Sunday, October 31, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, October 31, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Psalm 9 and I Corinthians 10:23

One of the most moving and informative plaques and posters that is here at TEMC is hardly ever seen by the public at large, yet it is one I see every Sunday morning as a form of inspiration. It is located right above the water cooler, in the Choir Room that the men change in. In it there is a very simple poster with a very simple message: The end and the aim of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. It is ascribed to one Johann Sebastian Bach. Is it any wonder that when I read something like that, I look forward to listening to Andrew Ager play the Toccata and Fugue in d minor at the end of this service. (and I hope there will be time for those of you listening on the radio to get even a sense of the brilliance and wonder and majesty of that music.)

For Johann Sebastian Bach, God was the inspiration for all that he would write and do. God was the motivation; God was the beginning and the end for what he did. For those of us who have ears to hear, when you listen to Bach I think you can hear the glory of God. From the very roots of our faith, from its very genesis, there has been the belief that the praise of God, the glory of God, is manifested in the gifts that we are given by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Whether it be the gift of music as in Bach's case, or whether it be the gift of art in other forms is immaterial. The fact of the matter is that what we have been given, we use for the glory and honour of the one who made us.

Never is this more poignant than in the Psalm that was read for us ? Psalm 9. In this the Psalmist lifts to the highest level the exaltation of God. When one first reads this Psalm it almost seems a little militaristic and violent and there are battles taking place, but to read it in such a way and to dismiss it is to dismiss the heart and content of the Psalmist himself and the context in which he wrote. For the Psalmist was abundantly clear when he wrote: I will praise you O God with my whole heart. For the Psalmist there was no holding back. There was this belief that God is to be praised and given glory and honour regardless of the context, but in the context in which he was writing, it was all the more poignant. There is no doubt that this is one of the latter Psalms within the Bible; most scholars agree. It was written probably in the light of the oppression of whomever it was who was writing it. It is also clear that the Psalmist in this Psalm faces an enemy. The Psalmist's life is being placed in danger. The Psalmist's sole is in jeopardy. In one of the great moments that is often captured in art and music he says, “Will you lift me up from the gates of death?” He pleads with God to lift him up from the gates of death. Save me from my enemies, liberate me from the oppressor that is around for my life is in jeopardy and in your hands O God, I cast my soul.

Then in a wonderful turn in the passage that was read there are the glorious words: Lord you are my refuge. You are my strength. You are a stronghold in times of trouble. The point that the Psalmist is making is that the praise of God is a result of God's redemptive power. God is just, God is holy, God will side on side of the poor, God will support those who are in need. God will ultimately even save us from death. Therefore, I will praise you O God with my whole heart.

Look at the language he uses to describe his response: he says he will sing of God's praises, he will tell of God's goodness, he will rejoice and proclaim what God has done. In other words, as a response to God's gift of salvation, as God's protection when he is going through the difficult times, he will use all that he has to praise and glorify God's holy name.

As we celebrate our Artisans' Sunday and look at the wonderful gifts of creativity that are around this building this day (for those of you here at 9:30 service and listened as I prayed a while ago with the children who were singing in their hymns and lifting up God in praise, there is so much around us this day for which to give thanks and praise. ) All of these things must ultimately be directed as Johann Sebastian Bach said, “To the aim and the end which is the glory of God.”

This morning, I want to look at creativity; I want to look at a theology of creativity. By creativity, I'm not just limiting ourselves to song or to art or to beautiful buildings, I'm talking about those things in our lives that we do that we can dedicate to the glory and praise of God. There is no gift that is too small. There is no gift that we have been given that is inadequate. Everything that we have been given can be used to the glory of God.


First of all we have to look at our motivation. It seems that one of the things we are losing in the arts these days is a true sense of the motivation and purpose for doing it. A couple of years ago I was given a very difficult task: I was invited by a school to judge an art contest. When you are the local minister and you have to judge people's art you have to be very political! You look at all the names and pray to the Lord that there are no children from your own church there because you can't win. If you choose them you are seen to be biased and full of nepotism; if you don't, you have to face them the next Sunday. So I was in fear and trepidation of going to this show, but I had no need to worry. These children were not as wrapped up in themselves as we adults are. They were just beaming at what they had produced. As I walked through the aisles and looked at it all, I finally picked out one thing that I thought was particularly striking and put my little sticker on it and I felt proud! I had made a decision and my decision was final. There was only one problem: about half an hour later I met the artist and this young lad came up to me and said ”˜I'm glad I won and I'm glad you like it. Now I think it will make me a few bucks, don't you?' I'm thinking to myself: Oh Lord, is this the motivation for art? Is this the motivation for creativity? Does profit have to have its stain and touch on everything that we do? Is there not beauty for beauty's sake? Is there not praise for the purpose for the one who made us? Does everything have to boil down in our culture to what something is worth in dollars and cents? The motivation for what we do is vital. The motivation for what moves us to create is essential.

