Miracle Working Icon of the Mother of God – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Sirach 38: 27 – 32
Psalm 107: 1 – 9

Matthew 6: 19 – 24

I have never been much of an artist. I can’t draw very well, and in fact I describe myself as one who draws stick people badly. At least, that is the story I have told myself for most of my life, not only as an excuse, but also as a defense. If I had to draw something, I would use that as the explanation of why I didn’t put the time or effort into it.

But then something happened. I visited the sister of another member of the community one afternoon and saw on her walls framed cross-stitch samplers that she had done. In an instant I knew that I had to learn how to do that, so by the end of the afternoon she had equipped me with a needle point hoop, floss, needle, fabric and pattern and after a brief lesson, I went home. Little did I know, that that afternoon’s cross stitch lesson would be a life changing event for me. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that my life has never been the same since.

Something happened that day to me, and to my understanding of who I am, because from fairly simple cross-stitch, I moved to increasingly complex patterns with a variety of stitches. From there I went to hand quilting and other forms of needle art and finally I leaped across to another medium, and began to write icons. Several years after starting to write icons, I attended an iconography class which forced me to face my fear of drawing. Out went the tracing paper used to trace an icon in order to get the prototype, and in came the ruler, the compass and the sketchbook. In order to write an icon, I was first going to have to draw it.

For the longest time I told myself that I couldn’t do it. That I was a failure. That this was a waste of time and money. But every once in a while I would finally get a line in the right place. And then a second line. And then a third. At last, after a couple of days of immense frustration and occasional satisfaction, and with a great deal of help from my instructor (although she never once put a pencil to my drawing or a brush to my icon) I ended up with an image worthy of being transferred to an icon board.

I don’t have what I would call natural talent. I can’t see something and with a few flicks of my pencil reproduce it in my sketch book. But if I take the time, and put in the effort, and practice a huge amount of patience, I can draw. Last winter I worked on a drawing on my own, and sent scans of it to my instructor. Back and forth went my drawing until I finally had something that I was really pleased with. I call it the Miracle Working Icon of the Mother of God because even before she had been turned from a drawing into an icon, she had worked a miracle, and the miracle was on me and the way I see myself. I’ll never be a Rembrandt, or a Picasso, but I can draw. I am an artist. And the result is that I understand tonight’s lesson from Sirach in a deeply personal way.

Reading this passage, you can hear the admiration and respect of the author for the crafts person and their pride in the articles they create, as well as the dignity of their person, their work and their effort. Each one whom the author names: the signet maker at their desk, the ironmonger at their anvil, the potter at their wheel labours by night as well as by day and sets their heart on painting, finishing and glazing the signet, the ironwork and the pot. It’s clear from the author of tonight’s lesson that each of the artisans is a skilled crafts person who takes pride and delight in their work and that they, and their work, is worthy of honour.

In the same way, I am proud of my icons. I’ll never be an Andrei Rublev, in part because I am not Rublev. I am James, with my own eye, and hand, and ability. Each of those, eye, hand and ability, is given to me as a gift of God and when I use them to their full ability, God takes delight in me, as well as what I am able to produce. My work comes from me, because it is a part of me.

We live in a culture where work, especially manual work, has lost its dignity because it has become divorced from who we are, as women and men created in the image and likeness of God, who is the very epitome of the crafts person. In creating the heavens and the earth and all that therein is, and declaring them to be good[1] God manifested part of the very nature of God’s being as the master artisan. God is a god who works, and who creates, and when we work and create we not only imitate God, we participate in the divine life of God!

For the Christian, work and creativity then are not simply functions. We don’t work in order to earn a living. Our hobbies are not ways to entertain ourselves or to occupy our hands and minds or to fill our time. We remind ourselves in our Rule of Life that each of us has been given the divine spark of creativity and imagination, and as we grow in our conversion to Christ, so should our gratitude and reverence for these gifts. Fear and inertia quench the spirit. Faith in the Giver of all good gifts will lead us to use the opportunities our life provides for developing our creativity and using our imagination. The community shall provide time and resources for hobbies and skillful pursuits so that every brother may find outlets for creativity beyond what his regular work offers. We go on to say that our stretching toward fullness of life is an act of faith in Christ who is the living Word through whom all things have their being. He is the true light shining through all creation. It is not in religious activity and thought alone that we see his glory, but in all the world. We are called to realize his life-giving presence within our own selves and bodies and share in his ongoing creation.[2]

