Sunday, August 27, 2017

Exodus 3.1-15: A Tiger by the Tail?

Moses sees a bush that burns but is not consumed, and he must investigate. It's what he finds on his investigation that changes the course of the rest of his life. That life-changing moment is the subject of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 17(22)A/Pentecost 13A (Exodus 3:1-15).
Abraham Rattner. Moses and the Burning Bush. 1971. Wool tapestry. For a report on a 2008 show of the tapestries, see:
American-born artist Abraham Rattner created a tapestry of the subject. Titled "Moses and the Burning Bush", the design places Moses kneeling before a mass of fire colors. Moses looks directly up at the sight (often he is looking across a landscape at the tree/bush), his hands in a prayerful gesture. The angel of the Lord (3:2) has come all the way out of the bush and stands behind Moses, perhaps whispering in his ear.

The fire-colored area does not have the leaves, trunk and branches of a usual bush. What is there are hands (of God), suggested in about a dozen line segments, and red lightning bolts. One of the most interesting moments in the design is the place where the figures on earth touch the figure in the fire. The touch is accomplished when the left hand of Moses (the presumption that this is Moses' hand is based on the color similarity between the raised hand and the hand of Moses that is fully visible) very gingerly reaches up to barely grasp a lightning bolt that appears to be an extension of the heavenly hand.
The key word is gingerly. Moses has not reached out to heartily grasp the hand/lightning/fire of God. His thumb and middle finger are hovering over the end of the bolt...just about to close the tiniest bit and have hold (however timidly). Perhaps Moses understands that reaching out to hold God's hand is like having a tiger by the tail. Or like sticking your finger in a socket.

What Moses - and we - need to remember is that God isn't requiring Moses to go it alone. God's purpose isn't to zap power into Moses or burn Moses to ash. God offers Moses the power that is needed to do the task that is before him. Not a volume of power (a gallon, a quart, 5000 watts) but rather power as presence.  I will be with you, God says (3:12).

Moses is probably right to be hesitant to take hold of God's power. The God who will lead people to freedom is not the teddy-bear-best-buddy-perfectly-manageable God. We might all be a little more deferential to the power of God. But we can also remember that God's power is promised to us as well. I will be with you, God says. Yes, with you.

For thoughts on the Mark version of the gospel reading (Matthew 16:21-28), click here.
For thoughts on the epistle reading (Romans 12) for this week, click here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, some word thoughts. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Exodus 1.8-2.10: Forgetting and Remembering

And there arose a king who did not know Joseph. That is the chilling beginning of the Israelites' changing fortunes in Egypt. Originally welcomed as the family of Joseph, who saved Egypt from famine, the Israelites are known to this new king only as a threat to his position of power. He doesn't care what happened in the past or what was promised to these people. So the king decides to neutralize the threat. That's the beginning of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 16(21)A/Pentecost 12A (Exodus 1:8-2:10).

Probably no contemporary artist has devoted more time and energy to the art (and necessity) of remembering the past than Anselm Kiefer. Born in post-war Germany in 1945, Kiefer has continued to prod his own and the world's remembrance of Germany's legacy of World War II.

Anselm Kiefer. Fur Paul Celan: Aschenblume. 2006. Oil, acyrlic, emulsion, shellac, and books on canvas. Private collection. For Anselm Kiefer, see:

Kiefer's Für Paul Celan : Aschenblume is a large-scale work (more than 10 feet tall and 25 feet long), includes various paints, shellac and burned books. Books, for Kiefer, symbolize the storehouse of human history and knowledge. Burned books are a reminder of Nazi book burnings and can also be a reference to the linguistic root of the word holocaust. Holocaust comes from the Greek holokauston, related to the Hebrew olah ("burnt whole").

George Santayana (Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) gave the world the eminently quotable aphorism Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Kiefer's work demanded (and still demands) that the past be remembered. What are the dangers we face when we "do not know Joseph"? And who will be Shiphrah and Puah when Joseph has been forgotten?

