Appearances Can Be Deceiving

On Valentine’s Day, my Valentine and I went to go see the new Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. I admire Kahlo’s art, her politics, and her whole personality a great deal and I’ve been to some exhibits that have focused on her painting before. But reading reviews of the Brooklyn exhibit I learned that there wouldn’t be more than a handful of paintings. This exhibit is focused more on Kahlo’s personal effects which had been locked away for 50 years after her death. And now they’re taking a little tour out of Mexico City to Brooklyn.

I was kinda iffy about whether I’d want to pay to walk through rooms displaying a bunch of dresses—hundreds of Kahlo’s were discovered when her personal effects were released—but that’s not really my thing. And if the exhibit had simply been entitled “Frida Kahlo’s Dresses” I probably would’ve passed. But the exhibit is entitled, “Appearances Can Be Deceiving.” Hmmmm. Now that’s interesting.

Kahlo who famously painted many self portraits with her iconic, dark unibrow and facial hair in colorful indigenous Mexican dress certainly understood appearance and presentation. And I became interested in the perspective of this exhibit: that appearances can be deceiving. How would they show that? How does this idea intersect with Kahlo’s life and art? Who is being deceived? And how?

Walking into the first room of the exhibit there’s a clue in one of the first pieces. It’s a photo portrait of Kahlo taken when she was 19-years old. She’s staring into the camera with such cool, poised confidence you would never know that just a few months before she had been in a horrible trolley car accident that had almost killed her and left her with injuries and pain and complications that would plague her for the rest of her relatively short life. She’s carefully posed in the portrait, sitting on a chair in a way that hides her injuries both from the accident and from a bout with childhood polio. Looking at the photo without the context you would never guess that pain that was being masked by it. Appearances can be deceiving.

Moving through the first three rooms of the exhibit Kahlo is on full-color, full-display in all of her glory. She’s presented as a powerful, creative, beautiful, intriguing, and committed artist happily and passionately married to Diego Rivera. If you were to just look at the photos, and paintings, and jewelry, and dresses, without examining the little blurbs on the wall beside them, you would never come out the other end of those three rooms with any notion of suffering—of injury or surgery or amputation, of heartache or betrayal or infidelity, of miscarriage or mourning or infertility. The first three rooms of the exhibit focus almost exclusively on the pop-culture icon, the image. Only in the little blurbs on the walls are there hints of the brokenness behind all the beauty.

And then you walk into the fourth and final room of the exhibit and you walk right into everything that has been hidden in the first three rooms. Here is Kahlo’s disability and suffering—her prosthetic leg is on display, the broken column she frequently painted as a depiction of her spine is here, there are drawings of her lost fetus, and, standing in a row, the medical plaster corsets that she suffered inside of for months at a time.

Halfway through this room, you come to a drawing of Kahlo’s that is like a self-portrait x-ray. In it you see right through her beautiful indigenous dress to her naked, broken body underneath—her injured leg, her tortured back. Written beneath the drawing are the words, “Appearances Can Be Deceiving.” This drawing is like a warning to us: Don’t be fooled! It’s like she’s asking us not just to x-ray her, but she’s asking us to x-ray ourselves. What would your x-ray look like? What would be underneath?

It would not be fair to suggest that Kahlo exclusively presented herself in a way that was meant to hide her sufferings and disabilities. That’s just not true, but if you didn’t know Kahlo very well, you could walk away from the first three rooms of the exhibit with that impression.

But in the fourth room, the illusion is peeled back and you are confronted with the truth that Kahlo’s greatest art slams head on into the greatest sufferings of her life—her injuries, her miscarriage, and her difficult relationship with her husband. In fact, I think that all of Kahlo’s art and all of her presentation of herself can be traced back ultimately to her struggles. It was at her most trying moments that Kahlo found her calling, produced her greatest paintings, and found new directions in her art.

So, in a sense, it’s not just Kahlo’s physical appearance that could be—at times—deceiving. We could also say that our impression of the source of her power is equally deceived. Underneath Kahlo’s dress there was pain and terrible injury and heartache. And underneath her art and her iconic look there was a source of power that was not beautiful or desirable but was, in fact, terrible. And Kahlo was not afraid to put that source on display, to uncover it, and to wrestle a blessing from it on canvas.

We tend to think that power comes from some just some sense of power—it’s a blessing from God, it is evidenced in our lives when we are productive and happy and successful people. It is a blessing! But Kahlo’s life suggests something else. The source of Kahlo’s power comes in her confrontation with her own pain. And her greatest art was revelatory in that it told us the truth of her suffering and her strength, bound up together.

Kahlo wasn’t a religious person at all. In fact, she was a committed communist of the Marxist persuasion and she criticized religion. And I know someone else who frequently criticized religion who also seems to have understood this holistic spiritual truth that Kahlo’s life illustrates—that true power doesn’t come from power, but that true power comes from confrontations with adversity. And that person is Jesus, who said in our reading this evening, Do not be deceived: blessed are the poor, but woe to the rich. The words come out of Jesus’ mouth like x-rays. The rich become transparent and we suddenly see the invisible poor behind them.

