Monday, February 23, 2015

Welcoming The Stranger

At Sunderland Minster, we host a cycle of art exhibitions throughout the year. The latest was installed last Wednesday. ‘Nomads’ is a set of ten very large (5’x3’) oil portraits of homeless men. They are painted predominantly in monochrome, blacks and greys: such people fade into the background. In each painting, a few elements are depicted in colour, a choice that emphasises rather than distracts from the monochrome nature of the work. In each portrait, the eyes are in vivid colour, catching and holding our gaze, demanding that we do what on the street we work hard not to do: to look this person in the eye, to recognise ourselves in them, to see them as a human being.

The artist, Simon A. Yorke, is a devout Buddhist. You might not know that from his painting, but you will certainly discover this from listening to him speak about attitudes towards homeless people and the motivation for his art. In listening to him speak, I find significant common ground, expressed in different language, and significant disagreement.

The paintings went in on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All of us: those we consider dirt beneath our feet, those we consider trample others under their feet, those who walk lightly but nonetheless leave an imprint. A day when we are confronted with our common fragility; and invited to turn away from all that separates us from God and neighbour; and to follow Jesus in whom Christians believe that those made of dust are, and will be, remade.

At our Ash Wednesday Sung Eucharist with the imposition of ashes, Simon received the sign of the cross on his forehead in ash, but did not take Communion. Sharing the bread and wine of communion is a deeply political act by which we place ourselves under the lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – in continuity with the God who delivered his people from slavery to the divine-human Pharaoh within the Egyptian empire; and in defiance of the claims of the Roman Empire to bring peace through the divine-human emperor, and any claims of political salvation made in our own day – and as such identify ourselves as Christian. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognise your embodied-ness, your shared frail humanity; to determine to turn away from that which comes between us; and to seek to follow after Jesus as one who lived such a life, even if one cannot accept Christianity. As such, I have no problem with a Buddhist, or adherent to any faith or none, journeying with us into our Christian tradition of Lent.

But this engages with a wider issue than the important issue of homelessness. It touches the very heart of our attitude towards one another.

We want to open our building to the contribution of people of other faiths, because we believe that they have a contribution to make to the shaping of a good society. Indeed, that we can only have a healthy society if we allow room for the contribution of others – those we disagree with as well as those who share our views. And we believe that we can benefit from the insights of others: for me, as a Christian, if I cannot see Jesus in the face of Simon’s paintings, and indeed in Simon’s face, I will not find Jesus in the bread and the wine.

This does not mean that we hold all views as being of equal merit, but that we are confident enough to speak well of, be challenged by, and appropriately partner with others.

We live in a society with a strong and insidious rhetoric of polarisation. If we believe that in and through Christ, God is reconciling all, we must live counter-culturally in this regard.

I know that last week in Sunderland Minster the Holy Spirit brought about a work of conversion – of change of perspective, of movement closer to Jesus; conversion being the work of the Holy Spirit, and not the Church – in at least one Buddhist (possibly more than one), several Christians, some agnostics and even atheists. I expect the Holy Spirit to do more of the same for the duration of the ‘Nomads’ exhibition, and beyond.

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