A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 6 June 2021 by Revd Jonathan Evens.
Readings of address: 1 Samuel 8.4-20, Mark 3.20-3
Yves Klein was a French artist and an important figure in post-war European art. From 1956 onwards, he sold ‘zones’ of empty space – ‘Zones of Immaterial Sensibility’ – in exchange for gold ingots. He gave his buyers receipts, which they then solemnly burnt. In turn, Klein would ritually dispose of half the gold he had earned, by throwing it into rivers or oceans and thereby returning it to its source in creation, or, by creating an ex voto – a devotional offering. He made just such a devotional offering in 1961 presenting it to the Convent of Santa Rita in Cascia, Italy; St Rita being the patron of lost causes. This ex voto is a small plexiglass box containing five compartments: one filled with blue pigment, one with pink pigment, one with gold leaf, and the other two with a handwritten prayer to St Rita and three gold bars from his sale of the sensibility zones. The prayer proclaimed Klein’s gratitude to St Rita, and his desire to secure her continued protection.
Klein’s art enables a reflection on what can and cannot be owned. His work opens up the possibility that intangible and invisible qualities such as love are of more importance than tangible assets that can be held or owned. The purchasers of his zones owned nothing tangible that could be shown to another person, yet the experience in which they participated was profound. Michael Blankfort, a collector who purchased one of the Zones shortly before Klein’s death, said that he would cherish and remember forever this intangible artwork that he had bought but did not physically possess. He said that he carried the memory of it with him, always thinking about it, accompanying him all over the world, all the time. In the prayer Klein wrote to St Rita, he asked that he might live in his works and that they might become ever more beautiful. In other words that, when his physical body was gone, the intangible essence of the person he was might live in intangible works such as his ‘Zones of Immaterial Sensibility.’
Klein’s work is relevant to our Old Testament reading today because at the heart of this reading is the understanding that life is gift and not possession. The land in which the Israelites lived was given them by God in fulfilment of promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Although the Israelites lived in the land, the land was not theirs as, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it’ (Psalm 24.1). Because the land was both promise and gift, the whole of Israel’s socio-economic life and practice was based on this covenant relationship with God and its tradition of redemption and land gift.
Walter Brueggemann writes that, ‘As an alternative to pretentious, oppressive political authority, represented early in Israel’s imagination, by pharoah, Israel [ordered] its public life under the direct rule of [God], in a sort of theocracy.’i The Israelites were led by groups of Judges so that power was not concentrated in the hands of one person and the Law that had been given them by God at Mount Sinai set out a way of life based on redemption and gift that was a genuine alternative to the surrounding nations. One example of this is the Year of Jubilee which required the compulsory return of all property to its original owners or their heirs. That essentially prevented the centralisation of land and wealth in the hands of a few. As a light to the nations, Israel’s task in the world was to draw those nations into a similar relationship to creation and to God. The visions of the prophet Isaiah describe just such a relationship. He showed us the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading them while nations stream to the mountain of the Lord that they might walk in his paths.
So, when the Israelites asked for a king, this was a betrayal of their entire way of life and purpose under God. Why did they do it? Three reasons have been identified. First, imitation of other nations. They looked at the surrounding nations and were envious of the sustained forms of political power they saw there which contributed to security and prosperity. Second, they faced imminent military threats and saw the establishment of a monarchy as a reasonable response to concrete threats. Third, those who had, despite the laws of redemption and land gift, monopolised wealth for themselves wanted a strong central government to protect and legitimate their already considerable economic and political advantages. In this way external threats were used by those with position and wealth to create greater advantage for themselves. We still see similar approaches to power and advantage used within our own political and socio-economic systems today. They, too, are based on: first, envy; second, fear; and third, greed.
As Sam, our Vicar, has said, ‘In a community of fear we begin with our hurts and our stereotypes, and find a hundred reasons why we can’t do things or certain kinds of people don’t belong.’ Yet, if land is understood as a gift from God, then God becomes the principle for egalitarian distribution and a gift economy that stands in contrast to the centralisation of power, land and access found in a monarchy. Instead of that centralisation of power which can easily become, as was to be the case in Israel, an engine for preference, privilege, monopoly, and self-indulgence, the gifts of all can be released and we can build one another’s assets.
