Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
In the name of God. Amen.
I am not a visual artist. I am creative in a lot of ways, but one of the quickest ways to send a chill down my spine is to put me in a situation where I’m expected to create something visual. And being a priest, I find myself in that kind of situation more often than I’d like. The way we, in the field of religious study and practice, deal in the ineffable, lends itself to pursuits of creative expression. So, often I’m on a retreat, or at a meeting, or a conference, and one of the organizers will start wandering around the room distributing various kinds of art supplies. They’ll tell us to use these things to express what we’ve learned or felt during the course of the session. Whenever that happens, you’ll usually find me trying to melt into a puddle under my chair. I just can’t get out of those situations quickly enough.
That said, I do have a deep appreciation for the visual arts. I could draw a circle, but a gifted visual artist could begin with that same circle and add highlights and shading to bring it to three-dimensional, spherical life. I love watching those videos online that show art being made. A few, seemingly random dots of color on a canvas are pulled and manipulated into some glorious creation.
That’s what I admire – the ability of the artist to see the potential for something among its parts before it’s been revealed to the average eye. The essence of the goal – of the final product – is present from the start, but before the artist begins it’s obscured by disorganization.
Over the past few weeks, the stories from the Gospels that we’ve been reading have been about Jesus calling the disciples – stories of the artist gathering supplies. Each, on his own, doesn’t seem to amount to much: laborers, unsophisticated rural folk. But the artist can see the potential within the raw materials. Jesus, as the artist, can envision the final picture that these elements might produce.
The stories of his teaching and miracles are like the painter pulling the brush across the canvas – stretching each element, pulling them into new places, blending them with each other and other materials, until eventually, some broader picture begins to emerge.
Today, the lesson – the glimpse of that larger picture – is about goodness. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus claims. “You are the light of the world,” he declares. Not that we followers should aspire to saltiness or to light, but that we are – already. We already have the gifts.
Perhaps they seem like odd compliments: you are salt, and you are light. But they remind me of another teaching from Jesus – about the mustard seed. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could hurl a mountain into the sea.
Salt may seem insignificant, but it is powerful. It doesn’t take much to do a lot. A few shakes can make a bland dish palatable. A few more can make it inedible. And light is the same way. A single lamp may not seem like much, but in the darkness, it can change the world. Being so small it would be easy to hide or even extinguish, but if left to shine, it holds outsized power and promise.
For a painter, there aren’t good colors and bad colors. There are certainly some that tend to work better together than others, but every painting needs contrast. A light and airy field of flowers still needs browns and blacks for definition and depth. A rainy, midnight alleyway still needs points highlighted to give it shape and meaning.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The laws of old were not meant to hold humanity back, but to raise us up – to lift up and honor our essential goodness. And our tradition teaches us that as God made each of the elements of creation, each one was declared to be good.
God made everything. God made everything good. Who are we to decide it’s not?
Moreover, God made everyone. God made you. God made you good. Who is any one of us – even you – to say otherwise? God made you good and every true thing about faith from its beginning has been about trying to lift up that goodness – to empower it for greatness. The goodness is already there. It is already essential to your creation. It is the baseline.
There have certainly been times when the structures of our tradition have fallen short of that ideal. But when we have been closest to God, we’ve been seeing and honoring the goodness of God’s creation. And that’s our goal. To stay close to God. To keep looking for the essential goodness that God has made for us. It’s not about making good or becoming good. We already are. That’s how we were made.
God, our creator – the painter, is only trying to pull us, and to blend our goodness with the goodness of others, and to shape us all into something God alone can see. It is being revealed, but it is beyond our view.
When I was growing up, my mother’s parting words to me were often, “Be good.” – almost a threat as much as an instruction. But the thing is, we don’t have to try to be good. We already are. We just have to be open to seeing it. We just have to recognize it. We just have to be willing to let our goodness be something bigger than we, ourselves, can make it.
God can see it. God can see the potential in us – the raw materials. Trust and believe that that potential is being revealed. Amen.