Sunday, October 30, 2016

Past, Present and Future

The epistle and gospel readings, as well as the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 27C/Ordinary 32C move fluidly through time: past and present, present and future, all three together. Just as in the painting below.
David Bailly. Vanitas-Still Life with Self-Portrait of the Artist. 1651. Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands. http://www.lakenhal.nl/en/collection/s-1351

In the painting, a young man dominates the painting, a painter's stick in his right hand and his left hand on a portrait of an older man. On the table are various objects, typically used as symbols in vanitas paintings: a skull, an overturned glass, a snuffed candle, a pocket watch. Floating above them the setting are several soap bubbles which are fragile and easily popped. All symbolize the transience of life and, by extension, the passage of time.

But the painting plays with time in another way. The young man, the artist (this is, indeed, a self-portrait), looks at the viewer with his art tools around him. In addition to the stick, on the wall behind him are two as-yet-unused wooden palettes that one day will be smeared with his paints. But not yet. He anticipates the future.

Or maybe, actually, the paintings have been done. Because the smaller oval portrait on which the man's left hand rests is also a portrait of the artist. A portrait of a not-as-young artist. The viewer might believe that the artist is anticipating the future, until learning that the painter was 67 years old when this painting was done. So in reality the small portrait of the older man is the self-portrait of the artist at the time of the painting and the portrait of the younger man is remembering who he was in the past (about four decades in the past!). So the portrait that looks like present reality is in fact not. This is a painting about remembering rather than anticipating.

Haggai's message of past, present and future with God (1:15b - 2:9) has to do with the Temple: the glorious one they remember with tears in their eyes and the one they have barely begun (re)building. And as to the promised reordering of all things and the Kingdom of God among them, well that's a future that is probably almost impossible to believe given the devastation of their present.

The Christ-followers of Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17) are also concerned about the (coming) Day of the Lord. They are worried that the future event they have been anticipating has arrived...and they missed it! But, no, they are told. There are many things that will/must happen between their present and that future event. Don't you remember that I told you these things in the past when I was with you?

And in the gospel reading (Luke 20:27-38), Jesus responds to the trick question of the Sadducees - a question about marriage in the resurrection (remember that they didn't believe in resurrection anyway) - by drawing a distinction between this age and the age to come. The present age is one thing. The future age is another. And then he refers to the past: to Moses and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham.

It might be interesting to think how these ideas of time are particularly suited to this time of year. For some civilizations, this was the turning of the year and a specifically acknowledged moment when the past was remembered and the future was anticipated. The natural world stands at the beginning of a season about decay and death, even as we know that spring will come in the continued movement of the seasons. We remember saints of the past. We prepare for the coming winter. Youth. Age. Past, present, future. Fluid.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Being Visible

Write it large enough so that someone running by can see (Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4). Climb a tree so you can see (Luke 19:1-10). The Proper 26C/Ordinary 31C readings from Hebrew scripture and the Gospel are about visibility: seeing and being seen.
Basilica of St. Sernin. Toulouse, France. Consecrated 1180. 
http://www.basilique-saint-sernin.fr/site/basilique-romane/bienvenue.htm 
When it comes to visibility - physical visibility anyway - one of the most traditional things congregations do is put steeples on their church buildings. When a symbolic meaning is applied to the structure(s), it has to do with drawing our eye up toward God and heaven. There is also a purpose that is a bit more prosaic. In a town where buildings are cheek by jowl and all made of the same local building materials, it's hard to distinguish one building from another.

If you are entering a town, a steeple serves almost like a flashing neon sign: Church right here! Of course now there are churches with flashing signs in front of their buildings, so perhaps the steeple is becoming redundant.

The five towers of Cathedrale Notre-Dame, Tournai, Belgium makes the skyline of the city distinctive. 
For the cathedral, see: http://www.tournai.be/decouvrir-tournai/cathedrale-patrimoine-mondial-de-l-unesco.html
It is also the case that some congregations prefer to blend in rather than stand out. Architectural elements like steeples are too "churchy" or too out of scale with humanity (the measure on which the building is based).
Are we writing our story large? Are we visible? Are we supposed to be?


What about this structure? Find out more at the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Third Move

In the order of service for the congregation where I preached today there was an invitation. It was before the prelude, and it invited worshipers to transition "from getting here to being here." A congregation where I preach regularly includes time following the benediction and choral response to sit quietly in their seats, reflect on worship and prepare to leave worship with intention. Those are the three moves: getting to worship, being in worship, leaving worship. Though all three moves are mentioned, the gospel reading for Proper 25C/Ordinary 30C (Luke 18:9-14) focuses on two of those moves.

In the very familiar text, two men go up to the Temple (getting to worship), and they each offer a prayer (being in worship). This is often where artists stop in their depiction of the parable. Two men are near each other, but they have very different body language. One stands upright, gesturing grandly toward the other. The other may be kneeling or leaning over with body language that is closed.

The moment shown is the moment of the two prayers. Two very different prayers. Don't be like the overly proud prayer, Jesus says. The end.

But that's not the end.

Jesus' story and summary continues. It follows the two prayers from the Temple to their implied journey home. It's an important conclusion, one sometimes forgotten or overlooked or downplayed. This part of the story is worth another look, though, because it implies that what we do in worship has something to do with what happens after worship.

