How do Jackson Pollock and George Seurat and Stephen Sondheim help us understand what it takes to be faithful to the example of Peter?
When I travel, and I have been privileged in my life to travel a great deal, I like to visit art museums. Sometimes, it is because I am aware of a particular painting or sculptor’s work that I would like to see; sometimes, it is because I have heard of a particular museum; it does not really matter. But once I have visited a museum that particularly struck me or seen a painting or sculpture that left an indelible — hmm, interesting that I chose that word, — seen a painting or sculpture that left an indelible impression on me, if I return to that city, I want to revisit it!
There were two such paintings I had seen before I met her but for which I was unsuccessful in seeing when I took Patricia to the museums in which I had first seen them. The first was a painting of St. Paul, done by Rembrandt — considered to be a self-portrait of Rembrandt as Paul — no one knows what Paul actually looked like, very few photographs survive from the 1st Century. The painting shows us an aged man with wrinkles of wisdom and wear, a painting that struck me deeply. Yet when Patricia and I went to the museum in Amsterdam where I had seen it twenty or more years earlier, it was not to be seen! The museum’s collection is simply too big for every work to be on display at the same time.
The other painting was one I had seen in what is known as the “Peggy Guggenheim Museum” in Venice. It is a relatively new and off-the-beaten-path museum, but I had been driven to visit it on a trip I had made shortly after the death of my first wife, Carol. I had been struck by an early painting by a young Jackson Pollock, the American painter whose better known works are indecipherable, “painted” by his standing on the floor or on a ladder and pouring paint from a can or bucket onto a canvas stretched on the floor, yet this early painting was sufficiently intelligible that one could suspect a genius at work.
And I’ll return briefly to Pollock in just a moment, but allow me to tell you why I even mentioned him.
As many of you are by now aware, I am a Lectionary preacher, which, to simplify, means that almost every Sunday we will read the same Scriptures that we read three years ago. I pick my topic and title by reading those Scriptures and seeing what sparks something in me — or by trying to hear what God wants me to take from one of those Scriptures or some particular words in them. Three years ago, the words, “Seek my face,” from Psalm 27, which we used as today’s Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament” reading, provoked me, because that is the name of a novel by the late and brilliant and fascinating—from—a—believer’s--perspective, American writer, John Updike, a novel about . . . Jackson Pollock!
Well, when I prepare “slides” for any Sunday now, rather than remaking the slides for the Scriptures, I turn to the slides from that three—years—ago that Sunday, and in doing so, I saw that I had used Pollock as an introduction to how faces that are painted and that first appear hidden — as can the face of God appear hidden — might indeed be an artist’s impression of a real person’s face. In my doing so, I hope I unlocked some meaning in Picasso’s paintings and his Chicago sculpture for at least some of you.
But it was the way in which our Gospel reading from Matthew today about the calling of Simon and Andrew recalled the words of last week’s Gospel reading of John’s version of that calling that prompted my sermon name and thought today:
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John; you are to be called ‘Cephas’”
Cephas is an Aramaic word, Aramaic’s being the language Jesus would have spoken, but that is now spoken only by mainly Christians from an area in the northeast of Iraq. In Greek and in Latin, the name would be Petros, “rock,” from which we get words such as petroleum, and in English, the name is, of course, “Peter.”
And rock suggested to me another “art” form: petroglyphs, which in looking at some image of them, made me reflect back on Pollock as I unflatteringly thought his work a cruder technique than that of petroglyphs.
But petroglyphs are not so much paintings as etchings, or carvings; they are indelible in the sense that they cannot be wiped off; they cannot be wiped away. And in this way, they made me think of the indelible impression that Jesus made on Peter — on “Rocky,” as a professor from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago names him, — and leads me to hope that a similar impression has been made on me and might be made on each of you, indeed, on everyone.
Of course, Peter was not literally a rock and so it was not that faith was written on or even etched into a surface, but rather that he had taken Jesus, in our vernacular, had taken Jesus to heart; for Rocky, for Peter, faith in Jesus became a petroglyph on his heart.
We have talked before about the legend of how Peter met his death at the hands of Nero, of how, having traveled to Rome, Peter was walking away from that city when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him and said, “Quo vadis?” which in Latin would have meant, “Where are you going?” — if in fact Peter would have understood Latin, — and how the stone under his feet literally melted, leaving an impression of his feet, and how he turned around and returned to Rome where he ultimately apparently suffered a martyr’s death by, according to legend, being crucified upside-down. (And whether actual or not, this rock with footprints can be seen in the tiny “Church of Quo Vadis” on the way from central Rome to the catacombs.)
We are not called to martyrdom; the stones beneath our feet need not melt — if we stay off volcanoes, at any rate, — the stones beneath our feet need not melt, I hope, for us to do what Jesus might ask us to do. But are we willing to turn around or take a few steps or even to make a bit more of an effort on behalf of a call from Jesus? Has faith been inscribed on us or into us sufficiently for us to respond to, to follow, Jesus? Is our faith in God through Him sufficiently deep, is our commitment to Him like petroglyphs on our hearts?
Are our faith and our commitments something that will wash off like oil paint with turpentine, or are they indelible, figuratively “etched in stone,” so that they can last through sunshine and rainstorm over time, as have those petroglyphs we can find even in the Sonoran desert — visit the Saguaro National Park in Tucson.
Mind you, I realize that sometimes life can be as confusing as trying to make sense of a Jackson Pollock painting, but with faith written on our hearts, we can ultimately withstand the most confusing and challenging times that life can throw at us.
Life isn’t easy, and in important ways, faith isn’t easy, at least it isn’t easy the first time it is challenged. But neither is etching on stone easy; it takes some work. (Heck, painting is not without peril if one is pouring paint from a ladder.) The work of achieving faith can be trying for some, for many, maybe for most, because we might believe we are asked to believe in too much that does not make sense. It might seem we are asked to have faith that everything we ask of God will be granted — but if we say that, our faith is not yet that well built.
There is another painting I have mentioned at one time of another; it is actually in Chicago, though I have not stopped to see it for several years, now. It is the gigantic work by the late nineteenth century painter, George Seurat, “Sunday afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte,” affectionately known to some of us as “Sunday in the Park with George.” It is the best known of what are called pointillist works, where small dots of different colors which we can see quite distinctively when we stand before the painting, combine, when we step back, to make an effect not seen in the dots themselves. “Bit by bit, putting it together,” is the way the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim described it in song, and faith is sort of like that: we grow in faith, grow to understand it, the bit-by-bit, Scripture by Scripture, prayer by prayer. But even if we do not fully understand it, and I would maintain that we never do and never will, we can hold it, we can have it help us when we need it, and lead us even when we are unaware of being led.
And we need only start with this: For God so loves you —and say, “For God so loves me” — that He sent Jesus Christ to be your — say, “my” — Lord and Savior. No matter how hard-headed or hard-hearted you might be, inscribe it, no, etch it, etch as an indelible petroglyph on your heart: Jesus loves me, this I know!”
And in His name, and with thanks to Peter, or “Rocky,” and Paul and others. Amen.