Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jeremiah 2.4-13: Worth

They went after worthless things and became worthless themselves. That's what God has to say about the ancestors of the house of Jacob (Jeremiah 2:4-13). God then reminds the people of what has come to them as a result of their relationship with God. And yet, God wonders, they traded the relationship with God for something less. For something with less value...for something that, by comparison, has no worth.

Of course, who defines worth? Who defines how much something is worth? Consider the photo below. What do you think this ceramic piece is worth? Really, stop to consider and come up with a figure before you read ahead. And, yes, the background may tell you that this is from Antiques Roadshow. How much is it worth?

Would you believe $30,000 to $50,000? That's what the Antiques Roadshow appraiser said the piece was worth. It really is a one-of-a-kind piece, probably late 19th or early 20th century, and worth $30,000 to $50,000. Not bad when the owner had purchased it at an estate sale for $300. So an original appraiser (at the estate sale) said it was worth $300. The AR appraiser multiplied that figure by a thousand. And now it's worth $30,000 to $50,000. What changed about the piece that all of a sudden it was worth a thousand times more money than before? Worth. Is it true that things are really only worth whatever you can get someone to pay for them?

Here's the first twist to this story of changing worth. A viewer watching this episode of Antiques Roadshow immediately called a friend and told the friend that she needed to go online and watch this appraisal. Turns out that the friend created the piece. In high school in the 1970s. Hmmm. Now how much is the piece worth? What would you say?

The AR appraiser revised the appraisal to $3,000 to $5,000. So now it's worth ten times less than it was. It's been worth $300, $3,000, even $30,000. All the same piece. No changes whatsoever. What is it worth?

What's worthless here? The object? The human ability to identify "worth"? The human need to attach worth to things? Our understanding of what things are really "worth"?

It's that last question that may hold the key. If we are swayed by the opinions and pronouncements of others about the worth of things, then we shall surely chase after things that are ultimately worthless. And in doing so, we will become worthless in our ability to live lives of faithful service to God.

The story of the object above has one more twist. The man who paid $300 for the piece at an estate sale bought it because he loved it. When it was "worth" $30,000, he put it away for safekeeping. Now that it is "worth" less, he has brought it back out where he can enjoy it. Which was why he bought it in the first place. One last twist on worth: the piece's creator, Betsy Soule, was surprised to find that someone was willing to pay $300 in the first place. She said if she had known he liked the piece (and it had been in her possession), she probably would have given it to him. What's that worth?

For additional reading about this story, click here or here .
For thoughts on Luke 14:1, 7-14, click here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Hebrews 12.18-29: Recurring Motifs

The people stood between two mountains, and the preacher asked them to acknowledge. After eleven full chapters (plus a bit of a twelfth), the congregation hearing the sermon that is the Epistle to the Hebrews is brought to this point: Unlike your ancestors, you didn't come to Mount Sinai - all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble - to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them and they begged him to stop. When they heard the words - "If an animal touches the Mountain, it's as good as dead" - they were afraid to move. Even Moses was terrified. No, that's not your experience at all. You've come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You've come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. (Hebrews 12:18-29). The people stand between the two mountains, exhausted and discouraged. The preacher encourages them to remember what Jesus has done for them. Toward which mountain will they move? Sinai? Or Zion? You'd think the choice would be easy. Surely they could see the difference between the two mountains as they were presented side by side.

These are far (far!) from the only appearances of mountains in scripture. Mount Ararat, the Mount of Olives, Mount Hermon, Mount Carmel, Mount Nebo, Mount of Transfiguration, and the list could go on. Each time a mountain shows up, we should look back to where else we have seen a mountain, remember those stories, and then see what is similar and what is different in the most recent appearance of a mountain. It's in the side-by-side observation that we can see the richness of the symbol as a whole and the nuances of each mention.

American artist Jim Dine (b. 1935) was known for taking one object - often an everyday object - and exploring it in a variety of ways. A recurring motif. In the late 1970s Dine spent three months in Jerusalem. His studio was near Mount Zion. Among the works he produced was a painting titled "Painting Around Mount Zion." Is the painting below what you imagined such a work would look like?
Jim Dine. Painting Around Mount Zion. 1979. Oil on canvas. 71" x 173". Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum. 
It's bathrobes, one of the recurring motifs in Dine's art. Here there are four of them. Four bathrobes with sashes tied and sleeves that look perfectly placed for the wearer to have hands fisted on hips or concealed in pockets. But four bathrobes with no people in them. Nevertheless, when we see the robe, we might imply the people. After all, who else would be using a bathrobe? Each is slightly different. Notice the fall of light on the lapels of each robe, and compare the colors in each image. So we might see these as four individuals. Four "people around Mount Zion."

The people of Hebrews didn't have to move toward Zion (and they probably weren't wearing bathrobes when they heard the preacher's use of  the recurring mountain motif). But they would choose either Zion or not-Zion by the way they moved forward after hearing the preacher's encouragement in the midst of their discouraging world. Are these four bathrobe people ready to move? Or are they unable to move from their solidified pose?