If the ideal for the Christian is that work is a sharing in the divine life of God, the reality is that for many, even many Christians, it is anything but that. There are many for whom work is nothing less than mental, physical, emotional and spiritual drudgery. Rather than an experience of liberation and grace, work can be oppressive and disheartening. Not everyone knows the honour of work and the dignity which it can bestow. Not everyone will discover the miracle working property of creativity that I discovered in my icons. Not everyone will have a sense that they are in fact sharing in the life of God whenever they pick up the tools of their trade or the implements of their work. For many, work is an experience, not of heaven, but of hell; not of God, but of Satan; not of wholeness, but of brokenness. Too many know the harsh reality of Adam and Eve after they were expelled from Paradise: And to the man* God said, ‘…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’[3]

If the Christian ideal of work is grace and not servitude how might it become an experience of grace when for so many it is not.

In our Collect for tonight, we pray: give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labour.[4] That is certainly a start. If it is possible to take pride in what you do, then take pride in it. If possible, do your best, and if you see another doing their best, make sure they know you appreciate their efforts. People thrive on encouragement, and even when the task itself is not rewarding, their efforts can be noticed. We remind ourselves in the Rule that we can lift one another up through celebration and the practice of courtesy….And we seek to sustain a climate of courtesy in which each of us receives assurance day by day that he is appreciated. We need to be generous in expressing delight in one another’s achievements.[5] It’s also a matter of moral justice that people are paid fairly. Everyone deserves a living wage, and everyone certainly deserves to know their efforts are appreciated, even for, and perhaps especially for the most menial task.

My drawing of the Miracle Working Icon of the Mother of God worked a miracle on me because in doing it, I discovered, not what I couldn’t do, but what I could do. I stopped listening to that voice that told me I can’t do this and instead listened to the voice that said well done! With each true line, even after a great deal of struggle, came a sense of pride and intense satisfaction.

Not every job or task that is out there will be like my miracle working icon, but each one of us has the power to be a miracle working icon, because we all have the ability to expresses gratitude and appreciation. We have the power to notice another’s efforts. We have the power to expresses support and encouragement. We have the power to say thank you.

So tomorrow when you are at work, or tonight when you are home with your family, express appreciation for someone’s efforts, especially someone’s whose efforts usually go unnoticed. You’ll be surprised by the results, because in a tiny way a miracle will have happened and you and they will begin to share, if ever so slightly, in the divine life of God who hallowed all our work when the Divine Word first spoke the words Let there be … And it was so, and it was very good.

When I discover that my work is valued, appreciated and respected by another, I get a glimpse of heaven and a miracle happens. Then I see myself, not as someone incapable of drawing, but as an agent of God who makes me a co-creator of the wonders and beauty of creation and my Miracle Working Icon of the Mother of God has once again helped me to see myself as I truly am, an artist. May you too know yourself to be a miraculous co-creator with God of the wonders and beauty of creation. And may your work, if only a tiny fraction of it, be a source of joy, of pride, and of dignity, for in that moment you will discover what it means to share in the divine life of God the master worker.

[1] Genesis 1: 1 – 31

[2] SSJE, Rule of Life, Maintaining Our Health and Creativity, chapter 44, page 89

[3] Genesis 3: 17 – 19

[4]BCP 1979, Collect for Rogation Day II, page 259

[5] SSJE, Rule, Mutual Support and Encouragement, chapter 43, page 86 – 87

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  1. Susan Kuhn on May 12, 2020 at 08:16

    Maybe we are seeing a taste of what you write about as we praise front line health care workers, contribute to food banks, see with new eyes what we were to busy to notice, make sourdough bread, see wildlife in our neighborhoods and discover that we don’t need a lot of the fluff of life. Some great change is working of which we all are a part of it, artisans working in God’s light and under God’s protection.

    • Jacqueline Bramma on May 12, 2020 at 12:00

      I find this message very encouraging. All my life I have been a perpetual “runner up”, but that’s ok. God has given me many talents, at which I am adequate, but not great. I come from a musical family and find great joy in singing and playing with others. In this time of isolation I am unable to play my horn with others in my brass band, but I can keep working at honing my skills.I realize that the whole point is to use … to offer… what I have been given to the best of my ability. I can use my creative gifts to find new ways to reach out and encourage others. I can work on becoming the best I can be as an act of worship, and I thank God for the opportunity.

