Sower with Setting Sun (1888)
by Vincent Van Gogh
public domain

Thanksgiving, Philippians 4:6-20

Historical Description

In June of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh returned to a familiar project: making a creative appropriation of Jean-François Millet’s The Sower, an artist whom Van Gogh appreciated and a theme he desired to explore. Van Gogh worked repeatedly on the subject, writing about it personally and passionately to his brother and other correspondents, and sketching and painting it in various forms. In this painting, Van Gogh captures an emotional experience in the juxtaposition of color. The brilliant blaze of the setting sun is juxtaposed to the calming cool of the field of work. The human figure, decentered and engaged in work, sets human labor within a glorious blazing world.

Devotional Reflection

Vincent Van Gogh’s painting is labeled quite simply The Sower. While not one of his overtly religious pieces, if you look closely, you will see a depiction of hope, faith, and thanksgiving.  Human labor nestled within a glorious day.

Place this scene not in the evening but in the morning, early in the day. Van Gogh offers us a farmer with his bag of seed. This farmer swings his arm and walks with the beat of a metronome; gently releasing what he believes will grow into something good. The sun has just risen in the east, warming his back and the ground. Even the hope he has is warmed by this gift of God.

The man stands tall and strong and appears to be speaking . . . no . . . singing a tune, matching the rhythm of the seed being sown. You can almost hear him can’t you? What is it he is singing, perhaps a tune of thanksgiving? Could it be, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God almighty, early in the morning our song shall rise to thee” Maybe, “This is the day the Lord has made.” Whatever the tune, certainly it matches the warmth and promise of the morning sun.

This is a portrait of musical morning hope. It displays a faith that believes: as the sun has risen in the east, so also will God make the seed grow into a miraculous harvest of plenty.

Yet this vision of hope was painted by a man tortured with bouts of depression, a man in need of hope every morning. His art career was without success until after his death. And his life, at times, was like his art: so far from any source of hope. Some of his art displayed desperation and lack of peace. In one work, he painted the walls of his room a restless, ruddy red. In another, ravens come . . . not to feed him like Elijah but to signal the end.

This painting by Van Gogh, however, is different. It is one of creation, thanksgiving, and musical hope. For me, it visually echoes the prayers and thoughts of another man, also tormented by depression and in desperate need of hope. Martin Luther. When Luther finally, by God’s word of Grace, found hope, he clung to it in the evening and lived by it in the morning.

If one were to illustrate Luther’s Small Catechism, this painting could be placed alongside his morning prayer. Or at least by his last comment, “Then go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.” Luther’s morning prayer begins with hope connected to God’s word of baptism as he begins the day under the cross and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From God’s word of hope then comes faith. Faith realizes that God has kept his word of promise. God has given what we need and he will do it again. Why does the sower cast seed on the ground? Because he has seen God’s gracious hand before and trusts that God will do it again. The God who spoke at creation, “Let there be” and “be fruitful and multiply” will bring his words to fruition. Put seed in the ground and God will bring forth plants according to their kinds.

This sower of seeds, blurry though he might be, pictures for us what a Christian looks like. Having received God’s word of hope, we have faith and ultimately thanksgiving, for God provides what we need. In the painting this divine provision is the house in the background, the clothing on the man, the soil and the seed, and ultimately the sun rising in the east reminding each of us of the new day created by God and given to us. And when that day of labor is ended, another morn will follow until this world sees once again the most glorious gift of all.  God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Sower of hope, who rose on Easter morning and who will return to bring about a new creation on that final day.

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Quantum Cloud (1999)
Antony Gormley

Epiphany 4, 1 Corinthian 12:12-31

Historical Description:

Antony Gormley, a modern British sculptor most famous for his Angel of the North sculpture located in Gateshead, was commissioned to create a sculpture to stand next to the Millennium Dome in London. Quantum Cloud was completed in 1999, and it is the tallest sculpture to date completed by Gormley.

Visitors to the Millennium Dome will be greeted by this imposing statue dedicated to the mathematical structure underlying space-time and matter, or as Gormley said speaking about the mathematical structure, “the relationship of relationships.”

The imposing structure seems to be made up of many steel sections connected together; however, onlookers will soon notice that the mass in the middle takes on the form of a man seemingly communicating that the mathematical processes are intricately related to those who discover their secrets.

Devotional Reflection:

Perspective is everything. Those journeying down the Thames River will encounter this object in different ways.  First, from a distance as they move towards the sculpture, and then close up as they arrive at the sculpture. Those at a distance, moving toward the sculpture, will see a defined man in the middle of the structure, but as they move closer it becomes harder and harder to see. When the journey has brought them close to the sculpture, the man is hard to define and gets lost in the quantum chaos becoming an indefinable mass in the middle.

In the Epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Paul creates an image of something that is not always easy to perceive and that is the body of Christ. Paul says in verse 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Oftentimes, it can be hard to see that the entire body of Christ is made up of many different and distinct units. In the case of the sculpture many units of steel beams come together in a way which defines an image in the center, an image of a man, of a body. The same is true with the church. Many different members make up one distinct body that can be seen from many different directions and in many different ways. Christ has formed his body in multifaceted beauty.

Those who are far away can see clearly the body in the midst of the chaos, but as they move closer to the center that same body can be harder and harder to define. Consider our text.  In this case, the one who is far away from the church in Corinth, is Paul and he can perceive the larger picture of body of Christ, and how that body is being disrupted by the actions and the attitudes of the people in the church. The people in the church, however, are so close to the body that it has become hard for them to distinguish.  They cannot see that their actions are hurting the body of Christ. Their actions are causing the body to fall apart and Paul sees this. The same thing happens this very day. Paul asks us to imagine a physical body where the arm says to the leg that it is more important.  When the leg is removed, however, the bodily wholeness is broken apart. One may not see the destruction one is doing to the body because one does not have the wider perspective.  Each part is dependent upon the other, and when one part is removed the image starts to break down. It is no longer what it was intended to be. When the different parts are removed, the body becomes much harder to define even at a distance.

Paul is seeing the body of Christ at Corinth break apart before his eyes and, because of this, Paul gives those who are in the midst of the chaos and confusion this letter. This letter calls them to see the body and it calls us to see the body of Christ as well.  When we are in the midst of a struggle, it can be hard to see the body of Christ.  The body of Christ, however, exists and Paul’s words give witness to it.  Paul’s words call us to remember that we are the body of Christ, seen in the world. Our actions and attitudes toward one another offer the world a glimpse of the body of Christ, in all of its variety and beauty.

The body of Christ can be seen at different angles and from different distances. The church is made up of not just one person or one gift but of many people and many gifts. Christ joins his people together in way that makes them witnesses to the world of the perfect body of Christ. Not only are the members of the body of Christ intricately connected with each other, but they also form something much larger and more defined than themselves. They form the Church.  “As it is, there are many parts,yet one body” (1 Cor 12:20).

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Quantum Cloud (1999)
Antony Gormley

Proper 15, Hebrews 12:1-3

Historical Description: 

In 1999, Antony Gormley’s sculpture was completed.  Quantum Cloud had been commissioned as a piece that would complement the newly constructed Millennium Dome in London, England.  This sculpture is 30 meters tall, contains 5.5km of galvanized steel, and weighs nearly 50 metric tons.  What is most impressive about this piece is not the size or the weight but rather the science and engineering it took to complete it.  Gormley worked with various and randomly oriented steel sections, implementing geometry and trigonometry, to shape this massive work of art.  Overall, Gormley used 325 tetrahedral units to finish the piece, giving birth to many websites and articles describing in detail all the math and science that went into this complex sculpture.

Yet, in the midst of all of the math and in spite of the complex enormity of this piece, what naturally draws viewers is the faint image of a person in the midst of the chaos of metal.

Devotional Reflection:

What kind of things are complicating your vision in your life?  Through the distractions and distress, the complexity of life, it is very easy to lose sight of our creator and redeemer.  Every word of anger or lustful thought can cloud our vision of who our saving grace is that shapes us and makes us perfect.

At times, it is as if we look at our life and see metal sticking out in random patterns.  Our lives, like this sculpture, can remind us of the dangers and temptations of our world.  We see a planned effort by the Devil and the world to tear us down physically, mentally, and most importantly spiritually.  Yet, if you look closely at this sculpture, what stands in the middle of all the tetrahedral units and galvanized steel of this piece is a body, a man to be more specific.  In designing this sculpture Gormley used his own likeness to create the human form in the middle of this cloud.  So, as people walk by this Quantum Cloud, the creator of the piece reveals his image through the complex construction of the metal.

Scripture seems to show us over and over again that God uses strange and oftentimes messed up people to carry out His will.  These people, although not perfectly molded or formed, were used by God to accomplish great things and give glory back to their creator.  The book of Hebrews actually gives us a list of these people in chapter 11, known commonly as “the heroes of faith” chapter.  We are shown Moses, an ordinary man chosen by God, leading God’s people out of slavery in Egypt by faith to the Promised Land.  After the author gives us this impressive list of ordinary people we are shown something greater.  We find out in Hebrews 12:1-3 that we are reminded of these faith role models because they actually testify to someone greater than themselves.  These spiritual hall of famers, that could easily draw a fan club of their own, are actually just a cloud that point us to their creator, our God.  This cloud of witnesses help paint a picture of who God is and how he works.  God acts in and through their lives and through them we are given a glimpse of Him.  This cloud of witnesses is actually meant to be an encouragement to Christians as they try to live out their faith in their daily life.  By showing us who God is we are encouraged to run with endurance the race that is set before us.

This cloud of witnesses is meant to be an encouragement to us as we run the race with perseverance.  They encourage us by giving us a picture of God, if only through their lives and struggles.  Not only do we draw encouragement from this but we also begin to recognize our place in the cloud.  We are encouraged, as we look back at our lives, to trust that Christ is present in all circumstances.  Even at times to see the faint trace of his person and work.  By grace, we are part of the cloud of witnesses that help people see Christ.  We testify to who God is just as the heroes of faith have done throughout history.  So when life in all of its stresses, frustrations, and fears starts to cloud your vision, focus your eyes again on the great cloud of witness.  Focus on them not because of what they have done or how great they are but rather because their lives point to your God.  They testify to Jesus Christ who is the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  He has authored all of our days, as clouded and complex as they may seem.  He is in the midst of our lives giving us strength and hope for each day.  Christ is the perfector of our faith as He shapes and molds us through our lives and the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us.  Through all these things we are made more like Him, which will be fully realized on the Last Day when Christ comes to make all things new.

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Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato) (1962)
Andy Warhol
copyright 1962

Proper 12, Luke 11:1-13

Historical Description:  

Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987) is most known for his painting of “pop art” in the 1960s. He is known for paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, dollar bills, and many other iconic images. The Campbell’s Soup Can is one of those iconic images. For a movement of art that appeared to be anything but art, Warhol and pop art has remained influential.

This unassuming painting of a Campbell’s Soup Can blurs the line of art and the world. Warhol painted many soup cans from Tomato to Onion to a scene of 100 Campbell’s cans. Recently Campbell’s has sold soup with Warhol designs as its labels.

Devotional Reflection:

When you look at anything by Andy Warhol for the first time, you might exclaim, “This isn’t art!” The Campbell’s Soup Can is just the image that might evoke displeasure, an anticlimactic feeling, or utter disdain. A painting like this is so simple it seems anyone could paint it. The simple Campbell’s Soup Can that could sit behind the closed cabinet doors of a kitchen is presented on a canvas. This is just the sort of thing that makes art strange for so many people. How can this be art? Whether it hangs in a gallery, is ridiculed in a museum, or is viewed on the internet there is a simplicity, a whimsical allure, to the work of Andy Warhol.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples ask. It is such a simple request and Jesus offers simplicity in his answer. The prayer he gives to his disciples is unassuming and straightforward.

There is no question that this is a prayer indeed. But how did the disciples not know how to pray? Before we hear Jesus’ answer to the disciples, we might listen and hear overtones of other prayers.  We could overhear disciples praying like the Pharisees, we could consider the temple rituals of the Sadducees, or even the total ignorance of the pagan world may come to mind. In contrast to these people and these prayers, Jesus offers a simple act of prayer.

This prayer is near and dear to the Christian community. Yet at times it seems too simple to be a real act of prayer. Praying for daily bread might seem trite to some.  Particularly in a world where our basic needs are typically met. Praying short petitions seems rote and disingenuous in contrast to long prayers and meditations of the heart. This prayer, however, calls us into a world where the simple has beauty, and where the mundane has divine significance. Jesus leaves little to wonder, but much to appreciate when he teaches his disciples about prayer.

What we are left wondering is not whether hallowing God’s name is important, or if forgiveness of sins is essential, or even if we should pray for God’s kingdom to come. Those things make sense in a faithful prayer.  But daily bread?  What does that have to do with the kingdom of God?   If we are not careful we may treat this teaching like some treat Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can, as different from and not relevant to the world of art.  So this petition about daily bread is not connected to the larger richer experience of the kingdom of God.  The simplicity of Jesus’ words can cause us not to see the complexity of his petitions, how praying for daily bread can relate to the kingdom, can relate to something like helping the needy around us as a manifestation of God’s work or his love.