We also choose. Are we, as Christians, moving? Are we moving toward Mount Zion?

For thoughts on Luke 13:10-17, click here.
For thoughts on Jeremiah 1:4-10, click here.
For thoughts about the "shaking" mentioned in Hebrews, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Luke 12.32-40: Protecting Your Treasure

Luke's gospel (Luke 12:32-40) offers us a glimpse of the relationship between people and whatever they hold most dear. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. And you will do whatever you need to do to protect your treasure. You'll make sure that your door is locked against robbers who would break in and steal your treasure.

Elsewhere in scripture (Matthew 6:19), we are reminded, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal." But it doesn't stop people from trying. Here a heavy wooden chest owned by Melk Abbey. Notice the thick sides of the chest. Notice the lock on the front of the chest.

Wooden Chest with Locks. 17th century. Melk Abbey Museum. Melk, Austria.
Yes...notice that lock. Certainly it will keep out thieves, right? This will guard your treasure, whatever that is. Well, maybe. Actually, the lock on the front of the chest is a decoy. You can try any key in the world in the lock, and nothing will happen. There are, in fact, fourteen locks on this chest. But you have to know where the keyhole is to start the process. And it's hidden. 

So even if you know where the hidden keyhole is, all the moving parts of fourteen locks have to be working perfectly for you to lock up your treasure and, at least ostensibly, keep it safe. Or you could just remember that your real treasure isn't something that can be locked up in a trunk. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Psalm 80.1-2, 18-19: Ancient Vines, Ancient Cultures

Psalm 80 (verse 8) speaks of a vine, and Isaiah 5:1-7 uses the image of a vineyard. The Psalm calls upon the shepherd of Israel to remember the vine that was brought out of Egypt. One wonders about the mixed metaphor of God as shepherd and the nation as vine/vineyard, but the juxtaposition made me wonder, could the undifferentiated "vine" in Psalm 80 be a grape vine, which could be brought out of Egypt and beget a vineyard in Israel? Were there grapevines in Egypt?

Spoiler alert: yes. And no.

The cultivation of vines was certainly known in Egypt by the time of an ancient Egyptian official named Nakht. The walls of his tomb in Thebes is covered with paintings, including the one below that shows people tending grapes on the vine, stomping the grapes, performing the ancient equivalent of "bottling" the wine.
Tomb of Nakht. Wall painting. Thebes, Egypt. 
In an interesting twist, though, it may be that the (grape)vine that was brought out of Egypt came from Palestine in the first place. In time, there was a thriving wine business in Egypt, but archaeological finds have led to some questions about the origin of the industry. Clay jars found in the tomb of an early Egyptian king (possibly known as Scorpion I) were analyzed to determine the origin of the clay. The jars matched no identifiable Egyptian clay. It did, however, match clays associated with the southern coastal plain and lowlands of Israel. There is evidence that this region did practice grapevine transplanting.

So the psalmist sang of the vine that God brought out of Egypt and planted in Israel. Getting to the land of promise seems really to be a homecoming.

You can read more about wine, wine jars, and the possibility of an Israel-ancient Egypt wine connection here.

For thoughts on clouds in Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2, click here.
For thoughts on the vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Luke 12.32-40: Napping

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Be those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. All are sentiments expressed in the gospel reading for Proper 14C/Ordinary 19C (Luke 12:32-40). All emphasize the need to be awake, watchful, alert. This is not the only text that bids Christians to stay awake.

But who of us doesn't enjoy a nap? My father believed that there was no such thing as a bad nap...just one that was too short.
Nicolaes Maes. Dame agee assoupie (Old Woman Dozing). c. 1655. Brussels: Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts. 
Nicolaes Maes was fond of the subject of dozing women. He painted the subject more than once and more than once used this woman as his model. Because she appears in several paintings, some historians speculate that the model was, perhaps, the artist's mother. She is peacefully napping, having set aside her lacemaking as well as the book in her lap and the open Bible on the table. I would hope we would not begrudge this woman an afternoon nap. 

Maes stands in the same tradition that produced the still life/vanitas pictures, so we can find clues to an additional meaning by putting together the elements the artist has included in the picture. First, the abandoned lacemaking has moved the woman from industry and productivity to idleness. The Bible is open to Amos, a prophet who warned that when the nation failed to follow God's moral commandments, then the relationship between God and people was in danger of being dissolved. On the table an hourglass reminds the viewer that time is running out, especially for this older woman. She should be more industrious, especially as she will (presumably) be meeting her maker sooner rather than later and be called to account for her life on earth. Napping in the daytime is at least a waste of time and could be considered sinful. 

Where we might understand napping as a "battery recharge," her nap seems to symbolize sloth. Is napping as bad as all that? Certainly she does not embody the alertness called for in the gospel reading. Should the thief (or Jesus) choose this moment to come into her home, she will no doubt miss the entire thing. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Hosea 11.1-11: Ephraim Is Walking!

