“Bread and Roses Revisited” by Deborah Sokolove

 September 1, 2013

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Bread and Roses Revisited
A Sermon for Seekers Church
September 1, 2013, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, year C

As we have just heard, in the first reading for today, God tells Jeremiah to thunder at the people, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?…But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Holy One, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. [excerpted from Jeremiah 2:4-13]

Then, as if to remind the people who are reeling from Jeremiah’s tirade about what God expects from us, Paul reminds us about hospitality, marital fidelity, and generosity, ending with the admonishment to “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess the holy name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” [Hebrews, 13:15-16]

Finally, in the Gospel reading, Luke reports the following instruction from Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” [Luke 14:12-14]

Readings like these are the kind that make me question my calling to be a teacher and practitioner of the arts. It’s not that any of them say that art is bad or frivolous or worthless. Rather, in the images they uphold of what constitutes a life of faith, they seem to tell me that the hours I spend reading, writing, thinking, painting or just, plain woolgathering would be better spent in actively doing good deeds, in direct, immediate service to people who are in need. If I were truly faithful, my inner Jeremiah says, I certainly should not be spending money on a gym membership, but rather should get whatever exercise I need by riding my bicycle wherever I need to go (and probably never just for fun!). My inner Paul tells me that if I am teaching art at all, I should not be teaching seminarians how to think about the relationship between art, culture, and the church, but rather offering art classes in prisons or homeless shelters or inner-city schools. Even Jesus is no comfort, when he tells me to never invite any of you to my house for dinner and instead ask in a bunch of random, unwashed, hungry strangers.

So I spend a lot of time beating myself up over how selfishly I spend my time, especially when I compare myself to what I know that a lot of other Seekers have been doing. Our beloved Kate really did consider her bicycle her primary means of transportation, using her car only when the weather was really bad or the distance too great. I’ve heard Trish talk about offering to share a meal with a homeless person that she regularly passed on her way to the office, and she and Pat continually open their home to a variety of people who cannot afford to live anywhere else. Emily visits with the dementia patients at Goodwin House; Jesse brings comfort to the dying and their families as a hospice chaplain; Jean brings painting and drawing to the men at Christ House every Saturday; Cynthia teaches poetry to the women at N Street Village; and Sandra spends her days helping people who have no homes, no money, no prospects, and her evenings and weekends struggling with issues of racism and institutional poverty. If I listed all the things that Seekers are doing to directly help the kind of people Jesus told us spend our time with, to bring in the reign of God here on earth, we would be here all day.

Meanwhile, I spend my admittedly busy but very privileged work life on a shaded campus in upper Northwest DC, where I cannot remember ever seeing a single homeless person in the twenty years I have been there. I give whatever volunteer energy I have to doing things to organize worship here and helping out with Carroll Cafe. I carefully guard my solitude and relaxation, telling myself that if I get too depleted I will be no good to anyone. Indeed, as the members of my mission groups will tell you, I am feeling more than a little overwhelmed right now. I am already missing the slower pace of summer. Even though the semester has just barely begun, already, my calendar is full of so many meetings, deadlines, and required activities that it took a string of ten emails just to arrange to have lunch with a colleague whose company I really enjoy and who I really need to talk with.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do, even when it seems like there is too much of it. But when the readings for the week tell me that what I should be doing is feeding people who have no food, healing people who are sick, or visiting people in prison, let alone inviting strangers into my home for dinner, I feel like one of those false prophets that Jeremiah accuses of mishandling the teachings of God, forsaking the true fountain of living water and trying to drink out of a dry, cracked cistern.

And yet.

This summer, towards the end of the Guatemala pilgrimage, I went along with some of the other pilgrims to visit the town of San Lucas Toliman, on the banks of Lake Atitlan. As I stood just inside the door of the relatively unadorned nave, one of the other pilgrims said to me how much she enjoyed the simple, pure beauty of the space. Recently, she said, she had been in another Latin American country, and had felt disgusted by the ornate, gilded statues and carvings in some of the churches, lamenting that they had been bought with the offerings of people so poor that they often did not have enough to eat.