A simple soup can.  It reminds us not just to pray for our own daily food from the gracious hand of our heavenly Father but to recognize the fullness of the kingdom of God. We pray these words because God promises to hear our prayers. But we also live these words.  Our lives become this prayer in action as Jesus calls us into a sacrificial love for neighbor that is simple and unassuming. Drive around the city.  Watch as this prayer reminds you that giving to the poor and needy is part of the kingdom.

Dismissing the simple things, or even not asking for them in prayer, is like dismissing Warhol’s simple artwork. There is more to the kingdom of God. For this reason, Jesus teaches us to pray, and by praying to seek his kingdom, this simple and unassuming kingdom present in our world.

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Cold and Fatal Heroes (1988)
Patrick Graham
mixed media on board
copyright 1988

Easter 7, John 17:20-26

Historical Description:

Patrick Graham (b. 1943), an Irish contemporary artist, paints on mixed media of canvas, board, and others types. Peter Selz, a famous curator, has shown many of Graham’s paintings at museums around the United States.

This painting titled Cold and Fatal Heroes was painted in 1988 and represents an early work of Graham’s. The darkness of this painting represents death while the bright colors represent life. Graham’s works are filled with angst and mystery like his native land Ireland whose linguistic root is ire (anger).

Devotional Reflection:

The world looks dark and drab. We hear of school shootings, terrorist attacks, wars and rumors of wars.  That which our eyes see can cause visceral reactions for us. We are uncomfortable hearing of tragedies and maybe just as uncomfortable standing in front of something dark and chaotic.

Standing in front of this image by Patrick Graham evokes a mixture of feelings. Fear, confusion, and unhappy endings all come to the surface mixed with the calming sight of someone holding a child. As dark and drab feelings surround the viewer, two lines of text sit perched above to the left. “Contemporary Heroes” and “Love is Colder than Death,” the texts read. Underneath the left side is a pastoral scene of fields showing the passage of time. In the middle of these two is a cold picture. A drummer, a tin drummer to be exact, stands facing the viewer. It is a cold and hollow scene. Obscure words standing above as the time passes below reminding us that in this world we continue like a hollow tin drum. When confronted with death, darkness, and evil, many look toward God and see in him the cold, lifeless figure of the hollow drummer. Where is God in the midst of all of this, why do we not see him? Even the words God speaks seem to us hollow, empty, and distant from our cold and dark reality.

The other side of the image presents something else. There are no words here. The scene is warm. The picture is that of a father holding his son. It is a beautiful image set on a background riddled with chaos and darkness. If we take a moment to look closer we begin to see the same color on the father’s face that is on the son. It is vibrancy mixed with a cold, yet full, figure. There are no words present here, just the Word incarnate bursting with the warmth of the Father’s love.

As we turn from the picture and its beauty to the world and its darkness we remember the promised Holy Spirit, who will teach us all things about Jesus. Jesus’ words in John 17:25-26a help us to see this image, to see his beauty and wonder in a world struck with darkness and chaos. “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known.” It is these words of Jesus that invite us to see this image in a different way. We might be inclined to view the warmth and love of the child as filling the father. The words of Jesus invite us to see the image differently. Jesus makes known the Father to those who believe in him. Through the picture of Jesus in John’s gospel we see the love of the Father through Jesus.

The serene expression of the father holding the son shows how God the Father’s love comes from his face and is shown through the Son. Moses asked to see God’s glory in Ex 33. God then set him into a cleft and covered Moses’ face until he passed by. Moses was not allowed to see the face of God. John says in the beginning of his gospel that no one has ever seen God (John 1:18), yet it is through the Son of God that we see the Father’s face. The love of God in Jesus is the Father’s love for his creation. Jesus himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).”

Through faith the Spirit brings us to Jesus to see the love of the Father. It is this Spirit who brings the warmth of God’s love to our frigid world. And it is this Spirit who guides us to show the Father’s face through the Son by the Spirit’s power. We may wonder about the chaos, darkness, and evil in the world, but there is certainty and hope through Christ Jesus, the Son of God, whose warmth is the Father’s love.

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Abstract Image No. 6 (c. 1960-1961)
Ad Reinhardt

Christmas 2, Luke 2:40-52

Historical Description:

Ad Reinhardt (1913-67) was an Abstract painter from America. In his painting career he seemed to always avoid representation, but eventually moved completely away from external objects and painted primarily geometric shapes.

