A sermon preached on the Second before Advent - having been moved by Eliasson's exhibition at the Tate Modern and how his work makes us aware of our bodies and our place in the world, reading Jesus' warnings in Luke's Gospel resonated differently. The texts were Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Is it possible that art can change the world?
The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson thinks so.
He’s reputation is based on playing with our senses: he creates work of beauty - giant kaleidoscopes shedding colourful patterns on the wall; light installations which turn our bodies into a playful shadow displays.
He creates work which brings the natural world inside: the delicate beauty of fine mist falling, gently, as light casts a rainbow; the trepidation of stepping into a corridor of dense fog, seeing nothing ahead but being enfolded with a dazzling light shifting from yellow to pink and white.
But as one reviewer puts it: there is more to Eliasson’s work than cheap thrills and damp air.
By drawing on nature and creating multi-sensory phenomenon, he makes us aware of our bodies; but he also makes us alert to our place on this planet; his expanded studio addresses the questions facing us - renewable energy, climate justice, migration and melting glaciers.
Eliasson’s work might be described as ‘sublime’: that is the utterly awe-inspiring point where beauty, wonder, fear and vulnerability meet.
As Rosemary Waugh puts it in Time Out magazine: he captures power and beauty and humanity for one reason, that is: to make it explicitly clear that THIS – this glorious, miraculous planet with its winds, rains and rocks – is precisely what we’re systematically destroying by letting it melt, crack and fall apart. This is epic environmentalism and, yes, it’s sublime.
In Real Life, we become agents in answering the question: how do we live together?
How do we live together when we don’t know what the future holds for humankind?
In today’s Gospel, we some were speaking admiringly of the beauty of the temple stones - their majestic proportions, hewn from the earth, carved by human hands, reflecting the light.
And Jesus’ response makes us acutely aware of our bodies, our senses, our place in the world: it is a moment of beauty, wonder, fear and vulnerability.
In that moment, Jesus addresses the way in which human history opens up before us. Each generation facing its crises as nations, empires and kingdoms rise and fall; as environmental upheavals loom and the cosmos brings forth its own portents.
Human agency participates in and magnifies this disorder; and yet we strive for peace; we’re motivated to respond to disaster with generosity. The shorthand for this time between Jesus’ proclamation of the nearness of God’s Kingdom and its fulfilment or consumption is ‘now and not-yet’.
We live in this realm of in-between times as the disciples did: Jesus speaks words which are discomforting to our ears. He names the human tendency to seek power.
First many will attempt to lead followers astray by falsely claiming his name; second, the powers of earthly kingdoms will rise against each other with violence; third, the church will be hated because of his name.
In short, Jesus is saying that the good news he shares of healing, hope, liberation and forgiveness will stand in contradiction to the idols of possession, exploitation, abuse and greed of every age.
This takes us to the heart of spiritual conflict: Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, the truth that brings light into darkness. In him, the love of God draws near to us; naming all that diminishes - the idleness, indifference and selfishness.
As children of God, Jesus reassures us that the works of darkness have no power over us. we are to resist them by placing our trust in the peace Christ brings; allowing that to shape our lives and our witness.
Such resistance is courageous. It means that we must cultivate habits of self-discipline and endurance.
First, we are not to be distracted by false teaching; those things which suggest there’s an easier way than that of costly love. Second, we are to stand firm as worldly powers exert their influence and kingdoms clash with each other. Thirdly, we must be remain faithful to our witness - even when friends and family disagree or turn against us.
In short, Jesus is saying that we must not lose our focus: to pray for peace and reconciliation, for justice and mercy. We are to use whatever gifts and resources we have to aid others in that struggle; to come alongside them to raise them up and give them dignity.
We can commit ourselves to that struggle in the knowledge that Jesus has already defeated suffering and death; love has won. As members of Christ’s body, any resistance or hope we offer is through his grace; and change we effect is through his power.
The epistle also speaks in robust terms about the need for such self-discipline. Paul’s naming of idleness implies a senes of living in disorder. The notion of being busybodies suggests that he’s concerned with those who are intent on meddling in the affairs of others; those who like to give the impression of being kind-hearted, but in reality offer little meaningful aid or support.
To reframe the challenge of Eliasson’s interactive exhibition, how do we live together? It is in part by not growing wearing of doing what is right - however much other factors appear to conspire against us.
When if feels as if all is melting, cracking and falling apart, our worship engages us with our senses, reconnects us with the natural world and makes us more aware of our bodies.
Throughout our liturgy we are reminded that our identity is in Christ: we seek forgiveness and share in peace. It is when the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands are taken and blessed, broken and given to us that we, are nourished as this one body.
Though we are many, and though we will be sent out to live and work in many homes and places, we are united. Though we are many our hearts are shaped by one love. Can the gift of this sacrament change the world? I believe so.
We are called to be people who reflect that love like a kaleidoscope - casting the shape and colour of God’s Kingdom in the world around us. We are to be people whose bodies bring beauty and kindness; justice and hope.
When we see what is sublime in our world, we are called to live with a lightness that resists consumption and exploitation. When the fog of political debate descends we are to speak with clarity of the one whose name is righteousness, who brings healing in its wings.
As we long for the world’s salvation, we pray that the Sprit will stir us from apathy; restrain us from excess; and revive in new hope: that all creation may be healed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
© Julie Gittoes 2019