We continue on our journey this morning toward larger life. Which is what we’re calling this series of Easter sermons: “Toward Larger Life”. Larger life is what the Good Shepherd is leading us toward: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He calls us by name and leads us out into larger life; we enter through the gate, which is Christ himself. Though like lost sheep, he finds us and saves us from the thieves of our humanity. With rod and staff he leads us to the green pastures of larger life, abundant life, Resurrection life.
He does this primarily through love. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of one’s own being opens us to that which is larger, that which is beyond the confines of our individual identities. But because love of God and neighbor gets regular coverage in sermons, I’d like to speak to something else, to another way that God leads us toward larger life, toward abundant life, as today’s gospel puts it.
God leads us toward larger life through the arts—actually, through the creative impulse the arts embody. In a sense the arts not only lead us toward larger life, they are the embodiment of that larger life. Music, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, literature—what we call the “fine arts”. But also the domestic and industrial arts: cooking, weaving, pottery, woodworking, ironworking, glassworking. Fashion, interior decorating, landscape design, flower arranging. All these and much more. We live in a world created by God. Created by God, but shaped by the arts of human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Shaped and made larger.
I’ve been thinking about those ancient cave paintings in France, at Lascaux. Horses, bison, bulls, antelopes. Those images most likely had some practical function, perhaps something to do with remembering the hunt or insuring a good hunt the next time, something, perhaps, out of a religious impulse. What I find fascinating about these paintings is that someone took an additional step beyond the merely functional or utilitarian. These figures are not merely functional—they are idealized forms, possessing grace and beauty. The exquisite proportions and delicate lines are beyond what was strictly necessary. The painter was, we would say, creative. Whoever painted these images was awakened to a sense of new possibilities. And, being awakened to a sense of new possibilities, life was, somehow, larger.
Then it’s only a matter of time and increments and people are doing amazing things with violins and pianos and toe shoes. And paint brushes and cameras. And granite, marble, limestone and glass. And pipe organs. Even potatoes—people do amazing things even with potatoes (the French do it best). Sitting down to a wonderful gratin dauphinois [French version of scalloped potatoes], life is larger.
Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with Jesus—the caves were painted fifteen thousand years before Jesus. And potatoes didn’t find their way out of the Andes of South America until sixteen centuries after Jesus. There would have been no gratin dauphinois at Jesus’ dinner parties.
The creative impulse originates in the heart of God. God is present, the divine energies are present, in every creative impulse. The human being, made in the image and likeness of God, shares in God’s creative energies. Jesus, we remember, is not only the Good Shepherd, but the Living Word of God, the Logos, the one through whom all things came into being (and come into being), and present and active in this world from the beginning, from alpha to omega. The creative energies of the Godhead are transmitted to us through the Living Word—we participate in God’s creative work in the world. In countless ways, large and small, we are co-creators.
The crucial step in creative work is the first step we take beyond the merely functional, the strictly necessary. The pottery jug shaped and glazed with an eye to beauty. The garment draped in such a way as to delight its wearer. The flower brought in from the field to beautify a dwelling. The bison drawn with exquisite line and elegant proportions. Our ancestors began taking these small steps many thousands of years ago. They are indeed small steps. But they are giant leaps toward larger life.
Making things beautiful, gathering around us beautiful things (however we may define beauty)—it’s as ordinary as the air we breathe. And yet, that crucial step is there: going beyond the strictly necessary to what gives delight. This is stepping out from smaller life to larger life, to abundant life. That crucial first step taps into the creative energies of the One who said, “Let there be light”. Let there be life, let there be larger and larger life, abundant life.
The domestic arts and crafts and design are where we see that first critical step beyond mere necessity. But it’s only a matter of increments and we have the fine arts, floating free from any necessity. The ceramic vessel that really isn’t meant to hold water or anything else—made simply for its beauty. The hand-woven fabric that will never be worn or used to cover a bed or table. The music that floats free from any text or programmatic “meaning”.
Music deserves special mention as perhaps the most free-floating, the least tied to the utilitarian, the least “practical” of the arts. I may be biased in this direction, but I would also suggest that music is the most theological of the arts. That is, it can speak of the unspeakable things of God—without reference to any religious text or image, music can speak of the ineffable things of God. I think my own understanding of the Divine has been shaped at least as much by music as by any religious or theological text. Certain music of Schubert, Beethoven and Bach speak most eloquently to me. But you may have your own list.
The creative impulse originates in the heart of God. And things that originate in the heart of God cannot be contained. Like the sunshine and rain, the creative impulse is bestowed on the entire human race, the righteous with the unrighteous—regardless of belief or creed or moral virtue.
Through the creative impulse God awakens us—like that painter of Lascaux–to a sense of new possibility, the possibility that life can be somehow more. And even one flower in a vase can make life larger. A painting or a few of the right books can make even the tiniest room a cathedral.
God’s art is the cosmos. The human arts, rooted and grounded in God’s own being, not only draw us onward into larger life, but they partake of the larger life of God himself. And this largeness, this expansiveness, this abundance, is a foretaste of the life to come.
Lead on, then, Good Shepherd, lead us on into this new and abundant life that we may dwell in your house forever. And remind us to listen to some music today.