October 09, 2016
October 9, 2016, Trinity Cathedral, Luke 17: 11--19
Rev. Deb Cooper
"Art is life; life is art." That is how Mimo Khair describes her work.i Mimo is a Lebanese street photographer who has traveled the world capturing real-life human faces that illustrate moments of human connection that can change the way we see one another.
I discovered Mimo's work two years ago when I sat down at my computer at an unusual time of day for me, and clicked on a yahoo news link--something I had NEVER done before. One of Mimo's photographs captured my attention: a young Syrian girl, probably a Muslim, living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. The thing that drew me to the photograph was the word "LOVE" written in English across her fingers--capital "L-O'V-E." The caption informed me that the other marks on her hand was also the word LOVE written in Arabic.
This was a synchronistic moment for me because I had just come from my morning prayer where I had been journaling about what "Love is." So it was the girl's hand that captured my immediate attention. LOVE drew me in, but it was the green-eyed little girl's face that kept me connected to her.
Her story, I was to learn, was that she had lost both of her parents, actually her whole family, only a few days before the photograph was taken. Yet, there she was, this vulnerable child holding up Marks of LOVE in multiple languages for the rest of us to see. The stories that this little girl's eyes told me went deep into my soul. The face of that Child of God standing with LOVE etched on her hand, in the midst of despair and exile, lingers in my memory. She has been at the center of my prayers ever since.
She is at the center of my prayer, because more times than not, my prayer starts with her image. Sometimes, I see it saying, “Love yourself, Deb.” Sometimes I see it saying, “Deb, love me.” Sometimes, I see it as the very Heart of the universe saying to us all, “Fear not. I love you.” And sometimes, it pops up when I’m looking into the face of somebody who appears to be so different from me that I can’t seem to relate to them at all. But then, her image becomes my cue to embrace the LOVE that our Christian faith tells us is standing all around us—preceding us, following us, living within us. Her image asks me to practice love even when I don’t want to, especially when I don’t want to. And that is hard.
Still, I’ve found that encounters with one face at a time, one person at a time, has the power to change my perception and move me into action—much more than stories about large humanitarian crises which creates cold, hard statistics without a real face. I get overwhelmed when I consider, for example, the Syrian war and its devastating number of atrocities. I get overwhelmed when I consider large, important actions, like the Black Lives Matter movement. I get overwhelmed when I consider the sheer number of active hate groups in the United States alone. I get overwhelmed when I read reports about poverty and health problems within Arkansas.
But encountering one face at a time, wanting to really know the one unique person right in front of me, somehow removes the political analysis and news commentary that demands we take a side. Instead, it helps us to embrace the real human story while cultivating a community, a sustainable community. Mimo seems to understand that because she captures one person at a time in her photography, one person at a time to tell their own part of the bigger story. They tell stories with real depth. Yes, her art is Life.
The writer of the gospel of Luke is an artist, too. He is an artist using language to paint a picture of Life, and his lens is focused on one leper—not just any leper, a Samaritan, a foreigner. That means that his lens is focused on a person of a particular ethnic and religious group that was scorned by the mainstream even when healthy. But this person also had a health condition that made him unworthy—a condition he had no control over that made him a social outcast, forced to forge an existence in a “no man’s land.” Yet, this is the person the writer of Luke chose, this is the person Jesus deliberately chose, to show us the way that God sees folks—with grace, out of steadfast LOVE, responding to a distant call for mercy.
The difference in Luke’s art and Mimo’s art is this: Mimo gives us literal faces that cause us to search for depth of character; Luke shows us depth of character, and we have to search the faces we don’t normally look into to find it. This is the picture of Luke’s work of art: an exiled person is transformed by LOVE; an unexpected encounter with LOVE paints a clearer vision of the HEART of God; a joyful heart moves the canvas back to the very source of its LIFE.
Street photography, words woven into story, joyful song, gut-wrenching song--it is art, it is Life with a capital "L". It is that extraordinary expression of Love that shines through all of our ordinary lives when we are willing to look with eyes that go soul deep, looking into: my face, your face, the refugee's face, the leper's face, the immigrant's face, young faces, old faces, a diversity of faces, the faces of poverty, the faces of hard, lived out stories that say life is really hard, and, life is really beautiful, stories that point out that the connections we make with one another is one of the best parts. Barbara Brown Taylor has said that encountering another human being is as close to God as we may ever get. But she questions if it is even possible to see the face of God in other people if we cannot see the faces they already have. ii
I want to know more about Mimo’s refugee. I want to know more about Luke’s leper. I want to know their names. I want to hear their story from their own lips. I want to connect with their wisdom: how they seem to own their experience, how they seem to stand brave and humble at the same time, how they stand strong for hope in the midst of struggle. We cannot ignore this web of human connection because it is so much harder to judge and criticize someone once we have looked into their eyes, once we have walked together on our common journey.
Frederick Buechner has said that in the Christian sense, love is an act of the will. It is being willing to work for the well-being of one another.iii I think that means being willing to experience God's infinite and inclusive Love through one another. I think that means allowing God's Love to flow through us to others, knowing that Love is the only solid ground we have to stand on.
This idea that “Art is Life, and Life is Art” is not just Mimo’s idea. The Jerusalem Bible translates Paul’s message to the church of Ephesus (2:10) as this: “We are God’s work of art.” From the very beginning we were all God’s work of art and stewards of it. There are so many ways that we can damage God’s precious work of art. But the good news is that God has given us the means to repair the damage.
Mimo gave me a courageous companion to guide me along my journey; the writer of Luke gives us a grateful and reoriented companion to guide us all. They show us pictures – pictures of encountering Love in unexpected places, pictures showing us that Love has more power than hate and prejudice, pictures showing us that Love triumphs over sorrow and fear, pictures showing us Love standing strong through violence and injustices, pictures showing LOVE bringing us together.
In Luke’s story today, we begin and end with a journey. The story begins with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, and we all know what that means—suffering and RESURRECTION. Luke’s story ends with a reoriented “outcast” being told by Jesus to go “on [his] way.” But it is clearly a different and blessed way to walk through the art of living--because we don’t arise from kneeling at the feet of Jesus unchanged, or without a blessing. Art is life. And life is art. And WE ALL ARE God’s work of art.
Ultimately everything, it seems to me, is to be oriented toward LOVE—one step at a time, one face at a time. And again, it is LOVE that draws us in, and it is LOVE that sends us out, on our way, into the world, to paint our part of that picture.
ii Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, (New York: Harper One, 2010), 102-103.
iii Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973), 54.