In the 1930s there was a group of artists in Europe that met regularly as the shadow of war spread across the continent. The Nazis were on the march invading one country after another. In that dark time, these artists would gather and ask each other this question: "How can one think about planting roses when the world is burning?"
They asked, how can we pursue art—how can we paint, and compose music, and spend our time creating beautiful things when there is so much ugliness and despair all around us? How can we plant roses when the world is burning? How would you have answered them? I want you to hold on to that thought.
The last time I preached in this church I focused on the theology of vocation—the idea that God has a calling for each person, and that we each have multiple callings. First there is our highest calling to live in unity with God. And then we all share a set of common callings—those things that all Christians in all places and all times are called to do. Like love one another, give to those in need, seek justice, and announce the good news of God. But every one of us also has a specific calling from God—a vocation that we are uniquely gifted and called to do. We are called to be a spouse to a specific person, or a parent to specific children, or a teacher, a business leader, a pastor, a gardener, a doctor, an air traffic controller. Whatever God has called us to, it matters. We should pursue our specific callings with passion, for the blessing of others and to bring glory to God.
This morning I want to continue talking about vocation, but this time I want to go a bit deeper and more specific. I want to talk about one specific calling that has the power to transform the way our culture, and the entire world, thinks about God and people. It touches the deepest parts of our soul; it awakens our sense of justice, dignity, and hope. Yet it is probably the calling least valued by the church today. It is the calling of the artist; the calling to create beauty.
Now most of you are thinking, I'm not an artist. That's not my calling. You're thinking this message won't apply to you—that you wasted your time coming this morning. You're wrong. If you are human, you're an artist. If you are made in the image of God, and we all are, then you were made to create and appreciate beauty.
This morning I want to convince you that our call as Christ's people to cultivate beauty has the power to change the world. That the vocation of the artist can turn back injustice, awaken hope, and reveal the mysteries of God to a world that has the imagination to see them. I want to convince you to reclaim our Christian calling to fill this world not only with goodness and truth, but with the wonderfully impractical quality of beauty.
And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor." And they scolded her.
Why are Jesus' disciples upset? They are watching this woman pour out a very expensive flask of oil, and they interpret the scene through the value of practicality. Look what they say, "Why has the ointment been wasted. It could have been sold for a lot of money and put to a good purpose." They're thinking practically. They're thinking about usefulness. To them the oil was a commodity to be utilized and exchanged for a measurable outcome; therefore, pouring it onto the floor was a waste. But Jesus sees things very differently:
But Jesus said, "Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."
Jesus doesn't see a woman wasting an expensive commodity. He doesn't view her actions through the lens of practicality. Instead he sees the beauty of it. Then he chastises the others for their lack of vision—for only seeing the practical and missing the beautiful.
Like the disciples, our world, both outside the church and within it, seems incapable of seeing beyond the practical. We believe value is only found in a thing's usefulness. When something isn't useful—we throw it away and get a new one. Sadly this practical, utilitarian vision of the world also extends to the way we see people. Every year 44 million children are aborted. Why? Because someone has decided they are not useful. There are 27 million slaves in the world today—more than at any other time in history. Why? Because we have decided that people have no inherent value apart from what they can produce.
Why are human trafficking and pornography pandemic in our culture? Because we've accepted the idea that people, and their bodies, exist merely to be used. Why are divorce rates so high? Because when I no longer find my spouse or family useful, or if they are interfering with my goals, it is ok to break a promise and find a more useful partner. Why are leaders in Washington only now talking about immigration reform after decades? Because suddenly 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. have become politically useful. Did they not have any value before the 2012 election? Apparently not.
Like Jesus' disciples, we have been conditioned to see everything and everyone through the lens of practicality. But Jesus reminds us that God created his world to be more than practical.
All the way back in Genesis 2 there is a fascinating verse. God establishes a garden, a perfect habitat for humanity, and we read that God put there every tree that is beautiful to the sight and good for food. That verse caught the attention of early rabbinical scholars. You see, up to that point in the creation narrative everything made sense. Everything was practical. But here the text lists the beauty of the trees before their usefulness for food. Why, they wondered?
Why bother mentioning the beauty of the trees? And why list it first? These scholars came to a wonderful conclusion—God wanted humanity to learn that value isn't limited to usefulness. The trees' beauty reminds us that some things exist not to be used, but simply to be adored. This is what the disciples failed to see when they chastised the woman for pouring out the oil, and unfortunately a great deal of contemporary Christianity has also lost the ability to value the impractical as well.
We come to church and we want a practical sermon. We want something useful, something I can apply today that will make a difference. We want results! We want God, not because of who he is, but for what he can do for me. Jesus becomes our duct tape/WD-40 combo pack—all we need to fix just about anything. We praise him as the Almighty Improver and the means by which our dreams and goals can be achieved. As a result, our worship often carries a hidden, pragmatic agenda. We believe that our worship or giving will obligate God to act on our behalf. Rather than beautiful, our worship becomes a transaction.
This was on display a few years ago when a wide receiver for a professional football team dropped a pass in the end zone. After the game he blamed God for the loss in a tweet. "I praise you 24/7! And this is how you do me! You expect me to learn from this? How? I'll never forget this! Ever!" In his mind worship was a transaction that served a practical purpose. In exchange for his devotion, God was supposed to help him on the football field. This approach does not value God as someone to worship but as something to use. He is a means to an end.
This is what happens when we lose sight of beauty, when we succumb to the utilitarian inclinations of our sinful hearts and our commercial culture. Without the impracticality of beauty, we miss the truth that some things exist simply to behold and not to be used; we have no way of recognizing the inherent and infinite value of God himself. The word worship means "to ascribe worth." It sees the intrinsic, rather than transactional, value of that which is being praised.