This painting and others in the series Abstract Images first appears to be nothing but a black canvas. But upon further inspection this painting is not black, but shows multiple shades of color and nine different squares. In painting it Reinhardt wanted to remove every hint of the artist, even every brushstroke is layered in so that no one stroke is identifiable. Through the painting and the shades of black Reinhardt questions if there is such a thing as an absolute.

Devotional Reflection:

If you were to walk through an art museum and see this painting or even see it up in someone’s house you might have a strong initial reaction, “That isn’t art!” You glance at this painting and all you see is a canvas painted black. Frustrated, you squint and try to take another look at it and then you start to see that it isn’t all the same black, but there are different shades of black that form squares. And still, after discovering the shades of black and the squares that the shades form, you are left wondering, “Is this really art? Because I could have painted that.”

Our text for today gives us a glimpse of Jesus doing what almost every kid does, asking questions. Jesus and the family go on their trip to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast. When the feast is over the whole extended family packs up the caravan and heads home. I imagine that scene in Home Alone where the whole family loads up the white cargo vans and heads to the airport. It isn’t until the whole family is out of Jerusalem that someone finally does a headcount and realizes that they are one small lad short.

Meanwhile, Jesus is just hanging out in Jerusalem… For three days! And while he is there he isn’t busy looking for candy stores or playing games with the other kids. No, Jesus is sitting in the temple hanging out with the teachers and asking them questions. And the teachers are amazed. Here is this kid who is certainly not old enough to have any schooling and who hasn’t studied under any Rabbis and he is asking some astonishing questions, he seems to be more than just an inquisitive child. Where does this simple kid get this stuff? And when his parents finally find him after searching for days, this kid simply said, “Why were you looking for me? Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And, even though they saw the angels and had multiple messages from God, they didn’t see it.

The family lived with Jesus and, though they had eyes to look on him, they never saw him. The teachers in the temple watched this little boy question, but were shocked at what they saw. Indeed, throughout Jesus’ life people will look at him and have a strong reaction, “That isn’t God!” How can a kid that gets left behind by his own family be that important?  Even today, people have questions when they see Jesus.

It is easy to take a quick look at a painting and write it off as simple and inartistic. It is also easy to look at Jesus and write him off as nothing but human. But he is more than human; he is God. Our text celebrates the fact that, even in the mundane and simple, Jesus is the Son of God.

What happens when you, who believe that Jesus is not simply human but God, keep looking at him? Keep looking at him and . . . more and more of his life will show through. The longer you look and study, the more you learn and love. If you stare at Abstract Painting No. 5 long enough you begin to see not only shades of black and squares, but also a cross that is formed in the center of the painting, a faint cross but a cross nonetheless. And if you look at young Jesus, you begin to see a faint cross. Because you know that for Jesus to show his full divinity he would have to live a beautiful life, die on a cross, and through blackness defeat death by rising again.

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The Promenades of Euclid (1955)
René Magritte

Easter 2, John 20:19-31

Historical Description:

René Magritte (1898-1967) was a surrealist painter from Belgium. Magritte was a resident of Belgium during the German occupation in World War II, during this time he supported himself by producing and selling fake Picassos, Braques, and Chiricos.

The Promenades of Euclid was painted in 1955 and has a regularly occurring image in Magritte’s paintings, a canvas on a canvas. At first glance the painting in the window seems to be a copy of the scenery behind, but, after some reflection, the viewer will realize that the artist may have painted an image to hide or edit reality.

Devotional Reflection:

Reality T.V.  The only shows that seem to be more outlandish are Science-Fiction. Ours is a society filled with images in movies and television. Images that show us what life is like or even what life could be like. But as a society we know those images, like scripted ‘reality’ T.V., aren’t always true. We know that many of these images are hiding something. So it is easy for us to be skeptical and harsh toward these things. It is easy to wonder if the director and the actors are being honest and upfront with us.

Consider this painting by René Magritte. As you study the painting, you may first be drawn to the twin peaks in the center of the window, but upon further inspection you realize that the second peak isn’t a peak at all, but a road that trails off into the distance. Your eyes are also drawn to the easel sitting in front of the window. As you look closer, you will notice the faint lines that form a canvas sitting in front of this city scape. The painting flows seamlessly with the city it depicts, every building and every window, even the leaves on the trees line up perfectly. But is it true?

