Sacred Soil

Painting a Picture
October 7, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 27

Genesis 2:18–24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1–4; 2:5–12
Mark 10:2–16

In my mother’s living room, prominently displayed right next to her chair is an enormous coffee table book of Norman Rockwell paintings. I think it claims to have everything he ever did–which is fairly impressive, given how prolific he was.

Most of us would know these paintings –we actually have a print of one here in our office hallway. It’s a rendering of people from many faiths, many nations, with the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rockwell is known for affectionate images, images of hope and idealism.

As I read the texts for today, it’s Rockwell’s thanksgiving image kept creeping into my mind. The actual title of the painting is “Freedom from Want.” It’s an idealized picture of a white family gathered around for a turkey dinner. Grandmother is setting out the bird, as grandfather prepares to carve. They look perfectly content, even proud, as the rest of their family sits eagerly smiling, leaning in toward each other. The image is so familiar, so vivid, that I feel as if I can smell the turkey now. (I may need to make stuffing for dinner tonight…)

But as I delight in this image–a searing emptiness and dissonance gets at me. For this isn’t how such family gatherings have usually gone for me or for that matter for many of us. And even when we do have those beautiful moments, so often the smiles mask pain unspoken, an uneasiness, and heartbreak that bubbles under the surface. Doubtless, at almost any family gathering, there is someone whose smile is an act of will, their eyes betraying their own brokenness, hopelessness.

Our reality is never quite as pretty as our ideals. Rockwell knew this, his own life marked by divorce, depression, and the death of two spouses. And Jesus certainly knew this, he being the one who died on a cross. Though, strangely, we seem to forget that when we read these passages.

So often, we read these passages as a script, a rule book, an instruction for how to paint this portrait of grandmother and the turkey. As if we might be able to paint-by-numbers and fill in a picture of righteousness and happiness.  If only we follow the steps, if only we try to get it all right, keeping within the lines.

But it turns out; this is exactly what Jesus wanted the Pharisees to avoid. Wanted us to avoid.

So, it’s important, first, to understand a few of the things that have changed since the 1st century. 1) Back then, if a woman were divorced she had no means for livelihood at all. Without a household, she had no way to support herself. Divorce equaled utter devastation. It was a cruel thing to do to a woman, to children. 2) Adultery, well back then when a man committed adultery, it was a sin against the woman’s father. You see, she was property, so the law didn’t consider it a sin against her. Women had no rights. That’s just how society functioned. And there wasn’t much room or quibbling with that.

So, when Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her…” well, that was sort of extraordinary. Note, he did not say it was a sin against her father, it was a sin against her. The woman. The one who has no power at all. Jesus, names what we know is true–we are all hurt by broken relationships. We are all devastated when promises are broken. All of us.

In other words, it’s not ok to hurt others. Ever. Men, women, or children. It is not ok to use the law to make someone to be less than you.

Jesus was speaking a radical word, dignifying women and children as part of God’s beloved reign. A radical word that declared there were no insiders, and no outsiders, declaring that no human being is disposable. No matter how hard our hearts are. He wasn’t willing us to fit into an unrealistic picture of human happiness—he was asking us to name that we all matter. All of us.

But the truth is we continue to try to find ways to make people disposable, to exclude them from our idealized images, for reasons we can name, and reasons we would prefer to keep silent. We continue to try to pain this Rockwellesque picture, carefully painting in happy faces, excluding anything that looks different, out of place, or honest.

And then we do worse, dehumanizing those who don’t fit into our pretty pictures, making them disposable, and mere tools. When this happens, children are forced into sex-trafficking, factory workers are not allowed a bathroom break in their 14-hour work day, and the homeless are ticketed for loitering for simply sitting on a park bench.

I could make a longer list. A more horrific list. There’s no limit to the ways we humans have treated other humans as disposable. Perhaps you’ve personally felt that way… like your being was a problem. Like you could be sent a way with a simple certificate of dismissal…

So, as beautiful as Rockwell’s painting is that Thanksgiving image makes me uncomfortable. Because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be welcomed, pretty sure lots of us wouldn’t be welcomed. At least not if we brought our true selves, our whole selves. Broken people that we are.

Which gets me to wondering… You see, in the lower right corner of this picture is a man looking out. His eyes are inviting, they seem to be looking at the viewer, as if there were more room at the table. Room for you, and for me, suggesting that the image is incomplete. And it is.

For the complete image would welcome us all, would have us all gathered around the table. Those whose smiles come easily, and those whose grief and uneasiness overwhelm. Those who look different, those who act different. The complete image would have people of other ethnicities, nationalities, who are disabled. The complete image would have poor folks, young children. The complete image would be filled with real people—broken people—people who long for wholeness and welcome.

Turns out that we have that real image. Right here. And it’s not just an image. It’s this very table. Where Christ is the host. And there are no numbers to paint, no pretty pictures to create. This is where we come, those who have been broken by divorce, adultery. Those who have been made to feel less than human. Those who long for a family gathered, around a meal that is filled with hope, and joy. This is the only table I know that can offer such a welcome; the only table I know, where we are truly beloved for who we are. Each of us saints and sinners.

So come, come to this table, welcomed as a beloved child. Welcomed as Jesus welcomed the least of these, welcomed as one made whole in the love of God. Come and make this picture whole, and real.


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