The Apostle Paul in writing in the Book of I Corinthians 1:10 is confronted with a problem. It is that the early Christian community was caught almost between two worlds. On one side was its Jewish tradition that restricted the foods that one could eat and things that one could drink and times when one could have them. On the other, was the Greek world which often had sacrifices to gods and meats and meals that came from idol worship. Christians, when invited to dinner, did not know what to do in such circumstances. Did they restrict what they ate or did they eat anything that they were given? The Apostle Paul turns this into motivation. He said that it's what motivates you that counts. The essential thing is eating with a clear conscience. Do not make anyone ? Jew or Greek ? feel bad by your presence, but rather whatever you eat or drink and whatever you do (here is the key), do it all for the glory of God.

I believe that is what should be in our hearts and minds. Whatever it is that we might do of a creative nature, it is ultimately the motivation that lies behind it that determines whether or not it is a gift of praise or simply a self-serving thing that we have made. So often I mourn the fact that people who are gifted, who have a particular and unique ability, seem only to think that it is for their own aggrandisement that they have been given it, rather than for the good of others or in praise of God. That is important.

But it is also important to understand when you look at creativity and the arts, that we are as creatures emotive people; we are not mechanisms. So what motivates us is vitally and absolutely important in our lives. That has been brought home to me recently with an article I read in a magazine called First Things by William Dembski. He makes the profound point as he asks the question: “Are we spiritual machines?” Are we only simply just a mechanism with some sort of a spiritual content or are we more? If we are more, then what motivates us is essential. What motivates us actually defines us. He said that we have gone through 150 years where we are moving as a society to the perspective that we are simply a mechanism, as if we're simply flesh and blood, as if we are automatons that just keep moving forward with physical desires and are nothing more. He argues against the point that Freud made ? that our faith, our belief, is nothing more than wishful thinking, the transference of an idea of the Holy and the Divine. He also disagreed with Karl Marx who said that religion is the opiate of the people; it is the very source of oppression within society and that it has no intrinsic value. Nietzsche also said that faith and prayer and things that move us are only for those of us who are weak, only for those of us who can't stand on our own and need a crutch in times of difficulty. Dembski argues in this article, that for 150 years we are moving as a society more and more to the fact that all we are is mechanisms and the things that drive us are just genetic or inherent or they're physical and there's nothing more. He makes a very powerful argument. He argues that we should not only talk about God as if God is a distant force, but also that human beings actually can know and experience God. That our faith isn't just an affirmation, but that our faith is a living relationship with God. Therefore what motivates us is not just born out of a selfish need, not of a selfish desire, not born to simply use as a form of political oppression (although sometimes it has been) but that indeed it is born out of an inherent relationship that human beings want and need and must have with the one who created them. He says that of all the creatures of the earth, of all the mechanisms of the earth, we are the ones who have a consciousness of the past and an awareness of the future. It is precisely for this reason that we can see a magnificent piece of art such as Holman Hunt's The Light of the World and be moved by it now, although it was produced many years ago. We can have a vision of the future and God's leading into the future and God's eternity because we are indeed in a unique relationship with God. Dembski argues that this relationship with God is the ultimate motivation in our lives. It is the thing that makes us human. Therefore, when we create or make anything, we make it as a response to Almighty God.

On this All Saints' Day I couldn't help but think of a wonderful passage in St. Augustine's Confessions. He said, “Despite the fact that we are superfluous, perilous and preposterous, despite the fact that our nature is often corrupt and that we do not know the good, nevertheless still within us there is this longing to produce even art for the glory of God.”

This I think is a call to see ourselves as people who are creators, who are creators of the good for God, who understand that the ultimate motivation in our lives is not just our own will and purpose, but the divine who created us and saved us in the first place. The mechanistic view of human existence in life is absolutely soul-less. I think people need faith in their lives to be truly creative. This was brought home some time ago when at a Christmas pageant, one of the parents sarcastically gave me a copy of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as redone by the materialist and not those who believe in the Spirit. It goes:

Twinkle twinkle little star
I know exactly who you are
An incandescent ball of gas
Condensed into a solid mass

