some other source.

So let’s get into this by first recalling the big event this weekend—the Iowa Arts Festival—you know, the three day event that made the bad parking here even worse, that might have resulted in your getting here a little later than usual this morning. The Iowa Arts Festival puts into three days what happens every day in this community.

We celebrate creation in this city all year long. Iowa City has a thriving music scene. In the many clubs that are our neighbors, new performers are constantly trying out new music. The University has a Center for New Music where the same creative spirit is present—if in a much different context. We are a UNESCO City of Literature—and whether it is down the street at Day House or in a local coffee house, women and men are exploring the world through writing. And, as is on display all over this weekend, visual artists abound as well.

All year long in this city we celebrate the exploration of the unknown:

What hasn’t yet been sculpted, painted;

What hasn’t yet been written, composed, spoken, danced, or played.

Art helps us with the unknown. It lets us look at the world in ways that we hadn’t before. It lets us hear things that we hadn’t heard before. It’s not always pretty or harmonious, or what many would normally call “beautiful.” And it reminds us that the unknown is always still there at the edge of our explorations.

The great Protestant reformer, John Calvin, famously began his Institutes of the Christian Religion by writing: “Nearly all of the wisdom that we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.” But,” he realized, “it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” We can’t know God without knowing ourselves. And we can’t know ourselves without knowing God.

But which comes first? Calvin didn’t wasn’t sure—and who am I to say?

So we seek to know ourselves—never an easy task. And we seek to know God—which is even more difficult than knowing ourselves.

Art helps with both of those endeavors because, as I suggested it’s all about what we don’t know, what we haven’t yet heard or seen.

And then there are the even greater unknowns—other people.

Decades ago, when I was a kid, my family would ride in the car with my father through the countryside and small towns. My father was a usually silent man, but as he drove he often would wonder aloud: “Who lives in those houses? What are their lives like?” Of course, we would never know.

I was reminded of this a few years ago when I first read Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home.

I know I’m not telling many in this congregation anything you don’t already know, but in her earlier novel, Gilead, we are given the opportunity to read an extended letter from the Rev. John Ames to his son. Through this letter we get a glimpse at Ames’ life—his troubled relationship with his brother and father, his father’s even more troubled relationship with his father, Ames’ late in life marriage, and his long and close relationship with Robert Boughton, the other minister in Gilead.

We come to know these people. Or, at least we think we know them.

Then I read Home, and I came to understand that I actually knew so little. All this time, I discovered, things were happening in the house and the life of John Ames’ long-time and close friend, about which Ames had no idea.

Maybe we can know ourselves.

Maybe we can know something of God.

But art reminds us—if we need the reminder—that other people—even those close to us—remain a mystery, a sacred secret.

Defending his gospel as a revelation from God, Paul writes to the Galatians about his own life and calling.

We read the account of this in Acts a few Sundays after Easter. Maybe you remember it.

Paul approved of the stoning of Stephen. He went off “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” And on his was to Damascus he encountered a bright light from heaven. Falling down, he heard a voice asking: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” For three days he could not see and neither ate nor drank.

Pretty dramatic stuff.

And yet, when Paul tells his story to the Galatians, he mentions none of this.

Yes, he does acknowledge that he was, as he says: “violently persecuting the church of God” and “trying to destroy it.”

Writing to the Galatians, Paul echoes the calls of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, saying that like them, he had been set apart from before he was born. He is adamant that it was God alone who was the source of his knowledge of Jesus Christ.

But there’s no mention of a blinding light; no voice from heaven; no suggestion that he was once called “Saul” instead of “Paul.”

The Book of Acts seems to have embellished Paul’s own experience and testimony. Paul’s experience was life-changing, a revelation.

Yet, in spite of what we think we know about Paul’s life, much remains unknown, a sacred secret.

For Paul, however, the important thing is not what happened to him. The important thing is not even his calling.

The important thing is what God has done: God’s ongoing work of creation, setting all people free—and indeed setting all of creation free—by God’s powerful, unmerited love. Again and again in this letter Paul keeps coming back to this freedom that is brought about by God’s creative love.

We reveal much about ourselves to others each day. And others reveal much about themselves. But we remain mysteries to one another as well.

Art helps us live with those mysteries and to know the value of all that we have not yet come to know in ourselves, in one another, in this world, and in God.

We don’t know our neighbor—and so we are called instead to love them. To cherish the creation that they are, to value the image of God that they bear in themselves, to live with them in the freedom that God gives to all of us.

We are helped in those tasks by worship, by prayer, by sharing bread and wine.

And, if we let it, we are helped by art to love what we don’t know.