Sermon for February 7th, 2021

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Ecclesiastes 1:1-9

1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Proverbs 3:5-10

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
8 It will be a healing for your flesh
    and a refreshment for your body.
9 Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.

Job 5:17-24

17 “How happy is the one whom God reproves;
    therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. 
18 For he wounds, but he binds up;
    he strikes, but his hands heal.
19 He will deliver you from six troubles;
    in seven no harm shall touch you.
20 In famine he will redeem you from death,
    and in war from the power of the sword.
21 You shall be hidden from the scourge of the tongue,
    and shall not fear destruction when it comes.
22 At destruction and famine you shall laugh,
    and shall not fear the wild animals of the earth.
23 For you shall be in league with the stones of the field,
    and the wild animals shall be at peace with you.
24 You shall know that your tent is safe,
    you shall inspect your fold and miss nothing.

Faith & Film IX: Forrest Gump

Three Minute Film Synopsis

Forrest Gump was filmed in the 1990s, and covers events spanning the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. So it's a fitting end to our series on the "Best of the 20th century." In many ways, this film is a celebration of the second half of the 20th century: all of the triumphs and tragedies, the music, the culture, the politics and the milestones, all told through the eyes of a simple man who is, in his own words, "not too smart" but who certainly "know[s] what love is."

That man is Forrest Gump, who we meet sitting on a bench in Savannah, Georgia waiting for a bus and telling his life story to anyone who will listen. It's a actually a fascinating life story--one that begins with his childhood in Greenbow, Alabama. We learn that Forrest's IQ is well below average, and so he is shunned and mocked by other children his age. His lone friend, Jenny, sticks up for him, and whenever he is in trouble, encourages him to "Run, Forrest, Run." Which he does.

Forrest's running, along with his simple-minded openness to new experiences, takes him on a number of adventures: playing football for the University of Alabama, to the Vietnam War, becoming a world champion Ping-Pong player, starting his own business as a shrimp boat captain, and running from coast to coast across the United States three times in a row. Along the way, Forrest has chance encounters with everyone from Elvis Presley and John Lennon, to no less than three American presidents. He goes from being dirt poor to filthy rich, then back to poor again, and from total obscurity to the heights of fame, and back to obscurity again. He loses some of his loved ones to war and cancer, while helping others find peace and redemption.

The movie begins with a single, white feather flying through the air, blown this way and that, before it finally lands at Forrest's feet at the bus stop. He picks the feather up and puts it in his favorite book. At the very end of the film, while waiting with his young son for the school bus (another bus stop), he takes out the same book and the feather falls out of it, and blows into the air, this way and that, up into the heavens as the credits begin to roll.

Three Kinds of Wisdom

There are three books in the Bible which are concerned first and foremost with the pursuit of wisdom. They make up what scholars refer to as the "Wisdom Literature" of the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Job. But each one approaches Wisdom from a slightly different (and sometimes conflicting) perspective.

The movie Forrest Gump, while often funny and lighthearted, is a profound treatise on wisdom--and all three of the biblical perspectives can be found within it as the story unfolds.

Proverbs: Stupid is as Stupid Does

The kind of wisdom we are most familiar with comes from the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is a collection of witty sayings--things like: "A cheerful heart is a good medicine" or "Pride goes before the fall." Some of them are downright folksy, like "Better a small serving of vegetables with love, than a fatted calf served with hatred."

Forrest Gump is a man who lives his life by a few simple proverbs, most taught to him by his mother:

  • Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.
  • Stupid is as stupid does.
  • You have to do the best with what God gave you.
  • Dying is a part of life.

Proverbs also teaches the simple principle that if you tell the truth, if you do what's right, if you trust God and turn away from evil...that things will go well for you. In the words of our scripture passage today, "Honor the Lord with your substance . . . then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine."

Forrest Gump does all of these things. He is a simple man, not wise in his own eyes, but honest to a fault, good-hearted, runs to what is good, and runs away from what is evil. And, just as Proverbs promises...Forrest Gump is blessed with good fortune--ridiculously good fortune--at just about every turn.

By contrast, his childhood friend, Jenny, is drawn along a different path. A path of temptation, rebellion, and addiction. Her life does not go well--some of that is not her fault, but some of it is. I like that in the end, there is redemption for Jenny, mostly through her connection with Forrest.

Job: Come and Get Me!

The Book of Job is a direct challenge to Proverbs wisdom. It's about a guy named Job who did everything right, who was good and blameless, and yet lots of bad things happened to him. The character who reminds me most of Job is Lieutenant Dan -- Forrest Gump's platoon leader in the Vietnam War, who feels he is destined to die in a war just like his ancestors (Job also has a death wish, clearly laid out in the poetic section of the Book of Job). Forrest Gump rescues Lieutenant Dan from his anticipated death, and instead he becomes a double amputee, forced to rely on others for help. Lieutenant Dan goes through a dark and despondent time (again, like Job) at one point calling out God for a showdown in the middle of a storm:

Job, like Lieutenant Dan, eventually makes his peace with God, and both have their health and their wealth restored to them...not because of their goodness, anymore than they lost those things because of their badness, but rather both men find peace within, accepting God's blessings along with God's wrath.

Ecclesiastes: For No Particular Reason

I have often said that Proverbs is Wisdom 101, Wisdom for Beginners. Job is Intermediate Wisdom. And Ecclesiastes is Advanced Wisdom. Sometimes it's so advanced that I don't think I have it quite figure out yet. But I do see it reflected in Forrest Gump. It's the feather blown in the wind, all the random things that happen, all the references to celebrities and presidents--powerful people brought low, just like ordinary people in the end. Ecclesiastes puts it this way: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever . . . The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.

The author of Ecclesiastes comes to the conclusion that the same fate comes to the wise and to the foolish, so the best thing to do is simply...whatever makes you happy. Eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your toil. Life is random. After the loss of his mother, and after Jenny refuses his marriage proposal, Forrest Gump comes to a similar conclusion:

Wrapping it all Up

In all three wisdom traditions, there is no perfect solution to all of life's hard questions and tragedies. Maybe that's why we need different kinds of wisdom. But all three traditions emphasize humility, and trying to recognize the beauty of God's creation even in the midst of sorrow and suffering. This last scene from the movie (my favorite) does just that. Forrest Gump is not a lucky man because of all he has experienced or achieved, or even lost. He is a fortunate man because he has loved, and has been loved in return.