Is this painting a real painting that the artist has given us to show a scene of beauty or is it a fake? Is it possible that some destruction has befallen this land or that some scar lies behind the easel? If only we could step to the left or the right we could see behind this painting and glimpse at reality, if only. But we can’t. We are stuck staring at what the artist wants us to see, wondering if it is truth or error. Knowing that so much of our society presents us with lies, we lean toward error.

Thomas struggled with the truth. Thomas had to see Jesus for himself; no mere story could prove it. Not only did he disbelieve the story of one disciple, he disbelieved all the disciples gathered in that locked room. Thomas questioned if their story was true, he would only believe if he also could see and touch the risen Lord. Eight days later, Thomas got his wish. Not only did he have the chance to see Jesus, but he was able to touch him; to put his very hand in the pierced side of the Savior. What an amazing gift to receive! In the midst of his cursed doubt, Thomas had a physical, real encounter with the one person who could wipe away his skepticism. Sometimes, we think how lucky we would be if only we could have been in that upper room, if only we could reach behind these stories and touch the living Jesus. And yet, “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

Even though Thomas saw and touched the risen Lord, Jesus spoke his word of blessing upon people like you and me. Those who have not seen and yet believe.  As we stare at this easel before the window, watching, wondering, waiting . . . Christ speaks to us:  “you are blessed, have faith.” Even though our perspective is blocked by a canvas, Jesus tells us that we are blessed. Even though we may struggle with skepticism toward the bible and the words of Christ, Jesus tells us that we are blessed. Even though we are cursed with that same doubt that plagued Thomas, even now we are blessed.  Today, Christ speaks to us and tells us a story of his love. Today, Christ’s words of grace speak into our lives and bring restoration and wholeness. Today, his words speak to our cursed perspective, our “not seeing,” and call us blessed and give us faith.

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Resurrection Morning (c. 2003)
James R. C. Martin
copyright 2011

Easter Sunrise, John 20:1-18

Historical Description:

James Martin is an artist from the United Kingdom. He paints a variety of subjects, and he has experimented with various portrayals of the biblical narrative. His few biblical pieces invite the viewer into a unique perspective: looking on with Lazarus’ sisters as he walks out of the tomb draped in grave cloths; entering into the presence of God with Hannah in humble prayer; and watching the meeting of Jesus & Mary on Easter morning from inside the empty tomb.

Devotional Reflection:

Evidence of death’s reign abounds. We see it globally in war, terror, natural disasters, and perpetual starvation. We see it happen quickly to loved ones taken by sudden illness, heart attack, or car accident. We see it happen slowly and tediously in dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. All around us are tangible, terrible, dreadful reminders of the agitation, imminence, and inevitability of death. But inevitable though it may be, we hate it. If we are honest, we know that the world looks so much better from outside of the grave. God created us to be fully human—fully alive—and we yearn for it to remain that way. After all, death puts us in a condition for which we were never created. To be inside the grave is evidence that we have been ripped apart, body from soul, even as we are torn from the ones we love. We know, deep in our bones, that we weren’t created for the tomb in which those very bones will one day be placed. But, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). And sin never misses a payment. It deals its deathly wages all the way to the grave. The grave is not a place we look forward to; it’s not a place we long to go. But until Christ returns, it is a place where we all will rest. It is evidence—grave evidence—that those two great enemies, sin & death, still reign.

And yet, into the grave is exactly where Christ goes. He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He who came to be fully human, chose to take into himself fully that which violates our humanity—sin. And that sin killed him. Upon himself, Christ took your anger, your malice, your gossip, your selfishness, your apathy, your arrogance, your sin. And it killed him. He received its wages, a reality tangibly confirmed as his body was taken from the cross and placed in a tomb. Christ goes into the grave, dead.

Of course, we know the rest of the story: he doesn’t stay there; he doesn’t stay dead. As the Lord of all creation and the victor over every enemy, he endured even death itself and came out the other side, alive. Into the grave, and out again. That is where Christ goes, and that is where he takes us.

