Sunday, August 25, 2019

Luke 14.25-33: Part and Parthenon

Oops. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:28) Oh, I'm sure we'll get enough money to complete it. We should go on and start...the remaining funds will surely come in.

That's probably close to the conversation that happened in Edinburgh in the early 1820s. In 1822 a group of Edinburgh citizens determined to build a monument to honor the Scots killed during the Napoleonic Wars. They chose to construct an exact copy of the Parthenon. Their monument would stand on the "acroplis" of Edinburgh as the Parthenon stands on Athens' Acropolis.

The estimated cost was £42,000. When construction began £24,000 had been raised. Surely the rest of it would come in. The plan for for each stone to be an exact match to the paired stone from the ancient building. Measurements were exactly the same for every stone. A foundation was built, and twelve columns were stacked.
National Monument of Scotland. Begun 1822. Edinburgh, Scotland.
But the money never came in. Construction was halted in just a couple of years. The monument remains unfinished. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' (Luke 14:28-30) [And lest you think I am singling out Edinburgh - one of my favorite cities on earth...this is far from the only example. See the Presidents Park and the Siena Cathedral for two of many.]

These projects should make us think, though, about the cost of following Jesus. Have you "counted all the funds needed" for your discipleship? Are you willing to toss your life, your livelihood, your family into the pot? Maybe just your livelihood. Maybe just your family. Maybe you've only got enough for a foundation or twelve columns. If you haven't acquired all the "capital" needed for discipleship, you can't be a disciple, Jesus says. Part of the Parthenon won't do.

For thoughts about Psalm 139, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.
For thoughts about Jeremiah 18:1-11, click here.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jeremiah 2.4-13: Worth

They went after worthless things and became worthless themselves. That's what God has to say about the ancestors of the house of Jacob (Jeremiah 2:4-13). God then reminds the people of what has come to them as a result of their relationship with God. And yet, God wonders, they traded the relationship with God for something less. For something with less value...for something that, by comparison, has no worth.

Of course, who defines worth? Who defines how much something is worth? Consider the photo below. What do you think this ceramic piece is worth? Really, stop to consider and come up with a figure before you read ahead. And, yes, the background may tell you that this is from Antiques Roadshow. How much is it worth?

Would you believe $30,000 to $50,000? That's what the Antiques Roadshow appraiser said the piece was worth. It really is a one-of-a-kind piece, probably late 19th or early 20th century, and worth $30,000 to $50,000. Not bad when the owner had purchased it at an estate sale for $300. So an original appraiser (at the estate sale) said it was worth $300. The AR appraiser multiplied that figure by a thousand. And now it's worth $30,000 to $50,000. What changed about the piece that all of a sudden it was worth a thousand times more money than before? Worth. Is it true that things are really only worth whatever you can get someone to pay for them?

Here's the first twist to this story of changing worth. A viewer watching this episode of Antiques Roadshow immediately called a friend and told the friend that she needed to go online and watch this appraisal. Turns out that the friend created the piece. In high school in the 1970s. Hmmm. Now how much is the piece worth? What would you say?

The AR appraiser revised the appraisal to $3,000 to $5,000. So now it's worth ten times less than it was. It's been worth $300, $3,000, even $30,000. All the same piece. No changes whatsoever. What is it worth?

What's worthless here? The object? The human ability to identify "worth"? The human need to attach worth to things? Our understanding of what things are really "worth"?

It's that last question that may hold the key. If we are swayed by the opinions and pronouncements of others about the worth of things, then we shall surely chase after things that are ultimately worthless. And in doing so, we will become worthless in our ability to live lives of faithful service to God.

The story of the object above has one more twist. The man who paid $300 for the piece at an estate sale bought it because he loved it. When it was "worth" $30,000, he put it away for safekeeping. Now that it is "worth" less, he has brought it back out where he can enjoy it. Which was why he bought it in the first place. One last twist on worth: the piece's creator, Betsy Soule, was surprised to find that someone was willing to pay $300 in the first place. She said if she had known he liked the piece (and it had been in her possession), she probably would have given it to him. What's that worth?

For additional reading about this story, click here or here .
For thoughts on Luke 14:1, 7-14, click here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Hebrews 12.18-29: Recurring Motifs

The people stood between two mountains, and the preacher asked them to acknowledge. After eleven full chapters (plus a bit of a twelfth), the congregation hearing the sermon that is the Epistle to the Hebrews is brought to this point: Unlike your ancestors, you didn't come to Mount Sinai - all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble - to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them and they begged him to stop. When they heard the words - "If an animal touches the Mountain, it's as good as dead" - they were afraid to move. Even Moses was terrified. No, that's not your experience at all. You've come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You've come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. (Hebrews 12:18-29). The people stand between the two mountains, exhausted and discouraged. The preacher encourages them to remember what Jesus has done for them. Toward which mountain will they move? Sinai? Or Zion? You'd think the choice would be easy. Surely they could see the difference between the two mountains as they were presented side by side.

These are far (far!) from the only appearances of mountains in scripture. Mount Ararat, the Mount of Olives, Mount Hermon, Mount Carmel, Mount Nebo, Mount of Transfiguration, and the list could go on. Each time a mountain shows up, we should look back to where else we have seen a mountain, remember those stories, and then see what is similar and what is different in the most recent appearance of a mountain. It's in the side-by-side observation that we can see the richness of the symbol as a whole and the nuances of each mention.

American artist Jim Dine (b. 1935) was known for taking one object - often an everyday object - and exploring it in a variety of ways. A recurring motif. In the late 1970s Dine spent three months in Jerusalem. His studio was near Mount Zion. Among the works he produced was a painting titled "Painting Around Mount Zion." Is the painting below what you imagined such a work would look like?
Jim Dine. Painting Around Mount Zion. 1979. Oil on canvas. 71" x 173". Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum. 
It's bathrobes, one of the recurring motifs in Dine's art. Here there are four of them. Four bathrobes with sashes tied and sleeves that look perfectly placed for the wearer to have hands fisted on hips or concealed in pockets. But four bathrobes with no people in them. Nevertheless, when we see the robe, we might imply the people. After all, who else would be using a bathrobe? Each is slightly different. Notice the fall of light on the lapels of each robe, and compare the colors in each image. So we might see these as four individuals. Four "people around Mount Zion."

The people of Hebrews didn't have to move toward Zion (and they probably weren't wearing bathrobes when they heard the preacher's use of  the recurring mountain motif). But they would choose either Zion or not-Zion by the way they moved forward after hearing the preacher's encouragement in the midst of their discouraging world. Are these four bathrobe people ready to move? Or are they unable to move from their solidified pose?

We also choose. Are we, as Christians, moving? Are we moving toward Mount Zion?

For thoughts on Luke 13:10-17, click here.
For thoughts on Jeremiah 1:4-10, click here.
For thoughts about the "shaking" mentioned in Hebrews, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Luke 12.32-40: Protecting Your Treasure

Luke's gospel (Luke 12:32-40) offers us a glimpse of the relationship between people and whatever they hold most dear. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. And you will do whatever you need to do to protect your treasure. You'll make sure that your door is locked against robbers who would break in and steal your treasure.

Elsewhere in scripture (Matthew 6:19), we are reminded, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal." But it doesn't stop people from trying. Here a heavy wooden chest owned by Melk Abbey. Notice the thick sides of the chest. Notice the lock on the front of the chest.

Wooden Chest with Locks. 17th century. Melk Abbey Museum. Melk, Austria.
Yes...notice that lock. Certainly it will keep out thieves, right? This will guard your treasure, whatever that is. Well, maybe. Actually, the lock on the front of the chest is a decoy. You can try any key in the world in the lock, and nothing will happen. There are, in fact, fourteen locks on this chest. But you have to know where the keyhole is to start the process. And it's hidden. 

So even if you know where the hidden keyhole is, all the moving parts of fourteen locks have to be working perfectly for you to lock up your treasure and, at least ostensibly, keep it safe. Or you could just remember that your real treasure isn't something that can be locked up in a trunk.