The baby is walking! The first steps of any child are both amazing and precious. There are a number of starts and stops, timid beginnings, interrupted progress. Then, finally, a child lets go of what has steadied them - often the hand of an adult - and careens into the big, wide world. But adults who have loaned hands and fingers to steady a child never really let go. They remember how it was for the child to depend on them. God knows how that feels: It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. (Hosea 11:1-11)
Pablo Picasso. First Steps. 1943. Oil on Canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
In Picasso's painting here, the mother stands behind the child, holding the child's hands and allowing the child the full view of the world out front. The child is staring with wide-open eyes at the world, while the mother has eyes only for the child. Dressed in light-colored clothing, the child visually advances in the painting while the mother, dressed in neutrals that are much the same value as the background, recedes. This child, created in the context of World War II (1943), is setting out into an uncertain world.

God continues to love Ephraim/Israel as we all know and love the children who at one point depended on us. The child may not need an adult's hand, but the adult's heart remains connected to the child. How can I give you up, Ephraim?

God also understands how it feels when the child walks off...wanders off. Wanders to the point that Hosea is called to bring God's child back to God. Because God can't let go of this child who learned to walk by holding the divine hand. 

For the return of doves to their home (Hosea 11:11), click here.
For thoughts on Luke 12:13-21, click here.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Hosea 1.2-10: Picturing the Relationship

[Note: The extra post this week is an effort to work ahead on blog posts in order to be more helpful for folks who are worship planning several weeks in advance. There are two posts today, and I'll try to get one more posted this week so there is a three-week lead time on posts. Hosea 1 is the RCL text for July 28, 2019.]

The story of Hosea and Gomer. Is it a romance? A cautionary tale? A tragedy? Is Gomer abused by Hosea (and God...see Hosea 2)? Is she an excellent stand-in for Israel as sinners? We know she is voiceless in the text. But so is Hosea. God is the one who speaks and directs in this text (Hosea 1:2-10).

Artists have historically seemed to revel in the opportunity to paint Biblical texts that read as...salacious. Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Delilah's treachery and betrayal of Samson. David and Bathsheba. Is the point of these texts that they can be R-rated?
This week specifically, how should we picture the relationship between Hosea and Gomer? Here are four options. Each offers a very different approach. Which best captures your understanding of the relationship defined in this week's text? Or in what way does one (or all) fall short of how you see this relationship?

Top: Hosea and Gomer. Bible Historiale. Den Haag, MMW, 10 B 23 426r.
Second: Barry Moser. Hosea and Gomer 
Third: Marriage of Hosea and the Prostitute. Bible of St. Andre-aux-bois. 12th century. Bibliotheque de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France Bottom: Cody F. Miller. Hosea and Gomer.

For thoughts on Luke 11:1-13, click here.

Amos 8.1-12: A Basket of Fruit

The fruits of summer are enticing. Peaches are at their peak in July and August (in the northern hemisphere). Watermelons, blueberries, and raspberries are all part of summer. Those may not have been the exact fruits that Amos saw, but the result would have been the same: just looking at the fruit would give you a taste of summer (Amos 8:1-12). 

Students (and teachers!) know that as those fruits ripen it means that summer is moving on toward fall. It's not always a great feeling. You wish for what has passed. You want more time to do the things you haven't yet done over summer vacation. You do your best to live in the moment, not thinking about the change of seasons that is to come. 

Amos' vision is that feeling exponentially increased. The end is near, alright. But it isn't the end of summer vacation. It's way more serious than that. The end has come upon my people Israel, God says. It won't be pretty. 

A basket or bowl of fruit is a typical painting subject. And sometimes it's just a bowl of fruit. But for other artists (notably of the Dutch school) the bowl of fruit becomes a symbol with similar overtones to the Amos story. 

The basket of fruit here is by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Known for creating paintings with dramatic lights and darks, the artist has used none of that here. the basket sits against a neutral background on what appears to be a wooden shelf. Historians aren't sure why the painting was made. Was it to prove the artist's ability to paint realistically (notice the small shadow under the basket indicating it is jutting out slightly over the edge of the shelf)? Was it for a particular spot in the artist's house - or a patron's house? Was it meant to be hung on a wall or above a door, perhaps? Maybe the shelf under the basket mimicked an actual shelf or door molding. 
Caravaggio. Basket of Fruit. 1597-1600. Oil on canvas. Milan: Pinacotheca Ambrosiana.
Though the basket looks like you could reach into the painting and choose a piece of fruit to eat, you might not want to choose the apple. If you look closely you can see that a worm has been there before you. Even in this beautiful assemblage of fruit, the end is coming. Leaves are starting to wither, and some bear holes that indicate insects of some kind have been here. 

The end has come upon my people Israel, God says. If you look closely, you can see it coming. 