Look at the moment depicted in this image, Resurrection Morning. In its perspective, the artist invites you inside the tomb of Jesus. But Christ is not dead. He is very much alive. So alive, in fact, that he has already made the journey back outside the grave to meet Mary Magdalene. The details are few: two silhouetted figures, grave cloths left behind, and steps leading outside of the tomb. Seeing her reaching out her arms in faith, we could imagine that the artist has depicted the moment when Mary realizes that it is Christ she sees and not just the gardener. In that moment, her eyes are opened, transformed to see the world now as a place where the reign of God and the defeat of death have truly come in Christ’s resurrection. But look again. The artist has depicted this scene in such a way that even as Mary realizes whose presence she is in, she also seems to be stepping out of the grave with Jesus. Christ is helping her up the steps and out of the tomb. She eagerly reaches for him in faith and he extends his hand to her, welcoming her into a world which has seen the firstfruits of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20). She exits the tomb with Christ; in faith she rises with him from death.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5). Into the grave and out again. In baptism, that is exactly where Christ takes us. We have entered the tomb, dead, buried with Christ. Our old Adam, sin and all, is drowned and killed. And because we are buried with the Lord of Life and the Victor of death, we are brought out of the grave with him, resurrected in the newness of life with eyes to see a world where death does not have the last word.

Such is the hope of the Christian. Such is our hope, as we celebrate resurrection life now, even as we long for our Lord’s return. On that Day God will finally and completely undo death, for he will “raise me and all the dead, and give to me and all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.”

 

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Trinity (2011)
Acrylic on Illustration Board
80 cm x 110 cm
Nathan Kurz, Munich Germany
copyright 2011

Trinity Sunday, Isaiah 6:1-8

Historical Description:  

Trinity was inspired by questions that have occupied me for some time: the ever-present suffering in the world; the question of God’s presence during such times; and the desire to reconcile such times with faith.

Though the questions seem eternal and have occupied generation after generation, the concept for the painting came in a moment—a picture in a local German newspaper of two male concentration camp survivors standing next to a Bavarian boy in German traditional clothing provided the vision for this walk of faith.

Nathan Kurz (brother of Miriam Kurz, Pr. Erick Kurz, and Pr. Joel Kurz of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, MO. and the son of Pr. Rudolph and Carol Kurz) lives and works in Germany together with his wife Marion and 3 children.  We thank him for his multi-faceted contribution to this project, weaving together art, poetry, and biblical reflection.

Devotional Reflection:  

Sometimes difficulty descends like a sudden summer storm.

The tempest takes its toll—and shaken, perhaps shattered, we search for meaning.

A string of personal and professional events has forced intensified reflection lately—one of the things I found myself returning to was the 23rd Psalm.

The peace and tranquility that the Psalm offers dominates our altar pieces and Sunday school lessons—yet the darker portion is often ignored.  For many, daily reality is not the peaceful pasture but the dark valley, filled with shadows, with memories that haunt and with fear that is hard to shake.

In art (as in life), the magnificence of light is revealed through the dark—and not in its absence.  Shadows are essential to complete the work—to shape, reflect and give meaning to the light.

A poem I wrote several years ago entitled “Heaven” touched on this point. “To touch the heights of heaven…we must fall…we must be broken…we must surrender…and become the prodigal…mired, desolate and alone, to grieve and hunger, till nothing is left but faith—and the hand of God.”

There is good reason for the Gospel message: “Do not be afraid.” Christ purposely and visually presents himself as “light in our darkness”—to lead us—this moment, this day, each day. This message is embedded in the very nature of creation, played out, as night gives way to day—as fear gives way to hope.

Trinity”, a painting from 2011, inspired by a Dietrich Bonhoeffer seminar earlier that year, focuses on the presence of Christ in our lives—specifically in dark and difficult times.

A bald and beaten Christ—perhaps ten years old—takes his place in the center of our circumstance. The “distant” and powerful king from Isaiah’s vision…is here—lowly and suffering in our midst. This boy, this innocence, this power, this hope is Emmanuel—God with us.

The two other figures, a man and a woman in prison clothing, stand against an unsettling orange background. Mary, Joseph. (You? Me?). They wear the scars of their earthly journey, vision and hope obscured by life itself.

And the Christ child?

He stands in their midst—bearing the scars of His earthy experience. This is the holy family—where Jesus dwells.  This is the trinity.

The tree of life/death anchors the piece and is central to the work of the carpenter—purpose and patience essential for the beauty of finished work.

A triangle provides an inner frame—joining humanity to the divine. In Christianity, the triangle marked the mystery of the trinity. In history, the triangle, in various combinations and colors, has marked the “unwanted” and the “non-human”. The divine trinity and the earthly one stand in stark contrast. While divine mysteries and purpose may remain hidden, Christ steps out of our bitter and broken trinity, His gaze set, penetrating and clear.

He knows where He is leading as night gives way to day.

