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The Tree Of Beauty
March 21, 1992

A married couple had a spat. The wife stormed out of the house, vowing never to return. On the back steps, she nearly tripped over an Aladdin's Lamp. Curious, she picked it up, rubbed it and, sure enough, out popped the Genie. "I am at your command," said the Genie. "I will grant you three wishes." Of course she was overjoyed, but the Genie added a word of caution. "I will grant you whatever you wish, but I must warn you that whatever you get, your husband will get twice as much." The wife wasn't too thrilled about that, but you don't quibble with an opportunity more certain than the lottery! "First," she said, "I would like a million dollars." Poof! And a million dollars lay at her feet. She jumped for joy, until the Genie reminded her that Old Meanie in the house just received two million dollars.

"Are you sure you want to go on?" asked the Genie. "Sure," she said with a little less enthusiasm, "I'd like a pile of diamonds, three feet high." Poof! Right next to the money appeared a mound of sparkling diamonds! "I don't mean to dampen your fun," said the Genie, "but your husband is sitting in his Lazy Boy recliner with a pile of diamonds on both sides. Maybe you'd like to forego your third and final wish?" She thought for a moment and then said, "No, Genie, I'd like one last wish. What I want you to do is scare me half to death!"

Isn't it interesting how wishes so often begin with money and diamonds, as if having more material possessions than the other fellow has, will make us happy. Evidently, it didn't enter her mind to wish for love (with twice as much for her obstinate husband). Evidently it didn't enter her mind to wish for a deeper, more personal, intimate relationship with God. If you had three wishes, what would you ask?

We are focusing our attention on the Tree of Life this Lenten season. The Tree of Life is symbolic of a living, dynamic relationship with God. A full, complete, rich spiritual life includes: The Tree of Wisdom which is a vision of the ideal, the larger picture; the Tree of Knowledge which is a growing, stretching, learning, inquisitive mind; the Tree of Healing which is to experience the reconciling, redemptive, healing love of God; the Tree of Compassion which tempers and motivates our actions; and the Tree of beauty.

Lewis Mumford in The Condition of Man, wrote:

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search for truth and perfection, is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.

We feed and nourish our bodies with food and water. Likewise, our spirits need to be fed. Beauty is the soul's food. Into your life, into your spirit, into your relationship with God put beauty. Beauty is a large subject, nebulous, with each of us defining and interpreting in our own way. For the purpose of this sermon, let's highlight the fine arts as one important way we feed our spirits aesthetically. Color, form, texture, proportion, rhythmic motion are expressed through art, ballet, dance, music, drama.

But, somehow our religious heritage has taught us to be suspicious of beauty. Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, wrote, "The Reformation was one of the most colossal failures in history; it threw overboard what makes the Church tolerable and even gracious; namely its aesthetic appeal; but kept its barbarous theology." He has a point. The Medieval church fostered beauty; magnificent cathedrals and art (consider the devoted work of Michelangelo which is yet to be surpassed). Protestants erred on the side of austerity; especially the Puritans who removed statues, images, icons, altars, crosses, stained glass, organs, and worshiped God in empty, barren, austere rooms.

Our sanctuary, this magnificent structure in which we worship, is a welcome break from historic Protestant barrenness. This very building feeds our spirits, our souls, our inner life with awe, wonder, and beauty. Music feeds our spirits. That is why we want to do our very best with the organ. This building deserves the best organ we have the ability and means to build, for the worship of God and the feeding of our souls with beauty. And we give a beautiful gift to the community by offering, through the Music at First Methodist series, concerts of exceptional quality. We give the gift of beauty, food for their spirits.

Besides music, our church has been a leader in promoting good art. For almost 30 years, Lolita Olaine has directed the Art on the Mezzanine. Every eight weeks, the exhibit changes. Through the years, the variety has been stimulating and inspiring. I have the privilege of daily walking past the art in our hallways and mezzanine. Now our church is adding drama to its spiritual diet. We are so blessed. After the Protestant Reformation, which essentially threw out the fine arts, drama disappeared from the church.

Sometimes we, because of our Protestant Puritan suspicion of beauty, act as if music, art, and drama are extra-curricular. Sometimes we act guilty, as if we are somehow doing something wrong when we put God's money into beauty. Another Whitehead quote, "Religions commit suicide when they find their inspirations in their dogmas." And religions commit suicide when they neglect or resist feeding our souls with beauty. Let's plant Trees of Beauty in God's garden.

As I prepared this sermon I was struck by what the Bible calls beautiful. In describing heaven, in describing the kingdom of God, the ultimate ideal of where all of creation is heading, what scene did the biblical authors depict? Not the 23rd Psalm. In describing heaven, they did not talk about green pastures, shepherds and sheep. I suspect many of us would describe heaven, the ultimate vision of beauty, in rural and nature terms, like Yosemite, or the pounding of ocean waves on the shore, or sheep grazing on a hillside. But, in the Bible, heaven, the kingdom of God, is described as a city! The most beautiful image they could depict is a city, an urban area! Beginning with Isaiah and culminating in Revelation, they long for a New Jerusalem, a city. Do you suppose one reason we let our cities fall into decay and ruin, and become a blight on God's creation, is that we have lost the biblical vision of how beautiful a city can be, and should be? Indeed, it is to the cities we go for art, music, and drama. Cities are the homes of the fine arts.

Cities are also where people live, and people are God's most prized creation. Can we catch of vision of beauty where beautiful people live together in peace and harmony? Some of you may know Ken Rohrs. Ken grew up in this church and now teaches school in Hong Kong. In a recent letter, Ken wrote:

Riding the public bus home at 10:45 last night, we noticed the composition of persons boarding the bus at various stops enroute. There were Europeans, Australians, Japanese, Filipinos, Americans, Koreans, Hong Kong Chinese, business executives, office and factory workers, laborers, domestic helpers, students, market vendors--all on the bus...Seeing all these people from many nationalities and economic levels riding a public bus, late at night, in an extremely crowded city, focused one of the strengths of Hong Kong's successful society...With the exception of some of the extremely wealthy, people of all classes mix at all levels in public places and on public transport. This contrasted to...American society where a metropolitan public bus or subway is unsafe late at night because only specific classes and races generally use public transport. In America, those who can afford not to, don't mix. In this city of six million people, Maria (age 16) and Irene (age 14) safely come home alone on the public bus at 11:00 at night. In the suburban San Francisco peninsula our friends and relatives worry about the girls riding the buses at 2:00 in the afternoon. When all participate in something, it is a safer and more unified society.

Evidently the rest of the world has much to teach us. We also can be encouraged to know there are cities in the world which have learned how to control crime, and how to live together in racial equality. Isn't the most beautiful vision on earth one where people of all races, nationalities, economic backgrounds live, work, worship, and enjoy the fine arts together?

This is the Year of Community in our church. We seek to build a spiritual community here that models the Kingdom of God. May our unique church community be filled with wisdom, knowledge, healing, compassion, and beauty. Let's continue to develop the fine arts ministry we have so beautifully begun--the ministry of music, art, and drama. Let's continue to be open and welcoming to all of God's people so that everyone who comes feels at home. We live in the urban sprawl of a large metropolitan area. Life here is beautiful, and can even be more beautiful as we intentionally feed our souls with beauty. Make room for beauty in your life. Intentionally seek beauty. Let beauty feed your inner life. Let beauty enrich and enhance your relationship with God.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris