August 15, 2021
Our second reading today is also short and comes from the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Lady Wisdom sets a banquet and invites in the unwise in these poetic verses. Listen for God’s voice speaking to you.
READ August 15, 2021
This week I watched again the movie, The Monuments Men. If you haven’t seen this movie from 2014, I recommend it. The movie is based on a true story that takes place in World War II. The Nazis, as they spread across Europe, took artwork from galleries, museums, private collections… churches… from wherever that artwork resided… paintings, statues, altar pieces… took it and hid it with the intentions that they would create… after winning the war, of course… a great cultural center that would give glory to Hitler and the thousand year Reich. As the war begins to turn against him, though, Hitler gives the order that should Germany lose the war… or if he were to be killed… that the artwork should, in turn, also be destroyed. And indeed, there was a lot of art destroyed by the Nazis before it could be recovered. The film makes a note of showing a burned framed that once housed a Picasso. And there’s supposed to be a visceral response to that for the audience. This loss is significant.
As I was watching that movie and had this passage from Proverbs rolling around in my brain… a thought came to me and I began to think about the impetus of this group… the underlying idea that art has value beyond the monetary value, of course… that if these works of art were lost… we… meaning all of humanity… we would lose something. We… again meaning humanity… we would be made less. And that thought kept rolling around in my brain. We would be made less if we lost this art. Remember a few years back when Isis was destroying all the works of antiquity as they conquered and took territory. Or when the Taliban blew up a giant statue of the Buddha. That act was considered to be a crime against humanity. Something more was lost than just a piece of art.
There is a connecting idea between wisdom and art… an idea about our humanity and our potential.
These men in the film… and in real life… were willing to risk and lose their own lives for the sake of some statue by Michelangelo. A carved piece of marble. Reduce it down to the lowest common denominator… isn’t that all it is? A carved piece of marble. Surely there are other artists who could also make a carved piece of marble. Even keep the same theme and topic of Michelangelo’s carved piece of marble. Aren’t there potential new masterpieces always in creation? But… but… there’s something about the work of Michelangelo that lifts the human spirit… that engages and enlightens the soul… right? Makes it more than just a carved piece of marble. Encounter a Michelangelo and there is an experience of the divine, we might even say. You see the potential of humanity through that art… potential that can only come from that something greater than ourselves. Something more was at work in this artist. Art can be transcendent. There’s something in this carved piece of marble that is more than a product. We are surrounded by lots of product today. There’s a difference between product and art. Or so we believe.
So towards the end of the film, the question gets asked out loud by a character whose decision it is to let this mission of the Monuments Men continue… the mission to continue to search for and return this art to those from whom it was stolen. To paraphrase a bit… this character asks if the dead would… if they were here now… would those who had died to recover this art… would they say that it was worth giving their lives. And he even goes beyond that asking if in thirty years time would people still care? You have to remember that while this is a movie… that question is easy to ask and answer in a movie… but this is a movie based on a true story where people did give their lives for these pieces of art. Is there art worth a life given?
While the film gives a scene in the end showing people still coming to see… specifically this one statue of the Madonna carved by Michelangelo… a nice positive answer to the question asked… my mind couldn’t help but go to all the museums and the art galleries around the world where this recovered art and other collected amazing masterpieces of art reside… museums that have lots of visitors to be sure… but also museums that so many others would never enter. So many eyes would never care if they saw this art or not. Or how many people will be dragged through these museums… not caring… not being moved… not growing in any way… their bored eyes too busy rolling into the back of their heads to see this humanity expanding, enlightening art before them.
How many would be happy with mass produced product and never care if they ever actually laid eyes on a Michelangelo… or a Picasso… or a Rembrandt. I mean… would you give your life for a great piece of art… that it would survive to inspire another generation? How about a painting by Bob Ross? You know who Bob Ross is, right? He’s the fellow with the painting show always talking about putting a happy little tree here… talking in this very meditative way while he paints these different landscapes. I’ve only seen him paint landscapes. Maybe he painted other things as well. Would you be willing to give your life in order to save a Bob Ross from being destroyed by the Nazis? Art is transcendent, but not every piece of art. No offense to the art of Bob Ross or other artists out there.
