I did some reading this week about an artist of some renown. This artist “attributed much about his life and his work to his underwhelming physique. As a child he felt overshadowed by his older brother, Jarvis, a first-rate student and athlete. [The artist], by contrast, was slight and pigeon-toed…. His grades were barely passing and he struggled with reading and writing….Growing up in an era when boys were judged largely by their body type and athletic prowess, he felt, he once wrote, like ‘a lump, a long skinny nothing, a bean pole without beans.’” He got his first job as a book illustrator when he was still in his teens, and when he was twenty his family moved to New Rochelle New York, where he met several successful artists. Two years later he landed a plum assignment, his dream job. He became a sensation at 22. But he struggled with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
He impulsively proposed marriage to a local schoolteacher, only later realizing that she didn’t love him. The marriage lasted 13 years but did not produce any children. About three months later he married a 22-year-old young woman, whom he had proposed to after knowing her for just two weeks. This marriage was no happier than the first, although it lasted over 30 years and produced 3 children.
As his career flourished, his wife “suffered neglect” and turned to alcohol. He struggled with severe bouts of depression, alleviated only by his work, an addictive mood-lifting prescription drug, and by spending more and more time in the company of men he admired.
His wife died suddenly, “never waking up from an afternoon nap. Her death certificate lists the cause as ‘coronary heart disease.’ Her friends and acquaintances wondered whether Mary, who was 51, had taken her own life. At [the artist’s] request, no autopsy was performed…. [He] spoke little about his wife in the weeks and months following her death. After three turbulent decades of marriage, Mary had been eradicated from his life without warning. ‘He didn’t talk about his feelings,’ recalled his son Peter. ‘He did some of his best work during that period. He did some fabulous paintings.’”
Two years later he married for the third and final time. His biographer claims: “At last [the artist] had found his feminine ideal: an older schoolteacher who had never lived with a man, and who in fact had lived with a female history teacher in a so-called Boston marriage for decades.
When Molly moved into [his] home, she set up her bedroom in a small room across the hall from his. However unconventional the arrangement, and despite the apparent absence of sexual feeling, their relationship flourished. She satisfied his desire for intelligent companionship and required little in return.” She was there for him when, two years later, he had to face the fact that the world had changed, and the style of work he wanted to produce was no longer valued by his most frequent employer.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the artist I’m speaking of is Norman Rockwell, sometimes called one of America’s most beloved artists. He painted simple, familiar scenes: a young boy and girl on a bench, staring at the moon; he painted children playing marbles; he painted families gathered at Thanksgiving. “He left a timeless legacy of nostalgic, endearing, whimsical paintings that appealingly and insightfully depict simple, and often idyllic, scenes from daily life.” Yet he did not experience the kind of life he portrayed.
You may remember his painting “The Homecoming,” which depicts a family Christmas gathering interrupted by the return of a son. The painting is the only one in which his whole family appears—his three sons and his wife are all there, along with himself. According to the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell “wanted to create a scene both familiar and poignant, one that would resonate with families who had known recent (and lengthy) wartime separations. Even today, Rockwell’s homecoming evokes the spirit of welcome we’d like to see waiting for us when we come home for the holidays.” The problem is, he created this painting while he was alone in California, far from home, because he needed time away from his wife.
We think of his work, particularly during the early decades, as reflecting what America was—small town life, idyllic scenes—and simply viewing those familiar paintings can make us nostalgic for a simpler time. We forget that life wasn’t like the paintings—not for everyone, not even for most people. His famous Thanksgiving dinner painting, for example, was in the middle of World War II. He depicted a world that both reflected what we thought America was, and what we hoped American could be. He himself said, “I paint life as I would like it to be.” I find that poignant, a little sad, but also inspiring.
Now, I ask you to hold that story in one hand, and let me tell you another. It was near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He had assembled his disciples, and he was traveling around Galilee, speaking in the synagogues, where he was admired by everyone. He finally came to the synagogue in Nazareth, where he had grown up. He stood up to read and the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. He opened it and read a familiar and much-loved passage. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he told the people, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Wait—did he say today? Today this has been fulfilled? Hey, Jesus, I know it’s been a while since you left home, but take a look around. The poor have no good news. The blind are still blind. The oppressed are still in chains. You just show up and announce “Mission accomplished” and everything is supposed to be better?