For thoughts on Luke 10:38-42, click here

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Amos 7.7-17: Plumb

I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people, God says (Amos 7:8). The plumb line, a weighted "bob" on the end of a line, hangs vertically (thanks, gravity!), providing a known vertical and, therefore, an accurate comparison for any (purportedly) vertical surface near it. A plumb line in the midst of the people will show how upright - or not - the people are. How closely are the people following God's law? How likely is it that their moral center is indeed centered, and will enable them to standd for a long time? That's what God is trying to find out.

American artist Charles White (1918-1979), born in Chicago, trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked for three years with the Illinois Art Project, affiliated with the Works Progress Administration. His 1964 piece, Birmingham Totem, was created in response to the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Charles White. Birmingham Totem. 1964. Ink and charcoal on paper. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
In the work a young African-American boy, his head and body covered by a blanket, sits atop a pile of rubble from the bombed church. From his right hand, a plumb line hangs down in front of the wreckage. I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people, God says.

For additional thoughts on the plumb line, see Art & Faith Matters on Facebook here.
For thoughts on Luke 10:25-37, click here.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

2 Kings 5.1-14: Something Easy

All Naaman has to do to be cured of leprosy is go wash in the river (2 Kings 5:1-14). You'd think he'd say, "Great! Five minutes and I'm done!" But, no. Naaman first expresses his offense at the sending of a messenger to deliver the cure. Surely Naaman was important enough for some kind of show by Elisha. Then Naaman expresses his disdain for the cure. Naaman needs to learn a lesson about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

And though he doesn't get that lesson, he does hear common sense from his servants. Not the first time servants have faciliated Naaman's cure. Remember it was an Israelite slave girl who first brings the prophet to Naaman's attention (5:2-3). The servants point out that Naaman was ready (eager, even) to do something big and involved to bring on the leprosy cure. Why would he complain about doing something simple?

It's a good question.

We often overcomplicate things. Rube Goldberg was a widely-known cartoonist in his day, popular enough that he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for his cartoons and sought after as a spokesperson. Today we know him for his machines - wildly complicated inventions that used levers, pulleys, animals, balloons, and more to perform relatively simple tasks. His contraptions were so popular that his name has become synonymous with the idea of making something simple quite complicated. Like wiping your mouth with a napkin.
Rube Goldberg. Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin. Originally published in Collier's, September 26, 1931
In the example above, Goldberg has developed a self-operating napkin. When the soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, it pulls the string (B) and jerks the ladle (C), which throws the cracker (D) past the toucan (E). The toucan jumps after the cracker and the perch (F) tilts, upsetting the seeds (G) into the pail (H). Extra weight in the pail pulls the cord (I), which opens and ignites the lighter (J), setting off  a skyrocket (K), which causes the sickle (L) to cut the string (M), allowing the pendulum with the attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping the diner's chin. No effort at all.

Which of God's commands do we overcomplicate?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a three-river throwdown. Click here.
For thoughts on Luke 10:1-20, click here.

Each year there is a Rube Goldberg Machine contest. The task for 2019 was putting money in a piggy bank. The 2020 task is turning off a light. To see this year's winners, click here

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Luke 9.51-62: Where You're Looking

Most state DMVs will tell you the same story: drivers tend to steer in the direction they are looking. If the driver's eyes move to the right, they will subconsciously turn the wheel to the right. Same is true for the left. We tend to go in the direction we are looking. So when Jesus' face is set to go to Jerusalem, well, that's where he is going (Luke 9:51-62). Nothing will stop him...not even the knowledge of what will happen in Jerusalem.
Thomas Hart Benton, Planting (Spring Plowing), 1939, lithograph on paper mounted on paperboard. 
Smithsonian American Art Museum.
So imagine if you are plowing a field. You walk along behind the horse or ox or mule and hold on to the plow. What do you think happens if you let your eyes drift off to the right. Yep, your plow will begin to drift to the right because subconsciously you'll pull the horses to the right.

No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. If you're looking away from the kingdom of God, then you're going to drift away from the kingdom of God. The American Civil Rights Movement song had it right:
                                                     I got my hand on the gospel plow
                                                     Won't take nothing for my journey now
                                                     Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
                                                     (lyrics attributed to Alice Wine)

This week on Facebook, a look at another part of Jesus' comments in Luke 9:51-62.

For thoughts on II Kings 2:1-12, click here or here.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Luke 8.26-39: A Scene So Terrible

The people were unable to bear the sight (Luke 8:26-39). In the context of this story of healing - where Jesus made whole the man who had been possessed by a "Legion" of demon spirits, this was the moment that the people just could not handle. It was a scene that might have looked like the one below.
Domenico Morelli. Pater Noster, the Sermon on the Mount. c. 1895. 
It seems strange that in this gospel episode a scene like this (people sitting around talking) should be the horrifying scene. The people were quite comfortable when the man was naked and living in the local cemetery. They were fine when he was ritually unclean. Fine when a herd of pigs ran themselves, probably squealing all the way, down the bank into water where they no doubt thrashed around until they were all dead and floating on the lake. Nope. That was all ok.

What they couldn't handle was health. They couldn't deal with a man now in his right mind, sitting calmly, talking with Jesus. Think about that. It was when Jesus brought health and healing that the people became afraid and demanded Jesus leave. What is wrong with these people? And what is wrong with us when we are fine with someone else's oppression, someone else's exploitation, someone else's failure, but we are afraid of someone else's wholeness, someone else's security, someone else's opportunity?

Note: The illustration above is of the sermon on the mount because as far as I know, there are no works that imagine the post-healing part of the story.

This week on Facebook, a look at the really disturbing scenes of Luke 8:26-39. Click here.

For thoughts on I Kings 21:1-15a, click here.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Trinity Sunday: Explaining

How to explain the Trinity. There have been books (with lots and lots of ink spilled) going into minute detail. There have been analogies: the Trinity is like an egg - shell, yolk, white...or the Trinity like a candle - wax, wick, flame. There have been visuals. Some are pictorial - Jesus on the cross, a dove above his head, and an old white guy at the very top of the picture. Some visuals are more diagram - like the shield of the Trinity below. Around the outside of the triangle we are reminded that the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit is not the Father. Moving from the corners to the middle of the triangle we see that Father, Son, and Spirit are all God.
John 16:12-15 is one of the scripture passages where all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in some kind of relationship. There are others in scripture. But none of those verses offer a definitive explanation of just how the Trinity relates to one another. So theologians have stepped in to try to explain.

Augustine (354-430) was one of those who attempted an explanation. His work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) is not his most well-known work, and, in fact, it was published before it was completed to Augustine's satisfaction. But in it he does try to explain the Trinity to the critics of the doctrine (remembering the issues around the controversy answered in orthodoxy by the Nicene Creed's  assertion of Jesus as "of one substance" or the same substance as the Father) and to remind Christians that they should remember themselves as made in the image of a triune God.


Not surprisingly, undertaking to explain the Trinity could be a daunting task. A legend (based on nothing written by Augustine) says that while Augustine was wrestling with De Trinitate he had a vision. Augustine was by the seashore when he saw a child with a seashell (or a spoon). The child had dug a hole in the sand and was running between the ocean and a pool of water that had gathered in a hole. When asked by Augustine what was happening, the child replied, "I am emptying the ocean into this pool."
     "Impossible!" Augustine pronounced.
     The child, apparently unawed by the learned theologian, replied, "I'll empty the ocean into this pool before you manage to understand and explain the mystery of the Trinity!"
     The legend concludes with Augustine turning around, only to find the child had disappeared. So Augustine was left alone with the mystery of the Trinity.

And in many ways, so are we.




(Left) Botticelli. Vision of St. Augustine (detail from the predella - pictures below the main image - of St. Barnaba Altarpiece). c. 1488. Florence: Uffizi Gallery. 
This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...alternate depictions  of Augustine's legendary vision. 
For thoughts on Proverbs 8:1-4. 22-31, click here and (in a brief mention) here 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Genesis 11.1-9: Talk and Tools

You might even have been able to hear them singing as they were building:
The more we get together, together, together
The more we get together the happier we'll be
But not everyone was happier with everybody getting together to build a tower to heaven. So language was confused (Genesis 11:1-9). No one could understand each other any more and building slowed. Slowed. And ultimately stopped. The tower was left to the ravages of time as surely as Ozymandias' vast and trunkless legs. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Perhaps the tower builders didn't know the story of Adam and Eve, whose lives were changed when they sought to be like God. Perhaps they knew but believed that their story would be different. 

Perhaps that's just human nature - to want to leave works and legacies and reminders that you walked the earth. That you were here. Pieter Bruegel saw the tendency in 16th-century Antwerp (Belgium). He paired the commercial development and urban sprawl of Antwerp with the Biblical story of the tower of Babel. 

The artist was commissioned to create several documentary paintings of the construction of a canal in Antwerp, so he put his learnings about construction to work in this large composition (approximately 45" x 61"). On the tower you'll see workers pulling boards up by ropes, horses pulling sleds piled with bags of something, workshops for creating building materials and tools, stonecarvers picking away at rock, ladders leaning against walls and boards spanning chasms.

The tower is based at least in part on the Colosseum in Rome, which at the time Bruegel painted was an abandoned and weed-covered ruin. Bruegel was making the point that what the Romans considered a masterpiece of engineering and architecture was now nothing to brag about. Perhaps the same fate awaited Antwerp's great plans for building and expansion. 
Pieter Bruegel. Tower of Babel. 1563. Vienna: Kunsthistoriches Museum. 
Google Art Project allows a really close zoom onto the details of this painting. Click here.
At the lower left, Nimrod has come to check the progress of his tower. Some of the stone cutters have stopped their work, bowing down to the king. One of the cutters has abandoned his tools on top of the stone on which he was working. But he has left the handle of the hammer and several of the spikes facing toward us. All we have to do is walk into the picture, pick up our tools, and help build this remarkable tower. 

Should we? Should we have walked in and picked up those tools if we were in the Biblical story? Should we have done that if we lived in Bruegel's 16th-century Antwerp? What about now? Should we pick up those tools and go to work with people we may not understand? Human language is never unconfused. The miracle of Pentecost isn't one of speech. It's one of hearing: each one heard their own language (Acts 2:6). The Holy Spirit facilitated hearing. The problem of communication remains.

Bruegel created a second (larger!) version of this subject. Look at Art&Faith Matters on Facebook to see what differences you can see.

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere, here, or here.


Cultural aside: Is it just me...or does the Bruegel painting look more than a little like Minas Tirith in the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies? The source of that structure is supposedly Mont St. Michel, but it feels at least a little bit Bruegel to me. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Looking Back

This week...take a look at two past essays about the texts for this week. Reconsider what they have to say about these texts.
For thoughts on the language of John 17:6-9, strongly related to John 15:20-26, click here:
For thoughts on chains (Acts 16:16-34) click here.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

John 14.23-29: An Adequate Peace?

John 14.23-29 is part of what is usually called Jesus' "Farewell Discourse." He says to the disciples that though he himself is leaving, he is leaving an advocate with them. An advocate who will teach them and remind them. Jesus also promises to leave "peace" with them. He says it may not look like the world imagines peace to be, but it will, indeed, be peace.

How would you illustrate any of that - what "the advocate" looks or feels like, what peace (either the world's or Jesus') looks like? The illustration below, titled "In the Dale" includes the text of John 14:27: "My peace I give you..." In this work, "peace" seems associated with land and house, with calm waters, with neutral colors.
John Maxted. In the Dale.
Is that your image of peace? The world's peace? Or Christ's peace? Is this an adequate peace? What if this is not contemporary to us but is a vintage print from the first half of the 20th century? Would this seem a more-than-adequate peace for people who have survived a World War or the Great Depression? How do we talk about what Christ's peace looks like? 

What makes for an adequate advocate? See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.
For thoughts on Lydia in Acts 16:9-15, click here.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

John 13.31-35: As I Have Loved You

A new commandment I give you, Jesus said on the night of his arrest. That you love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). On the same evening that Jesus made this statement he had demonstrated his love of the disciples by offering a gesture of hospitality. Because no one had offered to wash the dust from the feet of the travelers, Jesus did it himself. He even called attention to the act saying in verse 13: You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. It's almost the same language as verse 34. Jesus has set an example that we are to follow.

Scottish painter David Wilkie lived in Rome in 1827. Among the scenes of devotion that he witnessed (and painted) were the women - particularly upper-class women...and the occasional grand courtesan who snuck in - who undertook the practice of hospitality in the form of washing the feet of pilgrims. From earliest times, pilgrims traveled to Rome, especially in Jubilee years. By the middle of the 15th century, more than 1,000 inns and places of lodging for visitors were available in Rome. Religious organizations became more involved in caring for visitors. Women, richly dressed as shown here, knelt at the feet of pilgrims and washed their feet.
David Wilkie. A Roman Princess Washing the Feet of Pilgrims. 1827. Royal Collection Trust.
Jesus' act of humble service was re-enacted almost from the earliest days of Christ's church. I Timothy 5:9-10 highlighted this particular act of service as exemplary: Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. Though never named a sacrament, the practice of footwashing was a regular occurrence in churches on Maundy Thursday.

As with so many acts of faith and devotion, the practice of footwashing can be both an act of humility and an act of pride. Undertaken as an act of service, it provides a moment of tenderness and care for one of God's children. But, of course, it can also be a travesty when the footwashing is preceded and/or followed by a lack of concern for the one whose feet have just been washed. Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus said. Remember, Jesus washed Judas' feet, too. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...how closely should a pattern be followed? See it here.  For thoughts on Acts 11:1-8, click here

Sunday, May 5, 2019

John 10.22-30: Jesus in Winter

Winter. The gospel specifically says that it is winter when this exchange takes place. The Festival of Dedication is being celebrated. The Hebrew word for dedication is hanukkah. The festival we know as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates the Maccabees' victory over the Seleucid empire, the rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem, and the miracle of restoring the Temple menorah. So as you picture the time when Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice..." (John 10:22-30) you should be thinking November-December. That time of year in Israel is the rainy season. Winter begins in late October and lasts through March. There is rarely snow, but temperatures are cool to cold and rain systems move in from the north, often stalling over Israel before raining themselves out.
Picture source here.
Why is it, then, that there are no stories of Jesus in the rain beyond those about storms that blow up on the Sea of Galilee? Jesus does use rain in his teaching (Luke 12:54: [Jesus] also said to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain"; and so it happens.). But there is no rainy day recorded in the gospels, so, of course, there are no pictures that show Jesus and the disciples being caught in the rain and running for shelter in an effort to avoid a soaking.

It doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that the conversation in John 10 took place on a winter day in Jerusalem that was cool/cold, perhaps rainy. Jesus and the disciples were in the temple, dry as they sat in the covered colonnade that is (was) Solomon's porch. Maybe a rainy day was the perfect day to talk theology.

For thoughts on Acts 9:36-43, click hereFor thoughts about Solomon's Portico, see this week's Facebook post. For Facebook thoughts about sheep hearing Jesus' voice, click here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Acts 9.1-20: So Ananias Went

Imagine Ananias' dismay. God has appeared to him in a vision (that's not the dismaying part) and has a job for him to do (that's not the dismaying part). He's supposed to go supervise the healing of the man who has been singlehandedly terrorizing all of Christendom (and there's the dismaying part) (Acts 9:1-20). Faithful Ananias has been waiting for God to call on him to do something. No doubt Ananias is ready, waiting, eager, even. Just let me know what you want me to do, God. Here I am. Send me.

And after hearing the work he has been called to do, Ananias says, "God, you have got to be kidding me." I'm sure each of us can think of someone whose name we could insert for "Saul" that would fill us with dread and horror at being called on to heal and baptize. We can only assume that Ananias remembered that God does not see as humans see (1 Samuel 16:7).

And, sure enough, Ananias is remembered for this act. The one that he essentially tried to talk God out of.
Baptism of Paul. 12th century mosaic. Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
In this mosaic, Ananias completes his assigned task by baptizing Paul. The text is "Praecepto Christi baptizator Paulus ab Anania" ("At Christ's command, Paul is baptized by Ananias."). In this version, Paul is baptized in a water-filled chalice-shaped font, a shape popular in Romanesque churches, as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends from the hand of God. To Ananias' right a liturgical assistant holds a lit candle.

This mosaic probably tells us more about baptisms in 12th-century Sicily than it does about Paul's baptism. But regardless of font shape or lit candles, what we really learn about in this story is the faithfulness and obedience of this Ananias...not to be confused with the other Ananias in Acts 5.

For thoughts on the charcoal fire on the beach (John 21:1-19), see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. 
For additional thoughts on John 21:1-19, click here.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Acts 5.27-32: As Bird is My Witness

The disciples stand before the high council (Acts 5:27-32). Council members remind the disciples that they were instructed not to each in Jesus' name. "But we have to!" they claim. They then rehearse Jesus' life story: his death, his resurrection, his position at the right hand of God. We have to, they say, because we were witnesses to all those things. We were witnesses...and so was the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32).

The Holy Spirit was a witness to the Crucifixion and the resurrection? That's a detail that may not be universally - at least universally artistically - acknowledged. A small, unscientific survey reveals that there are times and ways when a dove - arguably the most common symbol for the Holy Spirit - is shown in images of Christ on the cross. But the occurrence is far from the majority of times.
(Left) Master of the Prayerbooks of c. 1500. Royal 16F II, Fol. 89. London: British Library.  (Right) Masaccio. The Holy Trinity. 1425. Fresco. Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. 
In the manuscript illumination (above left) the dove is flying in carrying an ampoule. An ampoule is a glass vial that can contain a substance - perhaps a liquid, maybe some kind of solid. The Holy Ampoule is a glass vial that held the anointing oil used at the coronation of French kings. In some medieval French images the Holy Spirit appears in scenes of baptism, bringing in an ampoule filled with oil to anoint the one being baptized. In this illumination, the dove is at the top center of the composition, hovering over the walled city of Paris (do you see Notre Dame?) and a scene of Christ on a cross. Though identified as the Crucifixion, this also has the feel of travelers stopping at a roadside shrine that includes a crucifix. Shrine or crucifixion, this is one example where a symbol of the Holy Spirit is present.

The Masaccio work (above right) is a theological diagram rather than a narrative illustration, so it does include all three persons of the Trinity, including a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The fresco, though, may not be an illustration of the apostles' claim before the High Council. And the other episodes - including the resurrection - seem to have even fewer evidences of the Holy Spirit.

Were Peter and the apostles still so taken up with Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit
(only three chapters before this text) that they needed to make sure the Holy Spirit was highlighted? Why haven't artists picked up on that detail and included pictorial evidence of the Holy Spirit in their images of the crucifixion and the resurrection? Why might this be an important point to remember about the crucifixion and the resurrection?

See how doves and disciples come together in a different work on this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. 
We are as likely (possibly more likely) to see a pelican in crucifixion paintings than to see doves. For an example, see this 2018 post on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For thoughts on John 20:19-31 - Thomas' post-Easter story, click here, here, or here.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Praying in the Garden: Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?

How alone was Jesus during Holy Week? Crowds lined the street as he rode into the city. Jesus did share a last meal with his disciples. The city was full of people even at the end of the week. And yet there were times he was alone. So alone.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed, specifically in the garden of Gethsemane according to Matthew (Matthew 26:36-46) and Mark (Mark 14:32-42), on the Mount of Olives according to Luke (Luke 22:40-46). He takes several disciples with him, but they fall asleep...more than once. Could you not keep awake one hour? he asks them. He prayed alone.

But according to Luke's gospel there was a presence who appeared to give Jesus strength in that agonizing hour. In the NRSV, Luke 22:43 says, "Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength." The KJV says, " And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him."

