In Nineteen Ninety-Eight, Welsh calligrapher Donald Jackson, who had previously served as an official scribe to the Queen, began collaborating with a team at Saint John’s University in Minnesota in order to bring to life a project he had long been dreaming about. Get this! Jackson wanted to create a version of the Bible in which a modern translation would be illuminated like the ancient manuscripts. That means every word would be handwritten in old-fashioned design. And. There would be pictures!
The Illumination Committee is made of artists and theologians, and they’re quick to point out that the pictures are not illustrations, but rather spiritual interpretations of biblical passages. (To me, that’s a little bit Tomato-Tomahto, but okay. Point taken.)
Now it took thirteen years, but the result of this massive undertaking was the Saint John’s Bible. You might have heard of it. A few summers ago, our Church Council attended a retreat at Saint Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, and Sister Bobbi used a reproduction of one of the images from the Saint John’s Bible to lead us in Visio Divina. If you have a minute to Google the Saint John’s Bible, you’ll be glad you did.
The Saint John’s Bible is seven volumes; each volume is several feet high. The style of the script makes you think the monks created this thousands of years ago, but the imagery brings in elements from the twenty-first century. This makes the Word of God come to life in our world —for us!
As you might expect, the Saint John’s Bible has attracted international attention. It was presented to Pope Francis in April of Two Thousand Fifteen. In Two Thousand Nineteen, the Saint John’s Bible made an appearance at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women as part of the Duke Divinity School outreach program.
Professor Lauren Winner and Prison Chaplain Sarah Jobe organized an event in which the Bible would be on display in the trailer that is used as a chapel; then Professor Winner would give a talk. The chaplain acknowledges: Look, it’s an academic lecture and a viewing of the Bible, the one thing everyone in prison already has… They were hoping for fifty people.
Instead, there was an outpouring of women who showed up to see the Saint John’s Bible! The chaplain describes the sea of green uniforms streaming into the trailer. One woman asked if she could stay longer to pore through the Bible, even though that would mean missing dinner.1https://stories.divinity.duke.edu/saintjohnsbible/
You’d be right to wonder, what is going on? What is this deep yearning to encounter the Word of God coming to life through art on the page? What is it that makes us need to see the pictures and turn the pages —That’s my first question. The next one is: Do you think the Committee on Illumination ever imagined that the Saint John’s Bible would wind up in a prison and that it would matter so much to the people who were locked up?
Something happens when you dedicate your work as an offering to God. I can’t explain it, and I wish I could. Once you give your passion over to the Holy Spirit, once you relinquish your creative control and bless it to God, just watch and see what happens. I’m telling you, the Holy Spirit’s about to make a miracle…
Today we’re beginning a new series called Why Church? (It’s partially inspired by the conference launched by Nadia Bolz Weber and Rachel Held Evans called Why Christian?).
These days the research is teaching us, that for the most part, people don’t go to church because everybody is else is going to church. Everybody else isn’t. Going to church is no longer the normal thing to do.
Accordingly, when people do choose to come to church, there have got to be some compelling reasons. Maybe it’s our deep yearning to see the word of God come to life in our own lives… Maybe it’s something else… For the next seven weeks, we’ll carry this question Why Church? and we’ll shine a light on something the Church offers that you can’t find just any old place.
A few minutes ago, we heard Rhys read a scripture that comes to us from the middle of one of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth. What you need to know is this congregation was embroiled in a bitter power struggle. It was a mess. Some church members had more privilege than others. Some had political status. Some were wealthy. Some excelled in talents like speaking in tongues. Surely this should give them more authority in the church, so they thought.
You can hear the undercurrent of insecurity: The members of the church were worried about their own worth. See if I can prove to myself that I’m better than somebody else… If I have more views on Youtube, more likes on Facebook, more sales, more A’s, more awards, this sense of being better than gives me the reassurance that I’m worthy enough.
You can hear how this is a problem. So could Paul.
He speaks right to the pounding heart of their insecurity by employing an image they’ve heard before, but in Paul’s version, there’s a twist. He starts out: You’ve heard it said that community is like a body. Now usually, when somebody talked about a group being a body, the purpose was to highlight the hierarchy. So come on guys! Since the important ones are the head, the rest of us need to do our part no matter how unglamorous.
You’ve heard it said, Know your place in the chain of command. But I say to you, says Paul, the point is not for the rest of us to fall in line beneath the head. Instead, the brain needs the liver; the hips need the inner ear. A foot doesn’t get to decide, because I’m not a hand, I must not have worth. The ear doesn’t get to say, because I can’t see, I don’t really belong. No! Your talent matters. We’re counting on you!
Here Paul is looking at this congregation with love in his eyes and frustration pouring out of his mouth. Some of you think you’re better than everyone else because of your talent— but that’s not it. Some of you think you don’t matter because, What do I have to offer anyway!— but that’s not it. The world teaches us to find our worth in all the sparkling metrics— income, scores, sales, accomplishments! It’s no wonder we’re worried. The Church is different from the world.
In the body of Christ, God is making a choice about power and who gets to have it. The members we think are less honorable, we clothe with greater honor while our less respectable members are treated with greater respect. God arranged the body giving greater honor to those who were considered inferior.
Hang around the Church long enough and you’ll see. Someone who seems more impressive than you will come to your door one night needing your help. Someone who is more vulnerable than you will end up saving your life. Just see if I’m wrong. Again and again the Holy Spirit lifts up the vulnerable and scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. The world thinks it knows who has power and who doesn’t. God keeps teaching us —don’t be so sure.
And just like God messes with our sense of who has power and who doesn’t, the LORD our God does something similar with our talent. The Church knows the truth: When you choose to give your talent to the LORD, all bets are off. You’ve just made yourself an accomplice in the miracle the Holy Spirit’s about to commit.
I mean look at what the LORD keeps doing! She took a mustard plant and made it into a tree where the birds come and build their nests! God took the complaining of a widow and used that to move a judge to act with righteousness. God took the talent of nursing and diapering a baby, and said There! Now you know what it means to welcome the Messiah.
You have to wonder whether the theologians and artists who spent thirteen years illuminating the Saint John’s Bible ever imagined that women who were incarcerated would skip dinner in order to behold the Word of God that they were bringing to life. This is what happens when you give your talent to the Holy Spirit. We have no idea what she’s going to do, but you can believe there’s going to be a miracle.
As part of her lecture on the Bible, Professor Lauren Winner invited the women in the prison to try their own hand at creating an image of a Bible story. She offered them the story in Acts Twelve when Peter is imprisoned and gets sprung out of the joint by an angel. Professor Winner brought gold markers to supplement the prison’s colored pencils, and the women created breathtaking pictures interpreting this story.
None of the pictures in the Saint John’s Bible depict any scene from a prison, and a lot of the Bible has to do with prison. When the official committee heard about the artwork created by the women in North Carolina, they began pursuing a commission to add an illumination to the Saint John’s Bible that will feature a scene of liberation from prison.
I love this so much! Here the church folks were hoping that by introducing the Saint John’s Bible, the Word of God would make a difference to the women in prison, when who knew these women would go make a difference to the Word of God. That’s the Holy Spirit for you!
From your own deep yearning, you have some kind of passion. The Church knows: When you choose to give your talent to the power of God, he will make this into the miracle. The world needs your passion. The world needs you! So do we.