Sermon Tips: Art as a Tutorial to Scripture
Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes, dealing with writer’s block, and 12 questions for effective preaching. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.
Words are a preacher’s joy, delight, and challenge. But at best, words are just one of the many tools of the blessed Holy Spirit. As a lover of words I give my best to each word, but I realize the real sermon is the one going on in the hearer’s heart and mind, touched by the Spirit of God, not necessarily my words. So whenever possible, I enjoy offering two sermons—the words so carefully prepared as my prompt and a visual with an artist’s interpretation.
The journey from commentary, blog, and library as guide to scripture to listening to artists, liturgical and otherwise, was not an easy one in my case, but the Holy Spirit is relentless. My conversion to listening to art and the artist began with the story of Joseph and Mary. With simple pen drawings of a reluctant Joseph traveling with a pregnant Mary on a lonely road, and a framed window where Mary might have looked out to the glowing night sky, which anticipated the magnificent Glory to God in the Highest, to the transformed Joseph holding his Christ Child, I watched fabric artists bring scripture to life. It helped that I had been part of the audience in a fabulous production of The Black Nativity, a dramatic musical set to Scripture’s deepest beats. My tutorial in hearing Scripture through art has continued for years.
By engaging with art a sermon is given the opportunity to explore multicultural images. We think and visualize in images that mirror our own reality. Imagine, “A man walks into a room . . .” what does he look like, what does the room look like, is this sinister (and why?), is this a threat (and why?), is this comforting? Where are the lights and shadows in your imagination? An artist provides these interpretations by which our assumptions may be challenged.
My favorite image of Abraham used during a sermon from Genesis, is a poster advertising for a film about Abraham, the name of the film escapes me. The poster had Abraham’s face, lined, aged, seasoned, hardened, and softened with experience—a man of great sorrow and equal joy. His head was draped in the fabrics of his time and place. The face was that of the Disney actor Dean Jones, a face I remembered well from my childhood. Dean Jones played fun characters, good stalwart characters, enjoyable TV movies for a Sunday evening. What crossed my mind as I saw him portraying Abraham was, how could Dean Jones ever commit to killing Isaac?? The picture gave voice to “how could Abraham have done that?” Art has the blessed ability to challenge our basic assumptions.
My reluctant journey into art’s interpretation of Scripture brought me into contact with dozens of liturgical artists. No image may be printed or projected without the artist’s permission—which gave me the opportunity to meet several artists. Most are thrilled to hear how their art helps you interpret God’s word. Most liturgical artists merely ask that credit be given where due. Friendships developed and I am the richer for it.
One liturgical artist is Gwen Meharg. For years she managed www.drawneartogod.com. Her joy is to interpret Scripture through art, often on a Sunday morning during the sermon, during the hymns, or the child wiggling in the back of the sanctuary. Gwen writes on her blog, sometimes she has a plan, other times God drops ideas and pictures into her heart and she paints. *
As an example, in Jesus’ crucifixion she paints just the end of one cross beam, with Jesus’ lifeless hand. Reaching toward Jesus’ hand, really his finger, is the very finger of God in the same style of Michelangelo’s famous painting of God touching Adam at Creation with new life, but this new creation is reviving the new Adam, Jesus the Christ. Gwen writes that in the cross beam of Jesus’ cross she sees a bridge between God and humanity. To this Gwen adds, of all things, a curious little sparrow. The viewer sees the sparrow long before recognizing the cross of Jesus. It draws down our defenses; it gives us, the preacher and congregation, a point of contact because the finger of God also seems to be reaching for the sparrow to cross the gap into life. The sparrow is not intimidated by God, but free and accepting. Gwen writes, “(I) represent Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as being our bridge to God. Of course, the sparrow is us. The little sparrow is resting on Jesus—oblivious to His condition—and about to hop over to stand on God’s hand. Seeing His Son suffering, God still reaches out for the sparrow.” The Exchange has helped me see and live the life-giving cross, provided by the God of the sparrow, God of the whale; God of the swirling stars, (and with all creation we sing) how does the creature say awe? How does the creature say praise?** Amen.
*Used with permission www.drawneartogod.com
** Thank you Glory To God: Presbyterian Hymnal #22
Jane Esterline is new to the PTS community this summer. She is a minister with a heart for the congregation who served a mid-sized church in rural Illinois before moving to Pittsburgh to join President David Esterline. Together they served as mission co-workers in Cameroon and Fiji Islands. Her focus was on building bridges through solidarity.