Sermon for January 13th, 2013
My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favour and good repute in the sight of God and of people. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
2nd Corinthians 5:16-21
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Today is the first sermon in our series "Script & Scripture." But before we jump into today's film script and today's scripture passages, I'd like to take just a few minutes to explain why we're doing this. We love movies, and collectively we spend billions of dollars on them each year. But what place do they have in our church, our worship, and in the sermon?
One of my dreams for First Presbyterian Church is that we might become a community of "armchair theologians." You already know what an armchair quarterback is, right? That term usually has a negative connotation, but in our case, I think it's a good one. Theology--the study of God and Scripture--is too important to just leave to the professionals. But I don't want you just to be armchair theologians on Sunday mornings: I want you to be armchair theologians when you're out in the world, when you're in the workplace, or in the movie theater. Films influence our culture, but they also reflect it. In turn, for us as Christians to influence culture, we need to understand it, and to understand where our Christian theology merges with our culture, as well as where it diverges from the culture. Films help us do that. They are both mirrors and magnifying glasses. So armchair theologians, with our scriptures held firmly in one hand, and our film scripts held (loosely) in the other, let us begin.
Three Minute Film Summary
Brave is a 2012 animated film by Pixar and Disney. The film is set in medieval Scotland, and centers on a young Scottish princess called Merida. The film begins when Merida (as a small child) and her family are attacked by a large, ferocious bear (Mor'du). Merida's father, King Fergus, fights the bear and in the process loses a leg, but the family manages to escape.
Years later, Merida has grown up to become a skilled archer, a beautiful princess, and a typically rebellious teenager. There is considerable tension between Merida and her mother, who wants her to behave like a dignified and proper young princess, and who also wants her to get married. Merida has little interest in marriage, and in a heated argument with her mother, she cuts in half a family tapestry her mother had made, and runs away into the forest. There Merida meets a witch, and asks her for a spell to change her mother. The witch gives Merida an enchanted cake, and when her mother eats it, it changes her mother...into a bear.
Merida then helps her mother-as-a-bear escape from the castle, and search for a way to transform her back into the queen. The witch has disappeared, but leaves a message containing a riddle: "Fate be changed, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride." Merida takes this to mean she has to repair the torn tapestry, so they return to the castle, now filled with bear-hunting clansmen (including Merida's father) to retrieve the tapestry. As the queen copes with learning to be a bear, and Merida copes with learning to be a woman, mother and daughter begin to appreciate and understand each other in new ways. However, the clansmen discover the Queen-as-bear and hunt her into the woods. Merida tries to stop them, but is unsuccessful. At this moment, the large bear Mor'du (that had years ago taken King Fergus' leg) reappears, attacks the clansmen and Merida. Merida's mother, still a bear, intervenes and fights back, eventually defeating the larger bear and saving everyone. Merida then places the repaired tapestry over her mother, but nothing happens, and the time for reversing the spell is almost out. At this point, a tearful Merida apologizes to her mother, expresses heartfelt love for her, and...the real bond torn by pride is mended, and Merida's mother is transformed back into herself, her parents allow her to decide when and who she will marry, and they all live happily ever after.
In the opening scenes of the movie, we hear Merida's voice addressing the issue of fate: "Some say our destiny is tied to the land, as much a part of us as we are of it. Others say fate is woven together like a cloth, so that one's destiny intertwines with many others. It's the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led."
As Christians, we believe in fate. We believe in destiny. And we believe that God is in control of these things. Jeremiah 29:11 says "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." Ephesians 1:4-5 says that God "chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will." We believe in destiny. We believe in fate.
In the film Brave, fate and destiny are usually represented by what Merida calls "Will-o-the-Wisps." They are tiny lights that shine and dance in the forest, lining up in a row to show her the path to what she believes is her fate, or her destiny. Merida instinctively trusts and follows these lights. Her father doesn't believe in will-o-the-wisps, and even though we, as the audience, can see them, we are probably skeptical about them until the very end, since sometimes they seem to lead Merida into dark and dangerous places. It is worth noting that the lights lead her to the witch's house, where her troubles all begin.
