Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Where Are the Cartoons?

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Jonah 3:1-5,10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

I can’t hear these scripture readings today without imagining how they might look as cartoons in The New Yorker.

Jonah would be sulking as he obeys God’s order to summon to repentance the people of great urban Nineveh (the New York City of its day). There’s a particular cartoonist I have in mind. He would make Jonah squat and stout, a protest sign over his shoulder with “REPENT!” in bold letters—I’m betting the cartoonist would make those Hebrew letters, knowing that Jonah had no intention of making it easy for these pagan Assyrians to escape divine judgment. Jonah is sulking because of what God has directed him to say, words that Jonah was eager to see come true—“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”—but to be shouting them as a warning that Israel’s adversaries might heed and change their ways and remain the annoyingly greatest city of that time, to have become an agent of Nineveh’s brighter future… that would really have frosted Jonah.

That’s one cartoon. The next one I can’t see yet, but surely someone in that talented department would know what to do with St. Paul’s peculiar words—peculiar, at least, these 20 centuries after they were spoken—“The appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (You know, I could swear we never heard this passage when we were using the Prayer Book table of Sunday readings; but now that we follow the new Revised Common Lectionary, we’re hearing some fresh language!) St. Paul’s outburst sounds like the Gospel of Click and Clack, the Car Talk brothers, whose lives came to grief when they married and acquired mothers-in-law.

And if there’s a third cartoon to be had out of our Gospel from Mark, I imagine it focusing on old Zebedee, father of the suddenly-missing fishermen James and John. “Where ARE those boys? They were here just a minute ago…” Perhaps he would be shown grumbling something like, “Must be that Occupy Galilee movement…”

I don’t mean to diminish the message today, when I imagine rendering these readings in less-serious ways. Cartoons are highly effective vehicles for revealing meanings and messages.

At St. Luke’s, Worcester, where I served before coming here, there are two stained glass windows in the church. One is located just to the right of the preacher in the pulpit. It is full of cartoons, drawn by Al Banx, former cartooner for Yankee Magazine. He taught Sunday School at St. Luke’s, and there are his drawings of all the stories unique to Luke’s Gospel. The Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and more. And there they were. If the preacher proved dry that day, your eyes had only to shift left and you’d be in the Funnies.

Cartoons invite us to cross from one side of our brain to the other. They spark our own imagination. And they tap the deep well of humor that can free people to consider life in a fresh way, uniting them in a moment of laughter.

Laughter is often what I hear in the background when scripture is read aloud. Sometimes, laughter takes us right to the heart of what Jesus means, right to the edge of what the Spirit of God has for us… and wants of us. You might call this the Norman Cousins approach to scriptural hermeneutics.

Applying this to today’s readings yields mixed results. There’s no question that as the Book of Jonah spins out the huge fish story of Jonah, someone’s tongue is in his cheek. This is pure unalloyed yarn-spinning—but purposeful. One purpose is to poke fun at the tribal instinct and xenophobic biases of human beings who are geographic neighbors on planet earth, but act as if they aren’t and shouldn’t be. And the greater purpose of this little book in the Hebrew Bible is to bear witness to the universal mercy and grace of God. The Book of Jonah presents a Deity Without Borders. And if its author gets us chuckling at ourselves (that we can be as narrow-minded and self-willed as Jonah), he’s doing that to persuade us to do some reappraisal of our own theology and ask if it’s broad-minded enough to represent the heart and will of God. The spirit of this little book is much like that old hymn: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind…”

Is anyone chuckling in the background of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians? Not so much, no. His puzzling words seem to devalue the marital bond and contradict our priorities. But priorities—establishing and honoring faithful priorities—is a central theme in Paul’s correspondence with the Church at Corinth. In today’s brief portion, he unsettles every form of settling that church leaders might be tempted to treat with priority. “For the present form of this world is passing away,” he declares.

Therefore, travel light, he urges. Find and use your freedom to follow and obey the Holy Spirit, whatever may be asked of you. Let nothing tie you down or tie you up, nothing—not your marital status (whatever it is), your emotional state (whatever that may be), your daily work (whatever it is), your possessions (whatever they are or are not), or your dealings with the world (whatever they are)—let none of these distract you from your highest and deepest allegiance to the Spirit of God.

Paul does not say, “So get rid of all those lesser allegiances.” In the chapters around our little portion today, he says clearly, “I don’t want your many allegiances to make you anxious. I don’t want you worrying. Use your present circumstances, whatever they are, to glorify God. In his own words, “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” And, arching over all his words like a rainbow, is his proclaiming of good news: “Remember that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God. You are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” In your present circumstances, your present condition.

This is not the stuff of laughter. But it is the stuff of fulfillment and joy.

Paul’s pastoral advice is that we should bloom where we’re planted. This makes eminent sense in a religion that starts among fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Yes, Jesus calls them away from their boats, but he casts their higher calling in terms of their day jobs. “Follow me, fisherman Simon and fisherman Andrew, and I’ll make you fish… (and the pause here is important)… for people!”

That, by the way, is for me a laugh-aloud moment in the reading of that Gospel. Can’t you picture Simon and Andrew at least snorting a chuckle at Jesus’s promise? Surprise can do that to a fellow. “What? You see us doing what? You’re kidding, right?”

In another story, Jesus does something very similar. When he calls Matthew, he goes right to the tax accountant’s desk and couches his call in the imagery of his prospect’s day job: “Follow me, and I’ll make you account… for the boundless generosity of God!” Now, I know I’ve taken some liberties in retelling that moment, but something like that happened, and can’t you hear laughter igniting within earshot as Matthew’s friends and foes find their own reasons to picture it hard to imagine a tax man as an apostle? Even more unlikely than expecting a fisherman to become an ambassador.

How did you first hear him call you? How might he call you now… to bloom where you’re planted, to glorify God in your present circumstances… and to laugh at the surprises that come in company with the Christ who works extraordinary results when the ordinary is honored and fulfilled.