I replied that her taste for simplicity – which I share – is an indicator of our relative privilege, of the fact that our problem is often that we have too much, not too little. For us, visual silence is as rare as acoustic silence. We are constantly bombarded with images on billboards, TV, movies, magazines, and computer screen. A room as uncluttered as our Seekers worship space is a rare respite from the visual noise that pervades our North American lives.

For the poor peasants of Central and South America – and many other parts of the world, too – it is different. Their homes are not spare, but empty, with nothing but a few pots and pans hanging on the kitchen walls, only one or two beds for the entire family to sleep on, no more clothing than what they are wearing and maybe one other set so what they are have on today can be washed and dried. Often, there are not even chairs and tables, let alone the kind of decorative objects, pictures, and photographs that we put on our bookshelves and mantlepieces and then bemoan that we have to dust.

In many places, when people who have nothing go to church, they want it to look like heaven. And what does heaven look like? Revelation 21:18-21 describes it like this:

The city wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.

For people whose homes are rough and bare, to see such splendor in church is to be assured that God loves and cares for them. Indeed, before the Reformation, every church building was intended to reflect this kind of glory. Every church building was meant to be a foretaste of heaven, where we are greeted at the door by Jesus and the saints, and the biblical narrative is shown as eternally happening, everything present all at once, on every wall and ceiling and floor.

So, it is probable that the spareness of the church at San Lucas Toliman is not an aesthetic choice, but rather an indicator of the poverty of a congregation that cannot afford to buy the gold to make it look like heaven. As I said this to my fellow pilgrim, I could see her struggling to reconcile this new idea with her dearly held belief that all the gold in that other church should have been used to alleviate some of the terrible, grinding poverty that she had seen. A few hours later, much to my delight and surprise, my new friend shared what I had told her over lunch with some of the other pilgrims who had not been with us in the church. Like her, they struggled to reconcile their commitment to economic justice with the idea that money spent on art in the church is not wasted, but rather helps to give people a vision of something more grand and wonderful than their narrow, everyday lives.

This story about the apparent yet unreal tension between art and justice illuminates one of the central themes in my book, Sanctifying Art: Inviting Conversation between Artists, Theologians, and the Church. As pretty much all of you know, it came off the press while I was in Guatemala. Indeed, some of you have already read it and sent me delightful (and insightful) emails, thanking me for what I wrote. Ken even reviewed it on Amazon, for which I am very grateful. Considering the arguments some of my colleagues have had with publishers over cover designs, I have been astonished and pleased with the look and feel of this, my very first book, as well as with the response so far.

Most of the time, writing comes easily to me – more easily than painting. I enjoy the process of crafting ideas into sentences, of building balanced paragraphs, of finding the inner logic of an argument and following it through to a satisfying conclusion, of discovering the perfect word to convey the exact shade of meaning that I have in mind. It was fun, albeit of a very cerebral sort, to write the first few chapters, in which I examine some of our cultural ideas about the relationship between beauty and art, and what we mean when we say that an artwork is good or bad. But when I was working on the chapter called “Art and the Need of the World,” I found myself in a very dark, very sacred, place. I had moved from the realm of abstract ideas about art into the world of concrete examples, into the place where I was trying to show how necessary the arts are to full human functioning.

In order to do that, I had to draw not only on my scholarly reading and research, but upon my own memories and experiences. Behind the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the Chopin-playing Holocaust survivor, is the story of my mother’s aunts and uncles and cousins, all except two killed in the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland; my grandmother’s stories of escaping a pogrom in Lodz and coming to the US alone at the age of 16; and the tale my father told me about his father, a clarinet player, jumping out the window of his family home ahead of the Russian soldiers who were coming to conscript him for a long stint in the Tsar’s army. Behind the story of Willie Herrón, the Chicano muralist who memorialized a knife attack on his brother with a painting called “The Wall that Cracked Open,” are my memories of living in the barrio in Los Angeles as a single mother, trying to get by on more month than money, just like my Spanish-speaking neighbors; and praying, like them, that my children would not get swept up into gang life, that they would be safe alone at home in the evening, while I worked a late shift so that they could have food and clothing. Behind the story of Cinder Hypki’s moving participatory artwork for the caregivers and families of those who died despite the best efforts of the doctors, nurses, and other staff at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is the sadness and fear and grief that still sometimes wash over me, even after thirty years, since my mother’s slow and painful death from colon cancer. As I wrote that chapter, I often had to stop and simply allow the tears to flow, waiting for my eyes to clear and my feelings to turn into words. Over and over, I had to step back from my personal memories, and tell the stories in a way that would make the points I needed to make.

