Sermon for January 12th, 2020

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Ephesians 4:25-32 (NT, p. 194)

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Faith & Film VIII - Little Women

Three Minute Film Synopsis

Little Women is a film based on the classic children's novel of the same name, written in the late 1800s. Counting this one, there have been seven film adaptations of Little Women spanning the past 100 years (pretty much the entire existence of film as a medium). In other words, as far as American stories go, it's kind of a big deal.

This latest film jumps right into the middle of the story, beginning when the four leading ladies--Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (the March sisters)--are already young adults, either married and raising a family (in Meg's case), pursuing their professional careers away from home (in the case of Jo and Amy) or in the case of one sister, Beth, dying. That, of course, is the catalyst that brings them all back together. But having introduced us to the March sisters, the director of this film (Gretta Gerwig) now starts to jump back and forth in time to flashbacks of their childhood, when Meg aspired to be an actress, Jo a writer, Beth a musician, and Amy an artist (representing all four major branches of the creative arts, incidentally).

The March sisters are often described as "genteel poor" which today I think would be considered lower middle class. Their parents are generally able to put food on the table and take care of their basic needs, but they often struggle financially, and the girls aspire to the kind of stability that greater wealth would bring.

The Proverbs 31 Woman

Another major struggle in the film concerns the role of a woman in society. Louisa May Alcott, the writer of the novel, was someone who defied almost all of the social conventions for women in her era, and her four heroines in this story, to greater or lesser extent, try to strike their own delicate balance between the conventional, the radical, and the pragmatic.

In the following clip, Amy March tries to explain her pragmatism to her childhood friend, Laurie, who is both wealthy and male, and thus has more options and freedom than she does. Even though she comes across as cool and collected, pay attention to the subtle, seething anger and pent-up frustration in her delivery.

Jo March, on the other hand, is more open and passionate with her frustrations--but they are ultimately the same as her sisters.

There is a very famous passage in the Bible, in the Book of Proverbs, that is fraught with all these same issues. It's Proverbs 31, the "Ode to a Capable Wife." I'll read a few verses from it...

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.
Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband too, and he praises her:
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

There's a lot that's commendable in this Proverb. A woman who works hard, takes care of her family, shows concern for the poor and exercises good judgment in business transactions. I know many women (and a lot of men) who like this Proverb, who quote from it often, and especially on Mother's day.

But I know just as many women (perhaps more) who really, really don't like this passage--first because it sets a near impossible standard with which men often judge the women in their lives, and second, because in Proverbs 31, the entirety of the woman's value is derived from her usefulness to her husband and her children--not from her own interests, passions, and achievements apart from her family (which, incidentally is how we usually judge men).

No doubt, some women aspire to be, above all else, good wives and mothers. In Little Women, this is the case with the oldest sister, Meg, who tells Jo that "just because my dreams are different from yours doesn't mean they're unimportant." But the message of Little Women--and the greater message of the Bible, beyond Proverbs 31--calls for balance, and remembering that ALL are created in God's image, of infinite value and worth, and that (in the words of Galtians 3) "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Through a Mirror, Darkly

One of the neat things about a film that has been done and re-done across multiple decades, is that it functions as a mirror to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, the anxieties, hopes and fears of the culture that created and re-told the story.

So in the 1933 film version of Little Women, starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo March, there's a lot of emphasis on poverty and wealth. That makes sense, because America was in the middle of the Great Depression.
Then in the 1949 version of the film, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Amy March, there's a stronger emphasis on the girls' father, a soldier who comes home from fighting the Civil War. In this version, the girls' friend and neighbor, Laurie, is also a soldier who leaves to fight and then comes home. That makes a lot of sense given the end of World War II and the return of soldiers to their families and communities. In both of these films, the sign of maturity for a young woman is slowing letting go of childhood ambitions and learning to gracefully accept the proper role of women in society (which would have been very similar then to what it was in the late 1800s).
Fast forward to the 1994 version of the film, starring Winona Ryder, and we have the first time this classic story is told in the "equal rights" era -- when women could vote, have a career, and choose NOT to be a wife or mother. Unsurprisingly, this is the first film version to really focus on Jo March as a writer. Whereas the two previous versions show Jo rejecting a marriage proposal because she can't bring herself to "love" her suitor, in the 1994, her reason for rejecting him is so she can focus on her career. There is a lot of hopefulness in the 1994 version, when it seemed like that glass ceiling would soon be shattered forever.
And that brings us to the 2019 version of Little Women, where the glass ceiling is still firmly in place, in Corporate America, Silicone Valley, and the Athletic Field. Where the first major female presidential candidate was defeated by a man not exactly known for his positive treatment of women. This is the era of the #MeToo movement, the Women's March, and so it should not be surprising that this version of Little Women--perhaps the most quintessential story about womanhood--is characterized today by a profound sense anger and frustration.

Don't Let the Sun Set on Your Anger

We've already seen in two previous clips, but here it's explicitly addressed in a conversation between Jo and her mother. This is not, incidentally, a conversation that happens in ANY of the previous films:

I like how Jo's mother doesn't just tell her to just "put a lid" on her anger, like she has (representing all the previous generations). She says, "I hope you'll do a great deal better. There are some natures too noble to curb and too lofty to bend," implying that anger has a place, has a purpose in confronting--and fighting--injustice. We see this in the gospels, when Jesus himself gets worked into a frenzy, angrily driving the money changers out of the temple with a whip.

But I also like how the film doesn't just end there, with a message of anger alone. There's another message, tied to anger and related to our scripture passage today. But first, another anger scene. In this clip, Amy March is furious when her older sisters leave her behind on a double date, and so she takes the one thing most precious to Jo--the book she has been writing--and she burns it.

In a scene shortly after this (that I couldn't find a clip for), Marmee urges her daughters to forgive each other, quoting Ephesians 4:26 -- "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." Of course, it's not quite that easy, and it takes years, some life-threatening episodes and a tragedy to bring Jo and Amy completely together again.

By the end of the film, Jo is able to tell Amy that "life is too short to be angry with one's sister." In doing so, she is modeling the rest o the verse her mother had quoted, "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you."

The last clip I want to show you, which is from near the beginning of the film--captures this sentiment perfectly. As poor as the March sisters are, their neighbors, the Hummels are even more so. On Christmas morning, Marmee asks her daughters to give their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels, which they reluctantly do. When they return to their house, a surprise is waiting for them.

There is a place and a function for anger in the face of unrighteousness, or as a legitimate outlet for our frustration. But ultimately it is not anger that truly has the power to change our situation, or the injustices of our world. It is our charity, our kindness to others, and our love. In the film, it is this one small act of kindness that catches the attention of the March family's neighbors, that opens the door to a series of life-long friendships, sacrifices of generosity, and the transformation of all--young and old, great and little, men and women alike.