But before we even get into Jesus’ blessings and woes specifically, it would be good to remember our travels through Luke’s gospel over the last few months. In Advent, two months back, Luke told us that after Mary conceived Jesus, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. And walking through the door of Elizabeth’s house, neither Elizabeth nor the baby in her womb can be deceived. They recognize that Mary is carrying the Messiah. And in this holy moment Mary sings her Magnificat, which the choir sang for us again during the Prelude this evening. She sings that God throws down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away empty. She does not sing that God will do this, but that God has done this. Don’t be deceived! And Mary has released a great energy into Luke’s gospel, right at the beginning, like tipping a big stone over the edge of a hill.

That stone rolls right into Epiphany when three weeks ago, in Jesus’ very first act of public ministry, before he does anything else, he goes to Nazareth and reads from the Isaiah scroll: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God 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.” And then Jesus tells the gathered crowd, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled!” Do not be deceived! Today! Not tomorrow. Right now. And it feels like that big stone Mary pushed is now bouncing and leaping and cracking down the mountain.

And today, immediately after choosing the twelve Apostles, Jesus also comes down a mountainside to a level place and gives them their first lesson. It is simple, concise, clear, and concrete: You who are now poor, hungry, weeping, and despised are blessed because the Kingdom of God is yours. And you who are rich, filled, laughing, and respected had better watch out because you have received your consolation.

 We hear from Mary that God is doing great things for the poor and casting down the powerful. We hear from Jesus that God has sent him to bring good news of liberation to the poor and imprisoned. And now we hear from Jesus that our whole assumption, the perspective of seeing the poor as low and the rich as great, is the great deception. We have gone past the tipping point and suddenly that stone bounding down the mountain is bounding back up the mountain! The world we know is upside down.

And those of us who have been praying for God’s blessing wonder if God’s idea of a blessing and our idea of a blessing are at all compatible. And those of us who desire to be powerful and effective and good in the world are forced to ask ourselves what God’s power, and justice, and goodness manifest in the world will really look like. Will it look like well off, well fed, happy, and respectable folks doing a great job?

I think that Jesus and Kahlo agree on this fundamental point—that appearances can be deceiving. And when we put Jesus’ beatitudes next to Kahlo’s life and art, I think we’re confronted with a critical spiritual question: Where does our power come from? Kahlo found her blessing in self-expression and art that defied her suffering. Jesus identified humanity’s blessing as being among the people who were in confrontation with suffering. So, where is our blessing?

This question can be a real head trip, right? I think one way of easily mishearing this is that we ought to go out and cause ourselves suffering because suffering is holy or some BS. Or that we ought to be thankful when bad things happen to us and not try to improve our circumstances. Or when the poor suffer, we should allow ourselves to pass by on the other side of the road, because God has some plan for their suffering. But that’s all just more deception. This is not about chasing after some magic formula to holiness. That’ not what Jesus came here to teach us. This is not about disengaging from caring about the world and about our neighbors. That’s not the gospel. It’s about the proper perspective. It’s about looking through the rich and seeing the poor. It’s about looking past a person’s presentation to the source of true power beneath it. It’s about how we see and understand God.

Is God’s blessing the same thing as being rich and satisfied? Do not be deceived. Is being rich and respected that same thing as being holy or saved? Do not be deceived. Get out your colored pencils and your paints and let’s x-ray this thing:

 Suffering is suffering, and none of us should take it lightly, pursue it, or abandon others to it. However, it is in the confrontation with suffering that we discover the vastness of our (and God’s) good response to suffering. It’s in the confrontation with suffering that we learn how to respond to suffering, to push back on it, to make something beautiful and good in life. It’s in the confrontation with suffering that we take possession of the Kingdom of God. We put it on like a dress. And we remember always what is underneath.

Now if you’re paying close attention to all of this, you’re probably realizing this isn’t an answer to the question, “Why is there suffering?” That’s not the question Jesus or Kahlo are answering. They’re answering this assumption: that people who are suffering and oppressed are less than people who are satisfied and worldly. Their answer? Don’t be deceived. And then they turn our assumptions upside down. The question they are answering is, What can we do with suffering? And what are we missing when we assume that suffering is God’s curse for being lazy or “bad”? What are we missing when we despise those who suffer?

Beloved, do not be deceived. If you want to respond to a suffering world, you cannot do it, ultimately, from the places that are well off, well fed, happy, and respected. You need to find the place within you that is suffering, has suffered. Find your hunger, find your disgrace, find your failure, and there you will find God waiting to respond. Don’t listen to the satisfied ones who say that suffering is a curse from God. Listen instead to God, who promises: We will not be defeated by this, we turn it upside down until it is a blessing. Amen.