Although other churches invite me to tell them about my life as an artist, or about what we are doing at the Center for the Arts and Religion, I almost never speak about the arts when I stand at this pulpit. I don’t know if that is because I don’t want to toot my own horn; or because there always seems to be some other, more pressing subject; or because, despite my not-so-secret fears that art doesn’t count as a Christian virtue, I trust that most people in this congregation do not need to be convinced about the value of the arts to human life.

There is one time that I remember, though, and – much to my surprise some of you have recently told me that you remember it too. – that I drew on my conviction about the importance of the arts to move us towards a decision with far-reaching effects on our common life. Almost exactly thirteen years ago, on September 17, 2000, as we were struggling to come to terms with the costs of renovating this building, I stood at the pulpit at 2025 and talked about the need to go beyond the strictly utilitarian, about the need for grace and beauty and imagination as well as elevators and ramps and plumbing that works.

That day, I referred to James Oppenheim’s 1911 poem “Bread and Roses,” which, put to music, gave heart to textile workers striking in 1912 at Lawrence, Massachusetts and, with a different melody by Mimi Farina – the younger, less famous sister of Joan Baez – gave many women the courage to change their lives in the 1970s. Today, Farina’s non-profit foundation, also called Bread and Roses, continues to bring free music and entertainment to institutions like jails, hospitals, juvenile facilities, nursing homes, and prisons, producing 500 shows per year all over the country.

Oppenheim’s prophetic words proclaim “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.” As the rest of the poem makes clear, by “roses”, Oppenheim did not mean only a bowl of flowers on the kitchen table, or the natural beauty of a sunset over open water, but rather the entire gamut of what makes life meaningful. As I wrote at the beginning of that difficult but central chapter,

Art, or at least the kind of meaning that art mediates, is a primary human need, without which we lose our sense of self-worth, our dignity, our relationships with one another. …Art fills that human need simply by being itself, by offering delight in a world that is often filled with pain, or a way to transcend that pain through creative expression. ….Today, [Oppenheim’s] words continue to ring true for every person, man or woman, who puts up a poster to brighten a prison cell, or writes a poem in a homeless shelter, or sings or hums or whistles or listens to the music of others while doing work that might otherwise be mind-numbing, soul-killing drudgery. [p. 99]

A lot of what I wrote in the rest of that chapter is about you, my dear Seekers. Some of you I mention by name – without revealing to the wider world that you are members of my beloved congregation – because the stories about your work reveal an essential connection between the arts and justice, healing, and meaningful lives that often gets lost in budget wars that pit the arts against other, more seemingly urgent, needs.

Others of you are less obvious these pages, but are fully present nonetheless. You, who do the work that I am only able to write about, challenge me, inspire me, and remind me that I am not alone in what I often fear is a selfish, useless, and possibly un-Christ-like project. Once, not too long ago, I was carrying on about my doubts to Dave, and he stopped me mid-sentence. It is artists like you, he said, that make it possible for people like me to do our work. I still hug that gift to my heart, because you are what make it possible for me to do my work, too.

So, thank you, Dave, and thank you, Seekers, for believing in me even when I do not believe in myself. Thank you for encouraging me to think, write, and teach about the arts as a Christian vocation. Thank you for reminding me, when I forget, that what I do as an artist – what all the artists in our midst do – helps, in some mysterious way, to bring healing and hope to a broken world. And if some of us are afraid to talk to strangers, or we need a little extra quiet and solitude in order to drink from that fountain of living water that God offers us, I’m guessing that Jesus will understand.

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