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The sweat, tears, & blisters of artists

Sermon by Rev. David Collins

April 16, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot about Art this week.

Our culture doesn’t really value art, does it? We don’t value anything that can’t be bought and sold on a massive scale. So we value entertainment, but not art. Not so much.

Entertainment is meant to distract. To give us what we want. To scratch where we itch.

Entertainment is all about what the audience wants. They will literally change the ending of a movie to get it to make more money.

But art isn’t quite as concerned with the audience. Hopefully art will find an audience but that’s not the point of art. Art is first and foremost about the artist.

About expression, doing what moves you and connects you with God, others, or the earth. About loving something so much that you dedicate your life to getting better at it.

I don’t know about you all, but that was the sticking point for me. Sometimes as much as you want to get better at an art, you find out that God didn’t give everyone the same potential for talent. Or some early glimpses of potential were not accompanied by the amount of will and love required to really progress.

That part is so important, the discipline and dedication, because in order to truly express what’s in your heart, you’ve got to use your body to share it with others. God sees the heart. So God knows what what a brilliant artist each of us really is, but the rest of us can only see what one another can do. Whether we use our bodies to make music, or paint, or work with materials, or write.

Art is equal parts expression and hard work.

One of the earliest ways that God chose to be present with his people was through art.

In Exodus, we hear the story of how God rescued his people from Egypt through miracles that no person could create. And for many years, God was present with his people in the same way, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. All things that no person could dream of creating. But that was only meant to be temporary. God gave his longer term plan to Moses with his commands to build him a tabernacle, and all the things that went along with it. But this time, God didn’t do it himself. He called on artists.

Exodus 35:30-36:2

30 Then Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 he has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft,

32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.

Look at all the adjectives and verbs in these verses. Sometimes Christian artists especially are are not quite descriptive enough about what they mean when they give all the credit to God for their good work. Sometimes when you all say, “Oh it’s all God” it gives the impression that you just stood up front and God took you over, and you really have no idea how it happened.

When what you really mean it that God gave you some talent and more importantly gave you the ability to practice like your life depended on it for years while the rest of us were watching tv. What you really mean was that God put teachers in your life who were lovingly cruel to your bodies to get them to work in the way they need to, to do what you do. And God did that for countless others too to bring to pass whatever discipline you work in, with its vast body of knowledge. That’s what you mean, right?

The scripture we just read says the same thing:

Exodus 35:31 he has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft,

You don’t get skill, intelligence and knowledge in every kind of craft all at once, by God downloading it into you. It’s all God, absolutely. But he gives you the desire to want it, and to go find it. And look at verbs in the next verse.

32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.

God needed Bezalel’s hard won ability to devise and work, in order to do what he needed to have done. God wasn’t going to do it for them. He needed them to do it for him.

Bezalel is also the consummate artist in another way.

34 And he has inspired him to teach,

True artists are always also teachers. They teach generously and exactly. They don’t want to be the only ones who know how to perform their craft, because they love it so much they want to work with others, and talk to them about it!

34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to do every kind of work done by an artisan or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of artisan or skilled designer.

Bezalel and Oholiab and everyone skillful to whom the Lord has given skill and understanding to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.

2 Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab and everyone skillful to whom the Lord had given skill, everyone whose heart was stirred to come to do the work;

Bezalel and his crew of artists were the ones who created all of the sacred objects, like the ark of the covenant, and the tabernacle it lived in; the places where God promised to be truly present for his people Israel.

And here’s the coolest thing about all of this.

In order to see the Ark of Covenant, Bezalel had to make it first. In order for God to be present in the Tabernacle, Bezalel had to construct it first.

He and his fellow artists had to sew, and embroider and set jewels, and cut up a bunch of acacia wood and melt gold and dip just about everything in it. And not just once, but over and over and over again. When you read it, it gets a little boring, so can you imagine DOING it?

The amount of painstaking labor that goes into art, especially sacred art, just boggles the mind. For the tabernacle, Bezalel and his team made huge heavy curtains. They wove some out of linen which they sewed jewels into and embroidered with cherubim. They made 10 of those. And do you think Bezalel was like, “It’s okay if they’re a little different from each other guys.” No! Each one was joined to the others with 50 gold loops. Then there were more curtain woven out of goats hair, and I’m exhausted just thinking about it. That was just the curtains, there were also frames and platforms and more.

It reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books about art. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, which I highly commend to anyone struggling with a creative endeavor. He writes:

“The marine corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist. Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swabjockies, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those wimps don't know how to be miserable.
The artist committing himself to his calling has to be miserable. The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not, he will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. The artist must be like that marine: he has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier, or swabbie, or desk jockey, because this is war, baby, and war is hell.”

If you liked that, you should read the rest. Or just read through Exodus 35-39 and realize that whatever you’re working on, and the stakes feel so high you can’t cope, Bezalel had it worse.

I’ll bet that he loved and hated every last minute of it. But he couldn’t not do it. Because that’s what God made him to do. He was an artist.

With his own two hands, Bezalel made the presence of God on Earth.

God could have done whatever God wanted, but God chose to be present in Israel through the sweat, tears, and blisters of artists.

That’s how God is present here today, too. Through the work of these amazing artists all around me, today. Through the long music career of our own Margaret Patten, to be sure.

But through you, too. Even if you can’t play or sing a note, or draw a straight line. God is present in the world through you being yourself, and telling the truth as you truly see it (not just repeating things you’ve heard).

Life can be art. Just the way that you live, and love others is your art. But please know that the point isn’t to make YOU happy. Creating the things that you feel you have to create doesn’t usually end with satisfaction, but with the desire to do more, to do better.

Agnes de Mille had just achieved the greatest success of her career, but right now the only thing she felt was confusion. She was a dancer and a choreographer. Early in her career, de Mille had created the choreography for a ballet called Three Virgins and a Devil. She thought it was good work, but nobody made much of it.
A few years later, de Mille choreographed a ballet named Rodeo. Again, she thought her work was solid, but it resulted in little commercial fame.
Then, in 1943, de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, a musical show from Rodgers and Hammerstein that enjoyed nearly instant success. In the coming years, Oklahoma! would run for an incredible 2,212 performances, both around the nation and abroad. In 1955, the film version won an Academy Award.
But the success of Oklahoma! confused her. She thought that her work on Oklahoma! was only average compared to some of her other creations. She later said, “After the opening of Oklahoma!, I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha.”
Martha was Martha Graham, perhaps the most influential dance choreographer of the 20th century. During their conversation, de Mille told Martha Graham about her frustration. “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.”

Martha Graham’s advice to her is the reason for this story. Here is what she said. It applies to everyone in the room. She said:

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

That’s our job. That’s our calling. That is the art of our lives. God made you, special and unique. So love God, and do what God made you to do, what you can’t not do, what you love to do. Work hard at it. Learn from others how to get better at it. Teach others who want to learn from you. That is how God’s spirit swells in you. That is how God will choose to be present in our world.



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