Sunday, July 28, 2019

Psalm 80.1-2, 18-19: Ancient Vines, Ancient Cultures

Psalm 80 (verse 8) speaks of a vine, and Isaiah 5:1-7 uses the image of a vineyard. The Psalm calls upon the shepherd of Israel to remember the vine that was brought out of Egypt. One wonders about the mixed metaphor of God as shepherd and the nation as vine/vineyard, but the juxtaposition made me wonder, could the undifferentiated "vine" in Psalm 80 be a grape vine, which could be brought out of Egypt and beget a vineyard in Israel? Were there grapevines in Egypt?

Spoiler alert: yes. And no.

The cultivation of vines was certainly known in Egypt by the time of an ancient Egyptian official named Nakht. The walls of his tomb in Thebes is covered with paintings, including the one below that shows people tending grapes on the vine, stomping the grapes, performing the ancient equivalent of "bottling" the wine.
Tomb of Nakht. Wall painting. Thebes, Egypt. 
In an interesting twist, though, it may be that the (grape)vine that was brought out of Egypt came from Palestine in the first place. In time, there was a thriving wine business in Egypt, but archaeological finds have led to some questions about the origin of the industry. Clay jars found in the tomb of an early Egyptian king (possibly known as Scorpion I) were analyzed to determine the origin of the clay. The jars matched no identifiable Egyptian clay. It did, however, match clays associated with the southern coastal plain and lowlands of Israel. There is evidence that this region did practice grapevine transplanting.

So the psalmist sang of the vine that God brought out of Egypt and planted in Israel. Getting to the land of promise seems really to be a homecoming.

You can read more about wine, wine jars, and the possibility of an Israel-ancient Egypt wine connection here.

For thoughts on clouds in Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2, click here.
For thoughts on the vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Luke 12.32-40: Napping

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Be those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. All are sentiments expressed in the gospel reading for Proper 14C/Ordinary 19C (Luke 12:32-40). All emphasize the need to be awake, watchful, alert. This is not the only text that bids Christians to stay awake.

But who of us doesn't enjoy a nap? My father believed that there was no such thing as a bad nap...just one that was too short.
Nicolaes Maes. Dame agee assoupie (Old Woman Dozing). c. 1655. Brussels: Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts. 
Nicolaes Maes was fond of the subject of dozing women. He painted the subject more than once and more than once used this woman as his model. Because she appears in several paintings, some historians speculate that the model was, perhaps, the artist's mother. She is peacefully napping, having set aside her lacemaking as well as the book in her lap and the open Bible on the table. I would hope we would not begrudge this woman an afternoon nap. 

Maes stands in the same tradition that produced the still life/vanitas pictures, so we can find clues to an additional meaning by putting together the elements the artist has included in the picture. First, the abandoned lacemaking has moved the woman from industry and productivity to idleness. The Bible is open to Amos, a prophet who warned that when the nation failed to follow God's moral commandments, then the relationship between God and people was in danger of being dissolved. On the table an hourglass reminds the viewer that time is running out, especially for this older woman. She should be more industrious, especially as she will (presumably) be meeting her maker sooner rather than later and be called to account for her life on earth. Napping in the daytime is at least a waste of time and could be considered sinful. 

Where we might understand napping as a "battery recharge," her nap seems to symbolize sloth. Is napping as bad as all that? Certainly she does not embody the alertness called for in the gospel reading. Should the thief (or Jesus) choose this moment to come into her home, she will no doubt miss the entire thing. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Hosea 11.1-11: Ephraim Is Walking!

The baby is walking! The first steps of any child are both amazing and precious. There are a number of starts and stops, timid beginnings, interrupted progress. Then, finally, a child lets go of what has steadied them - often the hand of an adult - and careens into the big, wide world. But adults who have loaned hands and fingers to steady a child never really let go. They remember how it was for the child to depend on them. God knows how that feels: It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. (Hosea 11:1-11)
Pablo Picasso. First Steps. 1943. Oil on Canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
In Picasso's painting here, the mother stands behind the child, holding the child's hands and allowing the child the full view of the world out front. The child is staring with wide-open eyes at the world, while the mother has eyes only for the child. Dressed in light-colored clothing, the child visually advances in the painting while the mother, dressed in neutrals that are much the same value as the background, recedes. This child, created in the context of World War II (1943), is setting out into an uncertain world.

God continues to love Ephraim/Israel as we all know and love the children who at one point depended on us. The child may not need an adult's hand, but the adult's heart remains connected to the child. How can I give you up, Ephraim?

God also understands how it feels when the child walks off...wanders off. Wanders to the point that Hosea is called to bring God's child back to God. Because God can't let go of this child who learned to walk by holding the divine hand. 

