Thursday, 30 March 2017

Whose?

This week at AFC we are looking at the Sieger Koder painting entitled: ‘Whose?’

It’s an intriguing interpretation of the gospel incident when we are told in John 19: They took Jesus’ clothing and divided it into four shares.

There seems to be something of a scrum in the painting as Jesus’ garment is tugged and fought over.

It's as if everyone wants a bit of Jesus, which I suppose in one way is fine.  However, that all too quickly becomes a problem when we start thinking that Jesus ‘belongs’ exclusively to us: to my tradition, to my understanding, my theology and my lifestyle.

So Koder has provocatively painted religious leaders and possibly a freedom fighter as the ones who have a tug of war over Jesus’ shirt. 

I guess it’s the easiest – and in some ways laziest – thing in the world to make God in our own image.  It’s like pulling on Jesus’ garment and saying ‘I’ve got him’!

Well, isn’t Jesus actually bigger than that?  The Cosmic Christ is free and not bound by us or our conventions or expectations, in fact he continually exceeds these.  That’s because God is surely to be found anywhere and everywhere, in surprising people and places, both inside and outside the Church. 

If dividing his garment is simply about ‘owning’ Jesus – it won’t be the most important thing any of us could do this coming Easter!

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Sic Transit

‘Sic transit’ was the title of a brilliant talk given by Tom Shakespeare on Radio 4’s Point of View programme last Sunday.  It’s part of the longer Latin phrase, ‘sic transit Gloria mundi’, meaning: Thus passes the glory of the world.

Point of View occupies the one time slot of my all-time favourite radio programme, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and is really a well-argued and consistently interesting ‘secular’ sermon, and Tom Shakespeare’s offering last week was no exception.

He reflected on the word ‘nostalgia’ with its Latin roots of ‘nostos’ meaning return and ‘algos’ meaning suffering – so the word implies that any attempt to return to the past inevitably brings us suffering or disappointment.

Tom Shakespeare told us listeners that the ‘bad times don’t last but neither do the good ones either’!  Well I suppose that’s true in that most things we go through, whether they are highs or lows, are time limited.  Apparently, the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, put it rather more eloquently when he said: You can’t stand in the same river twice.  In other words, change really does govern the universe and it’s simply impossible to return to yesterday, so it's much better to accept today is the nostalgia we’ll be talking about tomorrow!

I suppose I’m reflecting on that a bit because although I left theological college and was ordained thirty years ago this June I still meet up (as I have done twice this month) with good friends from three decades ago.  And in a sense, I love standing in the same river twice!  OK, so it’s not the same water flowing by, yet these encounters do, in a way, put me in touch with my former self and I find it tremendously reaffirming and reassuring that the friendships and ideas that inspired and challenged the young me still have a certain potency over the middle age version which is the current me!

Yet, it also has to be acknowledged that neither I, nor my friends, are the same people we were when studying together in South London all those years ago.  We have been moulded and fashioned by all that water which has flowed along our rivers of life.

Ecclesiastes, in the Jewish Scriptures, says: There is a time for everything under heaven and we need to live in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ conscious that the God who thrilled and inspired us in our ‘salad days’ is still able to do a ‘new thing’ among us and through us in 2017.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Twenty-four eyes

'Face to Face' by Seiger Koder
The second Sieger Koder painting currently hanging in our ‘Art Corridor’ at Amersham Free Church is one he entitled Face to Face.

During World War II Koder served as a soldier before being taken prisoner in France.  After the war, he trained as both a silversmith and painter.  He was a ‘multi-faceted’ priest!

This particular collection, from which today’s painting is taken, is entitled ‘The Folly of God’ and we are left in no doubt that those gathering around Jesus are sneering at him.

We only get partial images of those in the scene and, of course, Jesus isn’t painted at all because it’s as if we are looking out at the crowd through his eyes.

We glimpse a Roman soldier about to hammer in the nails – a truly gruesome moment.

Already the day has gone dark as through the circle made by the onlookers we see an eclipsed sun.

I counted eleven people looking on plus, surprisingly, one bull!; a total of twenty four pairs of eyes.  Although in actual fact at least one observer seems so overcome by the brutality of crucifixion that they cover theirs.

Koder has given us faces of intrigue, curiosity, horror and maybe indifference.  One character also seems to be giving a ‘thumbs up’.