If we are willing to accept any truth that the 23rd Psalm might offer, let us accept following:  the intentions of the shepherd are good; His role (and desire) is to lead. Our task is to follow—and to trust.

Following may involve prolonged periods over dry and dusty ground or very real and personal pain. The path may be hidden, the destination unclear—yet we must remember that we are being led—and our journey has a reason.

“Trinity” was accompanied by the following Bonhoeffer poem (my translation):

            Tag (Day)

This day is the border of our worries and efforts…

this day is long enough to hurt or to heal…

to preserve faith or fall into shame…

to find or lose God…

in the history of the world there is only one important moment—this day.

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The Death of the First Born (1872)
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
public domain

Proper 20, James 3:13-4:10

Historical Description:

Though it is known for its extensive Rembrandt collection, the Rijks Museum of Amsterdam is also the home of one of the most famous works of Laurens Alma Tadema. The work is entitled, “Death of the Firstborn” (1872), which earned Tadema numerous awards and widespread recognition in his day.

Tadema had a passion for the ancient Egyptian world. In “Death of the Firstborn,” he set out to portray a historically accurate scene from the Exodus event, rich with detailed artifacts from the period. Yet through these details, he also endeavored to depict vividly one of the most horrific, heart-wrenching moments in the scriptures.

Devotional Reflection:

Gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh. That vacant stare is hardly watching mourners and musicians surrounding him. Tonight, those eyes recount the days that have passed him by. Days of joy. Days of laughter. Days he haughtily believed he was the untouchable god of Egypt.

Gaze into those eyes. These are eyes that remember the wonders of Yahweh — water turned to blood, frogs, boils, hail, darkness — yet, time and time again, these are eyes that had merely scoffed at the will of this “God of Israel.”

Yet now, as Pharaoh holds his lifeless son in his arms, he realizes his son was not the only thing stricken down tonight. Along with his firstborn, so also died his pride. He may be the god of Egypt, but tonight he was powerless. No power he possesses, no magical words, no heartfelt prayer could ever bring his son back to life.

But gaze into those eyes again. Something was interrupting the wails and songs of lament. He hears something just over his left shoulder. Notice Moses and Aaron that are peering into the scene in the upper right corner.

Perhaps tonight was the night. His eyes had seen enough. His pride was dead. Perhaps now was the moment to surrender his pride to the will of Yahweh.

As we turn to today’s text, we now gaze into the eyes of James. In his world, James sees a timeless truth of human nature: pride. He sees fellow Christians quarreling and fighting, all because of their prideful inner passions. They choose their own desires over their neighbor’s. They choose their own desires over God’s. Just like Pharaoh, they have fallen victim to the sin of pride.

Yet, true to his style, James spares no words for these prideful Christians. God opposes the proud (4:6). Like Pharaoh, their ill-founded laughter and joy is spiraling into a pit of mourning and gloom. Not only will their sin be judged by God, but even now it’s darkening their relationships with those around them.

The timeless truth of human pride certainly persists in our world, too. Just take a look around. Everywhere, we see people so caught up with their own desires that they easily forget their neighbor and their God. We see it everywhere, even in our own hearts.

As we gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh, we may marvel at how such a man could have  resisted Yahweh again and again, plague after plague. But as we gaze into our own hearts, we understand. That our life, again and again. And, like Pharaoh, our pride only leads us to gloom and mourning over our sin. James must be right. Pride only leads to a world of despair.

So where to from here? What can bring us out of our gloom? What can bring us from our mourning? Can anything interrupt our wailing and tears?

Gaze again into the eyes of Pharaoh, but this time, look at him as a different kind of father. One who mourned the death of his only son. One who tragically sat by a mother overcome with grief. One who in his arms held his lifeless son, slaughtered by the sin of human pride. (Notice how Tadema even portrays the lifeless son in a strikingly Christ-like pose.) Yet this son was being held by a different kind of father. This father could turn around the mourning and gloom. This father could bring this son back to life.

He could, and he did. Gaze into those eyes, and you see the eyes of our Heavenly Father. They are eyes that have seen our prideful sin. They have seen us in our gloom and despair. Yet interrupting our night of mourning, today those same eyes look upon us with grace.

Through Christ, God turns our gloom to joy. He turns our mourning to laughter. Through Christ, God resurrects us from our pride, and brings us into a whole new kind life. It’s a life of humility. It’s a life of purified hearts. It’s a life of being carried by a loving, forgiving Heavenly Father.

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