October 18, 2015 Pentecost 21 – A Cliche by any other Name . . .

They say that art imitates life. They do say that but then again they say a lot of things. They say that a stitch in time saves nine. They say that all’s well that ends well. They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Except when I was growing up you could judge a book by its cover. I read a lot of science fiction and one of the ways you could tell whether or not the book was worth reading was whether or not the publisher hired a competent artist to paint the cover picture.

So apparently “they” whoever they are, don’t know everything.

I know I am taking that one too literally, to a-historically, but even so, common wisdom is often dated, often wrong, often just a bit off.

So when they say art imitates life, I have to think that we probably ought to say art used to imitate life. Painters used to paint what actually happened. Often they painted the beautiful scenes but there were always a handful of artists who tackled the horrors of war or the depravity of humanity’s baser instincts. Caravaggio and Raphael are both considered renaissance painters but one painted the pastoral landscapes of Christ’s life while the other painted Thomas sticking his finger into the side of the Lord.

But nowadays it seems like so much of the media, I think calling it art might be overstating it a little, but the books and the movies that we are being sold these days are painting a picture for us. I’m not at all certain that the picture they are painting is imitating life.

Think about the heroes of our movies and books. Think of all of the heroes. Marvel Comics has been digging for decades now and has apparently found a deep underground pocket of cold hard cash in making superhero movies, one after the other, from the iconic Iron Man to the often overlooked Antman to the not overlooked enough Guardians of the Galaxy, they have been painting a picture of the world for us, a world of heroism and bravery and spandex.

But I think it shocked the sensibilities of a lot of people when one of the hero characters in the latest Avengers movie actually died. Heroes don’t die in our cultural paintings. Harry Potter died for about twenty minutes, twenty long and boring minutes in the movie as I recall but all the while you knew that he wasn’t really dead, he was still talking to Dumbledore.

Heroes always make fantastic getaways or achieve magnificent rescues of each other or survive despite being the only person standing on a planet while it is exploding in a solar system that is imploding which is in a galaxy that is on fire.

One of the things that I have appreciated about the Avengers movies, to be frank, is that occasionally the characters bleed, even the demigod Thor.

We like happy endings, and uncomplicated middles and sunny beginnings apparently.

Which isn’t so much art imitating life, as it is art imagining something else; imagining a life where other people bleed for us, where they risk it all on our behalf, where the special people are the ones who can save the day while we can huddle somewhere until they are done.

I think it is painting a picture of us that is none too flattering. The villains portrayed are far beyond the struggles of mortal men and so we need heroes to save us. If you want to see a movie about a family trying to get by in the real world, well then you have to go to an art house theater like the one down the road on Summerfield.

The superhero movies make a ton of money; stories about regular people triumphing over degradation and despair not so much. Sure, the new spy movie from Steven Spielberg tells the dramatic story of a real life man trying to do something extremely difficult and overcoming long odds, but it needed Spielberg to make it for anybody to hear about it. Anything Spielberg makes will probably do okay while Age of Ultron has made over a billion dollars worldwide.

It is natural for us to idealize the future. Our leaders do it all the time, placing their faith in innovation or scientific discovery to bail us out of the decisions we make today. It’s nice because there doesn’t even have to be any evidence for it, it just sounds positive and hopeful and that’s what politicians like to sound like.

We want the future to be okay, for that to just happen because, you know, progress and stuff, things just get better, right?

But as the ELCA has been trying to remind us from time to time, it is God’s work to be sure, but it is our hands on the wheel, so to speak. Our hands are the ones who must come to the rescue. Our hands are the ones who must build a more blessed tomorrow. Ours is the future, not some savior’s, not some rescuer.

Even Jesus doesn’t come to make your tomorrow perfect unless you consider tomorrow to be the day after you die. That day is secure indeed but between now and then there are many other days and Jesus is not just going to swoop down from heaven like Iron Man and rescue you from everything you manage to get yourself into. A) The beard is too long to fit inside the mask and b) that’s not how this story is told.

James and John, it would seem, have started painting a picture for themselves, the picture of a triumphant victory being won by Jesus and of how things will settle out in the wake of that kind of thing, where each of them will be seated on the massive throne of triumph once Christ is King.

They seem to have missed the fact that this scripture this morning comes right after the third prediction of Jesus death the Lord has made as he and the disciples make their way to Jerusalem. They are painting the Marvel Comics version, while Jesus is telling a different story.

I think we all think that if it ever came down to it that we’d do the right thing, that we’d step up and answer the call. I think that there was once a time in this country when you could probably say that most people would have answered the call, did answer the call and shipped off to Europe or to Asia because that was what you did.

I don’t think anyone thought that they’d be a hero. Art imitated life a little more back then. We made movies like Mrs. Miniver and The Magnificent Ambersons and when we made hero movies it was America that was the hero.

Nowadays I don’t see people lining up the way they did back then. Of course nowadays they have a choice and I’m sure that changes things. But still I think most of us would like to think that if push ever came to shove, that we’d stand up and save the day.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Freedom changes you. Choice makes you think about things a little too hard, makes you consider all of the options in a way that duty does not.

The disciples, James and john in particular but everybody gets their chance in Mark’s narrative of Jesus heading toward Jerusalem; they miss out on the “Handed over to the priests and scribes” part and focus in on the triumph part because that doesn’t ask anything of them. They will sit at the hand of Christ in his triumph and all they have to do is believe that he is the Christ.

They call that cheap grace; the notion that you get all of the blessings of the Body of Christ without any holes in your hands. James and John even go so far as to say that they can drink of the up the Jesus drinks without remembering that he told them about that cup when he said he would be handed over to death and that His baptism was taking on the sin of the world and having it put to death in His flesh.

Their eyes were filled with the stars of a thousand pictures or triumph and of glory, the rocky path and the cross off somewhere in the distance.

The thing is, we are His children.  We are the inheritors of His Kingdom and all that goes with it and from looking around just a little, I can see very few thrones.

James and John were also His heirs after a fashion, the first to hear Him speak and the first to follow on His path they were the ones who would remain once His end had been accomplished.

How was it that they never noticed how much work it was? Speaking the word, carrying the message to the far corners of the world. Miles and miles on dusty roads seem to have made no impression because their attention was fixed on the pictures they were painting in their heads.

Jesus tears through the canvas and reminds them all ,not just the two biggest offenders, that if there is nothing else that they take away from His time with them it should be this: It is not so much about you who have heard, as it is about they who have not.

Jesus is not going to the cross for his own sake but for the sake of others. The little child he brought into their midst is the least of creatures and yet worthy of the love of God in the Kingdom come near. Last week the young man came to learn that every effort to achieve the kingdom was in vain, and that trusting in the ministry that Jesus brought them into was hard to manage and yet still essential for a disciple of Christ.

Jesus reminds them that it is not they who sit at the center of the narrative and so they should stop painting pictures with themselves in the center. At the center of it all is Christ and His love for us all, God’s love for us all demonstrated in Christ and even that is not a painting of majesty. It is a painting of loving service, of giving because it is good and not because it is profitable, of loving because it is beneficial and builds the Body of Christ and not greedily or selfishly.

But mostly He reminds them and us that it is in relationship with others, it is in relationships where the other is important and treasured that the hand of God is seen, where the throne is set aside for the final day and the servant of all is Lord and master.

In other places, He says, they love to be the ones on the throne, the hero of the movie but not because they want to rescue anyone, they just like being up on the throne. Not so with us. Our way is to lift others up, to make others whole as we have been made whole so that in the halls of heaven, rejoicing can be heard and on earth, every voice can be lifted in songs of praise.

Art imitates life. Jesus transforms it.


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