Sermon for February 2nd, 2014
27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Faith & Film: 42 (The Jackie Robinson Story)
Film Clip #1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9RHqdZDCF0
Three Minute Film Summary
The film 42 begins in 1945, as America's young men are returning home from World War II--a war in which black men and white men both served and sacrificed equally for their country while abroad. Back home, however, Jim Crow laws and legal segregation were still in force. In baseball at the time, there was no official law or policy preventing a black man from playing on a white team...but as the film points out, sometimes the unwritten laws and customs are the hardest ones to change. This film is about that change.
Jackie Robinson plays for an all-black team,the Kansas City Monarchs, in an all-black league, but it is clear from the beginning that he's not happy with the "separate but equal" approach. When a gas station attendant tells him he can't use the white restroom, he tells the attendant that he and his team will fill up their 99 gallon tank elsewhere, and the attendant finally relents. We also learn later that Jackie was court-martialled while serving in the military because he refused to move to the back of the bus. He has a reputation for being a troublemaker, and for his quick temper. But he is a phenomenal ball player.
Branch Rickey, meanwhile, is the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is a devout Christian who believes that segregation is wrong, and that the time has come to bring black players into Major League Baseball. He's also a practical man who notes that dollars are not black or white...they're green, and black baseball players will bring paying black fans to fill the Dodgers stadium. After a examining some of the best players in the Negro Leagues, Branch Rickey settles on Jackie Robinson. Besides Jackie's obvious baseball skills, Branch Rickey chooses him because, in his words: "I'm a Methodist. Jackie Robinson is a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong." The film is loosely based on true events, and in real life, both Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson were indeed Methodists. God, however, is Presbyterian. I did say the film was loosely based on true events.
The Dodgers sign Robinson, and most of the remainder of the film is about his struggles to earn the acceptance, respect, and finally the admiration of his teammates and American baseball fans. Along the way he faces racist attacks, threats to his life and his family, and every hostility imaginable from inside and outside of organized baseball. In the midst of all this, Robinson keeps his temper remarkably in check, and ultimately leads his team to the National League pennant, breaking the color barrier in baseball, becoming a hero and a role model to thousands, and ensuring that America's pastime would belong to all Americans of any color or ethnicity.
Why I Chose This Film
February is Black History month, but in Hollywood, the year 2013 could have been considered Black History Year. Some of the very best films of 2013 were films that documented, celebrated, and explored the history and culture of African Americans. Among them were 12 Years a Slave (which will likely win best picture at the Academy Awards), Lee Daniels' The Butler, Black Nativity, Baggage Claim, Best Man Holiday, and of course, today's film, 42. Some film critics have claimed 2013 as the year in which African American writers and directors have broken the Hollywood color barrier in the same way Jackie Robinson did for baseball in 1947. But to be honest, that's not why I picked today's film, and even though breaking the color barrier is a big part of the message and story of 42, there's another message just below the surface that's even more important to me, and I think more important to us as believers and Christ followers of any color.
If you watch carefully, you'll find the Christian story reflected in many films. Writers especially love to incorporate a"Christ type" in one or more characters--it makes for a great story, after all. We've seen that in the Hunger Games, in the Crudes, and we'll see it again in next week's film, Man of Steel. But as common as the Christ-figure is in films and literature, what is rare is the "Christ follower"--the imperfect person who, rather than trying to be a savior or messiah, tries to actually live by the teachings of the savior, Jesus Christ, and who tries to follow his example here on earth. Incidentally, we call those people "disciples." Last week, we talked about Walter Mitty as a disciple--but only in a limited, secular sense of someone who learns and grows as a person. This week, in Jackie Robinson, both the character of the film and even more so the actual, historical Jackie Robinson, we have a true disciple: Someone who whose life is transformed by the teachings of none other than Jesus Christ, and who by reflecting those teachings and that way of living in turn transforms the lives of others.
Turning the Other Cheek
One of Jesus' most difficult teachings, which I think most of us (if we're completely honest with ourselves) struggle to even understand, let alone follow, is his teaching in today's scripture passage: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again."
Turning the other cheek is something that is definitely not in our nature. At the beginning of the film, it's not in Jackie Robinson's nature, either. In his first meeting with Branch Rickey, Rickey confronts him about his notorious temper. In the trailer we watched a few minutes ago you heard the famous (true) exchange where Robinson says, "So you want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" And Rickey says to him, "No. I want a player who has the guts NOT to fight back." Right after that comes the following scene:
Film Clip #2: Fine Gentleman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93PKVxXF3i8
I wish the clip would have gone on for just two more seconds. Immediately after those words, "a fine gentleman and a great baseball player" Branch Rickey says, "Like our savior, you gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?" And Robinson answers, "You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, and I'll give you the guts."
