A Sermon by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould

Even for those of us who have not spent hours in front of a screen watching the Tokyo Olympics, the success of our athletes as well as the games themselves in such challenging circumstances has been something to celebrate. To see smiling faces in the news headlines rather than grim figures and fearful predictions has brought a welcome sense of balance to our existence in a time of turmoil.

The clear message coming from what is happening around the world, as well as in our own country, seems to be that even as we continue to make progress with getting people vaccinated, our lives are going to be subject to disruptions and challenges due to the COVID virus for quite some time to come.

That is a sobering and potentially depressing thought. Personally, I long for the day when I can get back to “life as usual” whatever I think that was. I’m aware of how downhearted I feel on hearing endless stories of people out of work, of businesses struggling to stay open, to say nothing of the vast financial debt we are bequeathing to the younger generation.

To me, it feels as if cracks are appearing through the whole of society, including in things that we thought were permanent and secure. (Who could ever had imagined a time when we couldn’t sing in the Cathedral?).

Perhaps surprisingly the Christian gospel tells us that this state of brokenness has the potential to also be the state of great blessedness. The beatitudes found in Matthew chapter 5 begin with the statement “Blessed are the poor in Sprit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That and the statements which constitute the Beatitudes sound very counterintuitive in a world which values achievement and success.

But it is good for us to remember that the hero of the Christian story is not a triumphant monarch, but a humble teacher, preacher, and prophet who was rejected by church and state, betrayed by his friends, and crucified amongst criminals on a hill, outside Jerusalem his spiritual home. …… And yes, he was the son of God,

and on the third day, the miraculous happened. Jesus triumphed over all evil including death for all time.

So, brokenness and failure need never be an end in themselves.

During the week I went to the Van Gogh Alive display in O’Connell Street. I don’t have a great appreciation of art. When I first visited London years ago, my more cultured friend studying at Oxford, left me for an afternoon to visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. She was somewhat horrified when I appeared home 90 minutes later. One hour in an art gallery was enough for me. Even the National Gallery in London! For there, in that hour, I encountered the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. After that, I didn’t want to go any further.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a post-Impressionist painter whose work was notable for its beauty, and its emotion and colour. His work highly influenced 20th-century art. He struggled with mental illness and remained poor and virtually unknown throughout his life.

He was the born one year after the first child in his family who was stillborn, and he was  given the same name- Vincent. At a young age, with his name and birthdate already etched on his dead brother’s headstone, Van Gogh became increasingly melancholy.

As a young man he worked as a language teacher and lay preacher in England and, in 1877, worked for a bookseller. Impelled by a longing to serve humanity, he thought about entering the ministry and took up theology; however, he gave this up in 1878 for short-term training as an evangelist. Failing to get an appointment after three months, he left to do missionary work among the impoverished population in a coal-mining region in southwestern Belgium. There, in the winter of 1879–80, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life. Living among the poor, he gave away all his worldly goods in an impassioned moment; he was thereupon dismissed by church authorities for a too-literal interpretation of Christian teaching. He saw himself as a failure. In a different context we may have been revering hi as a saint!

It was after that that Vincent began to paint. His life in turmoil much of the time, he painted from his heart and with passion. His moods are reflected through the each of the eras of his paintings. Some paintings that are sombre often using dark red and green. Then there are the self- portraits which often show signs of the anguish in his mind, as in the one with his bandaged ear which he is said to have cut off after a fight with a friend!

Yet over all there is an overwhelming sense of life and beauty in his paintings His starry nights are filled with wonder and hope, the sunflowers bloom with exuberant joy, the café scenes of Paris depict the night life of the city which he loved.  Vincent’s final paintings were painted whilst in an asylum, where he could not escape confinment  to nature which was his great healer, so he painted them from memory. It is these paintings of landscapes, lovers resting by the haystacks, and wheat fields and the Starry Night, that have become his most treasured works.

Along with his paintings Vincent Van Gogh has legacy of his wisdom in the form of his sayings.  These are a few of them.

“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” 

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.” 

“Love is something eternal; the aspect may change, but not the essence”

 “Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.”

Van Gogh was never able to overcome his mental illness. He was constantly haunted by loneliness and rejection and the fear of losing touch with reality. Sadly, at the age of 37 he shot himself and died 2 days later, having a pauper, having only ever sold one painting.

And yes, he has become known as one of the greatest artists the world has known.

I found the experience of the Van Gogh exhibition deeply moving. By its nature his art draws you into his emotional experience at the time, and far from being morbid, there is an underlying struggle for meaning, beauty peace and hope. His abundant use of bright yellow signifies life and his desire for life, his gazing into the exquisitely painted starry skies and wondering what lies beyond shows a desire for understanding, and his passion for nature and to be one with all people represents his search for love.

Like Jesus, to the world his short life appeared to be a failure. He was a broken man. Yet it was the courageous and creative way with which he lived out his broken life that has made him an inspiration for generations to come.

And so, if like me, you are feeling like the world around you is binging to show some scary cracks, or even that the world with in you is not as together as it used to be, as uncomfortable as this might seem, perhaps we can see this as an opportunity to allow God to do new and great things through us.

When we come to the point of recognising that things are beyond our control, then we are most open to recognise that the safe hands of God are just waiting for us to entrust ourselves and our future into them. And when we feel safe in the present, even in the midst of turmoil, we are free to do the most creative and beautiful work of our lives.  When we are not trying to impress anyone, not trying to prove ourselves to anyone, not comparing ourselves, our talents or failures with anyone else, not preoccupied with the future but simply allowing God to lovingly work through us just as we are in the present, then strangely our weakness can become our strength, and we discover life and light within us we did not know was there. Then it is often through the new light flowing through the cracks in our lives, that God’s light flows through out to others.

And so with the psalmist, we may respond with a deep joy and thanksgiving, even in the midst of our challenges;

“O taste a see how gracious the Lord is, Blessed is the one who puts their trust in Him” Ps 34:8