I have always envied people who can draw. Or paint, I’ve envied them too, or sketch or sculpt, or pretty much anything else that gives visual representation to an idea. That’s what it is. That’s what an artist does, they have an idea and the they show it to you, they create a thing that was once nothing more than an idea, a series of electrical impulses in their brains becomes an object you can hold, a picture you can look at, a record of the thought that they had that will endure longer than a minute.
I never really got the point of performance art, the creation of a moment in time that was meant to be artistic in and of itself, until I actually experienced it once, at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of years back. But it never struck me as being quite the same; after all, it left no indelible image behind, it left no concrete expression that would remain the same through all time.
It never occurred to me at the time but what I do is a little like performance art, it marries a moment to an idea but then leaves it to the wind, to the vagaries of memory and of what people are ready to hear, it has no concrete meaning, not even what I write down is the actual, final meaning, each of you gets to decide what it means to you and there is no object left afterwards to dissect or examine.
I mean, sure, there is the sermon, the paper, the words, but frankly, divorced from the expression, the act of preaching, the moment with the kids sermon, the communion, that sharing of the peace, they are just words and just paper, this is, like performance art, a marking of a particular moment in time with a particular feeling, a thought that came to my head when I was reading the scriptures for this week, when I was thinking about Lent and what it means, when I pressed my big brain into service to do what I do for the seventy-five to eighty-five minutes that I borrow from you each week.
Most people are surprised to hear that I have little or no memory of what I have preached in the past, I do not store in my head sermons gone by, I do not revisit them at all, ever. They go into the “cloud” as they say these days, they are saved onto my computer, backed up like cherished antiques, but I am done with them, they are images from yesterday and I am fixated on today, and on tomorrow. What was the sermon about two weeks ago? Couldn’t tell you without prompting. It’s just gone.
My lack of visual-artistic talent does not mean, however, that I have no thoughts or ideas in my head. I give you all a little insight into my thinking each week when we gather in this place, I just have no skill, no talent, no ability at all to put those things into visual expression.
I often feel like a child when it comes to doing things like that, to drawing. Even the finest charcoals feel clumsy and clunky in my hands, lines drawn onto paper never seem to be what I was trying for, never seem to come alive that way that I’d like them too. It is very frustrating because I can summon the pictures in my head, I can imagine and envision things not yet existing, not yet come into being in my head in glorious expression in subtlety and in nuance and then these clumsy, unwieldy fingers muck the whole thing up when I try and show you all.
But there is still a picture in my head. There is still a picture that is trying to get out, trying to find expression. All of our heads, actually, all of us have this image inside of us that is trying to find expression, trying to find a way out of us and into the world.
When we are little the picture that we draw of ourselves is usually one of a hero, or someone who does something exciting. I have two cousins in Pennsylvania and their picture, the image of themselves as they grew up and older was always, always of being firefighters. They hung around the fire station, played basketball on the large concrete apron outside where the firefighters would wash the fire engines. It was no mystery to anyone who ever met them growing up that in the picture of their lives that they were trying to draw in their heads, those heads would be covered by fire helmets.
They went to high school and the local JC but in the end, it was all but decided in 197o0 when they were born, that my twin cousins, Byron and Bryon would be firefighters. They are. One lives in the very same town he grew up in and is a firefighter across the river in Harrisburg, the other lives in Washington D.C. and is a firefighter there.
IN the beginning the picture that they drew for themselves was likely not anything special, they were children so you can imagine the picture being in crayon, all reds and yellows, with the cool fire truck and the Dalmatian and all the clichés, drawn in broad, heroic strokes.
Later, when they began to realize that nothing is like the ideal pictures we draw when we are children, other, more subtle nuances began to creep in. Suddenly there was the hope for companionship and love, the dream of a spouse to accompany them along the road that their life would take and so she was drawn into the picture. It began to occur to them that they could not really live with their folks forever and so a house came into view, sketched in along the side at first, then being moved closer to the center of the picture as time went on, moving from just a vague outline of a house to something more real, more permanent, maybe we’d like a big back yard? Maybe we’d like a big front yard; all of those questions began to be answered in the picture of their lives that they were drawing in their heads, and building with their bodies.
Even later, when schooling was done and work had begun the picture became even more real, with painful bits thrown in here and there as they loved and lost, as friends perished in the flames, as childhood dreams of heroism faded and adult knowledge of duty and sacrifice took the fore.
There was once a commercial showing each person walking around in the course of their day with this egg floating behind them meant to represent their “nest egg” and the picture that we draw, the representation of the dream we all have the idea of what our life is going to be like is a little like that egg. It floats there, behind us, changing as time goes along, becoming more of this, less of that as we grow in our understanding of what is important.
For most of us, the dream of heroism fades and becomes a hope of doing something significant, meaningful. Maybe the dream of a Ferrari falls by the wayside and is replaced by a hybrid, or even a plug-in electric car running off of our solar panels. The cartoonish spouses that young men covet are, hopefully, replaced by fully nuanced, real live girls, who will care for us and let us care for them so that we can grow old together fruitfully, living full and free lives the way God intends for all God’s children.
