Sermon for January 12th, 2014
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Faith & Film: The Book Thief
Three Minute Film Summary
I'll begin with the very last line in the film, because it's one of the best, and it puts the story into perspective. "There is only one thing I know to be true: I am haunted by humans." These words are spoken by Death, who narrates the film (and the book by Marcus Zusak that the film is based upon). Death first encounters Liesel Meminger on a black train winding its way through a white snowy countryside in World War II era Germany. He has come to take Liesel's younger brother, but notices her and is intrigued.
At her brother's funeral, a gravedigger unknowingly drops a book--"The Gravedigger's Handbook"--and when no one is looking, Liesel picks it up and takes it with her. This is the first book she steals, as she is on her way to be placed in foster care with Hans and Rosa Hubermann. As foster parents go, Rosa is like a crab: Hard shell on the outside, snaps at people, but soft on the inside, and loving in her own way. Hans is the opposite: On the outside he is soft, thoughtful, caring, generous and gentle, but inside him is a quiet and determined strength. He is the backbone of the family. He comforts Liesel in the loss of her brother and her mother, and when he learns that she cannot read, he teaches her.
Rudy Steiner is the blond-headed boy who lives next door, who quickly becomes Liesel's best friend. There are only ever two things on Rudy's mind at any given point--I'll let you figure out what they are from this clip. Film Clip #1
One day, a young Jewish man--Max--collapses on the Hubermann's doorstep. They take him in, nurse him back to health, and hide him from the Nazi police. He becomes like an older brother to Liesel, and continuing what Hans Uberman had begun in teaching Liesel to read, Max awakens her to the power of words and storytelling. While he is sick, she steals books from the local governor's house to read to Max, and she is heartbroken when eventually he must leave in order to protect himself and Liesel's family.
The story ends in a way that can only be described as both tragic and beautiful. For once, I won't spoil it for you entirely, at least not yet. Remember, the story is set in the middle of World War II, and the narrator is Death himself, so you can imagine that some of the characters don't make it. Liesel is not one of them, however, and Death finally comes for her when she is 90 years old, having lived a full life, having experienced love and loss and love again. We also learn that Liesel has put her talent for words to use as a writer. Right before the last line about being haunted by humans, Death tells us that "In then end there were no words...only peace."
A Story of Stark Contrasts
There is so much that is striking about this movie, but especially the stark contrasts between polar opposites. We'll take a quick look at several of those, and also see if the Bible has any light to shed on them.
Light vs. Darkness
It's fitting that our first contrast is light vs. darkness. Just like we saw last week with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" the imagery of black and white is found throughout this film. But in the Hunger Games, one ignites and changes into the other. Here, in The Book Thief, they remain in stark contrast. The black train passing through a white countryside. The white chalk words on a black board. Rudy, who is about as pale white as you can get, colors himself black with charcoal to imitate his hero, Jesse Owens. Max steals a copy of Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, and paints over all of the black, anti-semitic words with white paint. That act should remind us of Isaiah, who tells us that with God, our darkest sins will be washed as white as snow. We also see this light vs. darkness contrast in our scripture passage today: Jesus is described as "the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Giving vs. Stealing
Liesel steals books, although she insists she is only "borrowing" them. Here's a clip of her in the middle of the act: Film Clip #2. Liesel also has the sense that life (or perhaps death) has stolen from her, too--stolen her brother, her mother, a large part of her childhood. She says at one point, "when life robs you, sometimes you have to rob it back."
But the scriptures, we read "you shall not steal." In at least one previous sermon I have challenged our simple interpretation of that complex commandment, and argued that the opposite of stealing is giving; the antidote to stealing is generosity. Early in the film Liesel steals and is stolen from. But as the story progresses, she begins to receive generous gifts. Here's one she receives from her Papa (Hans Hubermann). Film Clip #3
The copy of Mein Kampf whose pages Max has painted white is also a gift for Liesel--a book with blank pages so she can write her own words, her own story. Even the governor's wife, who is quite aware of Liesel's book stealing, leaves the window unlocked so she can get in, and sometimes leaves books on the windowsill for Liesel. As Liesel is treated generously, she learns to give generously of herself, and finds less and less need to steal.
Presence vs. absence
Briefly, Liesel's life (and also the life of other characters) is shaped by absence and presence. Her real mother and her younger brother are absent. Her foster parents, and Rudy, are present--although both Hans Hubermann and Rudy's father are absent for a short time as they are called to military service. When Max leaves, Liesel is devastated, but it is only then that she takes his words to heart, and begins to write. We see the same tension in scripture--on one hand, Jesus tells his disciples "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." But there is also a sense in which only after Jesus has ascended to heaven, can the disciples truly take up his cross and carry his message to the world. We too, are profoundly shaped by those who are present in our lives, as well as those who are absent from it.
Courage vs. Fear
Liesel is constantly referred to by others as "a brave girl." She is a brave girl living in Nazi Germany -- a time and place where fear is constant and widespread. Her courage ultimately allows her to speak up, to stand up, for Max and for other Jews who are mistreated in a way that seems to have been rare. We should be reminded of Joshua 1:9 - "Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you may go."
Human Kindness vs. Human Cruelty
At one point, in an act of bravery, Liesel sees a group of Jews being deported to a concentration camp. Remember Max, she runs through the crowd of Jews, touching each one and saying, "I won't forget you; I won't forget you; I won't forget you." When her father asks her about this later, she says she was just "being human." She was also imparting humanity to others. The name of Liesel's foster family is "Hubermann." In German, "mann" means human, and Huber, or Uber, means "about." This story is "about humans." (Remember, death tells us he is haunted by humans). Within each human is the capacity to exhibit kindness, love, humanity...as well as the capacity to exhibit cruelty, hatred, and inhumanity. These are in stark contrast throughout the film, and we are reminded of the choice Jesus called us to: Love one another, as I have loved you. Jesus became human in order to teach us what it means to be human.
Life vs. Death
We've already noted that Death is a larger than life presence in this story--well, perhaps not "larger" than life, but it certainly occupies much screen time. And yet, Max tells Liesel that in caring for him and reading to him, she has "kept him alive." He also tells her that "words are life." In our faith, we make one slight distinction there--words may be life in a sense, but we also believe The Word is life. Jesus Christ is the living word. To draw in our scripture passage once more: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people."
Words vs. Silence
At almost every turn in the Book Thief, we find the power of words. In this clip, Max shows Liesel the difference a few words can make to someone who has not seen the sun in a long time. Film Clip #4
In Nazi Germany, words of propaganda are plastered on almost every wall. People are constantly told "You can't say that!" In one scene, a children's choir is singing a beautiful, melodic song and it is soothing and inspiring...until you see the words in translation at the bottom of the movie screen. They are words of hatred and bigotry against Jews, against communists and other targets of the Nazi regime.
One of my favorite words in The Book Thief is the Hebrew word that Max inscribes in the front pages of the whitewashed book he gives to Liesel. The word is כְּתַב, which means to write. It is also related to the Hebrew root that means "to remember." When we write, we create, but we also remember. Words create the present and they re-create the past. God created the earth from the void, from nothingness. He created the world by speaking it into existence--in other words, into the silence, God spoke the Word, and Life came into being.
I love words. If I didn't, I wouldn't be a very effective preacher. And before I was a preacher, I was a high school English teacher. I love the study of words, the history of words, telling stories, writing words, and speaking them...in fact sometimes it's hard to get me to stop! But as much as I love words, I'm actually going to let The Book Thief have the final word today, or rather some words about words. This last clip is introduced by the actress who plays Liesel Meminger, and if you haven't seen (or read) the Book Thief yet, I hope her words will inspire you to do exactly that.