All the wonder just goes out of it! We define it, we describe it, but we lose the soul within it. We must be careful here. All the creativity that we can give is in response to God, let it never be said that we are somehow equal to God. Let it never be said that we are co-creators with God, for we are not. This is shown in a story of scientists who went to see God and they wanted to throw down a challenge to the Almighty. The challenge was that “We don't need you God anymore. Why don't you just get lost? We are going to continue to create all for ourselves.” So God says, “All right. I'm up to the challenge. By all means, but I will do it only on one basis: that the same grounds that I used to create Adam in the first place you will adhere to.” The scientists went and had their little meeting and said, “Oh by all means, we will adhere to that.” So God let them go to it and finally they reached down and grabbed a piece of dust and earth from the ground. God said, “Oh no, no, no. You go and get your own earth first!” Let it never be said that somehow we are on a par with God. All our creativity, all the gifts of science which are so marvellous, all the wonders that we have of the mind and the ability to see are a gift. They are creating for the creator.


There is one last thing. Motivation is important but so too we need inspiration. One of the great concerns I have of the church is that we've often suppressed the arts. We have been a little suspicious of them as if creating music or art is going to be a challenge to the status quo; there is always this fear of idolatry. Nevermore was this seen than when Handel created Messiah. Mariano DiGangi who used to be a minister here in Toronto has written a wonderful little book on discovering Handel's Messiah. In it he tells a story about when Messiah was first performed and 700 people showed up. Within a matter of days and weeks the clergy and church had deemed that this must be a blasphemous thing because it was not being performed anymore within the churches and it was being performed in the concert halls and it was being performed within the secular realm and therefore there was the danger of this being blasphemous. I don't know about you, but if I thought that Handel's Messiah should be sung in every school, college and concert hall, in every theatre in this country, and if it was, all I would say is “Hallelujah!”, wouldn't you?

It is not that we should restrict the arts. It is that we should see and understand that God is the inspiration behind such great things as Handel's Messiah. The whole world, as the Psalmist wrote, should know, experience and hear the glory and wonder of God. For sometimes artists are able to see with eyes that the rest of us do not have. One of my good friends who died of cancer as a young man, produced one of the most moving displays that I have ever seen. It is a collection of art on illness and healing. During his time in hospital one of the things he committed himself to was to produce in paintings the experience of being a patient. This series of painting by one Robert Pope is in a little book I will leave in the Library here at TEMC. For visitors on the radio I encourage you to come and look at these. For in the midst of these images of suffering, even lying often on a bed and receiving radiation and chemotherapy, in the midst of this he sees hope. In these paintings you can see the image of the cross. He looks at these things through the eyes of someone who is inspired by the Spirit and even the poles that you pull with you when you have an intravenous drip, even in this he sees the presence of the cross ? the vertical and the horizontal. Even in the imagery of the machines that are used, he sees the beams of light that are horizontal and vertical again as a sign and the presence of the cross within the midst of it. Robert Pope sees the presence of the cross in the midst of all of human existence and in his paintings he has captured that truth. Here was someone who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, who understood and saw things through the inspiration and glory of God, but he did it not in order that he might sell them and make money, but that other patients who would suffer, would have hope.

Rembrandt was similarly moved when he made his paintings and etchings of Jesus forgiving sins or the magnificent painting of the Jewish bride. You see within all of these again, the hand of someone who wanted to create for the Creator. These people saw with eyes that many of us do not see. The most poignant of all art that I ever saw was by a young girl who was a classmate of mine in a school that had been established in England for children who were physically challenged or handicapped. I was there on a temporary basis because of the illness I had as a young boy but many of them went through their entire schooling there. We had an art class and were told to do one thing. We were told to paint the most beautiful thing that we have ever seen. I painted a car! An Aston Martin, a silver one with wire wheels. It was beautiful; not the painting, the car! Another friend painted a bowl of fruit, which showed he had no imagination whatsoever. Then there was young Melanie. She was a sweet thing, but from her very birth had been deformed. Many of her facial expressions were somehow incongruent with what she said. Her legs were in steel braces, her hands were in a particular type of cast. In her crude way she drew something. She didn't want us to see it and hid the work from us all. She wanted to keep it to herself but our teacher said, “No Melanie, we must see your painting.” She revealed a painting of the most beautiful girl with long flowing blond hair and perfect features and straight hands and a gorgeous complexion. As you looked down the painting however, you saw that her legs were in iron braces. We asked her what the title of her painting would be and she said, “What I Can Become.” She saw herself as beautiful!

We look and we see through human eyes, but through the power of the Spirit we see things differently. Like the Psalmist, we say, I will praise you O Lord with my whole heart. Like that wonderful passage in Corinthians: Whatever we do, we do to the glory of God. Whoever we are, we are for the glory of God. May we create for our Creator. Amen.