  2. Jeanne DeFazio on May 12, 2020 at 08:11

    Sharing this today:

    Not every job or task that is out there will be like my miracle working icon, but each one of us has the power to be a miracle working icon, because we all have the ability to expresses gratitude and appreciation. We have the power to notice another’s efforts. We have the power to expresses support and encouragement. We have the power to say thank you.

  3. Elizabeth Clifford on May 6, 2020 at 13:31

    It was a blessing to read of your discovery of James the Artist! I am very happy for you, and exhilarated by the joy of your journey to new realization. Thank you for sharing it with us all.

  4. Constance on May 25, 2019 at 13:25

    Thank you Br. James. These are beautiful words, crafted to form an inspiring message: that we are each one a co-creator with God, and that we can bring the spirit God gave us into the tasks and objects we create.

  5. Jeanne DeFazio on May 25, 2019 at 10:30

    Thanks for your encouragement! Sharing this today: will discover what it means to share in the divine life of God the master worker.

  6. Marilyn Burson on May 25, 2019 at 09:46

    Thank you for this inspiring sermon. I also had to overcome my fear of paint by taking an icon class with a friend of mine . The first time was very stressful and intimidating but somehow I pressed on and was able to write my first icon. I have done three more since then but my first one is still my favorite. I wish I could say it gets easier each time but it doesn’t. Still I am amazed at the finish of each one and feel like they are a gift from God. Like you I would encourage anyone to step out of their comfort zone and try something new. God may surprise you too with a wonderful new creation.

  7. Jonathan Hansen on May 25, 2019 at 07:42

    Dear Bro. James,

    Thank you so much for reminding me that I too am an artist. My brothers and older sister seemed to be naturally artistic: drawing, painting, rug making, knitting or carving bird figures out of wood. The natural talent seemed to be with them, but I knew I had express myself as well.

    Finally, I tried a different venue. I taught myself to play guitar, then guitar and harmonica simultaneously. I was enjoying myself, and I felt I was worthy. Later I taught myself to play the piano and the Native American Flute. I also learned through taking a class in college that I could “draw a straight line with a ruler,” and I turned that desire to create into stained glass design and fabrication, which I’ve been enjoying for over thirty years.

    Perhaps once we believe in ourselves and believe that God loves us and has blessed us all with talents, our job may be to discover who we are inside and share that with others.

    Thank you again for the wonderful sermon and God bless you!

  8. Ruth West on May 24, 2017 at 21:28

    This is an inspirational message. It gives me a new outlook for the few artful things I have done. I read, not only those few verses in Sirach 38, but the rest of that chapter describes one artist after another in their individual talents.
    It makes me think of my lovely sister-in-law, now deceased, who was a china painter, so very talented. When she began many years ago, she cast aside many pieces, thinking they were not good enough, but, she never gave up. At the end of her life, many of her beautiful dishes were shown in state contests. I am the recipient of many of her works of art. Verse 30 in this chapter of Sirach describes Wanda dear sitting in her workplace, putting the final touches on a plate or a pitcher, firing it again and again with the final coat being the glaze.
    God bless you, Br. James, as your heart is set on finishing your handiwork, a gift of the heart to God and others. Thanks for introducing me to this chapter in the Apocrypha, with which I was not familiar.

  9. Virginia W. Nagel on May 24, 2017 at 14:09

    Dear Br. James,

    Some years ago, at Emery House, you listened to my story…just listened…and gave me the gift of honestly understanding what I told you. It meant a great deal to me, because since I am deaf, what I usually get from hearing folks is a brush-off, or, “You can’t, because you’re deaf.” You didn’t say that, you just said, “Pray on it, and do what you can, and see how it goes.” I did, and got a tremendous surprise about what happened…I could, and I did. Thank you.

  10. Margaret A Fletcher on May 24, 2017 at 13:56

    Dear Br. James, You wax ever more lyrical with your sermons. Thank you. They are lovely to read.
    And I personally am endlessly gratful for the incredibly privelged position I am in to be able to engage my hands and my eyes and my conceptions in many many ways to my own personal satisfaction in imitation of God. I just wish everyone had the opportunity. Margo

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