~ Psalm 55:1-8/James 1:2-4, 12 ~
In the genre of “Christian” movies, it’s probably the best of them all. Of course, it wasn’t produced to be a Christian movie. The Coen brothers would never think in such terms. After all, they’ve made some decidedly not “Christian” movies, such as Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski (although that one has some interesting metaphysical themes), and No Country for Old Men. But to me and many others, O Brother, Where Art Thou? deals with the crucial Christian themes of guilt and forgiveness, faith and skepticism, good and evil as well as, or may I say, better than, any overtly “Christian” movie.
And then there’s the fact that it is based on that ancient Greek mythological story, Homer’s Odyssey, (although quite loosely); again, decidedly not a Christian story. More about that later. Yet the Coen brothers decided to set their story in the rural Mississippi in the depression of the 1930s. And thus, Christian religious sentiments ooze out everywhere. And most poignantly in the music. So, today’s Music for the Soul, featuring the Noe Valley Ministry Choir under the direction of Kelly Savage with our guest musicians, Alisa Rose and Daniel Fabricant brings us the wonderful songs of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
One of the running themes of the movie, especially in the music, is the notion that life is hard, real hard, and someday we hope to find relief in heaven. Maybe we’ll be able to “fly away” to heaven and be awarded our promised crown.
Scripture Reading: Psalm 55:1-8
In that light, our first scripture reading is one of the hopeful sources for such thinking. Reading from Psalm 55:1-8
Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication. Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me. My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”
Sermon, Part 1 “The Coen Brothers and Homer”
The movie is based on Homer’s “Odyssey” with some obvious parallels. George Clooney’s leading character is called Ulysses Everett McGill; he and his companions Pete and Delmar escape from a Southern prison farm and begin a peculiar journey. Like Homer’s Ulysses, Everett is just as vain about his looks, asserting quite often that he uses “Dapper Dan” hair pomade. Having escaped from a prison gang the three go on an “odyssey” of Everett’s making to find the treasure. Along the way, they encounter the black prophet-poet who is, of course, blind. They are seduced by the three sirens on the banks of the river. There’s the cyclops-type figure in the person of ‘Big Dan’, a hustler-salesman with an eye patch.
With this Homer-esque storyline, the Coen brothers, by placing the story in 1930’s rural Mississippi, deal with vagaries of American culture: A brutal and ineffective prison system, bag-of-wind politicians groping for whatever strategy will win them votes, pervasive blatant racism, and the scientific reasoning of Everett who envisions a transformed South, a “veritable age of reason.” And maybe most importantly, the role of popular music, religious and secular, in assuaging the pain and alienation of the working poor. The music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a wonderful collection of early Country music; a merging together of Southern white folk songs and black gospel and blues. However, the music is not just movie background music. It plays a prominent role in telling the story. Of course, The Soggy Bottom Boys singing “A Man of Constant Sorrow” becomes a central plot point. But no more talking about. Let’s sing it. As you enjoy these delightful sounds, listen for the themes of hope and redemption in the midst of a hard life. Here is the Noe Valley Ministry Choir with Kelly, Alisa and Daniel performing the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Musical Presentation O Brother, Where Art Thou? Medley
NVM Choir; Kelly Savage, piano/director;
Alisa Rose, fiddle; Daniel Fabricant, bass
Scripture Reading: James 1:2-4, 12
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love God.
Sermon, Part 2 “Life Is Hard but Then We Get a Crown!”
We are all duplicitous. We have good traits and we have bad traits. And in the course of our lives both get all mixed together in what we call “being human.” A central message of Christian faith works with our good/bad selves to find a way to redeem us. But we usually have to go through tough stuff along the way. We mess up and so we have to fess up.
Towards the end of the movie, Everett reveals to Pete and Delmar that he lied to them; there is no treasure. He was only using them to find a way to get back to his wife who has taken up with a new suiter. His was a selfish manipulative story in order to convince them to escape the prison gang with him. Even though he clearly cares for the wellbeing of his friends, he hardly apologizes for his lie and proves himself to be a rather selfish guy. Thus, Everett is a man who can be alternately warm and selfish.
But with this duplicity comes forgiveness. The entire story hinges on forgiveness. As they escape from prison, Pete and Delmar hear people singing “Down to the River to Pray” and they follow. Seeking to be forgiven for their crimes they joyfully enter into the waters of baptism. Everett scoffs at their new found religious sentiments, reminding them that redemption under God is not the same thing as redemption under the law. Yet, Everett wants to be forgiven also, but from his ex-wife. But then, later, Everett himself prays for forgiveness for lying to his friends. Actually, it’s quite a prayer:
Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners. Please, Lord, I just want to see my daughters again. I’ve been separated from my family for so long. I know I’ve been guilty of pride and sharp dealing. I’m sorry that I turned my back on you. Forgive me. Help us, Lord, for the sake of my family. For Tommy’s sake, for Delmar’s and Pete’s. Let me see my daughters again, Lord. Help us, please.
Then, miraculously, a huge rushing water floods the valley and they are saved from the hangmen. To which, Everett immediately claims “there’s a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened”
We, here in 2019 San Francisco, are far removed from the religious world of depression-era rural Mississippi. We don’t often talk of earning heavenly crowns (OK, we never talk about heavenly crowns). We don’t often sing of flying away to heaven on some bright morning when this life is over. But it is part and partial of our living faith to be in God’s hands in this life and the next. We don’t often speak in the revivalist verbiage of going down to the river to pray and be baptized. Yet, our baptisms mean we belong to God and have from the very beginning. And, yes, life can be hard – sometimes even as people of “constant sorrow”; life can feel that way. Yet even in the hard things of life, we have the “promise that is given: I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.” Yes, life is hard but then we get a crown. And so, as we live out this sometimes quite contradictory life of faith, maybe we all will be found “in the highways, in the hedges,” where we’ll “be somewhere a-working for our God.” So it is, in some fashion or other, whether it be literal or metaphorical, we sing:
Jerusalem, my happy home,
when will you welcome me?
When shall my sorrows have an end?
Your joys, when shall I see?
There saints are crowned with glory great;
they see God face to face;
They triumph still, they will rejoice,
delighting in God’s grace.