What might that approach to ownership and wealth mean for our society? I want to suggest three areas for reflection. First, the idea of the “common good” which refers to those facilities—whether material, cultural or institutional—that the members of a community provide to all in order to fulfil a relational obligation all have to care for those interests that we have in common. Examples in a modern liberal democracy include: the road system; public parks; police protection and public safety; courts and the judicial system; public schools; museums and cultural institutions; public transportation; civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of association; the system of property; clean air and clean water; and national defence. So, in the words of Together for the Common Good, a charity helping people play their part to strengthen the bonds of social trust, the Common Good is ‘the shared life of a society in which everyone can flourish – as we act together in different ways that all contribute towards that goal, enabled by social conditions that mean every single person can participate.’
Our society today is more polarised and fragmented than it has been for many years. Decades of individualism have infected our life together. In the fallout, we see a weakening of our local institutions, with whole communities marginalised, and an identity politics which is driving people apart. There is an urgent need to strengthen the bonds of social trust, at all levels and in all sectors. People are yearning for a sense of meaning and belonging. We need a vision of a world being transformed as more and more people take responsibility for the flourishing of all with everyone having a part to play, from the grassroots to the boardroom.ii
Second, is Creation Care. Based on the themes we are exploring of promise and gift Operation Noah’s call to the Church on ‘Climate change and the purposes of God’ says that: ‘According to the witness of our Scriptures, everything that we have, life and the means of life, comes to us as gift. This is the ground of our worship. The beauty and harmony of God’s creation is for all cultures a source of human wellbeing, spiritual nourishment and joy.’ As humans, made in God’s image, we have unique responsibility for the wellbeing of creation. We are to care for the earth because it is gift, the product of God’s love. No sparrow falls without God knowing. Humanity has always had the capacity to destroy our environment, but today we have this to an unprecedented extent. Whereas previous generations did not
know the damage they were causing, we do. We must use our power wisely to promote the flourishing of future generations and the diversity of life on earth.
This is also an issue of justice; justice that applies to poor communities already suffering the devastating consequences of climate change, to future generations, and to all other creatures. The prophets put economic behaviour at the forefront of their call to justice. The primary driver of human induced climate change is the belief that prosperity depends on limitless consumption of the earth’s resources. Today, our challenge is to seek a different, sustainable economy, based on the values of human flourishing and the wellbeing of all creation, not on the assumption of unlimited economic growth, on overconsumption, exploitative interest and debt.iii
Third, generosity. Sam has said that ‘Christians don’t have to look far for a mission statement for the church.’ He was referring to John 10.10 where Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ Living abundant life. That’s what the Father intends, the Son embodies, the Spirit facilitates. Christians are called to live in such a way that gratefully receives the abundance God is giving them, evidences the transformation from scarcity to abundance to which God is calling them, dwells with God in that abundant life, and shares that abundance far and wide. Tom Wright has said, ‘God’s grace … is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little … God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal.’ God makes covenants, in which we are promised everything but where everything is asked of us in return. When God keeps promises, we are not being rewarded for effort, but instead receiving what comes naturally to God’s overflowingly generous nature.iv To operate in that spirit of generosity involves being ecumenical, empowering, encouraging and relational, and to commit to resourcing others.
Although by living in a capitalist society we are all participants in systems that contribute to the centralisation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, we need to be mindful of the proverb that Jesus quoted in our Gospel reading, ‘A house divided against itself must fall.’ Taking action in relation to the common good, creation care and generosity can help us reduce the sense of division in our lives and community. Sam has encouraged us to see that ‘Christianity must take the present opportunity to be what it was always called to be: an alternative society, overlapping and sharing space with regular society, but living in a different time – that’s to say, modelling God’s future in our present.’
Yves Klein’s ex voto or devotional offering was formed of three sections; the colours, the prayer, and the gold ingots. There were also three colours – blue, pink and gold – and three gold ingots, making the work a thoroughly Trinitarian offering. The significance of this ex voto was, however, overlooked for many years and was only rediscovered in 1980 when a restorer working at the Convent needed gold leaf and Klein’s box was brought to him. The restorer recognised its significance and the ex voto has subsequently been displayed in several significant exhibitions of Klein’s work. This private offering, which was nearly lost by being used to restore another work of art, has now been shared with all who value what we see of the artist in his work. What was lost has been found; perhaps an indication that in God’s economy nothing is lost or wasted. Certainly not the urgent task of modelling God’s future in our present by creating the example of an alternative society; one that has a Trinitarian basis by moving beyond envy, fear and greed through the valuing of first, the common good, second, creation care, and third, generosity.