Sermon: When I Paint . . .
12.11.2016 Preaching Text: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” (James 5:7)
In the basement of the house where I grew up we had a piano, an old Steinway upright. I think it was a hand-me-down from someone on my father’s side of the family.
One day when I was probably about 5 or 6 years-old, I was plunking away at the keyboards, just a kid mindlessly touching stuff! My mother, however, had other ideas. Seeing me at the keyboard she asked pointedly, hopefully, “Do you think you’d like to take lessons?”
I think I must have shrugged, which she apparently took to mean a resounding “yes!” For the next 2 or 3 years, I muddled through my piano lessons without any heart for it. I wish I could go back and apologize to my teacher! The poor woman suffered.
But one of my brothers, Bob, really took to the piano, eventually making music his career. One of my enduring memories of childhood is Bob sitting at the piano and me standing next to him as we sang songs together. We would spend hours making music, harmonizing, etc.
At one point during my misspent youth, I actually thought I’d really like to be a musician, though I did absolutely nothing to make it happen! Nonetheless, I was quite obsessed with my radios and, later, record players.
I remember lying awake during summer nights listening to my bedside radio because my father had this utterly insane idea that I should be in bed by 8 p.m.! Never mind that I was wide awake, it was still light out, and that I could hear my friends yelling and running around outside having a grand time.
Against strict orders, I’d put the radio on low and risk my father’s wrath, listening to the various New York stations. Later, I graduated to a record player and would spend countless hours listening and singing along.
One of the songs I grew attached to was a Bob Dylan song originally recorded in the early 70’s by his former Woodstock backup band, aptly named The Band. The song went by the title, When I Paint My Masterpiece, a song our own Crossroads Band will perform in the coming months.
What really appealed to me back then were the words. They portray an artist traveling in Europe searching vainly for inspiration. The tagline is the thrice-repeated phrase, “when I paint my masterpiece…”
“Everything is going to be different,” the lyrics announce hopefully, “when I paint my masterpiece.” And again: “Everything’s gonna sound like a rhapsody…when I paint my masterpiece.”
There is this plaintive, naïve hope that at some point the artist will attain the seemingly unattainable – perfection on earth. All the struggles and hardships will be past as he luxuriates finally in a state of complete artistic satisfaction, unsullied by the indignities and frustrations of this life.
It’s a pipe dream, we understand. But as a young man it struck a chord with me (no pun intended). Like most young people, struggling to find my bearings, not knowing the future, and hoping for the best, the song seemed to capture something deep and powerful.
It is my contention that this is not an entirely specious dream. In fact, it is this existential hope that is at the core of the human soul – the desire for perfection, for bliss, the urge to rise above all the limitations and disappointments of life, to know true contentment.
Yet even as the songwriter focuses all his energies on attaining this goal, the song betrays ample clues that he doesn’t really believe it, which makes the lyrics comical, ironic, even a bit sad. In other words, both listener and artist know it’s all a fantasy.
The idea that anybody could paint a masterpiece, write the perfect song, author a classic book, or attain the heights of any human endeavor, and then know utter perfection is utter folly. We all know this. And we rightly laugh at its shallow pretensions, if but ruefully.
In our readings this morning, however, we encounter a different though closely related folly. It is the folly of believing that despite all evidence to the contrary, we are indeed destined for utter perfection.
This is not the romantic musings of the poet or the daft idealisms of youth, but a hardnosed confidence in “that which is not yet seen,” i.e. eternity. It is a confidence that does not harbor illusions about the limitations and imperfections of this life, nor does it seek to avoid its challenges, as if retreating into some kind of aesthetic dream.
No, it’s a powerful trust that God will do what God has promised. It takes seriously the primal desires of the human heart for perfection, for perfect joy, as evidenced in Dylan’s song. But it places such desire in a heavenly context.
Linda placed a little sign in the house awhile back that reads, “The best is yet to be,” a line from Robert Browning’s famous poem entitled, Rabbi Ben Ezra.
In it, Browning summarizes his optimistic vision of an imperfect, heaven-starved humanity searching adidst youthful doubts and trials for mature imtimations of immortality, intimations that come in old age and are but a prelude to the optimal spiritual fulfillment beyond death:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
This sentiment has deep resonance with the Christian gospel, from which it no doubt sprang. The best is yet to be – beyond time.
Trusting this makes all the difference in the way we face life’s inevitable hardships, disappointments, and losses. For we know that one day God’s promise of eternal life shall be ours. it is real, not fanciful. Which gives us courage and vision in the midst of even the darkest of days.
Listen again to James, this time as presented by Eugene Peterson in the The Message, beginning at 5:7…
“Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master’s Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong. The Master could arrive at any time.”
Then, skipping to verse 10, he continues…
“Take the prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course!”
Here is the fulfillment of youth’s most fanciful desire, the eternal perfection for which we all were created to know. Amen.