During Christmas week my family gifted me a free pass to go alone to the Philadelphia Art Museum during our mini vacation. If I’d only had the first ten minutes of that visit it would have been good enough because I got to stand by myself in front of a painting of John the Baptist by the early Renaissance painter Cosimo Tura.
The first thing that caught my eye was John’s red robe. If you spend enough time at any church that celebrates seasons you will know that on some special days red fabrics appear everywhere: hanging from the pulpit, sewn onto frontals and looped around crosses. That’s because red is the color for both the Holy Spirit and for the martyrs. John sweeps his cape up and across his waist, maybe to keep it out of the mud by the river, but also, unknowingly, he is wrapped in his own martyrdom. In the not too distant future John will be jailed and like millions of prisoners of conscience, most of whose stories are lost and whose names are forgotten, he will be executed without a trial. In John’s case, his death will be at the drunken whim of a potentate.
But what moved me more than John’s cape in Tura’s painting was his foot stepping around stones. If he accidentally hit one with his big toe it would likely get knocked off the frame, where it seems to balance precariously, and fall onto the museum floor.
John had hard words for the Pharisees and Sadducees who queued up before him for baptism. Hot head that he was, he called them a “brood of vipers”, told them just going through the motions won’t cut it with God and if they think their birthright as “children of Abraham” will, they’re wrong about that too. “for I tell you,” John says, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:8b)
Living a holy life requires imagination and bravery. Think of Peter walking away from his family fishing business and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Jesus reserves his harshest words for religious leaders who spend their time acting like hall monitors instead of offering extravagant love and pronouncing forgiveness over this fallen world.
As a person who wears a clerical collar to announce my vocation to the world and has a document in my office embossed with a Bishop’s seal to back me up, standing in front of the painting of John I imagined him (without collar or Bishop’s seal) reminding me that the stones by his feet are my immediate kin, power corrupts and God does not need me.
I know God doesn’t need me, but even John would have to admit that if he’s right in his observation about stones God chose me. I know it because, piece of gravel that I am, his words bring me to life.
Mother Teresa was asked what the world would do without her and she said, “I believe that if God finds a person more useless than me, He will do even greater things through her because this work is His.”
No degree will make you ready, no clerical collar will qualify you and no personal short comings or character flaws can stop Her. Whether you’re brave or cowardly, imaginative or dumb as a rock, God will choose and use you how and when God wants.
Maybe part of living a life of faith is just learning how to be a grateful stone.
Your sister in Christ,
Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm