Community of the Avant-Garde

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, August 7, 2016
Taken from Luke 12:32-40


The phrase ‘avant-garde’ is from the French.  Its literal meaning is “advance guard” or “vanguard”.  Originally a military term, ‘avant-garde’ came to be applied more generally.

We describe as ‘avant-garde’ a group of people who push against the boundaries of what larger society considers acceptable or the norm or the status quo.  Most often we apply the label ‘avant-garde’ to artists across a variety of media, especially in the visual arts.

Rarely, though, do we hear the phrase applied to us as Christians, do we?  When have you ever heard anyone describe a Baptist church as ‘avant-garde’?

Yet, that is exactly the role Jesus envisioned for his followers as he walked among them.  They were the avant-garde of the Kingdom of God.  We today–yes, even us, University Baptist Church, as much as it may strain us to see it or to believe it—we are to be the Community of the Avant-Garde of Christ’s Kingdom.

You may be asking yourself, what in the world does that mean?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Let’s see if we can begin to find an answer.  Let’s begin by looking at an example of avant-garde, such as this painting on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning.

The painting is entitled ‘The Madonna of Port Lliad’.  The artist, Salvador Dali, painted it in 1950.  Now I know, strictly speaking, Dali was a Surrealist artist, but I think for our purposes this morning we can agree that Salvador Dali was also an Avant-Garde artist.

We’ll just make a few cursory observations of Dali’s depiction of the Madonna with Child.  Let’s start with the most obvious thing to note:  there’s painting of the Madonna with the Christ-Child on the cover of our worship bulletin this morning!  What in the world is a Roman Catholic icon doing on the cover of a Baptist worship bulletin?  It may prompt us to think about the long-standing hostility between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  It may stir up our own feelings about things Roman Catholic, feeling we’d rather not consider.

Let’s move in a little further.  There appears to be a sea shell at the bottom, center, of the painting.  And, look, there’s a big conch shell floating in the air there to the Madonna and Child’s left – our right.  But, especially, we see this much larger scalloped shell directly over head, at the top center of the painting.  What’s Dali got going on with these floating sea shells?

And what’s that hanging down from that big scalloped shell over top of everything?  It looks like an egg.  Indeed, it is an egg.  Well, that’s just plain weird, isn’t it?  Dali has sure got a messed vision of the Madonna and the Christ-Child, doesn’t he?

Until, you recall, that sea shells became a symbol of Christian pilgrimage.  The sea shell reminded Christians of when they would go on pilgrimage, leaving their homelands and crossing the sea to reach the Holy Land.  Ultimately, the sea shell came to stand for the pilgrimage every Christian is on, until we cross over that final sea to Heaven’s shore.  And, we recall that the egg became a Christian symbol of new life, especially the gift of Eternal life from above.  That’s why eggs are so important at Easter.

O.k., Dali, I’ll give you credit for the sea shells floating around in your painting, and I’ll give you credit for the egg suspended from above.  But, drilling right on down to the heart of your painting, what is going on in the middle of Madonna’s torso and in the middle of the Christ-child’s torso?  It looks like Dali painted big, empty spaces, taking away almost their entire torso’s.

Was Dali implying that there’s really nothing at the heart of the Madonna and Child?  Was Dali saying that, in reality, the Christian faith is just one big empty illusion?  If the greeters could have handed out magnifying glasses with the bulletins, you could take a much closer look at those big square holes Dali painted in the middle of the Madonna and the Christ-Child.  What you would see is that those openings are windows.  If you look through those window, you can see far off into the distant horizon that Dali painted.

You notice those little figures to each side that line the way off toward that horizon?  Those look like they might be angels, don’t they?  And you notice what they’re floating over?  They’re floating over a large body of water, like a sea.  Maybe, they’re lining the way across this sea that ends on Heaven’s shoreline off there beyond the horizon.

Looking through the windows the Dali painted at the heart of the Madonna and the Christ-child, you see this horizon that lies at the center of Dali’s painting.  Maybe Dali wanted us to consider if we meditate upon the life of Mary, if we meditate upon the life of Christ, we will find a window opening up in our own hearts, through which we might find our way to God.

There is a whole lot more going on here in this piece of art than first meets the eye.  At first glance, we see Dali’s painting, and we react: how weird it all is and odd and perhaps even so off-putting that we don’t want to even bother with it.

