Sermon for February 6th, 2022

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Jeremiah 22:8-10

8 And many nations will pass by this city, and all of them will say one to another, “Why has the Lord dealt in this way with that great city?” 9 And they will answer, “Because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshiped other gods and served them.” 10 Do not weep for him who is dead, nor bemoan him; weep rather for him who goes away, for he shall return no more to see his native land.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.

Faith & Film X: Belfast

Three Minute Film Synopsis

Belfast is an ode to childhood--specifically the childhood of actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who grew up in Northern Ireland during "the troubles," a time of violence and civil unrest. The film opens in full color, with shots of present day Belfast, but then (as you saw in the trailer) shifts into black and white, Belfast in the year 1969, and the busy urban street where nine-year-old Buddy, the main character, lives and plays with his cousins and friends in a blissful childhood existence. As Buddy's mother calls him home, however, an angry mob rounds the corner and storms the street, breaking windows and lighting a car on fire. This is the beginning of "the troubles." Ostensibly, the mob is Protestant, like Buddy and his family, and they are targeting Catholic homes, as part of a wider and long-running dispute in Northern Ireland that really had much more to do with class and identity struggles than religion.

The next day, barricades and military patrols are formed on Buddy's street, and local gangs try to enlist Buddy and his family in their cause, which his father resists. Much of the story centers on Buddy's attempts to process this change, while his parents struggle with the decision to stay in their home or leave to a safer world outside of Ireland. Throughout it all, however, life goes on: Buddy's working class parents wrestle with financial hardship, parenting two young children, and their own aging parents, while Buddy himself goes to school, spends time with his grandparents, celebrates Christmas, falls in love with the girl down the street, and develops a growing fascination with movies and the theater (which are always shown in color!).

Ultimately, when Buddy's grandfather dies and the mob violence reaches a fever pitch, his parents make the difficult decision to move to London, they say their goodbyes, and the film cuts back to present day Belfast (in color) ending with a dedication to all those who stayed, to those who left, and to those who were lost.

Two Roads

Near the beginning of the film, Buddy's family sends him to the local protestant church for Sunday morning services, and the pastor delivers a very frightening sermon about coming to a fork in the road--with one path leading to heavenly bliss and the other to hell and damnation. One good road, and one bad road. Of course, this is a reference to Matthew 7:13-14, where Jesus describes the narrow road which leads to life, and the wide road which leads to destruction. That image of the two roads also shows up in the Book of Proverbs.

This image sticks with Buddy in our film, and he keeps coming back to it in his mind--but he can never seem to remember which is the good road, and which is the bad road. That's an honest reflection of all the difficult choices he and his family (and we, too) face in life, choices which don't always seem so easy and clearcut: Protestant or Catholic? Stay in Belfast or leave? This is a film about contrasts--black and white if you will, and perhaps all the gray in between. Our first clip shows some of that contrast, with Buddy sitting in between his grandmother and grandfather, each one taking a different sort of perspective on Buddy's schoolwork assignment, and his attempts to sit closer to the girl he likes.

In just that one clip, there was a contrast between science and religion, between moving up and moving down, and finally between men and women--which Buddy's grandfather characterizes as a "whole rigmarole." Also near the end, Buddy's grandmother suggests that perhaps he and the girl he likes could work together on the project. By the way, we learn later on that she is Catholic, and Buddy of course is Protestant.

At the core of the film (and captured in this clip) is a powerful message about leaving behind all the "rigmarole" of our black and white contrasts and instead working together, tolerating and understanding one another. When we forget to do this--when we cling to the false gods of our own self-righteousness, we end up destroying one another. That's what our scripture passage from Jeremiah says happened to the great city of Jerusalem (which is a great transition to our next theme...)

Leaving Home and Finding Hope

In the Old Testament, when the people of Israel are forced into captivity and exile, one of them wrote the beautiful and bittersweet opening words to Psalm 137:

"By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The sadness of leaving home behind, and the uncertainty of starting over in a new place are part of what makes Belfast--a movie about a very specific place and time--so universal. I think many of us can relate to both the pain and the potential in the next clip, as Buddy's parents are trying to make a difficult decision:

I've said this many times before in previous sermons, but it's worth repeating again: God's providential love for us does not mean that things will always be easy, or go our way, that our lives will be free from pain, suffering, and difficult choices. Sometimes your entire street blows up, people you love are suddenly gone, and nothing makes sense anymore the way it used to. God's providential love for us means that when these kinds of things inevitably happen, God is with us, walking with us through difficult times, and guiding us to a larger and greater purpose. Romans 8:28 teaches that "ALL things (as in, both good things and bad things) work together for the GOOD of those who love God and are called according to HIS purpose."

Kenneth Branagh, the writer, director, and subject of this film, has said in interviews that as much as he (and his parents) hated leaving his home and everything he knew--if they hadn't left, he would never have had the opportunities and the fulfillment of his dreams that came on the other side of that difficult time. I believe that was God's providential love at work in his life.

The first time I saw this movie, I noticed that it wasn't all in Black and White. There were some scenes in vivid color--and that's usually a sign of something the director wants you to notice. Whenever Buddy goes to see a movie, or a play, what's on the screen or stage is in color. Even the light reflected from the screen on his black and white glasses is in color. At first I thought the director was trying to make some kind of statement about fiction vs. reality, with fiction being more realistic than memory. But the second time we watched it, my wife Amy actually came to what I think is the right conclusion: Buddy--who grows up to be the famous actor and director Kenneth Branagh--was seeing his future whenever he looked at a screen or a stage. A bright, colorful, and hopeful future in the middle of a challenging, trouble-filled, black and white present. That's why the scenes at the beginning and the end of the film (present day Belfast) are also in color.

Everlasting Love

My favorite scene in this movie comes near the end--right after the heartbreaking death of Buddy's grandfather, and the family's heartbreaking decision to leave Belfast. They gather together in a local hall after the funeral, and...they have a party. They dance. They sing. And at first, you're like, wait--how did we go from sad to happy in under 15 seconds? But it works. And in some ways, it fits the idea of the whole film that in the midst of war and chaos, life still goes on, with all its mundane ups and downs. In the midst of sorrow and sadness, love and laughter still find a place. Or, as our scripture passage from Ecclesiastes puts it: There's a time for everything under heaven--a time to weep and time to laugh, and time to mourn and a time to dance.

The song, which Buddy's dad sings at the party, Karaoke style, is the 1960's hit song, Everlasting Love. The song is just as fitting as the party, and brings home the message that Love is what bridges our contrasts and divisions. Love is what holds us together when we're on opposite sides of the fence. Love is what propels us forward when we are unsure about which road to take. Love is what holds a family and a community together, even when they leave.

And if we're really talking about love that is "everlasting"... well, the author of Ecclesiastes has something to say about that, too. He says "I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him."