Sunday, January 28, 2018

Isaiah 40.21-31: God's View

How we human beings strive to be seen as important in our world. Some people will trade everything that should matter to them in order to be powerful and important according to the world's assessment. But perhaps we should remember how we look when seen from a different point of view. Isaiah tells us that we look like insects from where God is sitting (Isaiah 40:21-31, Epiphany 5B). God sits above the circle of the earth, and the earth's inhabitants look like grasshoppers. 

With that in mind, you can probably work out the subject matter of the contemporary painting below. 
Nina Brooke. Shoreline. Available as a giclee print.
Painter (and surfer) Nina Brooke has painted the beach from above. This view is closer to what the prophet describes in the lectionary text. The individual people look like small dark smudges against the tan of sand, the white of waves and the blue-green of the water. No individual features are recognizable. No distinctions of class or race are easily evident. The people move as groups and individuals, they move closer together and father apart, echoing the ebb and flow of waves and tides. The view from above can be no more detailed than that.

And yet, God's care is for each of those moving specks. God has promised that each of those little faceless specks can, if they wait on God, renew their strength. Each of those featureless dots can, if they wait on God, mount up with wings like eagles. Each of those indistinguishable blobs can, if they wait on God, run and not be weary. Each of those ant-sized beings can, if they wait on God, walk but not faint. They just have to wait on God. In other words...Patience (but wait eagerly), young grasshopper.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, how we, in 1936, got a little closer to God's view.

For thoughts on Jesus' search for a deserted place in this week's gospel reading (Mark 1:29-39), click here.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Deuteronomy 18.15-20: How the Word Comes to You

God provides words for those who are called (Deuteronomy 19:15-20, Epiphany 4B). It is a fact not just for this instance in Deuteronomy but also for Moses, for Isaiah, for Jeremiah, and for the gospel writers.On some occasions, the writings tell us how the word came from God. For others, artists imagine how to show the inspiration God provides.

A previous blog post (here) considered Chagall's depiction of how Jeremiah received either words or confirmation that he would receive words from God. An angel touches the prophet's mouth as a sign. 

For the artist of the Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus, inspiration comes differently. Here John writes his gospel while a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit and held by God's hand, speaks into the ear of the evangelist.
St. John the Evangelist, from the Gospel Book of Abbot Wedricus. 1147 A.D. Tempera on vellum.
Societe Archeologique et Historique, Avesnes-sur-Helpe, France
The touch of a hand? The whisper of a dove? Does one feel more immediate, more connected? Do you have a different idea entirely? How does the word of God come to you?

See another aspect of God's call to prophets on this week's Facebook post. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Epiphany 4B (Mark 1:21-28), click here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Jonah 3:1-10: Always a Catch

To read the lectionary portion of Hebrew scripture for Epiphany 3B (Jonah 3:1-10) is to read the story of faithful people (or at least person) of God who follows God's direction, preaches God's word and converts an entire city to God, causing much rejoicing (remember how happy God is to save the one lost sheep...well, imagine saving a whole city that took four days to walk across!). Obedience, proclamation, results. A positive story, indeed.

Positive? Yes. Makes God look good? Yes. Makes Jonah look good? Yes. Makes the Ninevites look good? Yes. Tells the whole story? Not by a long shot.

Because in the story of Jonah there are two places where people are showing themselves to be working against God's will. One is the people of Nineveh.

It isn't hard to discover why Jonah and the people of Israel hated the Ninevites. The stories of Assyrian rulers Sargon and Sennacharib, and others in between, are well-documented historically. The Assyrian army made a habit of invading and conquering their neighbors. God has heard of their wickedness and wants to send a representative to call them back to God's way. It's easy to see how the Ninevites are working against God.

But there is another person who is obviously working in opposition to God's plan. And that is Jonah. The prophet, the title character of the story, works against God's will. Not just once but several times. In fact, the hated Ninevites repent faster and, at least here, more fully, than God's own agent.

It's a good reminder for those of us who call ourselves people of God. Our actions and choices aren't in a bubble of goodness. We are just as likely as any other people to act in ways that oppose God. And those are the times when God calls back the people of God with as much devotion and intensity as God seeks those we might think of as lost.

God appointed a great (גָּד֔וֹל) fish (דָּ֣ג) to call Jonah back. Thus began one of the world's biggest fish stories.

