Sermon for February 18th, 2018
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Faith & Film VI: Dunkirk / Darkest Hour
Three? Minute Film Synopsis(es)
Both of these tremendous films tell the same historical story, from different perspectives, from different sides of the English channel: the events of and leading up to the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in May of 1940 at the beginning of World War II.
The Darkest Hour begins with Winston Churchill's ascension to the position of Prime Minister in England--a position which no one else wanted at the time, and which no one thought Churchill particularly well-suited for. At one point, he tells his wife, "I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking. It’s not a gift, it’s revenge."
Nevertheless, Churchill shows courage and resolve at a time when Britain's army faces near-certain defeat, and resists the call to begin "peace talks" (meaning, surrender to the Nazis).
The film Dunkirk, meanwhile, tells the story of those British forces, surrounded on all sides by the German Army. The film unfolds on three fronts: In the air, on sea, and on land. We see the heroic bravery of fighter pilots who continue to fight even when their fuel reserves run out, of civilians who pilot small boats across the channel to bring soldiers home, and the soldiers themselves as they wait anxiously and under fire on the beaches of Dunkirk in France.
Both films end with the successful evacuation of the British Army, and Churchill's famous speech promising that "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Powerful Words, Powerful Silence
Despite both films ending with that famous speech, both take entirely different approaches to the use of words.
The Darkest Hour spends a great deal of time emphasising Churchill's skill as a wordsmith, and we see countless scenes of him writing, dictating, revising, and delivering his words. One of the best lines of the entire film comes at the very end, right after he has delivered his famous and stirring "on the beaches" speech. As the entire British Parliament rises in a standing ovation, someone asks Churchill's rival, Lord Halifax "what just happened?" Halifax responds that the prime minister "just mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."
Dunkirk, on the other hand, when it comes to the spoken word, is a study in minimalism. Just for fun, I downloaded the screenplay, cut out all the screen directions, and pasted the film's entire spoken dialog onto one page, single spaced, 12-pitch font. Christopher Nolan, the film's director, tells his story with striking images, with tense action, with jarring sound effects (including the sound of a ticking clock that fades in and out throughout the film) and often with a prolonged, eerie, uncomfortable silence.
Both of these approaches are powerful, and we find both echoed in scripture. Like Winston Churchill, Jesus was a dynamic public speaker, mobilizing crowds by the thousands with words that still resonate in our ears--the beatitudes, the sermon on the mount, the Lord's prayer, among them.
But there's also the story from 1 Kings, where we are told that the prophet Elijah hears God's voice not in the thunder, or the wind, the earthquake, or the fire...but in the silence that follows them. Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that there is a time to speak, and a time to keep silence.
Divinity vs. Humanity
Growing up long after the history books had had plenty of time to process and weigh in on World War II, my enduring memory of Winston Churchill (and Great Britain) is this picture of him, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin that appears in a lot of textbooks. In the years since World War II, Churchill attained a legendary, larger-than-life status that borders on perfection. Gary Oldman, the actor who plays him in Darkest Hour, describes him as the most famous Englishman ever, and incomparable.
Joe Wright, the director of Darkest Hour, in an interview, talks about how most of the battle scenes in his film are depicted from high above, like you're seeing them on a map. He did this intentionally to emphasize how all the decisions were being made at a distance by these "godlike" figures (i.e. Winston Churchill).
By contrast, the film Dunkirk tells the story from the point of view of the soldiers, the pilots, the boat captains, the common, human, people who carried out their orders from on high. With the two films, we see both sides--divinity and humanity. And yet, it's not quite that simple.
The story of Dunkirk is often referred to as the "miracle" at Dunkirk, emphasizing a sense of divinity in the simple, brave actions of common people.
And The Darkest Hour is one of the first of many films about Winston Churchill to deliberately emphasize the human, fallible aspects of his personality. We see behind the powerful speeches to glimpse his doubts, his inner turmoil, his indecision.
Where is it, in our own story, where the lines between perfect divinity and imperfect humanity become blurred and meet in one individual? This is, of course, in the person of Jesus, who was at once completely human--subject to pain, suffering, and death--and also completely divine, God incarnate, dwelling among us. This is also our own nature: We are fallible, fallen, human beings, painfully aware of our imperfections. And yet, we also bear within ourselves the Imago Dei, the perfect image of God, who created us and calls us to him.
The Good Shepherd
Today's scripture passage from John paints the familiar image of Jesus as the "Good Shepherd," who doesn't run away like a hired hand at the first sign of the wolf, but who stays and lays down his life for his sheep.
It's pretty obvious who the good shepherd is in The Darkest Hour. While other politicians in the film are prepared to give up, to surrender the country to the wolves at their door, Winston Churchill is prepared to give everything, including his life. At one point, he tells a gathering of followers that "if this long island story of ours is to end at last, then it should only be when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground!" That's a pretty graphic statement, but also pretty clear.
In Dunkirk, we see the image of the good shepherd, but in a slightly different way. It's the good shepherd who leaves behind the majority of the flock to go after the lost sheep. The most powerful moment of the film is when those "lost sheep" at Dunkirk first see their shepherds on the horizon, coming to their rescue:
Wrapping it all up: Darkness, Light, and Hope
There are two reasons I saved these two films for last in this year's sermon series on faith and film. First, because they both tie together a thread that runs through every one of the films we've considered for the past six weeks: It's the theme of hope--of the tiny light that shines in the vast darkness. It was present in Wonder, in Ferdinand, in Wonder Woman, The Greatest Showman, The Post, the Last Jedi, and both of today's films as well.
I didn't choose all of these films because of that theme, but I certainly noticed when it started to show up all over the place. I've said many times that the films, the stories we make and tell and pay money to go see, tell us a lot about what we're thinking and feeling in any given moment as a people. This year's films, taken together, convey a sense of despair and desperation about our world. We are a people wandering in darkness. And yet, we are desperately looking for light, for direction, for leadership. And against all odds, we remain hopeful, convinced that light is out there, and that in the end, the light will prevail over the darkness.
As sons and daughters of the church, neither the darkness or the light should be unfamiliar to us. In fact, that's the second reason I saved these two films--Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour--until the end. Today, in our church calendar, is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent, for us, is a season of intentional and self-imposed darkness--where we remember the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent alone in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry among people; and where we remember the events leading up to his crucifixion and death on the cross.
And yet, as we begin these 40 days of darkness, unlike so many of the people in our culture and world, we know when and how our own darkness ends--we know where to look for the source of our light and our hope. In all of our films, we have seen faint and distant echoes of our own story and our own savior--the word become flesh, the good shepherd, the light shining in the darkness. Because of this, it's tempting for us to skip to the end of the story, to quickly pass through the darkness or ignore it altogether. Many churches do just that.
But if we do, I think we miss out on an important part of the human experience, an important part of God's story, of our own faith journeys, and something that is clearly on the hearts and minds of so many people in our world today. And so as we embark on this journey through the season of Lent, take time to stop and acknowledge the darkness around you, the despair and the pain that are often part of every life. Don't lose sight of our light of hope in Christ, but know that sometimes that light can seem small and frail in such a large, engulfing darkness. And that's okay.
Lent is also a good time to remember that sometimes, in the vast darkness of this world, WE can be that small light of hope, shining for the people around us--through small and quiet acts of kindness, courage, and compassion. Through simple but heartfelt words of love and encouragement, spoken to a friend or to a stranger, or expressed in the silence of steadfast presence.
Yes, lent is a a good time to remember the small, simple things we are called to do and be as God's people.
We will always be captivated by great films, by great stories of great leadership...but to borrow yet another quote from the great Winston Churchill:
"All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in single words: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope."