Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
June 14, 2015
In June of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, France painted the painting that I gave to you today to take a look at. And this is known as The Sower. It’s the first of several paintings of sowers that Van Gogh did. He actually did a few earlier in 1886 that were homages to other painters, but this painting began a series known as The Wheat Fields. It represents a turning point in his own life and career. And Van Gogh focuses on this because it is a key image for him.
Prior to this moment in his life, this is lesser known but known by some, Van Gogh had actually trained to be a minister. He spent three years in seminary, he had a position in England for a year, and then he went to work with coal miners in the south of Belgium for a period of time, after which they told him that he was not right for the ministry. He was a little intense. I’m glad I didn’t have that ministerial board. It wasn’t that his heart was broken by the church, although I think there was a sense of deep wound or deep anxiety that this started inside of him because prior to the stint of the ministry, he had been working in a gallery. And he found that working in the gallery, this was the first time he was coming into contact with the kind of commodification of art. The way art is prized by a gallery not because of its artistic merits but because of the price that it could command in the market. And so again he had this element of disillusionment, this moment in which something that he had esteemed highly kind of shattered him just a bit.
Now, this is not to say that Van Gogh was a cheery little boy with high hopes and aspirations until he got to that point where he was disillusioned by the church or by the gallery. In fact, people noticed from the beginning he seemed to be a little dour as a person. But it was a moment in his life where he began to see themes that would come to the forefront of his mind. So in his first sermon that he gave in England, he said that, “We are pilgrims on this earth, and we will never find our home because our home is in Heaven.” That sense of alienation, that sense of anxiety, that sense of not being at home always has a place in his paintings, which makes them all the more magnificent when you see those moments in which he is able to break through these confines, to break out of the prison of himself and see something glorious and powerful, and comes into contact with something that is worthy to be trusted.
This painting is that moment. It represents a kind of breakthrough back into his faith, back into his ability to trust. And he discovers this while he is painting away, trying to break some new ground. He had become a bit disillusioned with the church, and for good reason, because one of the things we do in churches is we disillusion each other. And he’d become disillusioned in the art scene. In fact, a young painter sent him a letter saying, “Give me some advice about painting.” And he wrote back, “Start painting people with their clothes on. Paint people where you find them; eating potatoes, working in a field, experiencing the normal cares and occupations of life.” That was where he looked for beauty. And the two things that always brought him back to God, he wrote in a letter to his brother, Theo, was when he could watch an infant sleeping in a crib and when he could see the sun in a powerful way. And he believed that anybody who could see God in an infant or see God in a sunrise, that person was going to be okay and had somehow received a true revelation.
In fact, Van Gogh said at point that the reason that the reason why he could step forward and try being an artist was because he realized that his life had to become a kind of sacrifice. He realized that he had to give himself totally and experience complete vulnerability in order to be the kind of artist he felt God was calling him to be. He wrote to his brother Theo that he wanted to be an artist like Jesus was an artist. “Jesus,” he wrote, “didn’t work with marble or clay, but flesh and blood and the Word.” Nonetheless there was the same vulnerability, the same passion, the same breakthrough to trust that is seen, Van Gogh believed, in Christ’s own life, and Christ is the model of every artist in this way.
So this painting is an illustration, not merely of real life, but it’s the way real life symbolizes deep meaning. And I thought about it because today’s gospel has a moment in which we have a revelation of deep meaning through the act of a sower sowing seeds. We call these teachings of Jesus “parables” and parables are at least two things; parables are mirrors that we look into to see our own lives, and parables are also codes or compressed stories. So this gospel image of the sower sowing seed is meant to call to mind all the ways our lives can be a kind of offering, a kind of sacrifice in which we are exposed to vulnerability.
Just as a sower doesn’t know which seed will prosper and which will wither and die, so you and I are called into whatever we do with the same kind of vulnerability and commitment, and just as you and I have been called to trust, so there is this larger background of trust surrounding the sower who sows seed. The sower who sows seed can’t control the outcome of the seed, doesn’t really see the miracle of growth, and has to live in trust that God and the seasons will somehow make things right, and somehow God will provide.
So Van Gogh, when he paints this painting, sees himself as a sower with would his art communicate the message he wanted it to communicate. He couldn’t control that, and as you probably know as well as I do that there were times when people didn’t get what he was doing as an artist. He could only somehow trust and hope for the best. And the sun in this painting is a reminder of God’s presence and God’s provision and God’s care for everything that would happen to the seed and to the artist.
You and I live lives in which we scatter our seed. Years ago, a bishop came to Yale Divinity School and I was invited to a special seminar. His name was Montefiore. What a name. And he said that we had to come up with a new theology because sacrifice means nothing to the young people. The guy was older than dirt. And I raised my hand and I said, “You’re talking to a group of people who are here only through sacrifice. My parents sacrificed everything so I could get this education, and I’m giving my all to get my doctorate. I think everybody knows everything about sacrifice. I don’t think you get out of this life alive without understanding sacrifice. What we don’t know is mercy. What we don’t know is grace.” And the compressed narrative in this parable is that Jesus is the seed that God has sewn for us. God has already sacrificed God’s self in Christ so that whatever we do is an echo of what God has already done for us, and we never have to fear or be anxious. We just have to trust and obey. That’s the good news. That’s the compressed code of today’s gospel. What do you see when you look into that mirror?