Monthly Archives: October 2014

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sermon preached by Nils Chittenden for St Joseph’s Episcopal Church/Episcopal Center at Duke

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Even though I have lived in the States for almost five years now, my go-to source for news and current affairs remains the dear old BBC. I value its objectivity, its relative gravitas and the familiarity it brings to an ex-pat.

Obviously, the BBC needs to move with the times, and reflect the contemporary context, but I have to confess that my heart sank just a tiny bit when I saw an article the other day entitled ‘Six Reasons Why the Indian Rupee is in Freefall’.

Six Reasons why the Indian Rupee is in Freefall?
What is this? Is the BBC Buzzfeed now?

Well, this is the way things are going, you know. Part of the success of Buzzfeed is that it serves up these bite-sized chunks – we feel more in control of the prodigious amounts of information if we quantify it. ‘Six reasons why…. whatever’ gives us back a feeling of control, of manageability, of our time being corralled into discrete little packages, where we are spoon-fed stuff without us having to expend a whole ton of mental energy in the process.

You see, although my heart did sink a little when I saw the BBC going down this road, I am quite happy to waste far too much time on Buzzfeed as well. And I actually do have sympathy for us wanting to be spoon-fed our news and current affairs, because the amount of information, media, choices…. STUFF…. is such an overwhelming flood that it contributes to us feeling deeply unsettled, if truth be known.

Although the ‘Six Reasons How Numbered Lists Can Make Your Life Easier’ stories are apparently a new phenomenon, they’ve actually been going from time immemorial. Let’s not forget that a prominent celebrity once came down from a mountain in the east of present-day Egypt, with an article entitled ‘Ten Ways You Should Be Nice to Everyone and Keep the Wrath of God at Bay’. Continue reading

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost — Dr. David Walbert

Matthew 21:33–46
Isaiah 5:1–7
See also Mk. 12:1-12, Lk. 20:9-19

One afternoon last week I spent a little time at the Durham Arts Council, walking through the galleries, looking at the exhibitions of work by local artists. The great thing about the Arts Council galleries is that I never know what I’m going to get. It’s completely unpredictable. It could be photography or landscape painting, but it could be abstract sculpture or “fiber architecture” or (as it once was) hats. And it’s all completely new. There’s nothing familiar about any of it — no artist whose biography I recall from some class I took back in the late twentieth century, no named period whose history I can mentally outline. I don’t have any easy context for the art, no prefab intellectual framework into which I can place it. I’m always surprised. And so I just have to stand there awhile and… look at it.

Unless… I make the mistake of reading the artists’ statements. For those of you who don’t frequent art galleries, an artist’s statement is what an artist writes to explain and to justify his or her work, generally as a requirement for getting a grant or arranging a show. They have a reputation for being pretentious, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Ideally they function as a kind of introduction to the art, making it more easily accessible — but in a way, that might be worse. Because if you read it, then suddenly, without any effort at all, you know what the art is supposed to be about. You’re absolved of the necessity of looking at the art, and this fascinating mystery the artist has created for you has been turned instead into a mere puzzle — to which you, now, have the solution!

And for me… The entire experience of looking at the art has been spoiled.

It isn’t that I don’t care what the artist had in mind… It’s rather that I’m inclined to think that whatever I gain from simply being with the art, from truly looking for a little while, even if I walk away with no understanding I could articulate to anyone, outweighs any answers I might be given for free, and that the possibility of that experience vanishes the moment I turn the mystery of a work of art into a puzzle and start looking for solutions.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking this opportunity to confess my antipathy toward artists’ statements, bear with me.

You see, I find myself drawn to the very first thing Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “Listen to another parable.” That’s all. It doesn’t seem like much. But as far as I can tell, nobody in the story actually does listen — either in Matthew’s story or in the parable itself! In the parable, of course, the landowner sends servants to collect fruit from his tenants, and then he sends his own son, and every time the tenants pretty much literally shoot the messenger. (Or, well, stone him, anyway.) Not much listening going on there. The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking, meanwhile, seem intent mainly on figuring out who he’s pointing his finger at. When they “perceive that he was speaking about them,” as Matthew says, they decide to have him arrested — though not immediately, because the crowd, having just seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is too busy shouting Hosanna and proclaiming him king to listen long enough to know just what sort of king they’re welcoming. Nobody’s just listening. Everybody, on both levels of the story, is trying to figure out what this guy’s angle is. What are you up to? What do you want from me? or— What’s in it for me? Continue reading