Sunday, April 29, 2018

Acts 10.44-48: Even the Gentiles

The Acts reading for Easter 6B is a little out of order, liturgically. The 10th chapter of Acts is after  Pentecost, but the Revised Common Lectionary places the reading during Eastertide. The disciples have received the Holy Spirit...and so have other people. And that's the problem. The Holy Spirit has been poured out...even on the Gentiles. Some members of the community of faith aren't sure what to do with that.

On the other hand, some are exactly sure what to do. Nothing. Do not give any credence to the idea that the Holy Spirit would ever come to "them." But Peter disagrees. He argues that the Holy Spirit can, indeed, be poured out even on Gentiles. The wording of his characterization of the anti-Gentile faction in verse 46 is different in different translations: Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, (KJV) Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. (NIV) Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? (MSG). The NRSV offers this: Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people... 

Any objections sounds benign enough. Stand in the way may be a little more disruptive. Forbid water and withhold water are definitely combative. In engineering terms, the community of faith might be seen as building a dam. That's the subject matter of William Gropper's mural for the Department of the Interior. Created for the Works Progress Administration, the mural shows the massive amount of work undertaken to build projects like the Grand Coulee Dam and the Davis Dam. Human workers are frozen in heroic poses as they exert physical effort. Industrial machines like cranes lift and place segments of the dam that have been constructed elsewhere. Time, energy, labor and money are being invested in the creation of this dam.
 William Gropper. Construction of a Dam. 1939. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
There are good reasons for building a dam. Holding water hostage - water for crops, people or baptism - is not one of them. 

For thoughts on John 15:9-17, click here.
For thoughts on the Ascension on the Art & Faith Matters blog, click here. For the Ascension on Facebook, click here or here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

John 15.1-8: Apart From Me

Vines, vineyards, fruit of the vine. All are familiar to readers of scripture, appearing in parables, stories and analogies. In John 15.1-8 (Easter 5B) the vine is used to symbolize Christ, but it is not a symbol in isolation. Rather relationship is the order of the day. Before the vine was the vinegrower - the first person of the Trinity. From the vine grow branches - followers of Christ. So there is both the antecedent and the descendant of the vine. Before and after. Relationship.

The relationship is important, especially for those who come after the vine. Apart from me, Jesus says, you can do nothing.  The vine is the perfect illustration. American sculptor Patrick Dougherty provides the contrast in his piece Running in Circles.
Patrick Dougherty. Running in Circles. 1996. Tickon Sculpture Park, Langeland, Denmark.
In Running in Circles the artist weaves willow and maple saplings into the poplar trees, echoing the shape and forces of the coastal wind as it breezes and swirls across the countryside. In addition, the ovals and circles created by the willows and maples frame views of the ocean, changing how viewers see the landscape just beyond the line of poplars.

One of the things that characterizes Dougherty's work is its transience. He calls the installations Stickwork and each one can take weeks or more to create. Over time, of course, the saplings that are his central building material will decompose. The weave will not hold - no hardware or supporting structure is included in the installation. And, eventually, it will be as if Dougherty and his art were
never there at all.

That is only partially true for Running in Circles. While the saplings will indeed decompose, the poplars will remain in place because they are literally rooted. The branches will produce leaves, the leaves will fall as the seasons change. New leaves will appear in due season. All because the branches are still attached to the trunk, which is planted in the ground. The saplings have been cut from their roots. Apart from the roots, the saplings will survive for a time, but not forever.

This week Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page features a look at a sarcophagus. Click this link.
For thoughts on Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch), click here

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Acts 4.5-12: Rejected

If it isn't the most famous sculpture in the world, it certainly makes everyone's Top Ten lists. And it perfectly exemplifies Peter's sermon example in Acts 4:5-12 (Easter 4B). Between 1501 and 1504, Michelangelo Buonarotti carved a standing male nude from a solid block of marble that had been quarried more than a quarter of a century before Michelangelo ever picked up a chisel.
Michelangelo. David. 1501-1504. Marble. Florence: Galleria dell'Accademia.
David stands just under 17 feet tall and weighs more than 12,000 pounds - that's 6 tons! The story of the work we see today is a long and twisting one. The original commission was for a series of large statues for upper niches on the Florence Cathedral (Italy). The statues would have been more than 200 feet above the ground. The original sculptor was Agostino di Duccio. He began work in 1464 (that's half a century before Michelangelo) but left the project after only very basic beginnings.

A decade or so later, the commission was taken up by Antonio Rossellino. He, too, made only beginning marks before abandoning the project.

What was the problem? We know that Rossellino complained about the quality of the marble. The block, quarried in Carrarra, had too many taroli - too many imperfections. The imperfections may have created weaknesses that followed veining, fault lines that could have caused the ruin of the sculpture. Modern scientific studies have confirmed that the marble is of mediocre quality.

