Sermon for February 10th, 2019
2 Samuel 5:1-5
1 Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2 For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” 3 So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. 5 At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
2 Samuel 15:12b-14
12b The conspiracy grew in strength, and the people with Absalom kept increasing. 13 A messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.” 14 Then David said to all his officials who were with him at Jerusalem, “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Hurry, or he will soon overtake us, and bring disaster down upon us, and attack the city with the edge of the sword.”
Faith & Film VII: Black Panther / Outlaw King
Three (or Six?) Minute Film Summaries
Black Panther--which is the very first Superhero Action movie in history to be nominated for the Best Picture Award--takes place in the present day (Marvel Universe), in the fictional country of Wakanda, which is hidden somewhere in East Africa in order to protect the advanced technology and civilization of its citizens. The story centers around Wakanda's young prince, T'Challa, who must take up the mantle of king upon the death of his father. His kingship is challenged by a distant cousin, Eric Killmonger, a trained Navy Seal who grew up in America. For a time, Killmonger forces T'Challa into exile and begins plans to use Wakanda's advanced technology to subdue and dominate other nations. With help from his family and some unlikely allies, T'Challa is able to stop his cousin, reclaim the throne, and begin a new era for Wakanda that involves cooperation and sharing of resources with other nations, rather than isolation and secrecy.
Outlaw King, by contrast, takes place in 14th century Scotland. There were two films about Scottish monarchs that came out last year--Outlaw King, and Mary Queen of Scots. Both have their strengths, but if you value historical accuracy, this is the one you want to see. The film follows the story of Robert the Bruce, who is crowned King of the Scots and then then immediately forced into exile and pursued as an outlaw by the King of England and his superior forces. Robert makes his case to the people, begins to gather men, and fights a guerrilla-style campaign against the invading English, culminating in victory and the long sought-after independence of Scotland.
Return of the Rightful King
While they take place in separate centuries, separate continents, one is historical, one is fictional, and on the surface could not be more different, the two films are essentially the same story. What's more, it's a really popular story in literature: The Return of the Rightful King, the Rightful Heir to the Throne.
This trope shows up in the Arthurian Legend, the Story of Robin Hood, several of William Shakespeare's plays, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and all of JRR Tolkien's stories (one of which is even titled The Return of the King). And right now, this story seems more popular than ever: In addition to Black Panther and Outlaw King, by my count it was the plot of no less than eight other movies last year, including Aquaman, Creed II, Robin Hood, The Nutcracker, and the Disney remake of The Lion King that's about to come out this year.
But the original "Once and Future King" was the same man we talked about last week: The biblical King David. David is forced into exile early in his Kingship, like both T'Challa and Robert the Bruce, and then once again in his old age, by his rebellious son, Absolom. Both times David must go into hiding, build up his support among the people, and wage guerrilla warfare to regain his rightful place on the throne.
The Good King
For many centuries, the stories of David in the Bible were the model for what a good king of Israel should look like, the standard against which other kings were measured. The stories we tell (and pass on to our children) about our mythical kings--whether it's David, Arthur, or John F. Kennedy--really tell us more about what we want to see in our leaders than what they actually may have been.
And so it's fascinating to me that in these two movies, we get a slightly different kind of King than we're used to:
T'Challa, in this clip, like Robert the Bruce in the previous one, are not portraits of power, boldness, or intimidating might. They are, rather, portraits of restraint, wisdom, compassion, and humility. I these are the traits many of us feel are lacking in our own leaders today. So these movies are more than fiction or historical interpretation: They are prayers.
The Bad King
In both films, we also get the contrasting portrait of the "bad king." In our scripture passage, it's Absolom, who promises the people whatever they want to hear in order to win favor, even if he contradicts himself to different groups. In Black Panther, it's Killmonger (if the name doesn't clue you in already) who values control and uses violence to achieve his goals. And in Outlaw King, it's the cruel English King, Edward, who refuses to accept the surrender of his enemies in order to prove a point, humiliate them, and not waste an expensive machine he's built (even though it's no longer necessary to win).
The Human King
All three of our model kings wrestle with inner demons, with a past that haunts them. Robert the Bruce, in order to gain the throne, murders his chief rival in the sanctuary of a church. King David has an affair with Bathsheba, and intentionally sends her husband Uriah to his death in order to cover up his sin. T'Challa learns that his father, while king, killed his own brother, abandoned his brother's child in America, and covered up the incident--the child grows up to be Eric Killgore, T'Challa's cousin who usurps his throne.
All of these things serve to remind us that no matter how "good" a king or leader may be, they are ultimately human. Humans make mistakes. Humans come with sordid pasts and family baggage. This, I think, is something we all need to remember in a world where we are quick to dig up the past and use it as a weapon to tear down otherwise good and well-intentioned, if imperfect, leaders. The measure of a good king, a good leader, is not in being spotless, flawless, and beyond reproach. No. The measure of a good leader is in demonstrating the capacity to learn from mistakes, to make right the wrongs of the past, and to chart a new, better path going forward.
We see this in the final scene of Black Panther, where King T'Challa, now restored to his throne, returns to America with his sister, to the neighborhood where their father killed their uncle and abandoned their cousin. Watch as the King chooses a new path--not to destroy, hide, or abandon...but rather to rebuild, reveal, and reclaim.
Who are you? It's a great question. One we should ask of ourselves, of those who choose to lead us, of those whom we choose to follow.
One day, John the Baptist sent some of his followers to ask Jesus that very question. Who are you? Are you the king we've been waiting for?
Jesus could have easily just said, "Yep, that's me. I'm the messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords." But instead of pointing to his titles... the most perfect king ever, the most human king ever, just pointed... to his actions--which spoke far louder and clearer than words: He said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”