Sunday, December 25, 2016

Matthew 2.13-23: Rachel Continues to Weep

The story of the massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23...Christmas 1A) is a believable story. It is believable because what human beings are capable of doing (and are willing to do) to one another continues to mystify us as well as make us sad. Matthew's gospel quotes Jeremiah, which remembers Rachel, wife of Jacob (later called Israel), weeping for her children.

How many times is that idea re-enacted in the world? German artist Kathe Kollwitz not only saw her countrywomen offering their laments, she herself lamented. Kollwitz, who was the first female professor at the Prussian Academy, was forced to resign her faculty position when the Nazis rose to power. She was also forbidden to exhibit her art. The artist's son was killed in World War I, and a grandson was killed in World War II. She understood the heartache of both individual and collective Rachels.

Kollwitz created a print that captures the gutwrenching grief of every woman who weeps for their/her children. The print (below) is titled "Mother with Dead Child." Kollwitz created the work in 1903, long before the advent of WWI, so it is not specifically autobiographical nor is it only a truth in war. Whatever has happened, and it really doesn't matter what that is, the mother's desperate grief and continued focus on her child is clearly communicated in the composition. The mother's arms encircle her child, drawing the viewer to the place where the two faces meet. There is no pleasant landscape or other background distractions. We are forced to acknowledge this mother's loss.
 Kathe Kollwitz. Frau mit Totem Kind (Woman with dead child) 1903, 7th state, soft-ground etching and engraving with green and gold wash.
It would be nice if each time this story cycles through the lectionary, it is the case that fewer people know the story or can identify with its feelings. Unfortunately we see more and more women (and men!) mourning for their children. We see raw emotion as mothers call for justice for their children. This is not the overly sentimental mother and child that we often see in the Christmas season. This is real. And all too believable.

For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:13-23, click here.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Nativity: Outside

Shepherds, Sheep. Stars. Angels. Sky. People. Census. Crowds. Soldiers. There is a lot going on outside the stable. Lots of commotion. Lots of people. Lots of movement and activity. People going about their daily lives, living in many circumstances, dealing with situations of their own making and situations that have been thrust upon them by outside forces. Luke's gospel alludes to it in the gospel reading for Christmas (Luke 2:1-20).

We are usually focused on what is happening inside the manger, and Maurice Denis' painting of the nativity gives us the glow from within and the peek at the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus. But that part of the story doesn't occupy the majority of the picture space. So what happens in that picture space? How do we think about what is happening outside of the stable? Or do we even think about what is happening outside of the stable?

Both of the images below are available on the internet. Both are the same work of art, but look at the difference. What is happening outside the stable based on these images? It is mysterious and scary? Is it busy and loud? Are we even able to make sense of what is happening outside the stable? How do you talk about what is happening inside in relation to what is happening outside?
Maurice Denis. Nativity. Toulouse: Musee des Augustins.
Jesus was born into a context - into a particular moment in history, into a particular culture, into a particular situation. Things were happening outside the stable.

Jesus comes to us in our context - into our particular moment in history, into our particular culture, into our particular situation. Things are happening outside the stable.

How do we talk about what is happening outside in relation to what is happening inside?

On Facebook this week, the images for a video using the Christmas song "Some Children See Him." I was only able to post images (without the soundtrack) on FB. You can find the music file and run them together to see what I was going for. I do have the video with music as an mp4 file. Quality on the upload of the video to the blog was awful, and though I've tried everything I can think of, I've not been able to find another way to post it. So maybe it's not meant to be posted. The file is  11MB, but I think I can share that via email if you are interested.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Matthew 1.18-25: Joseph, Do Not Be Afraid

The tie between the Gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 4A is Matthew's quotation of the Isaiah reading: the young woman/virgin is with child/shall conceive and shall bear a son and (they) shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-16/Matthew 1:18-25). The gospel writer quotes the prophet in order to reinforce the angel's assurance to Joseph in the minds and ears of the hearers. In the context of the gospel reading, the idea is presented in order to assure Joseph that he and Mary can be betrothed without any qualms.

Joseph is convinced by the angel's statement. So Joseph and Mary are engaged. Or betrothed. Or married.

It's an almost lost episode in the story. Luke gives the betrothal a couple of verses, but Matthew seems to let the angel's assurance imply that the ceremony (or ceremonies if betrothal and marriage are separated) occurs. Though not described in scripture, the subject is treated in art, usually with Mary and Joseph standing on either side of a church official. Mary's hand is outstretched and Joseph puts a ring on her finger. There is often an architectural setting - sometimes a quotation of the building in which the painting lives (as a means of making the scene more immediate and perhaps providing silent encouragement for all brides and grooms who are married in that church). In some versions the bride wears white; in others, she wears a red tunic with a blue cloak.
(Left) Raphael. The Marriage of the Virgin. 1504. Milan: Pinacoteca di Brera.  (Right) Tissot. The Betrothal of the Holy Virgin and Saint Joseph. 1886-1894. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum.
Both of the paintings above treat the subject of the marriage/betrothal of Mary and Joseph. Each is fabricated by the artist. Renaissance artist Raphael paints the holy couple standing in front of a central plan building reminiscent of Bramante's Tempietto in Rome, which was built in 1502. the building would have still be quite new when the painting was done in 1504. The composition employs severe one-point perspective and arranges the people in a semi-circle that echoes the architecture. The marriage ceremony seems to be less important in the composition that the artist's bravura demonstration of perspective. 

Tissot takes a completely different approach, concocting a scene filled with exotic detail that symbolizes the near eastern setting of the story. The bride and groom wear elaborately patterned garments and walk under a patterned canopy. Beneath their feet is a flower petal-strewn carpet. Sections of Roman (round) arches indicate the building in or near which the ceremony takes place.

In both images, there is a crowd and ceremony and onlookers and official blessing of this union. People are well-dressed and somber. Is this how you imagined the beginning of life together for this couple? What else is there to say about how artists have depicted this story? See  Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Isaiah 35.1-10: The Sign of the Crocus

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. So says the prophet Isaiah in the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3A (Isaiah 35:1-10).

Vincent Van Gogh. Basket of Crocus Bulbs. 1887. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.

The crocus is specifically mentioned in Isaiah as a result when the wilderness and dry land and desert rejoice. What would make a dry area like a desert rejoice? Rain. And that is indeed when crocuses appear in Israel.

The Winter Crocus (Crocus Hyemalis) grows after Israel's long, hot summer. It is among the earliest plants to bloom. The crocus isn't much of a sign as far as volume and height go. The plant is stemless and stands only 1"-3". Its value as a sign (and symbol) is in its ability to withstand the drought of summer and to sprout, sometimes in anticipation of the rain. When you see the crocus you know that the rains are coming. In an arid land, this is indeed a sign.

That's how it will be for the ransomed of the Lord who are returning to Israel. They are a sprout. There will be (re)building to do in the land. There will be land to be reclaimed. There is still work to do. But the sign - the small shoot of green - is there.

One of the questions we need to ask in this Advent season is whether we are able to see small green shoots for what they are. Are we so overwhelmed with a dry and arid landscape that we don't see - don't expect, don't even look for - the green shoots that are signs of return, renewal and the kingdom of God.

On Facebook this week: Van Gogh  mentions crocuses in a letter to his brother. To read it click here.
For thoughts on John in prison (Matthew 11:2-11), click here.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Isaiah 11.1-10: How Peaceable?

It's hard to resist Isaiah's "Peaceable Kingdom" (Isaiah 11:1-10) when it shows up in the lectionary readings for Advent 2A. It appears to have been reasonably easy for artists to resist that scene for centuries, though. There are pictures and sculptures of lions. There are pictures and sculptures of lambs. There are very few images of lions lying down with lambs. The frequency of depictions of what became known as "The Peaceable Kingdom" increases after the eighteenth century.

The American artist most connected with the subject is a Quaker painter named Edward Hicks. Hicks painted the subject more than 60 times over the course of his artistic life. His original composition, painted around 1815 was based on an engraving by English artist Richard Westall. Over and over he painted the subject, perhaps in an effort to paint the peace into reality.

Because in reality, Hicks was not living in a peaceable place at all. In his paintings, there are inclusions of and allusions to the non-peaceable world in which he lived. Hicks shows us how hard it is to conjure Isaiah's vision when we live in the world that we do.

Hicks' earliest versions show a gentle child among animals that look like plush toys. We know that Isaiah includes predator and prey, eater and eaten, but in these earliest versions there seems to be more the sense of harmless animals than natural enemies who have decided to live together peaceably. These early images feature the young child who is leading them, carrying a length of grapevine on which hangs a cluster of grapes. The grapes should call to mind the promise of an abundant land. For what else would there be in the kingdom envisioned by Isaiah.

The second phase of Hicks' paintings draw a direct line between painting and scripture. Hicks' training was as a signmaker, so his inclusion of all or portions of Isaiah 11 are not unexpected. Not all versions with text have the same text, though originate in Isaiah. The versions with more text often use that additional text to explain the usual background scene. In that scene, Quaker William Penn makes a treaty with the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) people. This treaty, entered into in 1683, held until 1755. In the version shown here, the circle of treaty-makers is overshadowed by Virginia's Natural Bridge, which visually connects the two sides of the canvas.

In the "middle" Kingdoms, the animals become more aggressive. The lion's and leopard's teeth are visible in a couple of versions, and the animals become more tense. Their eyes are wide open, and they stare unblinkingly (hostilely?) from the painting. This increase in tension may be a reflection of the divisions happening in the Quaker community. In 1827 there occurred the "Great Separation" where so-called "Hicksite" (because they followed Elias Hicks, a cousin of the painter Edward Hicks) Quakers, who chose to emphasize the Inward Light as a source of guidance for faith and conscience, separated from the so-called "Orthodox" Quakers, who emphasized a more Protestant reliance on Biblical authority. Originating in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, this division became wider and spread, causing painful separations in other meetings and among families. These divisions were especially painful for Hicks, who in addition to being a sign and coach painter was also a minister in the Middletown (PA) Yearly Meeting. There are a number of Hicks paintings that include a gnarled, dead tree in the background as a further sign of Hicks' understanding of the split among Quakers.

Compare the lion faces in the four versions shown here. Which lion goes with which painting? Can you put them in order? In the later Kingdoms the viewers' first impression of the animals is that they are neither plush nor attentive. They seem...tired. Dispirited, maybe. A career's worth of living on God's holy mountain seems to have taken a toll. Or maybe it's the non-peaceable kingdom in which the artist is living that has taken a toll on the artist.
Hicks helps us see the passage, but he was unable to live it in reality. We've not seen this come to pass either. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. The vision is memorable. The promise is certain. One day they will not hurt or destroy on all God's holy mountain. On a day that is still to come.

All paintings by Edward Hicks.
(Top). Peaceable Kingdom. 1816-1818. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art.
(Second from top). Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch. 1822-1825. Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
(Second from bottom). Peaceable Kingdom. c. 1833. Worcester, MA: Worcester Museum of Art.
(Bottom) Peaceable Kingdom. 1844. Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.

See what this leopard brings to the discussion. See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Isaiah 2.3: Of Swords and Plowshares

Has there been a time since the words were written that humanity hasn't longed for the actualization of Isaiah 2:3 (part of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 1A)? Surely we do now. Imagine a world where nation did not lift up sword against nation. To this point in human history, though, it seems that beating swords into plowshares is an episodic happening rather than an eternally established reality.

American artist Winslow Homer understood the cost of war. He was in his mid-twenties when the Civil War broke out. Though he did not serve in the army, he was a "special artist" for Harper's Weekly magazine and, as such, moved in and among the armies and battle lines during the war. For almost two months in 1861 he traveled with George McClellan's Army of the Potomac through Virginia.

Homer created a large oil painting that illustrates rather than preaches Isaiah's vision of a time when the tools of war are traded for tools of agriculture. The artist worked on the painting for several months after the war was over. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and the nation was working its way toward again being "united" states. Homer places an anonymous veteran in an actual field. A Union Army jacket is discarded in the lower right corner along with a canteen. The jacket has been abandoned presumably because the heat of the day and the exertion of the work makes a jacket unnecessary. But it is also the truth that this farmer has abandoned his military occupation and returned to his farm - he has traded the battlefield for the wheatfield. Hence the title of the painting.
Winslow Homer. The Veteran in a New Field. 1865. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Judging by the painting, the plows have done their work well. The 1865 wheat crop is documented to have been a bumper crop. Homer shows grain heads almost at the height of the farmer's head. One might see in this painting a positive outlook for the farmer and the nation. But there is a darker side.

The farmer is harvesting wheat with a single-bladed scythe, a tool that was already out of date by 1865. Farmers of that time would have used a grain cradle or cradle scythe to harvest. Homer chose the older implement because of its association with the Grim Reaper. While Homer's veteran has moved on, both he and the viewer would have, in this scene, been reminded of the cost of war. Many of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought in fields, so fields had become associated with soldiers who were cut down and had fallen in the same way that this farmer now cuts and fells the wheat. Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph "Harvest of Death" shows the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Isaiah's vision would have been as appealing to a 19th-century audience as it is to us today. Imagine. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Reign of Christ: Hark!

The last Sunday of the liturgical year, Reign of Christ (C), is a day of power. Christ is on the throne, every knee has bowed and every tongue has confessed that he is Lord. Justice and righteousness are flowing, death and evil and tears have no place. The heavenly banquet is underway. Long live the King!

One of the things that every medieval ruler needed was a herald. Literary works as diverse as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Shakespeare's Henry V put heralds within close proximity to rulers.
In Wonderland, the white rabbit carries a trumpet in one hand and a scroll in the other as he stands near the King and Queen of Hearts (chapter 11):
'Herald, read the accusation!' said the King.
On this the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and then unrolled the parchment scroll...
It is Montjoy, herald of the king of France, who comes to England's Henry V in his camp before the battle that will be known as the Battle of Agincourt. He offers Henry the option of paying ransom and avoiding the battle. The offer is refused and Montjoy agrees to relay Henry's answer and concludes saying, "And so fare thee well. Thou never shalt hear herald any more."

The role of the herald in medieval Europe changed over the centuries. In varying times, heralds served as a sort of master of ceremonies at tournaments. They carried messages from one king or noble to another. They acted as diplomats for noble households. In almost all their duties, they needed to recognize the colors and arms of noble and royal houses. It is from that aspect that the field of heraldry - the identification, design and registration of coats of arms and other armorial insignia - developed.

So who acts as herald to Jesus the king? In the Hans Memling's painting below, it is a familiar figure: herald angels, carrying/playing their herald trumpets. The painting shows Christ at the center flanked by three singing angels on his left and three on his right and then further flanked by angel musicians. The trumpeting herald angels mirror one another in the fifth position (counting out from Christ at the center). In this painting Christ holds the orb and scepter and his crown echoes the idea of the earth with the cross surmounting it.

Hans Memling. Christ with Singing and Music-making Angels. 1480s. Antwerp: Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten.

This is neither the first nor the last time we will associate herald angels with Christ. We sing of them at Christmas, of course, when the king is born. And in Revelation, it is trumpeting angels who herald the disasters that are to come when the king returns.

These heavenly heralds are only one answer to the question Who acts as herald to Jesus? Another answer is John the Baptist. Still another answer is (or should be) all who follow him. Remember the old hymn "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus"? It contains the line: One of his heralds, yes, I would sing loudest hosannas, "Jesus is King!"

For additional thoughts on the Reign of Christ, click here, here, or here

Here is a flock of herald angels. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below to find out where it is.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

En + Durus

To quote the Steve Miller Band and the lectionary readings for Proper 28C/Ordinary 33C: you know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven. Isaiah 65 (verses 17-25) would be the heaven and Luke 21 (verses 5-19) would be the hell. The key, and it is found in the last verse of the gospel reading, is endurance: By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Endure is a relatively simple word. In Latin the word is a prepositional phrase, actually: en (in) + durus (hard). The 12th-century French endurer meant to make hard, to harden, to bear or tolerate, to keep up or maintain. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

How to depict endurance, though. Certainly there are images of faithful people in the midst of historic and contemporary persecutions. But it is not only spectacular public hardships that we are called to endure. So perhaps instead of cataloging persecutions it would be more helpful to provide an aspirational symbol that captures the idea of endurance.

Trees in general, like ladders and pillars, represent things that have to do with both heaven and earth. The oak tree has become a Christian symbol for endurance (though the symbolism is by no means exclusively Christian). Oaks are identified in scripture as strong trees (Amos 2:9), and they are known to be long-lived. They can survive natural disasters and human disasters. They see love and conflict. They stand through flood and drought. Oaks can survive even in the face of much adversity. It is an oak tree that offers shade to the Holy Family in Tintoretto's Flight Into Egypt.
The Deerhead Oak in McClellanville, SC, has a circumference of more than 30 feet. 
For more about the Deerhead Oak see:

Because the oak tree begins as an acorn - surely not an object with an intimidating presence - the oak reminds us that great endurance can grow from small beginnings. Perhaps we practice enduring small things and then, when the big things come, things like Luke writes, we'll be able to endure them. And in doing so, gain our souls.

Check Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for a further word relationship that illuminates endurance. Click on the link below. 

For thoughts on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, click here.

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.

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.

For additional thoughts on Haggai 1:5b-2:6, click here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Habakkuk and Luke: 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. 
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:
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 here.

For thoughts on Luke 19:1-10, click here.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Luke 18.9-14: 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.
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.

For thoughts about Joel 2:23-32, click here.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Luke 18.1-8: 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 National Observance of Children's Sabbaths is usually in October. 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; 

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.

For thoughts on Jeremiah 31:27-34, click here.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Luke 17.11-19: 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: For additional work by Kelly Katsarou, see:
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:
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:

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.

For thoughts on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, click here.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Psalm 137: We Hung Up Our Lyres

How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? That is the question the psalmist asks (or sings) in the lectionary psalm (Psalm 137) for Proper 22C/Ordinary 27C. The original setting was, of course, the exile in Babylon, which is mentioned in the psalm.

Israeli illustrator Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) used this text several times in his career. One illustration, a print depicts a German Art Nouveau interpretation of a realistic setting by the rivers of Babylon. Figures sit dejectedly, their lyres lying silently in their hands or by their side. In the background are trees whose branches are "decorated" with hanging lyres.
Ephraim Moshe Lilien. On the Rivers of Babylon (Plate 43). Etching and aquatint. 1910. 
Lilien's second example also uses trees and lyres, though there are no visible figures. The psalm is the source for the book cover illustration of "Lieder des Ghetto" ("Songs of the Ghetto"), a collection of songs by Morris Rosenfeld, the so-called "Poet Laureate of Labor." Though the collection was originally published in 1898, Lilien's illustrations were part of the 1920 edition in which the Yiddish originals were translated into German.  

Ephraim Moshe Lilien. Cover illustration for "Lieder des Ghetto." 1920. Poems by Morris Rosenfeld; translated by Berthold Feiwel. Berlin: Marquardt u. Co.
On the cover of the book is the willow tree on which hangs a lyre. The lyre's strings are broken, rendering the instrument unplayable. The background has a light cityscape at the bottom of the cover and rounds of thorns or barbed wire at the bottom of the willow trunk.

Babylon is not the only "strange land" in which God's people have found themselves...and found themselves wondering how to sing the songs of Yahweh. Even today there are all too many situations when we wonder about singing God's song in the strange lands in which we find ourselves. Perhaps those are the times we most need to sing.

For thoughts on Lamentations 1:1-6, click here.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Luke 16.19-31: Rock-a My Soul

There was a rich man. So begins the gospel reading for Proper 21C/Ordinary 26C (Luke 16:19-31). By the end of the text, though, being rich isn't going to help anything. Instead, it is a poor man named Lazarus, who probably knew little or no peace in his earthly life, who will find peace at the last. He will find peace because at his death he is carried away by the angels to be with...Abraham.

Yes, Abraham. We might know the concept as the "bosom of Abraham" (ohhhhh, rock-a my soul). The translation might be a bit misleading to our ears. The Greek term is kolpos, and it refers to the side or lap of a person. At the last supper, the beloved disciple reclines en to kolpo tou Iesou (in the bosom of Jesus...John 13:23). This place of repose was an honor and a favor.

The idea of Abraham welcoming the faithful who died is found in 4 Maccabees 13:17: For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (NRSV) The place to which the dead were welcomed was Gehenna (from the Hebrew Gehinnom, literally the valley of Hinnom), traditionally considered a place of punishment for the ungodly because of pagan practices in the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In scripture, the word for the place of punishment is Sheol, so Gehenna might be better characterized as a place of judgment. For those who had nothing judged against them, there was no punishment. So the bosom of Abraham was a place of happiness, though not perhaps perfect happiness. In the parable it is conceivable that Lazarus and the rich man are in the same general place. In the place where one goes after death, Lazarus finds rest, but the rich man is judged (and punished) for his earthly life.
Paradise with Jesus on the lap of Abraham. German. c. 1239. Tempera and gold leaf on vellum. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Over time, the bosom of Abraham became synonymous with Heaven itself. In the picture above, it is the infant Jesus who sits on the lap (in the bosom) of Abraham and both child and patriarch find themselves in Paradise. Clusters of dates are so plentiful that the branch bends down with the weight. Water comes from the four corners of the illustration. Paradise, indeed. It may be that the equating of Abraham's bosom with Paradise is seen in Matthew 8:11: I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. And some hear the promise of being in Abraham's bosom in Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross: you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).

For thoughts on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, click here.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Luke 16.1-13: Mammon

You cannot serve God and wealth. That's how the gospel reading for Proper 20C/Ordinary 25C (Luke 16:1-13) concludes in the NRSV. The KJV has another word at the end: mammon. We might infer what (or who) that is, but medieval Christians did not need to infer. Mammon was written about, painted and otherwise brought to life to show exactly how opposite and how unsuitable for worship was mammon.

The word itself is probably Aramaic, related to the Hebrew term 'aman (to trust). The figure of Mammon was described with almost gleeful disgust by Edmund Spenser in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene (his cave is near the mouth of the underworld...that's pretty clear). Mammon is a devil living in Hell in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
(Left) Evelyn de Morgan. The Worship of Mammon. 1909. Compton, Guildford, Surrey, England: The DeMorgan Foundation. (Right) George Frederick Watts. Mammon. 1884-1885. London: Tate Gallery. .
The figure of Mammon, above, is one of two figures in the painting. Against a deepening blue sky, a woman grasps the knee of the figure of Mammon, gazing up in adoration. Mammon holds a bag presumably filled with money, in his right hand, but the woman doesn't even spare a glance at the bag. She doesn't appear to be worshiping money as much as worshiping Mammon himself. Or perhaps it is that Mammon holds the bag out of reach of the woman and she never realizes that happiness (satisfaction?) is always out of reach if Mammon is the object of worship.

Watts' Mammon bears at least a passing resemblance to Jabba the Hutt. He sits on his throne with a nude young woman to his right and a young man under his feet. His throne, upholstered in red features two skulls as finials. His crown features gold coins and donkey ears, references to Midas in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Most know Midas from his "touch" that turned everything, including his daughter, into gold. Through Ovid's pen, we hear that Apollo gave Midas the donkey ears as a symbol of his stupidity because he preferred the music of Pan's pipes to Apollo's lyre.

You cannot serve God and Mammon, Jesus said. Neither of these two figures is appealing enough to make the thought of serving Mammon tempting.

For thoughts on Jeremiah 8.18-9.1, click here.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Luke 15.1-10: Woman's Ten Coins

One of Jesus' parables about lost things, the gospel reading for Proper 19C/Ordinary 24C (Luke 15:1-10) takes us into the world of women. In the second of the three parables, we find a woman who has lost a coin (between a shepherd who has lost a sheep and a father who has lost a son). For many depictions of the story the title could just as easily be "The Sweeping Woman". In those superficial illustrations the woman stands - or sometimes bends over for a closer look - as she works with her broom hoping to uncover the coin in the dirt floor. There is very little interpretation, though the illustration is fine, if repetitive.

Our assumption is that the woman is poor and that is why even a single coin is so important. We can imagine that she carefully tends her little hoard of coins, counting them often to double check that they are still where she left them, keeping them safe in a bag or other container in a safe place in her home. Her home is usually shown as simple and dominated by earthtones with baked brick walls and dirt floors. The woman's clothing is a plain tunic of fairly coarse material. Eugene Burnand's image (left) is typical in those details. Burnand has chosen not to show the sweeping woman but rather the woman who has had a successful search. She stands on the balcony of her home, and in her left hand she holds the long-sought coin, sharing her joy with friends and neighbors. We can imagine that what happens next is that the woman takes the coin back inside her house and carefully places it in its container with the other nine coins, tucked safely away.

But perhaps there is another way to consider this coin and this woman. What if the coins aren't kept tucked away? What if the coins are on display almost every day of this woman's life? In William Holman Hunt's painting "Bride of Bethlehem", the woman's coins are on display across her forehead and in her jewelry. This practice, where jewelry serves as the woman's "bank account" is common in Palestine, Turkey, Armenia and other areas in the Middle East. In some cases "coin" refers to flat disks of coin-sized silver rather than actual money coins. The pure silver could be exchanged for its value in money. Though there are also examples where actual coins are drilled and used on headdresses and jewelry. An Arab proverb says "Bracelets are for the difficult times." Presumably because one can sell them.

What if the ten coins are ornaments on the headdress of the woman in Jesus' parable? Certainly they would still be important, especially if she has only ten on her headdress - unlike the woman in Hunt's painting - but these coins would be part of her life, not just a stash that is hidden away. Perhaps she takes off the headdress at night and discovers broken threads or an open wire jump ring and an empty place where there should be a coin. And then she begins her search for the coin - remembering where the errands and tasks of her day have taken her and retracing her steps - perhaps even sweeping the floor - until the coin is found.

Imaging the ten coins as part of a headdress doesn't change the point of the parable - that the woman would look for a single coin, even if she had others. But it might change the way we imagine the woman and her life.

You can read a veritable inventory of women's jewelry in Isaiah 3:18-20ff.
Top: Eugene Burnand. The Lost Coin. Drawing. Illustration for "Les Paraboles", published in 1908.
Bottom: William Holman Hunt. The Bride of Bethlehem. 1884. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

For thoughts on lost sheep, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...Could the coin pictured here have been one of the ten coins mentioned in the parable? 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jeremiah 18.1-11: The Potter

Jeremiah's visit to the potter's house is a favorite scripture passage of artists, and not just clay artists. This is one of the few times when the visual arts play a major role in a scripture passage. This story, recorded in Jeremiah 18:1-11, is the reading from Hebrew scripture on Proper 18C/Ordinary 23C. The point of the visit is to give a (literally) hands on demonstration of how the nation of Israel - the clay - is in the hand of and ultimately at the mercy of the potter (God).

Jeremiah's point is broad and talks generically about the relationship between potter and clay, artist and material. In the text there seem to be two extremes: a perfect pot or one that was ruined, destroyed and remade. The potter makes the decision about the acceptability of the pot's form, and the potter decides when the pot is no longer acceptable and must be destroyed.

It matters who the potter is.
Left: George E. Ohr. Vase. c. 1900. NY: Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
Right: George E. Ohr. Vase. Late 1890s - Early 1900s. Biloxi, MS: Ohr-O'Keeffe Museum.
Though Jeremiah's potter demands perfection, I don't know that perfection is required by our God. I would suggest that Jeremiah's God...our God...may share an aesthetic point of view with George Ohr...though the moustache style probably isn't shared. Ohr was a native and resident of Biloxi, Mississippi, and when he stopped making pottery at the age of 52, in 1909, he claimed he had not sold a pot in 25 years.
George E. Ohr. Pitcher. 1893-1906. NY: Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
Ohr's personality set him apart from the general population, and his art set him apart from the art world. His critics said that his work lacked proportion, grace and dignity. He threw pots and vessels with wafer-thin clay walls that he then twisted, pushed, pulled, pinched and crumpled. The crumpling was not in preparation for re-forming the clay into a "perfect" pot, it was to create a unique form. "No two forms alike," the potter bragged. He also claimed that he brooded over each pot "with the same tenderness a mortal child awakens in its parents."

Many consider Ohr to be America's first art potter. Perhaps it was because of his skill at the wheel in throwing such delicate vessels. Perhaps it was due to his skill at manipulating such thin clay. Maybe it was his unique forms and glazes. Some claim that it is the clay Ohr used, much of which he dug himself from the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa River, that enabled him to create his unique pieces. Whatever it was, Ohr saw beauty in the crumpled, the folded, the imperfect. In his eyes those forms became "art" where others saw only oddness and irregularity and difference. That sounds like grace to me.

The clay matters. The potter matters. Because the potter determines what forms are acceptable and what forms will be reshaped. Do you know your potter?

For thoughts on Luke 14:25-33, click here.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Luke 14.1, 7-14: The Salt

A conference preacher once asked why in the world artists continued to depict Jesus as some sort of emaciated figure when all he did was eat! The gospel reading for Proper 17C/Ordinary 22C is (yet another) occasion when Jesus is invited to a dinner party. On this particular occasion (Luke 14:1, 7-14), Jesus criticizes the actions and behavior of the other guests. Awkward.

The problem is that the guests all work to seat themselves as the guest of honor. Jesus says, "How embarrassing will it be when the host comes to you and announces that someone more important than you has arrived and you'll need to move down the table!" Where all the guests wanted to be was, in medieval terms, "above the salt." Salt, which at one time was as valuable as gold, was placed in the middle of the dining table. People of noble rank were seated "above the salt" (between the salt cellar and the head of the table, where the lord and lady of the house were seated). Guests of lower standing and perhaps some of the higher ranking servants were seated "below the salt."

The traditional labor of the month for January was feasting. What else was there to do in the winter? In the January illustration from the Grimani Breviary, a boat-shaped salt cellar is on the table at the far right of the illustration. The ornateness of salt cellars is easily seen in the Burghley nef. Fashioned in the shape of a boat (tying the salt to its source, the sea) this 16th-century salt cellar continued a fashion that is documented as early as the 13th century. Royal household inventories list large ship-shaped salt cellars made of gold and silver.
 (Above left) The Burghley Nef. 1527-1528. Nautilus shell with parcel-silver gilt mounts and pearls. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. (Above right). "January" from the Breviario Grimani. 1510s. Venice, Italy: Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

"Sit below the salt," Jesus says. "And then you will be honored when the host insists that you move up." He then suggests that if you are a host, perhaps the only people you should invite to dinner are those who would expect to be sitting below the salt...or those who would never expect to be invited to dinner at all.

For thoughts on Jeremiah 2:4-13, click here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Luke 13.10-17: Women Freed

The gospel reading (Luke 13:10-17) for Proper 16C/Ordinary 21C is the story of Jesus healing the woman who has been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. There are images that illustrate that story, but two other biblical stories consistently show up in internet searches for the story. The three stories have some interesting commonalities. All have to do with women and freedom.

On the morning of the resurrection Mary stands weeping outside the tomb where Jesus' body was laid. John 20:11 says that as she is weeping she bends over (stoops) to look in the tomb. By the end of the scene she has seen the Lord and understands that his resurrection is real. Jesus has conquered death and she (and all of us) who share in his death will also share in his resurrection. Freedom!

In the other story, it is not a woman who does not stand up straight, it is Jesus. The text (John 8:1-11) is the account of the woman brought before Jesus in hopes of trapping him in a theological argument. The woman, apparently the only guilty party in an accusation of adultery, is made to stand before a group of men that includes Jesus. Rather than hurling the expected accusation (and stone), Jesus bends over and writes in the dirt at his feet. The other men begin to wander away and Jesus is left with the woman. He straightens up, and speaks freedom to her.
 Above left: Rembrandt/Style of Rembrandt. Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. Drawing. Above right: Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. (Searching for further documentation and links for these two works.)

The use of these two other stories is in no way meant to belittle the pain of the woman in Luke 13. If today (2016) were the end of the eighteen years she has been unable to stand up straight, her affliction would have begun in 1999. In 1999 Bill Clinton was POTUS and Boris Yeltsin was President of Russia. In 1999, Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace opened. Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" was Grammy's Record of the Year. Think of everything you have seen since that year. Eighteen years is a long time. At the midpoint of this week's gospel reading, however, her adversity has ended. Woman, you are set free from your bondage. It was not the last time Jesus would equate standing up straight with freedom.

For thoughts on Jeremiah 1:4-10, click here.
For thoughts on Hebrews 12:18-29, click here.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Looking at Clouds That Way

Both the Gospel and Epistle readings for Proper 15C/Ordinary 20C introduce the visual idea of clouds. In Luke's gospel (Luke 12:49-56, the cloud is literal. Clouds in the sky that are understood by humans are placed next to the signs of the times that people are unable to read. In Hebrews (11:29-12:2) the cloud is one of witnesses. Literal clouds and figurative ones.

Literal clouds are masses of water droplets so small that they float in the air. Though the sky is full of water, it is usually in the form of water vapor, which cannot be seen. The clouds, then, provide the opportunity for humans to see what is often invisible.

If literal clouds make water visible, is there a way that the cloud of witnesses can be rendered visible?

Visual artist Piper Mavis used twine in a sanctuary to celebrate the history of one congregation in London, England. In 2012 Heath Street Baptist Church commissioned five artists to conceive and execute works for an exhibit called The Long Cloud of Witnesses. Mavis' work, titled Fade Away and Radiate, speaks to
...the absence of the great congregation that met during the church’s heyday (A church built for a capacity of hundreds now had a congregation of 15). A thread of sisal twine (one for every member in the church’s history) emanates from the original pulpit outward and upward until it reaches every seat in the pews, once again filling the church to capacity many times over.

The twine indeed fills the space with a cloud of witnesses. In memory of the cloud of witnesses that had indeed filled the space of the church sanctuary throughout the congregation's history. The twine reaches to the farthest corners of the sanctuary and to the upper reaches of the balcony.

It is appropriate that the higher parts of the sanctuary are included in the work. Nephos, the Greek word for cloud in Hebrews 12, refers to a mass of cloud/vapor that obscures the heavens. The highest point, the farthest seat, are both touched by the great cloud of witnesses. Let's look at clouds that way.

For more on this installation and more of Piper Mavis' work, see her website:

For thoughts on vines in Psalm 80, click here.

For thoughts on the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.