What does it look like when an angel appears to strengthen Jesus? In Raphael's version below, the angel hovers above Jesus carrying the cup from which Jesus prays to be spared. A couple of centuries later, William Blake's angel literally supports Jesus, whose fervent prayers have rendered him unable to stay upright on his own. Another century later, Frans Schwartz's angel stands beside Jesus with an arm around his shoulders.
 (Left) Raphael. The Agony in the Garden. c. 1504. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Center) William Blake. The Agony in the Garden. c. 1799-1800. London: Tate. (Right) Frans Schwartz. The Agony in the Garden. 1898. Salt Lake City, UT: Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
From his entry into Jerusalem on through Holy Week, Jesus is alone in the midst of a crowd. The cheers of the entry parade will become calls for his death. His disciples will fall asleep while he is praying. One of his closest friends will betray him. He will be crucified, and his followers will deny him, fall away, or watch from a distance.

It's only natural that we would want to make Jesus a little less alone. Artists do it, and even scripture interpreters do. In The Message, Luke 22:43 reads, "At once an angel from heaven was at his side, strengthening him." At his side. I hope so.

Another thought on Jesus' aloneness is on this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For thoughts on the footwashing of Maundy Thursday, click here.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Palm Sunday: The Palmesel

If you want to re-enact Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, you'll need a few things. Some people wearing cloaks...so they can take them off and lay them on the road. Some palm branches (well, maybe...see this week's Facebook post for more on that). Jesus on a donkey.

Fortunately, German sculptural tradition provided the last through a form called a palmesel (palm donkey). The figure of Jesus, usually about half life-size, is seated on the donkey, and the sculptural group is on a wheeled platform pulled through a town or city as part of Palm Sunday processions. Townspeople spread their cloaks, along with palm branches, on the ground before the Palmesel. Just like they did in the gospel accounts.
 (Left) Dominikus Debler. Der Palmesel Debler IX, 491 (S. 113). c. 1800. Die Chronik des Dominikus Debler. 1756-1836. Schwäbisch Gmünd.  (right) Palmesel. 15th century. 61 1/2 x 23 3/4 x 54 1/2 in.NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Cloisters Collection). 

You can see a short film about a contemporary Palm Sunday procession through two towns in Austria that incorporates a palmesel here


This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, one more thing you need for a re-enactment of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. 
For Psalm 118:19-29, click here
For Luke 19:28-40, click here
For Matthew 21:1-11, click here.
For Palm/Passion Sunday, click here. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Isaiah 43.16-21: Imperceivable

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? So God asks through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43:16-21). And the answer is, "Sometimes."

Sometimes God's "new thing" is as obvious as the Armory Show of 1913. The Armory Show, officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art, shocked the country when it opened in New York at the 69th Regiment Armory. Designed to introduce American audiences - who were used to Rembrandts and Raphaels - to the most contemporary art, the Armory show indeed attracted many visitors. More than 200,000 ticket-holders were willing to stand in long lines to see the work. 

What those exhibition-goers saw was so unlike what had come before that everyone had an opinion. Harriet Monroe defended the show and the artists, writing, "In a profound sense these radical artists are right. They represent a search for new beauty, impatience with formulae, a reaching out toward the inexpressible, a longing for new versions of truth observed." By contrast, a critic for the New York Times described the Marcel Duchamp painting below as looking like "an explosion in a shingle factory." That this was a new thing was perceived, to be sure. 
Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Impressionism seems to have been a "thing" as new as the Armory Show was. Monet's painting below, Impression: Sunrise, was the work that gave the movement its name. And the name wasn't particularly flattering. A critic, upon seeing both Monet's painting and the show in which it was first exhibited, wrote that all the paintings were "just impressions." This oh-so-new thing was not well-received by the wider public.
Claude Monet. Impression: Sunrise. 1872. Paris: Musee Marmottan.
But what if this oh-so-new thing really wasn't as new as we think. The Impressionists were influenced by the work of English artist J.M.W. Turner. Turner's work uses the brightened palette and broken brushstrokes for which the Impressionists are known. The painting detail below is every bit as impressionistic as the French painters' work was, but Turner was painting decades before the Impressionists. Or what about the Spanish artist Goya? In his Milkmaid of Bordeaux, his technique is easily characterized as "Impressionistic." And look at when that painting was done.
J.M.W. Turner. Rain, Steam, and Speed (detail). 1844. London: National Gallery. 

Goya. The Milkmaid of Bordeaux (La Lechera de Burdeos). 1827. Madrid: Museo del Prado.
A new thing that springs forth...do you perceive it? Sometimes yes. Sometimes that new art thing is as big and bold as you please and you really couldn't miss it if you tried. But sometimes the changes can only be seen in retrospect. You think nothing is changing, but all of a sudden you look back and understand the change was coming all along.

It's true in art. And it's true with God. 

Paths...new ones, old ones, God ones...take a look at Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page here.
For thoughts on John 12.1-9, click here.