It is not so much a canvas as it is an etch-a-sketch, something being constantly redrawn every minute, every second of our lives as we receive new information, new things come to our attention, new possibilities arise before us. We see something that we value more than the dream of being a ninja, or find out that our gifts lie more along the lines of the saxophone than the Indy Car, or find out that the man on the same floor of our dorm who is nothing like who we have dreamed of marrying is in fact, the most fascinating person we’ve ever met. Better sketch him into the picture.
We cherish these images, we craft and update them. As we grow they become more than just a dream, they become a plan, a hope a wish upon a star that our lives will somehow reflect the picture we have been drawing in our minds all our lives. It is our narrative, our story; we add the things that have happened alongside the things that we wish would happen, memories snuggling up to dreams.
It is the tapestry of our lives, woven rich and lovely by our own minds. It is us, all we are and all that we dream of being. Each thread is a part of the richness, of the beauty; each person, each experience, each new hope and each new dream is woven into the whole.
The elder son in this morning’s Gospel story has been weaving that tapestry his whole life. He has gotten up each morning and looked across the breadth of his life and seen what his dreams might look like when they will at last come true. He knows that the land will be his, he is the eldest after all, and so the land will pass to him, and the herds and all the rest. When he gathers with his friends he and they plot what they will do when they become adults and are the ones in control of their own destinies, the further fields they might explore, the opportunities they might experience, travel to Jerusalem, to be sure and all of the exotic excitement of that journey as they go to worship, to make their prayers known to God where God’s seat is to be found.
His brother’s leaving is of little importance to the scope and breadth of his tapestry. He took what was due him and went his own way. The elder son can hire someone to do his work.
The same sorts of dreams that you and I have, the same sort of tapestry, no less treasured by him, is being woven in his mind. Sure, his horizons are a little shorter than ours, he is not likely to create something on the internet that is seen by millions of people, but in his own context, he dreams no less about love and hope and family and the future and what it will be like.
Like Golem with his “Precious” in the Lord of the Ring books, yes they were books once upon a time, we all grow very attached to our visions for the future, about what it will be like. We sketch and re-sketch; we fill in details until the whole thing is laid out before us, “the way things are going to be.” We guard that image jealously.
We may make minor adjustments, but the arc of our lives, so we think, should follow this path, the path of our dreams and the elder son is ready, he has a vision of his future and he is patiently waiting for it to come true.
Then our stupid, lazy, selfish little brother comes home. When we thought he was dead that was sad, but we sketched a little thing into the corner of our vision about naming a son after him someday, the sadness passed and the plan was in place.
What’s that noise? Is that the harp playing, and the flute? Is that the sound of revelry going on? What has happened? The salves tell him that his brother has come home and suddenly everything about the picture that he has been drawing in his mind, everything about his dreams and hopes, his plans and visions for his future, for his life seem somehow to be slipping from his gasp.
He pleads with his father for an explanation? Why, he asks are you showering this worthless son with such gifts when you have never so much as given me a small gift for me to share with my friends? Why is he being celebrated for surviving his own stupidity when I have never been rewarded for my own obedience?
He rails and complains but it never says whether or not his father’s answer is satisfying to him. It doesn’t truly matter whether or not his father’s answer is satisfying to him because the fairness of the celebration of the prodigal son’s return is truly not the point.
He has been crafting an image of himself, of his life for as long as he can remember. He has invested himself and his love and his heart and his faith and everything that he has in this vision, this tapestry, this image of himself and in one short stroke his father, whom he loves without measure, has shown him that his beautiful, magnificent wondrous image is like an image drawn in the sand with a stick, crude and meager compared to the mercy and love that is available to him, has always been available to him, will always be available to him, no matter what.
Nothing has been taken away from him, his father tells him. What is mine has always been yours, and will still be yours, but look beyond that. Look beyond your own plans for what is possible and what is good and what is satisfying and what can be and is possible. See what it is that God has in God’s imagination, in God’s hopes and in God’s vision for you.
In the Elder son, Jesus is holding a mirror up for us, showing us our own selves, our own attachment to our own visions. The elder son has lost nothing but his blinders. He will still inherit, the Kingdom, to stretch the metaphor, is still his. Why was there no place in his tapestry for his brother? Why does he think that his father’s love is finite, not enough for him and his brother, returned as if from the dead?
We are the saved, the inheritance of the Father is already ours, has always been ours, nothing will change that. Should we begrudge those who also find God’s love in their lives and also find salvation in faith, even those whom we judge to be unworthy? Why should God’s lavish display of love toward them, whose sins in our eyes are many, be anything other than a cause for celebration in our own hearts?
We cannot get so trapped in visions of our own making, in the tapestry we weave for our own lives that we miss the fact that God’s hand is mightier than ours, God’s word is more enduring than ours, and the image that god has planned, painted and woven for us is a far more beautiful path than we could possible imagine.
It is even more so when we weave our own path, plot our own strategies, hope our own hopes and dream our own dreams to be in harmony with God’s own work. When we seek to live in the safety of our own salvation, knowing that it is itself a lavish and magnificent show of grace and love, then the tapestry we weave, the vision we dream for ourselves will never be disappointing. It will flow with the love of God and will shine like the noonday sun and no deadbeat little brother will ever change that.
We can embrace him, and celebrate that he too has been woven into God’s tapestry of life, what was once dead, is now alive.