Sunday, January 27, 2019

Luke 4.21-30: The Word Has Left the Building

The episode of Jesus preaching in his home synagogue begins with Luke 4:16. Jesus is handed the scroll, he reads the words of Isaiah and returns the scroll to the attendant. There was a momentary pause, then Jesus proclaimed that the word had been made flesh in himself that very day. And the uproar began. In the second part of the story, found in verses 21-30, we get, as Paul Harvey would have said, "the rest of the story."

The rest of the story doesn't go so well for Jesus. He is driven out of town up to a hill where the crowd plans to throw him off. That doesn't happen, but even so, it's probably not the homecoming that Jesus' followers imagined.

The manuscript illumination below is from a picture Bible created in northwest France c. 1190-1200.  In this illustration Jesus is literally pushed out of (presumably) the town. Green grass is under his bare feet. But in this manuscript illustration Jesus seems to be carrying a book as he is pushed out of the city.
The Jews Chase Christ Out of the City. 1190-1200. The Hague, KB, 76 F 5 fol. 16r sc. 1B. 
Koninklijke Bibliotheek National Library of the Netherlands

The icon Christ Pantocrator usually shows Jesus holding a book (the New Testament). The icon of Jesus the Teacher shows Jesus with an open book and the text "I am the light of the world..." Seeing Jesus carrying a book in this setting raises questions rather than answers them.  

What is that book? Is Jesus taking the scroll of Isaiah (conveniently bound in book form) with him? Or is this an attempt to remind the viewer that in rejecting Jesus as the Word (who became flesh and dwelt among us) they also rejected that the word they heard was fulfilled in their hearing? In Mark's version of Jesus' rejection in Nazareth, the gospel writer remarks that because of the people's unbelief Jesus could do no deeds of power among them. Perhaps that is the reason for the book leaving with Jesus. His power left with him, and his power came from God, whose story is told in scripture. The people don't know it, but they are pushing away the Word of God. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook..."Is not this Joseph's son?"  For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 1:4-10, click here.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Luke 4:14-21 and Nehemiah 8: Read Aloud

Do you read aloud? Do you listen to the written word being read aloud? The rising popularity of audiobooks and podcasts seem to say that humans still respond to words spoken aloud, even in this culture of images. In both readings from scripture (Luke 4:14-21 and selected verses from Nehemiah 8), the word of God is read aloud. 

Ezra was, apparently, quite gifted at reading aloud. His reading brought the word of God to life in a way that touched the emotions of the hearers. The people listened, understood the reading, and wept when they heard the law of God. The gospel passage from Luke stops just before we see the reaction of the people to Jesus' reading and proclamation. The next few verses tell us that the people are "amazed" at Jesus' words...but not in a good way. Their amazement turns to rage. They drag him out of town and attempt to throw him off a cliff. 

No one can deny the power of the reading and hearing of these words. There have been other words that, when read aloud, have had the same kind of impact on its hearers. The two images at left are centered around the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. The top image  shows Lincoln's cabinet as they hear the Proclamation read for the first time. They don't show much (any?) external emotion as the words are read, though that may also be the painter's attempt to help them look serious and statesmanlike.

The bottom image, published the same year as the painting was created, also depicts a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This time the reading is being done by a Union soldier surrounded by enslaved persons. The reaction of the hearers - members of three generations - is much more visible. Hands are raised in gestures of supplication, hats are being waved, eyes are lifted to heaven. 

I remember one of my seminary professors advocating that worshipers should hear big pieces of scripture in worship every week. Notice how that is phrased...not that we should read big pieces of scripture, but that the congregation should hear big pieces of scripture. Words of scripture spoken aloud promise us freedom and release, recovery of sight, and the joy of the Lord that is our strength. Perhaps we should be reading scripture aloud, even (especially?) if it's "only" to ourselves. These are words we need to hear.

