God's Masterpiece

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

New Church of New York City, June 12, 2005


Readings

Psalm 8 How majestic is your name!

O Lord, our Lord,
     how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
     you have ordained praise
Because of your enemies,
     to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens,
     the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars,
     which you have set in place,
What are human beings,
     that you are mindful of them,
Mortals, that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
     and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion
     over the works of your hands;
You have put everything under their feet:
     All flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
     All that swim the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
     how majestic is your name in all the earth!

John 1:1-14 The light shines in the darkness

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it.

Arcana Coelestia #300 The universe is a stage

Each and all things in the universe represent the Lord's kingdom, so much so that the universe with all its constellations, its various atmospheres, and its three kingdoms is nothing but a kind of stage, on which the Lord's glory as it exists in heaven is represented. In the animal kingdom, not only humans but also each living creature--even the smallest and most insignificant of them--is representative. For example, caterpillars crawl on the ground and feed on plants, and when the time to mate is at hand they become chrysalises. Soon after this they are furnished with wings, with which they are raised up from the ground into the air, which is their heaven. There they enjoy freedom of movement as they play together, obtain nourishment from the best parts of the flowers, lay their eggs, and so produce a future generation. This is when they attain the state that is their particular heaven, and also their beauty. Anyone may see that these things are representative of the Lord's kingdom.

Sermon

I am so pleased to be here in New York City to speak on the theme "God's Masterpiece." It is a particularly wonderful place to talk on this subject, since New York City has always been a great center for the arts of various kinds--performing, pictorial, sculpture, and many other forms of artwork.

In fact, the night before I came here, my daughter was in a high school production of a show called "That's Entertainment." It's a variety show that includes pieces from many Broadway show tunes, among other things. And there I was, listening to songs like "NYC" from Annie, "America" from West Side Story, and "New York, New York," made popular by Frank Sinatra. So I was all primed and ready to go to New York!

So it is particularly appropriate to talk about the creative arts here. Also, the theme of the Swedenborgian Church's annual convention this year is "Spirituality and the Arts."

I suppose all artists like to think that they are doing something new--something that hasn't done before. They think they had this idea, and they are going to put it on paper, or into sculpture, or on the stage, or on the screen, and it will be something no one has ever seen before. And it might be a little annoying to think that God thought of it first. This is my idea! Yet we know theologically that nothing comes to us except from the spiritual realm. All of our thoughts and feelings come to us from the spiritual world; and the angels and spirits there get them from God. So all of the ideas that are flowing into us are actually coming from the Divine.

Swedenborg describes a scene involving some spirits who had newly arrived in the spiritual world, and didn't believe this. They insisted that their ideas were their own. So they were allowed to experience just how many ideas they had on their own: they were temporarily cut off from any communication with the angels and spirits around them. Though we may not be aware of it, we are in continual contact with angels and spirits, even while we are here on earth. When those newly arrived spirits were cut off from that communication, their minds went completely blank. They were not able to have any thoughts and feelings at all. They were given just enough consciousness so that they could remain aware of their state of mind. Through that experience, they had to admit that on their own they had no thoughts and feelings whatsoever.

Everything we have, including the artistic works that we produce, are actually expressions of something that is coming to us from the spiritual world, and ultimately from the mind of God. This may be annoying to some artists, who want to take credit for their work. On the other hand, what greater honor could there be than to realize that we are expressing something of the nature of God? To know that in our artwork there is something of the Divine nature being expressed?

Even the most abstract art draws on life experience. Most art is drawn very directly from the world of nature, of the human form, and the world of human emotions and interactions--all of which God created. Our artwork expresses our experiences, our thoughts, and our feelings, all of which originally came from the mind of God. And I find this to be a very wonderful thought. As long as we can get our ego out of the way, and not try to claim our work as our own, we can have the marvelous realization and experience of being a conduit through which God flows.

When I was in my twenties. I served as an apprentice in an artist's studio. The way I got that job is a funny story. At that time I was living out on an island on Puget Sound in Washington State, which is a very beautiful part of the country. I had been making my living doing what these days they call "landscaping"--which really means mowing people's lawns, doesn't it? I did other things too, such as digging garden beds and trimming hedges. As time went on, I dropped most of these jobs and did other things for a living. But there was one job I kept. I kept on mowing one person's lawn and trimming his hedges. That was for an artist--who, incidentally, regularly showed his work at the Kennedy Galleries here in New York. I kept working for him because I knew that the apprentice he had at the time would soon be finished there--and I had my eye on that job. So I kept on mowing the artist's lawn and trimming his hedges.

One day as I was sweeping the electric hedge trimmer across his hedges, he was standing back looking at my work with an artist's eye. I could see his mind working: "Could he do this?" Of course, I was doing my best artistic hedge-trimming! And it clicked into place: "Yes, he could be my apprentice." It wasn't long before I was not only mowing his lawn and trimming his hedges, but also working in his studio. His primary work was sculpture in wood, stone, and bronze. I used woodworking and carving tools, hammer and chisel, and other artist tools, roughing out the pieces under his direction. I worked for him for a number of years.