In the film, it seems like Branch Rickey is bringing up this biblical teaching out of practicality--only by not fighting back can Jackie Robinson ultimately "win" over his enemies and integrate baseball. But the real story behind the silver screen goes even deeper. Both Rickey and Robinson were men of faith, men of deep Christian conviction. According to Robinson's biographer Eric Metaxas, "Rickey knew he must find someone whose behavior on and off the field would be exemplary, and who believed "turning the other cheek" was not just the practical thing to do but the right thing. In their historic meeting, to underscore the spiritual dimension of the undertaking, Rickey pulled out a book by Giovanni Papini, titled 'Life of Christ.' He opened to the passage about the Sermon on the Mount and read it aloud." Metaxas goes on to describe how truly difficult it was for Robinson to live out that teaching both on and off the field: "Robinson got down on his knees many nights during those first two years, asking God for the strength to continue resisting the temptation to fight back, or to say something he would regret."
Robinson's faith, as well as Branch Rickey's is somewhat downplayed in the film. Still, I think this next clip does a good job capturing the product of that deep faith:
Film Clip #3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upeKFdDWk4I
Seeing that Jackie was intentionally injured, one of his teammates tells the pitcher "next guy up, you hit him right in the head, alright?" This is justified retaliation. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and intentionally injury for an intentional injury. But Jackie Robinson, still lying on the ground, interjects, "No, no, no, no no. The game's too important. Just get him out."
The game is too important. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey both display an amazing love for the game of baseball, and it is precisely this love that drives them to do what they do in the face of incredible hatred. Shortly after Robinson's injury, Rickey shares the following story with him:
Film Clip #4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SDJ2s-AkBg
Love vs. Hatred
I think that at the heart of Jesus' difficult teaching about loving one's enemies is this idea that love is the only thing stronger than hatred. When hatred is pitted against hatred, there is a balance--both sides are driven by the same, equal force, and neither will ever prevail. But when love meets hatred, love wins. In 42, the hatred is the visible, tangible legacy of a hundred years of bigotry and racism in America that began with slavery and continued long after its abolition. That's a lot of hatred to overcome. The love, on the other hand, is love for the game of baseball; love for teammates and fans; love for justice and equality. But that's not enough. There's another love just beneath the surface of this story: It's love for a way of life, for a 2,000 year-old book, and for the teachings of a man who also knew what it was to suffer, to be despised and rejected. When Branch Rickey quoted that savior, and when Jackie Robinson prayed to him, no amount of hatred in the world could prevail.
Finally, both hatred and love are contagious. There's a scene in the film where a little boy is at the baseball stadium with his father. He's asking questions about his hero, the Dodgers' short-stop, Pee-Wee Reese, to whom he is related. But when Jackie Robinson comes on the field, the boy's father begins to yell racial slurs at Robinson, and before long, the little boy is echoing his father, spewing hatred from his young, impressionable lips. Pee-wee Reese, who is obviously a Southerner, sees all this, and runs out to the field towards Robinson:
Both hatred and love are contagious. I think Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson instinctively knew this. So did Martin Luther King, Jr., someone else who preached Jesus' message about loving our enemies, and tried to live out that example. Incidentally, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King corresponded with each other, toured together, and Dr. King once called Jackie Robinson "a legend and a symbol in his own time, who challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration." I'd like to close today with a prayer written by Martin Luther King, Jr., who though remembered mostly as a civil rights activist, was first and foremost always a pastor, and I think his prayer puts into words what men like Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson believed and fought for with their decisions, their actions, and their lives. Let us pray:
O God, our Heavenly Father, we thank you for this golden privilege to worship you, the only true God of the universe. We come to you today, grateful that you have kept us through the long night of the past and ushered us into the challenge of the present and the bright hope of the future.
We are mindful, O God, that humanity cannot save itself, for humanity is not the measure of things and humanity is not God. Bound by our chains of sins and finiteness, we know we need a Savior.
We thank you, O God, for the spiritual nature of humanity. We are in nature but we live above nature. Help us never to let anybody or any condition pull us so low as to cause us to hate. Give us strength to love our enemies and to do good to those who despitefully use us and persecute us.
We thank you for your Church, founded upon your Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon you.
Then, finally, help us to realize that humanity was created to shine like stars and live on through all eternity. Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace, help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until that day when all God's children, Black, White, Red and Yellow, will rejoice in one common band of humanity in the realm of our Lord and of our God, we pray. Amen.