Top image: Francis Bicknell Carpenter. First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. 1864. Collection of the U.S. Senate. Bottom image: H.W. Herrick, del., J.W. Watts, sc. Reading the Emancipation Proclamation. 1864. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...someone reads a scroll.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I Corinthians 12.1-11: Cogs, Gears, and Other Moving Parts

We often focus on Paul's list of gifts in I Corinthians 12:1-11: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. Different gifts. Same giver. But why. Why are the gifts given? So the followers of Christ can find pleasure or fulfillment in the gifts? Not according to verse 7. According to verse 7, the gifts are given for the common good. It's a different way to think about our spiritual gifts. They aren't (just) for ourselves but should be used to benefit the whole people of God.

What we think of as just gifts might be described as gears. The job of a gear is to transfer power from one part of a machine to another. The gear, which can also be called a cogwheel, is a rotating part that has teeth, or cogs, on the edge. The cogs of one wheel mesh with the cogs on another wheel to transmit torque which is converted to power.

Power can be transmitted by gears fabricated from metal, but those same mechanical processes can be made by wooden gears. The appropriate materials are defined by each project.
Power can be transmitted by giant gears, but those same mechanical processes can also be made by tiny gears. The scale of the gears can be adapted.
Power can be transmitted by gears designed only for function, but those same mechanical processes can also be made by gears designed for visual appeal.

Metal, wood, big, small, strictly utilitarian or crafted for beauty, the important thing is that the gears are all functioning and that power is, indeed, being transferred. That's important for mechanical gears and for gifts as gears.

One person's spiritual gift meshes with another person's spiritual gifts as they move toward one another. As they move, the church is moved. For the common good. But when the gears/cogwheels are not functioning or when those gears/cogwheels are missing cogs/teeth, they themselves can't be turned and they can't turn another gear. So maybe the gear analogy isn't too farfetched (though a theology professor once warned our class to never let a metaphor take us farther than we want to go).

There must be gears. There must be cogs. There must be Spirit. All to be used for the common good. 

Top two photos: George Washington's Gristmill. Mount Vernon, VA. Website includes a video of the gears in motion. Author's photos.
Bottom two photos: Works of Jules Jurgensen Chronograph. c. 1870.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a children's book about sharing gifts.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Through the Waters

Images of the baptism of Christ often show Jesus standing in gently rippling water - sometimes up to his waist, other times only ankle deep. John stands beside him pouring a gentle stream of water onto Jesus' head, often from a scallop shell. The waters of baptism as related in the text (Luke 3:15-22) are carefully controlled by the artist so as to not detract from either the Savior or his fur-clad cousin. It's a far cry from a situation that would lead God to promise that "when you go through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you" (Isaiah 43:1-7). It's hard to imagine that God would need to promise to be with anyone in ankle-deep water. But the path through those waters of baptism led to the cross and Jesus' anguished cry that God was nowhere to be found.

As artists have managed their images, perhaps we in Christ's church have managed baptism to the point that its waters no longer seem even dangerous enough to warrant our careful attention. We use a careful dribble of water or step down smooth-surfaced steps into a carefully filled pool. And we believe these tidy, manageable actions symbolize our being named as Christ's own and grafted into the body of Christ. Annie Dillard wrote about worship: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”  [Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.]

Perhaps we would be better served (and have more truth in advertising for the claims baptism makes on our lives) if our baptismal images were more like Maggi Hambling's "Wave" paintings. Hambling's paintings are inspired by the artist's experience of the gigantic waves that crash onto the sea wall in Southwold, Suffolk, England. The paintings are often large, measuring over six by seven feet, allowing viewers standing in front of the paintings to feel the size and power of the waves. This is no ankle-deep wading. These are waves that threaten to overwhelm. This is the voice of the Lord that is over the waters, thundering over mighty waters (Psalm 29:3). This is drama and danger enough to make one search for and be grateful for the ongoing presence of God.

Top: Maggi Hambling. Wall of water V. 2011. 78 x 89 inches. Bottom: The artist in the "Walls of Water" exhibit at the National Gallery, London, England. 

For additional thoughts on baptism and the baptism of Christ click here, here, or here.
For an interesting illustration of Isaiah 43:1, see this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post.