For the return of doves to their home (Hosea 11:11), click here.
For thoughts on Luke 12:13-21, click here.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Hosea 1.2-10: Picturing the Relationship

[Note: The extra post this week is an effort to work ahead on blog posts in order to be more helpful for folks who are worship planning several weeks in advance. There are two posts today, and I'll try to get one more posted this week so there is a three-week lead time on posts. Hosea 1 is the RCL text for July 28, 2019.]

The story of Hosea and Gomer. Is it a romance? A cautionary tale? A tragedy? Is Gomer abused by Hosea (and God...see Hosea 2)? Is she an excellent stand-in for Israel as sinners? We know she is voiceless in the text. But so is Hosea. God is the one who speaks and directs in this text (Hosea 1:2-10).

Artists have historically seemed to revel in the opportunity to paint Biblical texts that read as...salacious. Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Delilah's treachery and betrayal of Samson. David and Bathsheba. Is the point of these texts that they can be R-rated?
This week specifically, how should we picture the relationship between Hosea and Gomer? Here are four options. Each offers a very different approach. Which best captures your understanding of the relationship defined in this week's text? Or in what way does one (or all) fall short of how you see this relationship?

Top: Hosea and Gomer. Bible Historiale. Den Haag, MMW, 10 B 23 426r.
Second: Barry Moser. Hosea and Gomer 
Third: Marriage of Hosea and the Prostitute. Bible of St. Andre-aux-bois. 12th century. Bibliotheque de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France Bottom: Cody F. Miller. Hosea and Gomer.

For thoughts on Luke 11:1-13, click here.

Amos 8.1-12: A Basket of Fruit

The fruits of summer are enticing. Peaches are at their peak in July and August (in the northern hemisphere). Watermelons, blueberries, and raspberries are all part of summer. Those may not have been the exact fruits that Amos saw, but the result would have been the same: just looking at the fruit would give you a taste of summer (Amos 8:1-12). 

Students (and teachers!) know that as those fruits ripen it means that summer is moving on toward fall. It's not always a great feeling. You wish for what has passed. You want more time to do the things you haven't yet done over summer vacation. You do your best to live in the moment, not thinking about the change of seasons that is to come. 

Amos' vision is that feeling exponentially increased. The end is near, alright. But it isn't the end of summer vacation. It's way more serious than that. The end has come upon my people Israel, God says. It won't be pretty. 

A basket or bowl of fruit is a typical painting subject. And sometimes it's just a bowl of fruit. But for other artists (notably of the Dutch school) the bowl of fruit becomes a symbol with similar overtones to the Amos story. 

The basket of fruit here is by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Known for creating paintings with dramatic lights and darks, the artist has used none of that here. the basket sits against a neutral background on what appears to be a wooden shelf. Historians aren't sure why the painting was made. Was it to prove the artist's ability to paint realistically (notice the small shadow under the basket indicating it is jutting out slightly over the edge of the shelf)? Was it for a particular spot in the artist's house - or a patron's house? Was it meant to be hung on a wall or above a door, perhaps? Maybe the shelf under the basket mimicked an actual shelf or door molding. 
Caravaggio. Basket of Fruit. 1597-1600. Oil on canvas. Milan: Pinacotheca Ambrosiana.
Though the basket looks like you could reach into the painting and choose a piece of fruit to eat, you might not want to choose the apple. If you look closely you can see that a worm has been there before you. Even in this beautiful assemblage of fruit, the end is coming. Leaves are starting to wither, and some bear holes that indicate insects of some kind have been here. 

The end has come upon my people Israel, God says. If you look closely, you can see it coming. 

For thoughts on Luke 10:38-42, click here

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Amos 7.7-17: Plumb

I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people, God says (Amos 7:8). The plumb line, a weighted "bob" on the end of a line, hangs vertically (thanks, gravity!), providing a known vertical and, therefore, an accurate comparison for any (purportedly) vertical surface near it. A plumb line in the midst of the people will show how upright - or not - the people are. How closely are the people following God's law? How likely is it that their moral center is indeed centered, and will enable them to standd for a long time? That's what God is trying to find out.

American artist Charles White (1918-1979), born in Chicago, trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked for three years with the Illinois Art Project, affiliated with the Works Progress Administration. His 1964 piece, Birmingham Totem, was created in response to the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Charles White. Birmingham Totem. 1964. Ink and charcoal on paper. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
In the work a young African-American boy, his head and body covered by a blanket, sits atop a pile of rubble from the bombed church. From his right hand, a plumb line hangs down in front of the wreckage. I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people, God says.

For additional thoughts on the plumb line, see Art & Faith Matters on Facebook here.
For thoughts on Luke 10:25-37, click here.