Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted[g] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

The red carpet is set to be rolled out, the statuettes are being polished one last time, and your are wrestling with a number of questions, like ‘should I bother watching?’

I can’t answer that question, but I can answer several film related questions that fill the mind and make it difficult to sleep. For example, in Frank Sinatra’s version of Oceans 11 (1960) crime doesn’t pay, but in George Clooney’s version (2001) suddenly crime pays. Why is that? It’s the Hays Code.

Or Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s film Notorious (1946), kissing for two-and-a-half minutes, but never locking lips for more than three seconds? The Hays Code.

And what happened to Betty Boop? Carefree and dressed like a Jazz-age flapper, then suddenly a career woman with a suitable dress, and a boyfriend named Freddie. That would be the Hays Code.

Now, the Hays Code, or more formally the Motion Picture Production Code was in force from the mid-30’s to the mid-60’s and some of the provisions are quite sensible. For example, it was forbidden to ridicule the clergy. So far so good. Or not allowing crime to pay, which forced screenwriters come up with more imaginative endings, like 1969’s The Italian Job (not the abomination made in 2003). Or by furthering the delightful stork and baby myth, since married couples were required to sleep in twin beds.

On the harmful side, it banned any suggestion that blacks and whites might have a romantic relationship, it banned any depiction of a foreign country that might cause offense (hence the rise of Hitler was largely ignored by Hollywood) and then there is poor Betty Boop, who went from saucy to staid overnight.

But before that happened, she starred in the first animated version of Snow White (1933), still in her Jazz-age attire, with an evil queen who looks suspiciously like Olive Oyl, and Cab Calloway’s soundtrack that includes “The St. James Infirmary Blues.”

Now, without giving away the entire plot of a seven minute cartoon, I can tell you that the evil queen’s guard is tempted by Snow White and searches for her, set to a song that became synonymous with temptation. And that’s why we heard it today.

The St. James Infirmary Blues is a very old folk song, made and remade since it was first written, likely in the 1700’s. It was written as a cautionary tale for young people facing the temptations of an adult world, and has been transcribed for sailors, cowboys and young woman like Betty Boop. The temptation changes (cards, gin, and whatever sailors do) but the outcome remains the same: a young person cut down in their prime.

Notice that in our temptation story this morning, found in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is not cut down in his prime, at least not yet. In fact, that’s about all you might notice about Mark’s temptation story, because our evangelist-in-a-hurry gives us no real details at all. Instead we get one-and-a-half verses of not much that reads like this: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” (12-13a)

That’s it? Remembering that Mark writes first and is part of the source material for Matthew and Luke, it becomes even more puzzling the way no detail gives way to the most elaborate duel between Jesus and Satan, a duel that includes bread from stone, the threat of great harm and the offer of earthly power. And these are all fine and good and worthy of our time, but Mark says nothing.

So what do we do with a temptation story that includes no temptation? Might we be tempted to fill in the blanks? Matthew and Luke more than make up for this economy of words, but they hardly give us 40 days and 40 nights of temptation in any case. So where’s the rest? And what if the temptation of Christ were something less than world-domination and magically turning bread to stone? What if it was something closer to cards and gin?

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was burdened with the label “friend of sinners.” Listen to just a small sample:

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mt 9.11)

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." (Lk 15.2)

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. (Lk 5.29)

[Then Jesus said] “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Lk 7.34)

If the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were to tell the story, they might point to the things sailors and cowboys do, all the while suggesting that Jesus is little more than a cautionary tale. They might fill in the blanks of Jesus’ time in the wilderness to portray him as the person they saw—given to temptation and befriending the worst sort of people. And they might even suggest he would come to no good.

The great irony is that Jesus gave into the temptation decried by the religious ones—eating and drinking with sinners—and for this he was cut down in his prime. He took God’s great love for all people to the very people considered hardest to love, and that’s good news for you and me. Amen.


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