Dutch artist Barent Fabritius painted a series of three works, each focusing on one of Jesus' parables. The three paintings were commissioned by and hung in the Lutheran Church in Leiden. This week's gospel reading was among them.

Fabritius divides the picture space into four sections. In the center sections, the pharisee and the tax collector are each shown at prayer. The Pharisee's face is lifted up and  illuminated as he kneels before an altar. His gesture points toward himself and to the "other." The tax collector stands behind a column, in shadow, his face turned down. It is a pretty typical composition so far. But on each side of this painting are two other sections, divided from the Temple setting by large square pilasters. In each of the settings are the two prayers leaving the Temple, presumably returning to their homes and lives.
Barent Fabritius. The Pharisee and the Publican. 1661. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum.
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2959
On the left the Pharisee leaves the Temple with a rather smug expression on his face. He is preceded from the Temple by a horned and winged devil who carries a mask. The mask is an obvious symbol for the deception that is the world's perception of the Pharisee. By contrast, the tax collector leaves the Temple overseen by an angel. One of these men leaves the Temple justified, Jesus says. Fabritius has left no doubt which man that is.

The third move - leaving worship - is worth thinking about.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Ourselves in the Story

The persistence of the widow in Luke 18:1-8 (Proper 24C/Ordinary 29C) ultimately got her what she sought. What she sought was justice. The judge - admittedly uncaring about much of anything including justiceand therefore unjust - ultimately gives in. Not because he cares about her or her cause or justice but because he gets tired of her constant nagging. It's a little disheartening as an example of human judicial process. It's more disheartening to realize that human nature may have changed little since this gospel was written.
Symeon Shimin. "Contemporary Justice - the Child". 1940. Tempera. Washington DC: Department of Justice.
The tempera painting above hangs in the Great Hall of the U.S. Department of Justice. The artist, Symeon Shimin (1902-1984), illustrated more than 50 children's books, writing two himself. Though the subject was probably assigned as part of a series of paintings in the building, Shimin's affinity for the subject of justice in relation to the child makes sense.

Don't lose heart, the parable tells us. Don't lose heart even when the system is broken. The widow doesn't give up; she keeps petitioning the judge. She doesn't change from her course. The judge doesn't change either, but the widow eventually gets what she has been seeking. God's justice will come, sometimes through human judicial processes...and sometimes in spite of them. 

The 2016 National Observance of Children's Sabbaths is set for October 21-23. Congregations are 
encouraged to "stand tall within our communities and push our nation to keep our promises of love and justice, equality and dignity for all." (Children's Defense Fund; http://www.childrensdefense.org/programs/faithbased/faith-based-action-programs-pages/childrens-sabbaths/National-Observance-of-Children-s-Sabbaths.html) 

This painting reminds us of the promises of justice that we make to our children. What we, as people of faith, must ask ourselves as we consider this story (and the state of our nation) is whether, in relation to our children, we are the widow persisting in our quest for justice or the unjust judge.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Keeping Their Distance

Only one said "thank you." That's the bottom line of the gospel reading for Proper 23C/Ordinary 28C (Luke 17:11-19). I think the story is more evocative in the imagining than in the text. The traditional composition shows nine men in the distance, often leaping for joy as they run back to their families. In the foreground, Jesus usually stands over one man who kneels at his feet, expressing gratitude and praise to the one who made healing possible.

Because the literal interpretation of the text is not particularly visually interesting, this week's blog post will link you to photographs of leper colonies. Because the colonies are officially closed, what you will see is what is left. Think about the lives lived in these places. Think about the people - human beings - who were forced to live apart from their families because of this disease. And not just "down the road" apart, but colonies that were established on islands to make sure that they were well removed from the general population. After all, these people, too, were forced to keep their distance from the general population.

The leper colony called Lovokomeio on the Greek island of Chios, was opened in 1378 as the first leper colony in Greece. On the island is a church dedicated to St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. The colony was officially shut down in 1957, after a cure for leprosy (Hansen's disease) had been found.
 Photos by Kelly Katsarou. For additional images from this colony, see: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2288913/Inside-abandoned-leper-colony-Haunting-pictures-disease-sufferers-locked-Greek-island.html For additional work by Kelly Katsarou, see: http://kellykatsarou.daportfolio.com/gallery/90702
In the U.S., the National Leprosarium in Carville, LA, includes two cemeteries. Shown above is the second, with the first burial in 1922 and the last in 2014. Patients often used false names so that their families could avoid the stigma of having a relative with leprosy. The tombstones may be carved with a real or false name as well as a case/file number. Only those patients quarantined by law can be buried here. For more on Carville, see: http://neworleanshistorical.org/tours/show/55
On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, the Kalaupapa community served as the leper colony. Now a U.S. National Park, the community was located on a peninsula that is separate from "topside" Molokai. Opened in 1866, Kalaupapa was the mandatory location for any Hawaiian suffering from leprosy until 1969, when the state lifted its mandatory exile law. More than 8,000 people died at Kalaupapa. For more, see: https://www.nps.gov/kala/index.htm

Jesus' healing of these men changes their lives, changes the possibilities for human interaction, changes everything. We can understand the joy that would supersede all other thoughts after being healed. Certainly those nine men were anxious to return to families and lives from which they had been separated since the onset of leprosy symptoms. Still, it's a lovely moment when one returns to thank Jesus.