When we talk about wisdom… wisdom… again… can be alot like art. Some wisdom is transcendent. Some wisdom, we believe, echoes the voice of the divine. Some wisdom is overly culture bound or has a limited shelf life. Even discerning wisdom is like discerning what makes for fine art. It can be tricky. We can be fooled into being unwise… all the while thinking we are there at Wisdom’s banquet table dining away.
My first thought in approaching this passage this week was to think of wisdom as knowledge… specifically I looked at wisdom as being able to learn from experiences. Well, that’s kind of broad definition because we do learn from experiences no matter what… but that doesn’t necessarily lead us toward what we might understand as wisdom. Experiences can lead us to be more and more unwise even as we become more knowledgeable about life, let’s say. That’s why… sorry to have to break this to many of you… age alone doesn’t lead to wisdom.
In scripture, the call to wisdom is not a call to just any generic form of wisdom… but it is specific to God’s ways. In God’s ways is wisdom to be found. We know well the line… the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And we know in this case fear is respect… that deep awe that comes with the realization that you are in the presence of God. The take off your sandals for you are on holy ground kind of awe, you know? So the simple… the immature… are those who do not recognize those God… or that which truly makes for God’s ways… who do not walk in the way of the insight that comes with God. Take Psalm 14 for example… “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.” Seeking after God is seeking after wisdom. It is accepting the invitation to discover that there is more… more to life than just the toils of everyday existence. That’s the message of the book of Ecclesiastes… a book of wisdom. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Wisdom is not a consumable product says Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is not to be possessed… it is an experience… it is the realization of God’s presence and an awareness of those connecting points. Even as the writer of Ecclesiastes tests and explores and tastes the different wares of life before him… his conclusion about what makes for true wisdom still comes back to fearing God. There is wisdom found. Seek God. Seek God and wisdom will suddenly come along side you. And not just any wisdom.
There is more to our humanity that can only be unlocked by our knowledge of God. And it’s not some great mystery that only the elite can comprehend. The invitation to wisdom is broad and far reaching. You simply have to turn and partake of that wisdom. Join the banquet that is already set and waiting for you. This isn’t a private party reserved for some and not for others. Its joys are available and its path is before you. But the journey after this wisdom is realized… the journey of living into God’s wisdom won’t be so easy. Or maybe I should say it ought not be assumed. This has been what we’ve been hearing from Ephesians. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. The assumption is easy and can lead to foolishness and to fruit that is not worthy of our call to faith. This is what is meant by being careful in how you live, because the Lord’s wisdom is revealed through your life… whether or not you have found this wisdom. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice… these are not the ways of God’s wisdom. This is not the path that takes the seeker to God… or having encountered God… takes the disciple forward in their walk with God. These are the actions of the simple who do not know God. These are not the values worth dying for… worth giving your life for. These are the actions of the immature who demand rights without the accompanying responsibility. These are the fruits of those alienated from God because of their ignorance and their hardness of heart. The writer of Ephesians has been telling us again and again the timeless wisdom of God… the words repeated again and again… humility and gentleness… patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The understanding that it is by grace we have been saved through faith, and that this is not of our own doing… it is the gift of God so that none of us may boast. Speaking truth in love. Equipping the Saints for the work of ministry. These are the simple words of wisdom… the wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord… the description of the banquet table where all are welcomed to feast… and the words that we fail to comprehend and follow again and again. But words which demand a dedication that we ought to be willing to give our lives to see them in the world… or all humanity is diminished. Don’t you wish we could as much energy and vigor into these words of wisdom as we do in the pointless cultural battles that plague us by keeping us in perpetual conflict with one another… whose false wisdom is one of conquest and domination rather than knitting together of the body of Christ for good works?
In Ephesus, the wisdom of God was well-known because of their love for one another. That wisdom of love was worth sacrificing their lives to discover and maintain… a spread into the world for all to witness and gaze upon… and maybe even be changed by so that they too might welcome the wisdom of God in their lives. Amen.