On the sea wall of the Old City of Acre (Akko), Israel, is a sculpture in the form of a whale. The sculpture is a memorial to those who have lost their lives at sea or, as the inscription says, those who remained in the lap of the sea. It is not meant to be a depiction of the Jonah story, but the hole in the middle of the whale - large enough for people to crawl in - may remind us of Jonah's time in the belly of the fish. From there he prayed to God for deliverance, concluding with the promise, "What I have vowed, I will pay" (Jonah 2:9b). And to be fair, Jonah does pay his vow. Though he doesn't appear to have really learned the truth of God's love for the people of Nineveh - even at the end of the story.
Whale Memorial. 2003. Acre (Akko), Israel. *As of now unable to discover the name of the artist. For the Old City of Acre, click here

How easily we can become Jonah, turning away from God's call to work for the welfare of people we don't want to like. How easily we make vows to obey God, promising to be God's people, yet how often we, as God's people, are more willing to claim that as a position of privilege rather than service. The fact that God calls for our obedience rather our approval can be a hitch in our plans.

There's always a catch. So goes the suspicious aphorism. But in this story, the "catch" is Jonah. He is caught, grasped by God (via an appointed fish), stopping a continuing descent that began when the prophet decided to run from God. We need to remember that when necessary, God can find a fish belly or some specifically-tailored parallel for each of us. Because just as God wanted the Ninevites to repent, so, too, God wants us to come back, to trust God, to work for God's will rather than for our own.

For thoughts on the disciples and their nets (Gospel reading/Mark 1:14-20), click here.

On Facebook this week, see how early Christians used the Jonah story.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

John 1.43-51: By Any Other Name

The Gospel reading for Epiphany 1B (John 1:43-51) offers us a glimpse of one of the lesser-known disciples: Nathanael. In John's gospel, Jesus is in Galilee and calls Philip, who shares a hometown with Peter and Andrew. Philip then meets up with a friend and tells him about Jesus. Nathanael' s response is one of those sentences that has lived long after he spoke the words. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus (yes, of Nazareth!) then proceeds to impress Nathanael with his knowledge.

And we never hear from Nathanael again.

Sort of.

Nathanael is named only in John's gospel. He is believed to be the disciple called Bartholomew in the other gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In the other gospels' lists of disciples, Bartholomew is paired with Philip (who is an actor in Nathanael's call story). It may be that Bartholomew is a "son of" construction (remember Peter is Simon son of [bar] Jonah).

Even as Bartholomew, this disciple doesn't get a lot of camera time. He is included in several lists but we don't hear any further stories about him. The episode of Bartholomew's life that captures the most attention is his death. Tradition tells us he was flayed alive in Armenia. When we see him in art, he is usually holding a flaying knife or even his own skin.

Among the most famous depictions is Michelangelo's Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel's Last Judgement. The artist has put the knife in the disciple's right hand and his skin in the left hand. As an added twist, the face on the skin is purported to be a self-portrait of the artist.
(Left) Michelangelo. Last Judgement (detail). 1533-1541. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. (Right) Calling of Nathanael. Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England.
Depictions of Nathanael are characterized by a fig tree (though sometimes the figs are at a distance and barely visible) and one, two or three men. Because the action in the passage is conversation, there is not particular action, but it is usually depicted as a sunny day with green leaves on the tree and a blue sky.

We have, then, two stories of the probably same person. One that tells the beginning of the story. The other that focuses on the end of the story. In between there is some unknown, some mystery. Which name, and which story, do you think this disciple would find most meaningful?

This week on Facebook...the last verse of the Gospel reading offers a connection to a story from Hebrew scripture. Click here or on the link below to read more.

For other thoughts on the Epiphany 1B reading, click here.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6: Epiphany and Baptism: A Story of Getting Up

Arise, shine! directs the prophet. For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.. The text is the reading from Hebrew scripture for Epiphany B (Isaiah 60:1-6), but the verbs also work well with the neighboring liturgical day, the Baptism of the Lord. One of the things they all have in common is movement.

The magi must actually prepare for and then set out on the journey. If they want to see for themselves, no amount of talking about astronomy or geography or history is going to get the answers they want. They have to get up and go. 

At his baptism, Jesus doesn't stay in/under the water. He must move up from or out of the water. It is as Jesus comes up out of the water that the dove descends and the voice is heard (who hears the heavenly voice depends on which gospel you are reading). 

When people are healed by Jesus, they get up and go back to the work they were doing or they join Jesus on the way. Jesus says things like, "Take up your bed and walk." Even Saul, when blinded on the road to Damascus, gets up off the ground and is led by the hand to Damascus. 

So, too, the people of God must moveArise! Get up! Shine! Reflect the glory of God that shines on you! Now is the time to move.
 "Resurrection" from Vysehrad Gospel. 1085. Prague: Klementium.
But if you don't want to get up now, the day is coming when you must. An African-American spiritual describes the "Great Gettin' Up Morning", the day of judgement that is coming. On that day we are all going to have to get up. Gabriel will blow his silver trumpet to wake the sleeping children. Will you still be asleep? Or will you be on the move?

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, see the ominous qualities of Hieronymous Bosch's Adoration of the Magi. Click here.

For other thoughts on the Epiphany readings, click here and here