Sermon for January 16th, 2022

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Proverbs 2:1-6

1 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. 2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. 3 The clever see danger and hide; but the simple go on, and suffer for it. 4 The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life. 5 Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; the cautious will keep far from them. 6 Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.

2 Timothy 1:3-7

3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Faith & Film X: King Richard

Three Minute Film Synopsis

King Richard begins as the title character, Richard Williams is seeking a tennis coach for his two young daughters, the future champions Venus and Serena Williams. Richard and his wife Brandy have taught them and coached them on the dilapidated tennis courts of Compton, and Richard has written a 78 page plan for the girls' entire career. But for an African American family to break into a very white, upper class sport is a challenge, and they meet with constant rejection from country club coaches. Added to this, they face all the challenges of living in the ghetto, from poverty to gang violence and more. Richard works the night shift as a security guard while Brandy works the day shift as a nurse. The whole family (five daughters) work odd jobs to make ends meet while maintaining straight A's in school and a rigorous practice schedule.

When they finally find a willing coach in Paul Cohen, Richard has a hard time letting go. As the girls begin to play in juniors tournaments and attract national attention for their skill, Richard makes the controversial decision to pull them out of tournament play in order to protect their childhood. Eventually, the entire family moves to Florida in order to train with famed coach Rick Macci. Once again, Richard has a difficult time balancing the girls' growing fame with a desire to protect them. This causes tension between Richard and his wife, Brandy, who argues to let the girls pursue their dreams.

At the age of 14, Venus Williams enters into her first tournament as a professional. She wins her first match, and rejects a lucrative endorsement deal from Nike. Her sister Serena struggles with feeling left behind in the shadows. In Venus' next match, she goes up against the number two ranked female tennis professional, and does well initially, but when her opponent "ices" her by taking a ten minute restroom break in the middle of the match, Venus loses her confidence, and ultimately loses the match. Her family stands by her, and when she leaves the stadium, she is greeted by hundreds of adoring young fans, many of them African American girls, and as the end credits roll, we see footage of the real Williams sisters and their parents, captioned with highlights from their amazing careers yet to come.

The Plans I Have For You

At the heart of the story is the plan that Richard and Brandy made for their daughters before they were even born. The plan is referred to throughout the film, and at the end we learn that almost everything in the plan eventually came to pass. The family places immense trust in the plan, and sticks with it even when it deviates from the "conventional plan" followed by most coaches and aspiring young tennis families. Here's a clip of Richard using that plan to encourage Serena when she feels left out:

All of the language about the plan reminds me of a famous Bible verse from Jeremiah 29: "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." And another famous verse from the Book of Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

In this sense, "King" Richard, can be seen as an analog to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, our heavenly Father, who just like Richard Williams in the film, watches over his children and protects them, and plans every detail of our lives in loving care. Adversity, rejection, and failure are sometimes a difficult but necessary part of the plan, but so is our eventual triumph. As Christians, we are called to entrust our lives to God's care and God's plan, just as the young girls trust in their father and the plan that he made for them.

The Wisdom of Proverbs

The plan is referenced in a poster that Richard and Brandy hang on the Compton tennis court whenever they practice. It says "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." There's another poster next to it that reads "Nothing is difficult until you allow it to be." And another one saying "You are a Winner." Throughout the film, Richard and Brandy teach all of their girls with these simple, wise, sayings, which the girls often repeat. Right before Venus' first professional match, her mother tells them "Remember who you are and where you came from." You get the sense that some of these sayings have been handed down through the generations, like in the following clip when Richard quotes his own mother:

I think we can all reach back and remember wise sayings that our parents repeated over and over again to us. My dad, in speaking about the limits of freedom, used to say that "My freedom ends where yours begins." That one has stuck with me throughout my life. My mother used to remind us often that when you point a finger at someone else, you are pointing three fingers back at yourself.

There's actually a collection of this kind of wisdom in the Bible, passed from generation to generation from parent to child. It's the book of proverbs. Like many of the sayings in today's film, it speaks of choosing a good name and reputation over the riches that the world offers. It speaks of the value of humility, patience, and good judgement. And in perhaps the most famous proverb of all, one that argues for the very usefulness of Proverbs to parents and children alike, we read that we (the parents) are responsible to "train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray."

The Family That Prays Together

Here's another famous saying you may have heard, if you grew up in a faithful household: "The family that prays together, stays together." Just like in last week's film there's a powerful scene in this film of just that: A family praying together around the dinner table.

  • Film Clip #4: Prayer Scene

I included the part right before the prayer to give some context: The prayer comes right after the most devastating and final rejection that Richard receives in trying to secure a coach for the girls. And right after the prayer comes the most tragic scene in the film, when Richard is beaten senseless by a local gang, and almost chooses to abandon his plan through an act of violence. But in the midst of all this adversity, Richard's prayer is focused on gratitude, joyfulness, and honoring those around him. God may have planned out all the details of our lives, but prayer is what allows us to connect with God, to be reminded of his love for us, and our call to love others. Through prayer, we also teach our children to value those things.

Training Children in the Right Way

That brings me to the greatest lesson from this powerful and moving film. It's also the lesson from proverbs about training our children in the right way, so that when they are old they will not stray. How do you do that? In our scripture passage from 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul reminds his young student, Timothy, of his "sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you." The emphasis here should be on the word "lives." The Williams girls in the film didn't only learn from their parents wise sayings and prayers, or just from their coaches and tennis practices. They watched the hard, daily sacrifices that their parents made, the difficult life choices they made in order to bring their plan into fruition.

Every few months, a parent from our church, or from our school, will ask me how they can help their children to be more engaged in church, or school, or to be more honest, or to have a better attitude, or whatever parental frustration they are currently dealing with. My answer is always the same: What sacrifices do they see you make on a daily basis to prioritize these things in your own life? If you want your children to be better readers, how often do you read with them? If you want them to value education, how do they see you investing in your own eduction--not just when you were their age, but today? If you want them to pray, to be faithful, and engaged in the life of the church--have you made these things a priority in your own life, your own worship? If you want your children to have a positive attitude, what's your attitude like in the face of your own adversity and difficult challenges? Our children don't just learn from our words--they learn from the example of how we live our lives. Those lessons don't always bring about the immediate change we are seeking, but they plant a powerful seed that will outlast and long outlive us.

When God wanted to teach his children the most important lesson of all, he became one of us; he lived among us, and he gave us everything, sacrificing his very life, so that we might live with him forever. That lesson has endured for over 2,000 years and counting. May we continue to learn it and teach it to our children, with all of our heart, mind, and strength.