Sunday, January 22, 2017

Wisdom and Foolishness and Blessings and Woes

The Beatitudes (Matthew's version is 5:1-12) may only feel true if you also know I Corinthians 1:18-31. Both texts are read on Epiphany 3A. Both texts seem to turn traditional wisdom on its head. Who would believe that mourning, persecution and poverty are signed of blessedness? Not most people. But the Corinthians passage reminds the reader that wisdom and foolishness are different when seen through God's eyes.

Paul reminds us that what the world says is foolish - notably the cross and Christ's death on it - is God's wisdom. In God's wisdom, the covenant with Abraham is fulfilled and sinful humans don't have their sins held against them. In God's wisdom, greater love has no one than to lay down life for friends. In God's wisdom, being persecuted for God's sake means you are doing faith right.
Marc Chagall. The Madman Who Sold Wisdom. From The Fables of Jean La Fontaine. 1927-1930. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Russian artist Marc Chagall illustrates the collision of wisdom and foolishness in an illustration that is part of The Fables of La Fontaine.  "The Madman Who Sold Wisdom" (Le Fou qui vent la Sagesse) tells the tale of a fool who announces that he has wisdom for sale. Soon enough people line up to buy wisdom, and what he gives them is a length of cord and a slap on the side of the head. Some were angry that they had paid for this; others simply walk away, believing they will look more foolish if they try to argue with a fool. One purchaser of wisdom goes to a sage to ask for an explanation. The wise person answers that the purchaser should stay as far away from the fool as the length of the cord he received. Anyone who stands closer to that will surely get the same slap on the side of the head. "You weren't fooled," the wise one concludes. "He did sell you wisdom."

God's wisdom. The wisdom of the world. The world's foolishness. The foolishness of God. Blessed are those who...

And this week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...something entirely different. Click on the link below.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Great Light

It's the line that echoes from the Isaiah passage (9:1-4) to the gospel reading (Matthew 4:12-23) on the second Sunday after Epiphany(A): The people who walked in [sat in] darkness have seen a great light.

I was all ready to bedazzle this blog post with some of the amazing light installations that contemporary artists are creating. Millions of lights created through actual lights and reflections in mirrored rooms. Images the size of a cathedral wall projected onto...a cathedral wall. Lights that change according to programmed pattern or random change. Clear lights. Colored lights.

And then I wondered if "great light" might mean something else entirely.

Perhaps the light wasn't great because it was a spectacular display of cosmic fireworks. Perhaps the light was great because of what happened by it.

After all, the pyramids of Giza, Gothic cathedrals, the rock churches of Lalibela - all of these were made at a time when the world was (to quote a book title) lit only by fire. Abraham Lincoln didn't learn to read by flipping on a light switch when he got back to the family cabin after working all day. Astronomers around the globe created maps of the heavens. They found those stars with a candle or lantern sitting on the work table next to their telescopes. Any nighttime construction at Stonehenge was done by torchlight. Even for Jesus, who might have been welcomed to earth with a cosmic light show, it wasn't a daily occurrence. And despite what artists might have you believe, there probably wasn't a disk of unnatural light around his head. Someone would have mentioned that. Jesus' life was lit by oil-fueled lanterns and fires.

What might happen, then, when we think about the "great light" that we have seen? Not the star that led magi, but Jesus. How might that great light move us, lead us, call us?

But I can't help myself, so check out the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for just one of those light installations. Click on the link below.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


Brothers. The gospel reading for Epiphany 2A (John 1:29-42) features the call stories of one set of brothers who were part of the original twelve. James and John are the other pair, but here we read the story of Peter and Andrew. That is usually the order in which they are given, with Peter taking the first spot. Peter is such a vivid character in the gospels with his impetuous behavior, his impetuous speech, his impetuous...well, you know. Andrew is seen more infrequently. His name is mentioned twelve times in Christian scripture. By contrast, his brother's name is mentioned more than 150 times.

You'd think Andrew might be jealous. You'd think there might be some sibling rivalry. You might think any number of things, but you wouldn't know. Because scripture seems decidedly uninterested in the sibling relationship of Andrew and Peter.
Ossip Zadkine. The Van Gogh Brothers. 1956. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art.
It would have been interesting to know who was older (would you hazard a guess based on what you know from scripture?), how they talked to one another when Jesus wasn't around. Was one more artistic than the other or one more athletic than the other? Did they share the same dominant hand or was one a righty and the other a lefty? Was Andrew an introvert, or does he only seem introverted because he is often standing next to his brother? Those are things we don't know.

What we do know is that Peter indeed steps to the forefront of the brothers - and of the disciples. But had it not been for Andrew, perhaps Peter would never have been there at all. In fact, almost every time we see Andrew in scripture, he is bringing someone else to Jesus. Andrew found the boy with five loaves and two fish and brought him to Jesus. When several Greek inquirers want time with Jesus, Andrew advises Philip to take them to him.

One brother known. Both brothers valuable.

I was reminded of another set of brothers: Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Most people, even those with a minimal knowledge of art history, are familiar with Vincent's name. His paintings, a couple of events in his life. People know that. Many have never heard of Theo van Gogh. But without Theo, the world probably would not know Vincent.
Ossip Zadkine. Vincent and Theo van Gogh. 1964. Zundert, Netherlands.
Theo van Gogh was an art dealer. About four years younger than Vincent, Theo was unfailing in his support of his brother. Theo supported Vincent emotionally and financially both before and after his (Theo's) marriage. He sent Vincent art supplies like canvas and paint and money for living expenses. Theo tried to run interference between Vincent and their father. He admired his older brother and believed that his talent was true and timeless. He was one of few people in the world who did.

Theodorus van Gogh, father to Theo and Vincent, was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent reflected in a letter that Father van Gogh referred to the story of Jacob and Esau when talking about the brothers. Vincent wrote: Pa sometimes mulled over the story of Jacob and Esau with regard to you and me — not entirely mistakenly — although happily there’s less enmity, to mention just one difference, and in the Bible itself there are examples aplenty of better relations between brothers than existed between the aforementioned venerable patriarchs. 

The relationship between adult brothers is often quite complex. There are layers of memories, resentments, love, irritations. But for many brothers - regardless of the resentments and irritations - there is still the love. That is what artist Ossip Zadkine set out to depict in the two sculptures shown here. Both have the van Gogh brothers as their subject. Note how the figures lean toward one another. In the smaller piece the brothers' heads are together. In the larger outdoor piece, located in Zundert, the van Gogh brothers' hometown, the brothers are standing. Their heads are still together, and in this piece they seem to share a heart as well.

Though the point of the gospel reading is Jesus' call and the disciples' answer, it is important to note that Jesus didn't call only people like Peter and that it was the non-spotlight brother Andrew who was effective in finding the people who could help Jesus fulfill his mission. Two brothers. Both valuable. As each disciple is.

"Behold the lamb of God!" said John when he saw Jesus. Here's another lamb. Find out more about it on our Facebook page. The link is below.