"Some say our destiny is tied to the land . . . Others say fate is woven together like a cloth . . . It's the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led."
Merdia, of course, is led. We, as Christians, are led. We are led to our fate and destiny by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. John 14:16-17 says "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he dwells with you, and he will be in you." And from Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make direct your paths.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah, after listening for God in the Wind, an Earthquake and Fire, finally hears God's Spirit as a "still small voice." There is a point in the film in which Merida and her mother are lost in the woods, running out of time, and Merida says "We have to keep our heads. Just calm down. Listen!" And it is in this calm listening that the will-o-the-wisps finally appear to her again.
Although Merida follows the will-o-the-wisps to her fate, she also wants to change her fate. She wants her freedom. At the archery tournament where her would-be suitors are competing for her hand in marriage, Merida takes up her bow and arrow and says: "I am Merida, first born descendant of Clan DunBroch. And I'll be shooting for my own hand!" We admire her for her fierce independence, and I suspect that for many in our culture, the very definition of freedom is choosing your own destiny, making your own fate. At one point in the film, Merida says to her mother, "I want my freedom." And her mother responds, "But are you willing to pay the price your freedom costs?"
As Christians, we believe in freedom, too--but limited freedom. We have freedom within God's plan for us, within the fate and destiny God has prepared for us. This is just as hard for many people in our culture to accept as it is for Merida to accept. Especially in our country and culture, we lift up freedom as one of the highest values. And it can be. But our freedom is also what usually gets us into trouble. The freedom God gave Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden led to their fall, and when we use our freedom to push past the boundaries of God's plan for us, we fall too.
Merida's deal with the witch--"change my mother"--is a classic example of freedom gone too far: This is the classic Faustian bargain, or "deal with the devil." In most stories, the devil, the witch, the world is only too happy to give an impatient young person exactly what he or she is so desperately seeking. This is where we get the expression "Be careful what you wish for...it might come true." When we use our freedom to put our own ambitions and desires first, we pray "Lord, change all those other people so I can get what I want." But when we put God's plans for us first, we pray "Lord, change me, so I can be who you want me to be, and be a blessing to others." Our scripture passage from Proverbs today reminds us to "trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths." Trusting in yourself, leaning on your own understanding, and trying to direct your own path is like making a deal with the devil--you might get exactly what you're after. But it will never be what you really want or need; it will never be as good as the destiny God is leading you toward.
That brings us to our final theme: Reconciliation. Adam and Eve's abuse of their freedom separated them from God and from the Garden of Eden. Merida's deal with the witch separated her from her mother -- from both of her parents, really. So too, our own arrogance and selfishness, our dealings with a materialistic world, our insistence that we can "go it alone," change our fate and make our own destiny without God...these things separate us from God. Like the family tapestry that Merida cuts with her sword, we have cut the very fabric of our relationship with God, and the damage is beyond repair. Like Merida, we try to sew things back together but it doesn't work. So how can we be reconciled with God?
"Fate be changed, look inside; mend the bond torn by pride." We want to change our fate. But when we truly look inside ourselves, where the Holy Spirit dwells, we find that it is not us, but God (through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and the work of the Spirit) who mends the bond torn by our pride.
Merida's mother, in this film, is a Christ figure. She places herself between her child and the ferocious bear, Mor'du. Though she defeats him, she falls in the struggle, sacrificing her life for Merida. She undergoes a sort of death and resurrection when she is transformed again into the Queen. But my favorite part of the film, the most moving and powerful part, is right before this. It's Merida's prayer of confession, which comes in response to the sacrifice her mother has made. She says, "I'm sorry. This is all my fault. I did this to you, to us. You've always been there for me. You've never given up on me. I just need you back. I want you back. I love you."
My hope today is that Merida's prayer becomes our prayer. That we all might be brave enough to look inside ourselves and be led by God's Spirit. May we be willing to submit our cherished freedom to the God who loves and cherishes us, who has a plan for us, even when we can't see or understand it, even when it takes us through the dark woods. May we respond to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross with humility, love, and gratitude. Through him, we are now and forever reconciled to our God. May our destiny, our fate, rest safe and secure in his almighty hands.