So the block was rejected. The barely-begun David lay on his back in the courtyard of the Duomo's workshop. It was exposed to the elements for more than 25 years.

Then, in 1501, a 26-year-old sculptor began work on the project. The quarried block had been lying on its back since the sculptor was only a year old. He was given two years to complete the commission. He finished in 1504.

The finished piece was too heavy (6 tons!) to be put in the originally-intended niche, so it was placed at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1873 was moved indoors to its current site at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. A replica was put at the original site.

If it isn't the most famous sculpture in the world, it certainly makes everyone's Top Ten lists. The stone that the sculptors rejected has become...well, if not the cornerstone, at least a centerpiece in the history of sculpture.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, read between the lines of Psalm 23. Click on this link.

For thoughts on John 10:11-18, click here.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Acts 3.12-19: Still Easter?

Easter! Resurrection! New Life! Jesus appears to disciples! Thomas affirms Jesus as Lord and God! We've gone from one exciting, meaningful moment to another since Good Friday. The Jesus Movement is moving forward every day, focused on the future. Peter has preached several times. Thousands have been converted and joined the Movement.

If this were an audio blog, I would insert a sound clip of a record player needle being scratched across the surface of a record. That sort of screeching that indicates a full, sudden stop. I would insert it at Acts 3:15 (Easter 3B, Acts 3:12-19). Because look who shows up...Barabbas!

Oh, he isn't mentioned by name, but Peter remembers Barabbas' role in Holy Week and reminds the people hearing him preach that they chose Barabbas. It's an interesting addition to the sermon.
Honore Daumier. Ecce Homo. c. 1850. Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany. 
It might be a wet blanket thrown on the Easter party. After all, the crowd around Peter and John have been dazzled by the healing of the lame man that happened in the first part of Acts 3. They want to know who has done this remarkable thing and whether there might be more miraculous things happening. These are the people still in search of someone or something that will free them from the oppressive world in which they are living. Maybe these two men, who obviously can perform miracles, will be the ones who will save us.

Peter does, indeed throw a wet blanket on their hopes. To paraphrase Peter's sermon:  It isn't us who made this man walk, it's God. And you had your chance. You could have chosen the Lord of Life, but instead you chose a taker of life. His name was Barabbas.

So maybe this is about new life and resurrection after all. Notice that Peter doesn't say to them that they have missed their only chance at redemption and salvation. He does make clear that the people (and it may have been some of these same people who were shouting "Crucify him!") missed their first chance to acknowledge who Jesus is. But now the prophets' words have been fulfilled, Peter says. You can choose again. New life. Still Easter.

For additional thoughts on the Luke 24:36b-48, click here.
For a look at the location of the Acts story, click on the Facebook link. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Acts 4.32-35: The Rest of the Story

The followers of Jesus held all things in common. That's the phrase that most often gets lifted out of Acts 4:32-35 (Easter 2B). It's an image that has inspired intentional Christian communities since the moment the words were written. Living together in peace and harmony. Sharing all you have. Why can't Christians today get along like that?

The writer of Acts (and the Renaissance artists who illustrated this text) might lead you to ask, "Why couldn't Christians then get along like that?" Because in the very next section of the Acts text we get a full example of people who didn't share everything they had. Ananias and Sapphira sold a field and didn't share all of the proceeds with their community. It did not end well for Ananias. And Raphael and Masaccio want to make sure that you know that part of the story. So they pair the ideal and the reality in their art.
(Left). Masaccio. Distribution of Alms and the Death of Ananias. 1426-1427. Florence: Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine. (Right) Raphael. Cartoon for the Death of Ananias. 1515-1516. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Massacio has Peter passing along funds to a mother holding her infant child. Literally he hands the money over Ananias' body. Raphael separates the two actions. Ananias dies in the lower right corner while monies are being distributed at the left of the canvas. At the far right is Sapphira (in a green gown) counting the coins that are her share of the profit. She pays no attention to what is happening to Ananias.

In both works the body on the ground is that of Ananias, whose death is told in Acts 5:1-6. In between the idealist account of everyone sharing is a two-verse reference to a Jesus follower named Barnabas who sold a field and did lay the proceeds at the feet of the disciples. It did happen within the community of believers. But not all the time. Hence the presence of a prostrate Ananias in these two compositions illustrating the distribution of alms.

At once the images are reminders of the need to share the gifts we have been given and a vivid warning about what happens if we don't. That must have taken off at least a little of the early Christian community's idealistic shine.

For thoughts about Thomas (John 20:19-31), click here, here, or here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters Facebook, a quote in search of a source. (But it really works with the Acts passage.)