Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday 19th February 2017 at Ss Peter & Paul
‘Consider the Lilies’ is part of a series of paintings entitled ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ painted by Stanley Spencer. It is what you see on the front of our Order of Service this morning. ‘Consider the Lilies’ is one of eight in the series, owned since 1983 by The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth – so rather a long journey awaits if you want to see them!
It’s generally thought that Spencer had intended 40 paintings in the series, each depicting a day Christ spent in the wilderness. While we cannot know for certain, Spencer’s own writing suggests two possible intentions for his paintings. One is that each work would be displayed in turn during Lent. The other is that the paintings were intended for the 40 square panels in the ceiling of the chancel of his beloved church at Cookham in Berkshire.
In the event, however, only eight paintings were completed, and these during the first few months of the Second World War when peoples across Europe found themselves flung into a wilderness.
But this morning, Spencer’s ‘Consider the Lilies’ helps us to explore the profound depths of this passage of scripture in Matthews Gospel and what it is that Jesus is endeavouring to instil in his disciples, in us. But Spencer does it in a delightful upside-down kind of way.
Because even a quick glance reveals that these are not lilies that Jesus is considering, but daisies! Here we have the everyday common daisy that grows willy-nilly in our gardens and countryside; the daisy that is so often trampled underfoot, barely noticed; the daisy that some will go to extraordinary lengths to obliterate from their lawns! The daisy that children will wonder at and make chains from. A tousle-haired Jesus is surrounded by them – no arid desert wilderness this, but a place of lush plenty with trees in the distance and what seems to be an early morning mist rising.
Jesus himself is monumental, vast, looking for all the world like a man who has enjoyed the invitations offered to share meals, who enjoys all the good things of God’s good creation, God’s banquet! And yet as we gaze at this picture, we perhaps notice that Spencer has painted Jesus resembling the rocks in the landscape recalling perhaps the worlds of the Psalm ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation’.
Monumental he may be, yet there is also a child-like quality about Jesus who is down on all fours gazing in wonder at the daisies around him, gazing intently at their simple yellow, white and pink tinged beauty. Why, I wonder, is Jesus staring so intently at these daisies? Perhaps for no other reason than because they are; delighting in them simply because they are made to be!
Christ contemplates the daisies – the beauty of God. And it seems that the daisies in the foreground contemplate him – the love of God. Christ and creation, a mutual regard of love and wonder.
There is a wonderful stillness in this painting, conveying a sense of calm, a sense of peace.
Contrast that image with the experiences of some this week. People whose lives were torn apart by the power of nature as the huge avalanche crashed down a French mountain close to the Italian border killing four people. Elsewhere starvation threatens, and three UN agencies have warned that an ‘immediate and massive’ response is needed to avert catastrophe in Somalia where more than 6 million people, half its population, are facing the “very real risk” of famine. War and persecution continues to blight the lives of so many peoples across our world, and the Arab world in particular; and still there are thousands of unaccompanied children across Europe seeking safe refuge from those wars, persecution or famine. Sadness, fear and anxiety are very real experiences in the lives of countless people across our world just now.
If we had to think of images of creation groaning, these might describe it very well. Day by day, we all share in what Paul describes as the groaning and labour pains of God’s world, its life and its community. But it wasn’t always like that.
In the Old Testament lesson set for today taken from the very beginning of Genesis, we hear again the story of creation (remind yourselves of the story again by reading it during the coming week). Time and time again, God looks at his creation and declares that it was good. And then, God creates humankind in his image, blessed them, saw everything that he had made and declared that it was very good. God is filled with joy and delight!
Genesis describes for us very clearly how things are meant to be, what joy each part of creation is meant to give the rest and how all of it is there to love and be loved by humankind whom God makes to be sharers in his own pleasure.
But human selfishness – sinfulness – distorts the relationship between peoples and God’s glorious creation. Yet deep within us is that yearning and call to be and reflect the image of God, to recognise it in one another and the whole of creation. Paul is no idealist; he understands the depth of the personal struggle and challenge involved in this yearning for a few verses earlier he says:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate……..For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!(Romans 7:15; 22-25)
Paul is not without hope! Creation is groaning, but that groaning, like a woman in labour, signals that unstoppable new life is coming to birth, glimpsed in the life and work, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, Paul argues, we groan, we wait, but we do so with eager longing and with hope! The foundation for our hope is the goodness and constancy of God and his love; glimpsing that goodness seen in creation helps us, encourages us to wait patiently and with hope, striving for God’s kingdom.
So back to our picture. Inspired by the teaching of Jesus, Spencer enables us to visualise Jesus who, like a child, is simply enjoying the moment, no anxiety here about food or drink or clothing, or anything else for that matter; but completely present to the object of his gaze, simply lost in wonder and joy, seeking God in what to many of us would be the most insignificant of flowers – the daisies we so often ignore, or trample underfoot!
As we gaze upon this picture, we contemplate the God who is completely and utterly present to his creation lost in love and wonder, joy and delight. We see an image of God gazing at his children – the daisies in his creation – gazing upon us with the same tenderness, joy and delight, totally present to us, completely focused on this moment in your life, in my life, in the lives of every one of us.
As we gaze, He invites us to find that same joy and fulfilment in being the people we are meant to be, encouraging us to grow where we have been planted, striving for the potential that is within us and to know that we are loved. We see the God who invites us to look upon each other in the same way that Jesus contemplates the daisies, completely and profoundly present. We see the God who invites us to seek his kingdom with the same childlike dependency and joy we see in Jesus. And as we gaze, God invites us to an awareness of his breaking in to all those moments that make up our lifetimes.
Accepting that invitation, we become ever more alive to the presence of God in our lives, in the lives of each other and through all creation. That cannot but change the way we relate to each other, to our communities and the natural world. And that is what it means to dwell in God’s Kingdom, and calls our hearts to sing with joy ‘How great thou art!’ Amen