None of the work I did in his studio was my own. I knew it was his work, not mine. But I got great pleasure from taking the rough piece with all his markings, listening to his instructions, grasping what his aim was for the piece, and working away with the tools to express in wood or stone what was in his mind. So I was working in someone else's studio, doing someone else's work, helping him to create beautiful artwork that many people would enjoy and be inspired by--because there was a strong sense of the spiritual in his artwork. The forms evoked deeper meanings and messages. This, then, was an experience of doing work that wasn't my own, but was expressing something of the artist's mind.

That is what we are all doing here. We are all doing things that aren't our own--yet through us, God is expressing something of the Divine spirit.

When we think how our creativity comes from God, this naturally leads us to consider God's tremendous creativity. In human artwork we see expressed the human form, flowers, birds, landscapes, scenes of country and city life, and so many other subjects, all of which were originally created by God. The human form, both male and female, which is the subject of so many paintings, sculptures, and other types of art, is one of God's supreme creations. Everything in nature, including every tiny part of it, is a creation of God. It is mind-boggling to think that God designed each wing of the smallest hummingbirds, and of the delicate dragonflies, and even designed the intricate structures of creatures so tiny that we need a microscope to see them. And I believe that God is not only mindful of each and every one of these created things, but also finds great of joy in creating them.

Not only did God create every detail of each creature, but also created the entire universe--on the large scale and on the small scale, from galaxies and superclusters all the way down to the tiniest subatomic particles--and all of this works together. This becomes too vast and incredible for us to grasp. "Masterpiece" isn't anywhere near big enough a word to describe it! We create, in our own little world, a production on the stage, or a series of paintings or sculptures, and they are beautiful. But when we think about creating this vastness that our minds can hardly even comprehend a fraction of; when we think about the distances over which we would have to travel to get to the farthest reaches of the universe, and realize that God is just as mindful of things all the way at the other end, millions of light years away--things that we are never going to experience except as a tiny gleam of light--and is just as present there, creating tremendous wonders that we will never see . . . we do have to call it "God's masterpiece."

God has also taken the whole cosmos and compressed it into every single part of it. In today's words, we would say that the universe is holographic. God has made everything on the large scale reflected in the small, and everything on the small scale reflected in the large. This is expressed in the famous opening line of the poem "Auguries of Innocence," by William Blake: "To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower." That is God's design for the universe, because everything in the universe is expressive of the nature of God. If we could analyze a single atom and fully determine its substance and structure, we could find every part of God reflected in it. And if could grasp the universe as a whole and everything in it, we would find God reflected in the universe, and all of its myriad parts.

This is also true of the human body and mind. Genesis 1:27 says, "God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them." So we each have a microcosm of God right in our own body and spirit.

When we contemplate artwork depicting scenes in nature, or the human body, or even a human city, we are wandering through our own psyche. Because God has arranged the universe so that everything around us reflects what is inside of us, and everything inside us is reflected around us. Nothing that we experience around us is separate from us. It is all what's inside. John Muir captured this beautifully when he said, "The sun shines not on us, but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us."

Everything around us is within us as well. This is true of the people around us as well. We think of ourselves as having relationships with other people, and we do. Yet when we are having that argument with our mother, we are also having that argument within ourselves. Because our mother is not only outside of us; she is inside of us as well, because she has become a part of us. And when we have that loving moment with our spouse or children or grandchildren or a dear friend, we are also making a loving connection between different parts of our own spirit. There is no one around us who is simply outside us. We are interacting at the same time with those parts of our soul with in us.

This is what I find so beautiful about both the harmonious and the difficult relationships we have with people. I don't want to use the "good" and "bad" language here, because our difficult relationships are also good. They bring out different parts of what is inside us so that we can confront it and deal with it.

God created all of the universe, and also all of our interactions with the people around us, to reflect what is within us--to show us who we are, and help us to develop into the angels that God created us to be. And the more I think about it, the more my mind is overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of what God has done.

Sometimes we get used to life here, and think things are ordinary. We've walked down that street so many times before. We've walked up those old, worn-out stairs so many times before. We've had this conversation with our spouse over breakfast so many times before. But it only takes the lightning flash of one moment to see that within the experience or interaction we have been having over and over again all those years, there is so much more. All of a sudden we realize that tremendous things are happening; that this is not just an external world. This is God expressing the Divine in our everyday life, and our spirit is growing each time.

We may think it is just a circle, but it is actually a spiral. We come around to the same place, but each time we are a little bit higher. Each time we are a little bit deeper. We can think of the spiral as going upward, or as starting at the edge and going inward. We are always circling around, moving closer and closer to the Divine at the center. And each time around, we are a little closer, receiving a little more of God's glory and God's inspiration.

Everything we are, everything we are in, all the people around us, the city, the countryside--all of it is God's masterpiece. And all of it is teaching us both about the nature of God and about the nature of our own spirit. And I find that to be very beautiful.

 

Music: God Grant Us Peace
2002 Bruce De Boer
used with permission