We could dismiss it out of hand as so much foolishness.  Or we start asking questions of it…what in the world is going on here?  What’s the artist seeing that I’m not seeing?  Why are these people and these objects depicted in this way that seem so unnatural, even bizarre to us?

That is the function of the avant-garde.  The avant-garde do not depict things as we commonly experience them.  They do not pretend to offer us a view of the world as we find comfort or pleasure in it.  The Avant-Garde push us to ask, how can they see life this way?  They’ve got to be crazy or mixed up or out of touch…it’s not normal, that’s for sure!

Swing back around to our Scripture, here in Luke chapter 12.  Chapter 12 is where Luke presents to us what we know better through Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount.  Except Luke puts a somewhat harder edge to Jesus’ teachings.  For example, this is where Luke inserts Jesus’ shocking words in verse 51, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In the verses previous to what is printed for us, Jesus lays out what the community of Christ is to be about.  Jesus catalogues and portrays all the things in which we seek safety, security, strength, protection.  Then, in verses 30-31, he says, “For all the nations of the world seek these very same things…all the people the world over seek these things; and your Father (in Heaven) knows that you need them, too.”

 But, you are not to be like the nations of this world!  You are not to be like the people among whom you live.  You belong to a new nation and to a new people.  “Instead,” Jesus continues in verse 31, “seek God’s kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus, here, bluntly confronts us:  what do we seek after?  What do we take hold of, that we think will give us life of safety and security and joy?  Jesus understands us.  Jesus knows us.  Jesus sought to warn us of the inevitable results of going after what every generation of every society has done.  You finally will be robbed of the very thing you hoped to gain.

We think we are taking hold of what will make our lives right and prosperous and secure.  But, Jesus knew that it was like reaching out to shake the hand of a strong man, whose grip is far greater than our own grip.  We reach out thinking we entering a partnership with a strong man who will give us what we need, who will protect us, who will make a way for us to be happy and at peace.

Only to discover, we have taken hold of a strong man who has no intention of letting us go, who gets a grip that begins to pinch and to frighten us, that makes us even more needy and desperate.

The kingdoms of this world are caught in that grip, says Jesus, and it’s a death-grip for sure.  It pulls this earth down into corruption and destruction and despair.  We wish we were free of its terror, free of its anxiety, free of all that wears and grinds us down, but we’re too afraid to let go even though we know it’s killing us and making us kill each other.

It was so in Jesus’ day, and it is so in our day.  Jesus said to his followers then, as Jesus says to us his followers today, in verses 32 and 33, “Fear not, little flock. Fear not!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Let go!  Let go!  Sell what you have, give it away, give it to the poor, let go of it for the sake of your own soul.”

 God takes hold of you, and God claims you. God who knows what you need, it is God’s delight to give you the eternal kingdom, as well as the things of this world.  You can let go and be released from that death grip of fear.  That’s what Jesus says.

 Jesus promises us even as Jesus warns us, in verse 34, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  And, there, he means, lies our destiny.  Will it ultimately be a destiny of destruction?  Or, will it be a destiny of Eternal life?

But, we react, “Lord, it’s just so…problematic to do that.  It’s problematic!”  Oh, yeah, you bet your britches it’s problematic.  I don’t know what the 1st century Aramaic equivalent was for the word “problematic”, but those early followers found out how problematic it was almost from the get-go.

Living out the Lord’s command was rife with mind-bending, soul-stretching problems and challenges.  It was going to become divisive, as Jesus plainly said here in this chapter 12, verses 49-53.

But, as the Book of Acts testifies of those early believers, over and over again, they faced the challenges, they sought the wisdom and the power which only Christ could provide them, and they went right on, in Jerusalem, into Judea, into Samaria, and right out through the entire world.

Can you imagine a community of people actually living the way Jesus commands, on this earth and in this nation, in this Commonwealth and in this city, on this particular corner in this city of Charlottesville?  Can you imagine you yourself, living this way, that Jesus calls on and even demands that we live?

We would not be of the norm, would we?  We would not be of the status quo, would we?  We would be an oddity, seemingly strange and weird by the standards of our place and time.  Onlookers would wonder, what in the world is that about?  What are they seeing that we don’t see?

They may ridicule us; they may dismiss us; but they may also begin to ask the questions that will lead them to the answers of salvation and of eternal life.  They would be changed, and all within their spheres of influence would change as well.  And, a little bit more of the Kingdom of God would show up on this earth.

That is what it would mean to be “The Community of the Avant-Garde of Christ.”  That is what it would mean for you to be an avant-garde of the Lord.