For thoughts on how the gospel reading intersects with the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
This week on Facebook, consider how many artists "know Joseph" in their paintings of the Exodus. Click here

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Matthew 15.10-28: Stella's Table Manners

After a difficult beginning in life, Stella (a German shepherd-Husky-Rottweiler mix) came to live in a very good home. However, Stella will occasionally get overly enthusiastic when dinner begins and will beg at the table. When that happens, Stella's people will get her attention with the words, "Stella. Table manners." The image of dogs eating under and arround the dinner table is familiar to many people who share their lives with dogs. Jesus' exchange with the Canaanite woman about children, bread and dogs - the Gospel reading for Proper 15(20)A/Pentecost 11A (Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28) - adds something new to the conversation. Jesus' association of bread, table, children and dogs offers a strategy for looking at images of the Last Supper. Are there crumbs falling from that particular table? Are there any references to Jesus' conversation with the Canaanite woman?

Jacopo Tintoretto painted at least ten different versions of the Last Supper. They are busy, active scenes - quite a contrast to the solemn poses and perfect perspective of, say, Leonardo's iconic version. In Tintoretto's compositions, the disciples are not alone with Jesus - other people are present. In one version, the dishes are being washed in the same room as the supper while smoke and doves fill the space. In the version at left (top), now hanging in Venice's Santo Stefano church, a dog is shown on the steps directly beneath Jesus. The line of the dog's body, which points directly to Jesus, is echoed by the line of a child (to the right of the dog) and by the line of a women (to the left of the dog). Dog, child, table, woman. The reference is to Jesus' conversation with the Canaanite women.

The bottom left image is another of Tintoretto's versions of the Last Supper. There is another dog present on the steps leading up to the table where Jesus (at the back of the room) is eating with his disciples. What do you see in that image? Is there a woman and/or a child? Who are the human figures on the stairs? Is there something about those people that should make us think of crumbs falling from the table?

As we gather around the Lord's table, we should mind our own table manners. Is everyone being served? Is everyone welcome? Is anyone relegated to receiving only the crumbs that fall from the table?

(Top) Tintoretto. The Last Supper. c. 1570. Santo Stefano, Venice, Italy. 
(Bottom) Tintoretto. The Last Supper. 1579-81. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy.

For a take on the reading from Hebrew scripture for this Sunday, click here.

This week on A&FM's Facebook page, a look at Psalm 133. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Genesis 37.1-4, 12-18: It's the Horizon

Proper 14(19)/Pentecost 10A gives us an early episode in Genesis' Joseph cycle of stories (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28). Having been identified as his father's favorite, Joseph is quick to let his brothers know of the newly announed rankings. As you might expect, the news is not well-received, and the brothers decide to move Joseph out of the picture. They throw him into a pit and then sell him to a passing caravan of Midianites.

The two images below tell the story of the pit and the selling. On the left is an image by Karoly Ferenczy. Painted in 1900, the action of the story is in the foreground. Joseph, stripped to the waist, is handed off to white-garbed travelers passing through Jacob's land. At the right, the same story is told by a contemporary artist Yoram Raanan. The action is in the foreground with figures standing around what appears to be a well-like hole.
(Left) Karoly Ferenczy. Josseph Sold by His Brothers Into Slavery. 1900. Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest. (Right) Yoram Raanan. Joseph's Brothers Throw Him Into the Pit.
The two images share a color scheme: brownish-yellow earth tones, blue and white. Both compositions are similar with the action happening at the bottom/front of the painting. But both also remind us of "the rest of the story": that there IS a rest of the story. In both paintings, it is the distant horizon that draws our attention in the upper half of the composition. And that is where we need to at least glance as we read the Joseph cycle. Incidents along the way seem to be the end, but they are not the end. Not the pit, not prison, not famine. There's something more waiting for Joseph, for Joseph's descendants and for the people of God. It's probably a good reminder for us, too.

For an additional consideration on Joseph and his brothers, click here.
For a take on the gospel reading for this week, click here.

Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below for some thoughts on the dreams that got him in trouble with his brothers.