And to make matters worse, the year of the Lord’s favor—that is referring to the Jubilee year. The instruction for the Jubilee year comes from the book of Leviticus, where the people were told that every 50 years, land should be returned to its original rightful owner. So if a family ran into hard times and was forced to sell the family farm, they—or their heirs—would get it back eventually. “And indentured servants—those who were enslaved to pay off debts—were to be released from their enslavement. It was designed to be an economic equalizer. It was wealth-sharing.” (It’s funny how that passage from Leviticus is not nearly as familiar as those “abomination” passages!)
But here’s the deal. “It’s unclear that Jubilee was ever truly observed. It was certainly a religious celebration which began with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, and feasting. But the land returning? Indentured people receiving their freedom? It likely never happened, at least on a broad scale.” So why was Jesus proclaiming it? Why was Jesus saying it was fulfilled in their hearing? Was his presence with them supposed to be enough? Probably not to the oppressed.
But maybe Jesus was like Norman Rockwell—not the three marriages and the addiction to prescription drugs, but the way he pointed to and illustrated the world as we want it to be. Maybe this was Jesus’ way of painting a picture of what the world could be—a world where no one was left out, no one was oppressed, no one was bound. “To consider Jubilee means to remember that things are not fair, and that we can and should do something to create more fairness, more justice. This is a value that spans the millennia.”
It is also a value that Norman Rockwell eventually portrayed in his artwork. Through the Civil Rights Movement Rockwell painted some iconic scenes— little Ruby Bridges walking into that white school, with the “n word” on the wall above her head—but also of the three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi. This certainly wasn’t the world the way he wanted to see it, but sometimes you have to show how it is in order to envision something better.
I have one more story for you this morning. This one is from Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who was the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. At a college graduation he told the story of a speech he made at another college. They had asked him to come make a speech and bring a couple of his homeboys with him—some of the former gang members who worked in Homeboy Industries. He said he always chose different members to go with him, and on this particular trip he took Mario. Father Boyle said that in the history of Homeboy Industries, Mario was the most heavily-tattooed person they’d ever had. He had full sleeve tattoos, tattoos covering his shaved head and face, even a tattoo moustache, and tattoos on his eyelids that said “the end” so that when he lay in the coffin, there would be no doubt. As they walked through the airport together, Father Boyle noticed people moving away from him and mothers clutching their children more tightly. He said it was odd because if you asked at Homeboy Industries who was the most caring, loving, compassionate person there, they wouldn’t say him, the Jesuit priest. They would say Mario. Mario was proof that “only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any chance of changing the world.” At the speech, Mario and the others did a fantastic job sharing their stories— the pain of their upbringing, their experiences in the gang, how they had turned their life around.
Then it came time for questions and the first came from a woman who had a question for Mario. She said, “You said you have two children, nearing their teenage years. What advice would you give them?” Father Boyle said Mario stood there, clutching the microphone stand, silent for the longest time. Then he said “I just . . .” and then his voice broke. He clutched harder and dug deeper because it cost him so much to say these words but he needed to get them out. Finally, he said, “I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me!” And there was silence in the room until the woman who asked the question said, “Why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you? You are loving. You are kind. You are gentle. You are wise. I hope your kids turn out to be like you.” And 1000 perfect strangers stood and would not stop clapping and all Mario could do was hold his face and cry at the wonder that perfect strangers had returned him to himself, and they had been returned to themselves.
Father Boyle said, “I think you go from here to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. And you stand with the disposable so the day will come when we stop throwing people away. And you stand with those whose dignity has been denied and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear and you stand with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. Make those voices heard!”
This is the vision of where we want to go.
This is the vision of the way we want the world to be.
This is the vision of the Jubilee.
To make the change, we have to be the change.
 Solomon, Deborah. “Inside America’s Great Romance with Norman Rockwell.” Smithsonian.com.
 Although I did not actually quote the article, the idea to use this story came from Cleophus J. LaRue’s “Living by the Word” article in The Christian Century, January 2, 2019 issue.