Unlike religions fueled by superstition or fear, true Christian faith does not worship God with a practical goal in mind. It is not transactional. It is not useful. Worship is an impractical and beautiful act of adoration that flows from a heart transfixed by the beauty of God. That is why Jesus celebrates the woman in Mark 14 and the disciples rebuke her. She was worshipping beautifully, but they could only think of worship transactionally. True worship cares for nothing in return but the presence of God himself, as David sings in Psalm 27, "One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD."
Valuing the Impractical
When artists unleash their calling in our world, they cultivate beauty. They remind us that there's more to this life than what's useful. They remind us that God created some things simply to behold, not to be used. But when artists are suppressed or when they're beauty is forced to submit to practicality—we can quickly lose sight of that truth. We can easily slip into a utilitarian, and ungodly vision of the world.
During the Cold War when the Soviets dominated Eastern Europe, the "cultural division" of the government was led by a man named Alexander Dymschitz. He oversaw all of the art, music, literature, and architecture behind the Iron Curtain. Dymshitz absolutely forbid any abstract art. Why? Because the Soviets believed that art had to be practical. It had to tell a story and reinforce the ideals of the party. Abstract art was open to interpretation and carried no discernible message. "There was no such thing as art for art's sake," One writer said. "There was no such thing as art reaching into a spiritual or wordless realm." To the Soviets beauty had no inherent value.
They insisted that beauty submit to practicality. In other words, they made art into propaganda. Their worldview had no capacity to value anything or anyone that did not advance their agenda—a fact manifested in the murder of millions of people by communist regimes in the 20th century.
The church today, especially the evangelical church, is full of Dymschitz's mentality. Think about it—what we tell artists is you can write songs, as long as they're Christian songs. You can create art as long as it's clearly Christian art. You can write literature but it better have the gospel in there. It better be practical. The church says it values art, beauty, and creativity … but in most cases what we really value is propaganda. What we really want is for beauty to submit to practicality.
Friends, I have no doubt that many of you here care deeply about the injustices occurring in our world. You want to see the oppressed set free, the marginalized valued, and the orphans and widows cared for. You want to see the gospel preached to the lost. Those are very real, very practical problems that must be engaged. When we see those injustices we can think that cultivating art and beauty is a waste, a luxury that distracts the church from these more urgent issues.
But if we want our world to value orphans, the poor, the trafficked, and the hungry; if we want to awaken the church to the value of every human life no matter how small, old, broken, or different—then we must confront the utilitarian ethic that has enslaved us, and we do that by learning to value the unuseful. We do that by cultivating beauty. Beauty is the prerequisite for justice. If a people do not learn to value the impractical—they will never extend equal rights to the unuseful.
One of the most powerful ways the church can stand against the dehumanizing values of our culture is through foolish, impractical, and wasteful extravagance of our art—music, worship, architecture, literature, and poetry. We confront injustice by breaking ourselves open and pouring the beauty of our lives out on the floor. The world will not understand what we are doing, but our Lord will declare—" leave them alone, for they are doing a beautiful thing for me."
Performing an Act of Defiance
On May 28, 1992, Vedren Smajlovic, the lead cellist in the Sarajevo opera, put on his formal black tails and sat down on a fire-scorched chair in a bomb crater and began to play. The crater was outside a bakery in his neighborhood where twenty-two people waiting in line for bread had been killed the previous day. During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 90s, more than ten thousand people were killed. The citizens lived in constant fear of shelling and snipers while struggling each day to find food and water. Smajlović lived near one of the few working bakeries where a long line of people had gathered when a shell exploded. He rushed to the scene and was overcome with grief at the carnage.
For the next twenty-two days, one for each victim of the bombing, he decided to challenge the ugliness of war with his only weapon— beauty. He's known as the "Cellist of Sarajevo." After that, Smajlović continued to unleash the beauty of his music in graveyards, at funerals, in the rubble of buildings, and in the sniper-infested streets. Although completely vulnerable, he was never shot. It was as if the beauty of his presence repelled the violence of war. His music created an oasis amid the horror. It offered hope to the people of Sarajevo and a vision of beauty to the soldiers who were destroying the city.
A reporter asked him if he was crazy for playing in a war zone. Smajlović replied, "Why do you not ask if they are crazy for bombing Sarajevo?"
His story reveals another aspect of the artist's calling. Cultivating beauty not only reveals God's character to us, and teaches us to value the impractical, but they also confront the sinfulness of our world. In war we see the ultimate expression of our utilitarianism. War is supremely practical. It is the willingness to sacrifice literally everything to achieve a goal. When the tanks of war roll everything is crushed beneath their treads, leaving only ugliness behind.
Art, however, is the opposite of war. It is an act of creation rather than destruction, order rather than chaos, and beauty rather than ugliness. By playing his cello in the center of war-torn Sarajevo, Smajlović was planting a garden amid the battlefield. He was confronting the sinfulness of man, seen in the horrible practicality of war, with the beauty of God seen in the extravagant impracticality of art.
Art is more than a luxury and beauty is more than a frill. When we create art and music, or when we gather to worship with expressions of splendor and adoration, as we are doing this morning, like Smajlović we are performing an act of defiance. We are creating an oasis of beauty amid the dehumanizing ugliness of our world. We are declaring our refusal to succumb to the brokenness of the world and instead looking forward to a future world where all things will radiate the beauty of the Creator, and where justice will roll down like a mighty river.
When we started I told you about a group of artists who gathered in the 1930s as Europe was descending into war. At the opening of their meetings, the artists would say to each other: "How can we think about planting roses when the world is burning?" And in response, do you know what they said? "How can we not plant roses when the world is burning?"
Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.