Ezekiel 17:22-24 † Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 † 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 † Mark 4:26-34
The news program 60 Minutes recently aired a feature on the French photographer who calls himself JR.[i] You may not have heard of him, but I’ll bet you’ve seen his work.
Here’s a photograph that popped up in September on the US-Mexico border—a 64-foot tall picture of a Mexican child named Kikito who lives just on the other side of the fence.
Because of its location on the Mexican side, US border patrol agents can’t do anything about it. So Kakito can show off his beautiful smile and his playful curiosity, display his humanity for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, calling into question how our choices impact others, how we see one another, how our policies bless or curse other families.
JR has borders in mind a lot in his art—and the crossing of them. His passion flows out of his sense that we are deeply connected, that we share much in common—our hungers and humor and hope.
His work has taken off in the last decade, highlighting the stories of those who are more often cast aside or ignored. Here is a project in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa where he covered 20,000 square feet of rooftops with photos of the eyes and faces of the local women as a way of highlighting their stories and their ingenuity when the odds are so stacked against them.
A local woman told him to let her story travel, so he did. He found a playful and powerful way to make that happen.
JR began taking pictures of friends in a Paris suburb who felt they didn’t exist in the eyes of French society. Many of them were Africans, Arabs. They were first or second generation immigrants who existed in enclaves that few wealthy Parisians visited.
In 2005 riots broke out in the neighborhood after two kids died while being chased by police. The event uncorked pent up rage. And JR was startled by the way these rioters were being portrayed in the media, so he decided to use his camera to tell a different story.
“You would see the riots,” JR explains. “Everyone had hoodies. So any kids coming from the [poor]suburb would look like a monster to you.
So that's when I started photographing them from really close and I said I'm gonna put your name, your age, your building number on the poster, and I'm gonna paste it in Paris where they see you as a monster. And actually, you’re gonna play your own caricature."
By creating these caricatures and feeding the stereotype, JR saw the seeds for breaking them down. “I wanted them to be in control of their own image,” he explains.
In doing so, in seeing their humanity, their humor, they no longer looked like the monsters they were being portrayed to be, but like the young people they were with dreams and hopes and personality and a right to exist and flourish.
These pictures were displayed in his first ever show and the subjects of the photos, these kids, were there. JR explains, “The people from Paris would go in front of those pictures and take a photo of themselves with them.
And people sought out the very kids who were supposed to be the monsters that were about to invade Paris—to get a picture with them. It broke the stereotypes and the tensions.
In 2007 he did it again. He headed to Israel. His plan was to paste photographs on the wall separating Palestinians and Israelis in the west bank.
JR explained it in the 60 Minutes episode: “So I started making a list of people doing the same job on each side: hairdresser, taxi driver, security guard, teacher, student. And then I would go and I would say, ‘Look, I wanna paste you playing your own caricature of how the other sees you.’” But he was up front with them as well, letting him know their picture would be pasted alongside their counterpart on the other side of the wall.
The response was surprisingly positive. The people were happy to have their picture taken, but they were sure their counterpart on the other side of the wall would never agree to the idea.
But, of course, they did. They were just as open, and perhaps just as susceptible to the stereotypes that we so easily settle into when it comes to others.
I think JR understands something that is similar to what Jesus is trying to get across in the telling of his parables. The Kingdom of God, the Culture of God, the place and circumstances and ecosystem in which God’s will is done is weedy and troublesome in that it undermines our ordered expectations and comfortable privilege. It refuses to let us settle into our preconceived notions and preconceived answers.
In Ezekiel God works out of our reach. Taking a shoot from a tall tree and transplanting it on a mountain equally remote—beyond our control. God will not be confined to our seasons of small-mindedness or cruelty. In Mark it is a Mustard plant—a weed—that has little to recommend it to which Jesus compares God’s salvation. And a seed that looks insignificant, like nothing, except that it contains hidden within it everything it needs—the DNA, the endosperm that provides it nourishment for growth, and the husk to preserve it until the time is right, ready to explode into life given the right circumstances.
I’m struck by that throw-away line at the end of our reading: Jesus explained everything to them in private. I’m not sure what you make of that, but it got me. I’m thinking, “Great! Why didn’t anyone record that conversation?” But then I realized, that’s the point, that’s the crux, that’s the seed of the whole issue. That image of the disciples, huddled together with their teacher—it is like a seed: impenetrable from the outside, but containing within it everything that makes for life.
And we can’t know it because it is something that is replanted in each generation and for each moment. We are that seed—here this morning. You are that seed, full of life and possibility within.
hat seed is being sown in what we are doing in just a moment, affirming through ordination the presence of God in two from among us—Carolynn and Mike—who are being called to guide us in empathy and discernment amidst a world that begs for understanding and engagement and compassion and clarity.
The seed of those disciples, huddled in private with their teacher is repeated in one season after another. That’s what the young man in the white robe who sits in the empty tomb at the end of the gospel understands: Jesus goes before you. He will meet you back at the beginning as we do it again, as we figure it out again in this time and place and season. God is still here.
Let’s have our dear friend Aldo from NPH remind us of this truth. God is here with us. In these leaders and in you, calling us to understanding and action and love. Asking you what story you have to tell. What good news you have to share. What new life is seeded in you.
You see, that was the turning point for the artist JR. As he began to photograph these people he found himself moving from the self-referential “I exist” that marked his beginning as an artist: see me at work, see my creativity and drive and passion, to “They exist.” See these people on both sides of the border who share more than they don’t. See these immigrant families who seeking shelter and safety at our borders and are instead being torn apart under our watch. See the life in you and me and in the one you have not come to understand yet.
JR says this about his art: I’m always at the border of failure, because that’s where you take the real risk.” And we know—we know—that it isn’t actually that much of a risk, because this is where the culture of God is seeded and lives and thrives. This is where God is.
Thanks be to God.
[i] First aired June 10, 2018 on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Retrieved on June 15, 2018 from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/larger-than-life-displays-by-french-photographer-jr-60-minutes/.
St. Andrew Sermons