Sermon for January 17th, 2021

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Isaiah 53:7-9

7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

John 1:10-14

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Faith & Film IX: To Kill a Mockingbird

If The Wizard of Oz was one of the most watched films of the 20th century, then the book To Kill a Mockingbird (upon which today's film is based) was certainly the most read. That's certainly reflected in your vote of this film as the best of the 1960's. When the movie was released in 1962, Walt Disney requested a private viewing in his home, and when it was over, he said, ""That was one hell of a picture. That's the kind of film I wish I could make."

If anyone questions the biblical connections in the film, here's another quote from the author herself, Harper Lee, who in an interview once said: "Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners."

Three Minute Film Synopsis

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the small, fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. The story centers on the characters of Atticus Finch, an attorney, his son Jem and daughter Scout. As a widower, Atticus is raising his two children on his own with the help of Calpurnia, an African American woman who cooks, cleans, and takes care of the children while Atticus is at work.

Nearby lives the reclusive Radley family, whose son Boo is rumored to be a monster--locked away in the basement in order to protect the town's residents. Naturally, Jem and Scout, along with their friend Dill, are fascinated by this and like to scare each other with stories about Boo Radley, daring each other to go as close to the Radley house as they dare to see if they can see him.

The local judge asks Atticus to defend an African American man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white girl named Mayella Ewell. Atticus accepts the case, and suddenly the quiet and polite people of Maycomb reveal their deep-rooted southern prejudices, lashing out at Atticus and his children for defending a black man.

In the course of the trial, it becomes obvious that Tom Robinson is innocent, but despite Atticus's fervent defense and appeals to justice, the jury still convicts Tom, and later he is killed while trying to escape from prison.

Far from ending the hostility, Mayella's father begins to threaten young Jem and Scout as a way to get back at their father, and one night while the two children are walking back home from a school event, he attacks them. From out of nowhere, a stranger rescues them, killing Bob Ewell, and carrying an injured Jem back home to his father. The stranger turns out to be none other than Boo Radley (the "monster") forcing Scout to reconsider her own prejudices and assumptions as the film draws to a close.

Courage & Non-Violent Resistance

To Kill a Mockingbird is above all else a film about courage in the face of violent racial inequality, and it fitting that we are talking about this film on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day. As a Christian minister, Martin Luther King Jr. was profoundly influenced by the example of Jesus, who taught his followers to "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." Jesus, like MLK after him, also condemned violence, and said that if someone struck you on the face, you should turn the other cheek--something that takes great courage, restraint, and compassion.

This is the same principle that Atticus Finch teaches his children:

Later in the film, the stakes are much higher when Atticus himself is confronted by a violent lynch mob while protecting his client, Tom Robinson. His children arrive, and display the same courage, fighting back not with weapons or anger, but with compassion and an appeal to human decency.

The Suffering Servant

Our scripture passage from the Book of Isaiah describes God's faithful servant, who is innocent, and yet despised by all, suffering a violent and unjustified death. Traditionally, Christians have interpreted this passage as a prophecy referring to Jesus, who was perfectly innocent, and yet was condemned to torture and death on a cruel cross.

In the film, Tom Robinson functions as precisely this kind of tragic figure, a reminder that doing good, being good, is not an assurance of a pleasant life, or a happy ending. Boo Radley is another suffering servant, villainized unfairly by the people of the town. For that matter, so is Atticus Finch, who suffers abuse and cruelty for making the hard decision to do the right thing, for going against the grain of popular opinion.

In a world today--that is just as polarized, violent, and unjust as the world depicted in the film, and the world described in the Bible--it is still worth asking the question: Would you, yourself, be willing to do stand up for what is right, what is kind, what is just, even if you knew that everyone around you would condemn you for it? Even if it meant putting yourself, and possibly your family, at risk?

In the following clip, Bob Ewell assumes that Atticus is on his side--and when he discovers this is not true, he asks a profound question, though perhaps not quite in the way he meant it:

What kind of man are you? You have children of your own--and the presumption here is that the best thing you can do for your children is to protect them by remaining silent, by going along with the crowd. But the reality is that our children are watching us, learning from us. The best thing we can do for them is to be an example of what's right...even if it's not popular, or pleasant, or safe.

Walking Around in Someone's Skin

At one point in the film, Atticus teaches his daughter Scout a "simple trick to get along better with all kinds of folks." He says that "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

The irony, and great beauty, of the Christian faith is this: We worship a God who did exactly that. Our scripture passage from the gospel of John relates how Jesus, the very word of God, was not content to simply remain aloof in the heavens, but instead put on flesh, came and dwelt among us, walking around in human skin, experiencing all that it means to be fully human--all the joy, all the sadness, all the triumph and all the tragedy.

We often look at this as something miraculous, but I think it was meant to be an example for us to follow. Not literally, but at least figuratively: We are nearest to God's heart when we show empathy to others--when we lay aside our pre-conceived ideas, our self-importance and our self-preservation, and try to see the world from another person's point of view.

Scout internalizes this lesson, and at the end of the film, she reflects on how Boo Radley saved her and her brother (in more than one sense), and how mistaken she had been about him. Calling to mind another story told by Jesus about a Good Samaritan, she call Boo her "neighbor," and puts it this way: