Monday, March 19, 2012

Preaching for the eye...

Sermon for Lent 4B, preached on Sunday, March 18, 2012.

    In a week or so we remember our congregation’s 53rd birthday.  Grace was begun in the boom years when our Synod opened 2 churches every week, when young seminarians were sent out with but an address, a cheap Chevy, a few bucks and a mandate to start a church, and when we erected provisional church buildings that we were sure would need expansion and would be appropriately finished later.  Things have changed.  We are not growing so fast.  In fact, we struggle merely to maintain what we have much less start new parishes.
    The boom years of the 1950s were too easy and growth was too pretty.  We treated the Church like a McDonalds franchise and we tried to open it on the cheap – a little land, a little building, and no money for any extras.  We started off these parishes with a bare minimum theology of space and art.  We had the obligatory empty cross but often so small as not to be noticeable.  Yet the congregation is not a branch office.  In each congregation is the fullness of the Church, God calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying a people for Himself through the means of grace that raise up Christ and make His gifts and grace accessible to us.  In each congregation we not only receive the fullness of God’s gifts and grace, but we reflect that fullness to the world around us.
    Jesus said in the Gospel "As Moses lifted up the snake on a pole, so must the Son of Man be lifted up."  In St. Paul’s version:  Christ crucified - that is what we preach!  So in structure and ministry and, in no less, architecture, the cross had better be the center of it all.  How better than a crucifix to portray what our words preach!  Alas, modern church buildings speak even less toward this goal and proclamation.  We have forgotten the attention given to the Temple and to the graven images God commanded to adorn His holy house.  I don't think God has much good to say about the empty barns erected in His name today.  They are all about creature comforts complete with drink holders but they have nothing for the eye – nothing that says “We preach Christ crucified” – just blank walls. 
    The medievals understood it better.  Highly ornate art works, crucifixes that made you wince at the realism of Christ’s suffering, stained glass images to call back the wandering eye, art that bore witness to the faith believed, taught, and preached.  It was unmistakable when you entered.  Christ crucified is what we're all about.
    These were sermons you saw – the visual image that accompanied the preaching of Christ crucified.  There are many ways to preach it and many ways to see it but the crucifix is the best.  It recalls the serpent on the pole from Numbers and it preaches to the eye the Passion of Christ from the Gospels.  Unmistakable visual form that speaks of the suffering that gave birth to hope, the death that gave birth to life.
    We are not so sure we want to look on such images of Christ’s suffering today.  We are uncomfortable being reminded of the very real suffering that Christ endured for us and our salvation.  We would like to believe Jesus is more motivator than suffering servant.  But Jesus says it best.  Unless He be lifted up, we are all still dead, our religion a sham and we are utterly without hope.  We can not be saved without looking upon the suffering of Christ.  Just as the children of Israel had to look at the snake on a pole to be healed, so must we look upon Christ in suffering and death for us to be healed (translate it saved).
    As Moses lifted up the serpent so must the Son of Man be lifted up.  The center of all preaching is the preaching of Christ and Him crucified for us. If you encounter a Gospel that does not bleed, it is not the true Gospel.  If you meet a Jesus who bears no marks of suffering, He is not the real Jesus.  If you hear a Gospel that does not speak the all sufficient sacrifice, it is not the Gospel of Scripture, the creeds, and the saints.  Run from those fakes and run to the crucifix – as uncomfortable as it is to see Jesus suffer there, it is only in suffering that we are born a new to forgiveness, life, and salvation.
    The serpent on the pole was both law and Gospel – it was the mark of judgment against the children of Israel and their faithlessness and it was the sacrament of their redemption that healed them in grace.  The crucifix is no different.  It powerfully portrays the Law in the terrifying judgment of God against sin – a judgment that requires suffering and death.  But at one in the same time, it speaks the comforting hope of the Savior who kills death with His own death and suffers as the innocent for the guilty.
    In the old days the body was laid in the coffin with crucifix in hand.  Oh, for the days when we were honest about death and unapologetic about speaking the cross and suffering that won us life!  What do we sing in that last stanza to the beloved hymn "Abide with Me?"  Holy Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes...  Our comfort in death is no life well lived.  Our hope in death is not justice to reward our virtue.  What we seek in the hour of death is the same blessed hope that carries us through life: Christ crucified for me.  Hold Thou the cross before our dying eyes.
    Lutherans refuse to apologize for the crucifix or stained glass or art or statuary or any all this stuff that so many think unnecessary.  In it all we preach for the eye as well as for the ear:  Christ crucified for me.  In it all we lift up Jesus on the wood of the cross that, like the snake in the wilderness, God may bring forgiveness, life, healing, and salvation to all who look to the Christ portrayed there.  We can do more but we can do no less than this crucifix and its sermon for the eye.  By the way, it is utter foolishness to say that the cross without the figure of Christ is a symbol of the resurrection.  Crosses are only about death – whether the figure of Christ is portrayed on it or it stands empty of a body.
    And when our children ask where God is, we dare not point to heaven and an absent God but to Him who is present with us!  Not a God of feelings or thoughts or heart, but Him who is present in the means of grace, in the Word preached for the ear, felt in the splash of baptismal water on the face, tasted in the bread and wine, heard in the joyous absolution... AND carved, cast, cut, painted, and woven into the arts that are words for the eye.
    We dare not be embarrassed that we show Christ on the cross.  What seems to us a horror of suffering is marvelous in God's sight.  What God sees in the cross is a lost world redeemed and a lost people restored to Him.  What we see on the cross is hope for sinners, righteousness for the guilty, grace for the unworthy, and life for the dying.  As Moses raised up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.  What we see there is both judgment for sin and redemption, law and Gospel, a feast for the eyes to see sin’s terror, the punishment for sin born by another in wonderful redemptive power, and the completed sacrifice for our salvation.
    Sometimes the most powerful sermons you will ever hear are the ones that come in not through the ear but through the eye... the sacred and holy images of judgment and redemption.  Our glory is the cross.  That which kills now gives us life.  We preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified, in Word, in sacrament, and, yes, also in images for the eye.  Once art was the domain of the faith, it existed to serve the Gospel and point to Christ crucified.  Now, sadly, art exists for self-expression and our church buildings are like empty canvases waiting for the artist to make a feast for the eye to accompany the feast for the ear that we preach:  Christ crucified!  Amen.


Anonymous said...

I don't think God has much good to say about the empty barns erected in His name today.

Isn't it a bit presumptuous to make a statement about what God has to say?

Anonymous said...

Hey, compare those big barns empty of all art or even a cross and then read what God required in the Temple in Jerusalem. Does God now simply say "whatever" and ignore the judicious care He exercised over His House of old?

Anonymous said...

There are more folks across the world who worship in barns or worse. It's not the ornate surroundings that make for worship - but to approach the Lord in spirit and truth,

Pastor Peters said...

Why are we so defensive about anything more than minimal setting? Is there maybe too much pride in plainness? Tell me how a God who demanded excellence in construction and art in the Temple of old is now laissez-faire about building, content, and structure of worship?

Why must we define spirit and truth in antithesis of art, music, architecture, and liturgy? Is spirit and truth only feeling and thought? It would seem that it is not simply spirituality but as concrete as bread and wine, no?

Janis Williams said...

Anonymus, Yes there are many who worship in literal barns, buildings without roofs, and even just under a tree. Real poverty does not stop them, however. Take a look at our wonderful brothers in Africa. They are not shy to dress in alb, stole, chausable, and yes, even mitre! If they are able, they will place a hand carved crucifix on a makeshift altar.

And last I checked, the main part of worship is the divine service. We approach God with our poor offering of devotion only after He comes to us in the Grace of His Sacraments.