What are we to make of this painting, what message lurks behind its fascinating composition?

I think for me it’s got something to do with the futility of having a dependant longing for the constant approval of others.  Of course, that may come our way at times, yet there will also be moments when integrity matters more than approval – and we in the Church often need to be aware of that.

We are called, from time to time, to live ‘counter culturally’ and that may mean others sneer at us. 

Whenever that happens perhaps we can find strength in knowing our Lord experienced that reaction too.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The things we do with our hands...!!!

'Surrender' by Sieger Koder
At Amersham Free Church during Lent 2017 we are looking at some of the paintings of Father Sieger Koder, a German Roman Catholic Priest/Artist who died in February 2015 just after his 90th birthday.  He liked to describe himself as a ‘Preacher with Images’.

Three characters from Holy Week are in today’s painting, Pilate, Caiaphas and Jesus.

I think we communicate a great deal with our hands; I noticed in Venice recently that Italians appear almost unable to speak without moving them.

In Koder’s painting Pilate is washing his hands and Caiaphas, the High Priest, is hugging the Torah.  They are busy – possibly busy doing the wrong things.

Pilate’s handwashing is surely his way of clinging onto power because in getting rid of Jesus he keeps his job.

Caiaphas’ hugging is probably a way of clinging on to tradition because in ignoring Jesus he keeps his holy book free of any different interpretation from his own.

What they both share, in being busy with their hands, is that neither of them seems to be actually SEEING who is before them.

They look above and through Jesus, virtually ignoring his presence.

For his part Jesus seems resigned to their indifference and maybe this is why Sieger Koder entitled this painting ‘Surrendered’.

Are we, I wonder, so busy with our hands that we too fail to see who or what is really before us and merits our attention?

Today’s painting calls us to notice the Jesus, the friend, the family member or the stranger who is before us and to stop what we are doing with our hands and give attention to both God and one another.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Lent begins...

Christ in The Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi
As Lent begins we travel once more with Jesus into the Wilderness and that’s what this painting by the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi depicts.

Kramskoi was self-taught and went to the Crimea to feel what it might be like living in a deserted mountainous region.  His painting now hangs in Moscow.

Originally he painted it without the background.  It shows Jesus marooned in the Judean Desert immediately after his baptism.  This was a Spirit led moment as Jesus contemplates the future and makes choices about the present.  It was painted in 1872 but it shows a timeless dilemma – how do we use our power, our choices and our lives for God and for neighbour?  How do we live the values of The Kingdom of God in our everyday routines?

Often when battling with these issues it feels as if they stubbornly remain unresolved. That’s why I’m glad that Kramskoi eventually changed his mind and added the background.

That’s because the light is breaking on the far horizon.  Against the desolation of the hard rock plateau that was the Judean Wilderness there is a gentle hint of dawn, of warmth, of the sun piercing the night and bringing the fresh prospect of a new day.

Faith is about believing, living and longing for God’s light to pierce our darkness.

Perhaps, for me at least, that feels like a fresh thought this Lent.

I’m so used to thinking of light as a theme for Advent and Christmas – yet Kramskoi’s painting and Isaiah’s words remind me at the start of our long Lent journey this year that the choices we make in the desert, in the darkness, are then to be lived through in the light of God’s love once we have come down from that wilderness plateau.

Of course Kramskoi’s painting isn’t bathed in brilliant sunshine – there is just a hint of dawn and maybe light in Lent is essentially to be viewed in terms of longing.

On Good Friday there was darkness in the middle of the day for three hours.  Whether that’s a poetic or actual description the point is we all know the reality of the dark night of the soul. Yet we long for the dawn of Easter Day.

In fact, we learn again and again as we go through life that dawn follows night and light pierces gloom.

Yet often we are called to wait – to linger in the night even as we long for this dawn.  And to make that journey not with despair but with patience and hope – believing in the light, even when it is dark.

Can we hang on to the thrilling conviction that we are not moving towards the darkness but travelling towards the light? That, I think, for me is a goal for this Lent.

So Kramskoi paints a Jesus alone in the desert yet dawn about to break in the background.

The hymn writer puts it like this - Longing for light – we wait in darkness.

May we all 'travel well' through this year's Lent. 

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