Sermon for January 20th, 2013

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John 14:1-7

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Life of Pi

More than any other film in our series, Life of Pi, is a beautiful, artistic, breathtakingly visual film. I couldn't possibly just "describe" it to you and do it any sort of justice. It's a film that has to be seen. But since it's two hours long and the sermon is only 20 minutes, I'll have to settle for showing you some short clips, beginning with the promotional trailer. {Film Clip #1 - 2:37}

Three minute film Summary

The film centers around the life of Piscine Molitor Patel, or "Pi" for short, who is born in India as the son of a zookeeper. The story of Pi's life is described early in the film as one "that will make you believe in God." For most of the film, Pi narrates the story of his life to a writer who has sought him out. There are roughly three parts to the story: The first part is his childhood in India, where as a boy, Pi is fascinated by his mother's stories of the Hindu gods, which Pi says "were like superheroes to me." Later, Pi wanders into a Catholic church, and in conversations with a priest he is introduced to Christianity (which he says makes no sense) and to Jesus Christ, who he loves and can't stop thinking about. Later still, the boy Pi discovers Islam, and he begins to practice all three religions at once, to the dismay of his father, who is a committed atheist. This part of the story ends when Pi's father decides to sell the zoo, all the animals, and move to Canada.

On the journey, their ship sinks in a storm, and all the passengers, including Pi's family, are lost. Pi alone survives a lifeboat, along with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a large Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. All the animals were from Pi's father's zoo. The Hyena eats the zebra, then the orangutan while Pi watches, furious, but unable to do anything. Then the Tiger, eats the Hyena, leaving only Pi and the Tiger on the lifeboat. For the next 227 days at sea, Pi and the Tiger struggle against each other, against the forces of nature, and against their mutual hunger. They form a gradual peace and reliance upon each other; they have some hair-raising and breath-taking adventures, and finally they both wash up on the coast of Mexico, barely alive. The tiger wanders off into the jungle, and Pi is found and rescued by local fishermen.

The third part of the story begins when insurance agents interview Pi to try to find out what happened to the sunken ship. Pi tells them the story we have just heard, and understandably, they have a hard time believing it, pointing out many inconsistencies and impossibilities in the story. They press Pi until he finally tells them another story. In this version, Pi survives in a lifeboat along with his mother, a wounded sailor, and a deranged cook. The cook kills the sailor and Pi's mother, and in a rage, Pi himself kills the cook, leaving Pi alone on the boat for 227 days until he washes up on the shore of Mexico. When the writer hears this second version of the story, he suggests that the zebra is really the wounded sailor, the orangutan is Pi's mother, the hyena is the deranged cook, and the Bengal Tiger is Pi himself. At this, the adult Pi asks the writer a question: Given the fact that neither version of the story answers the question about the ship; neither story can be verified one way or the other; and neither story changes the ultimate outcome, "which is the better story?" The writer answers, "the one with the animals." The movie concludes with Pi saying, "Thank you. So it is with God."

One Interpretation

This amazing film, Life of Pi, hinges on three religions and two stories. Or, perhaps it's two religions and two stories. So following in that example, I'm going to offer two different interpretations--both of the film, and of our two scripture passages today (one of which Pi actually quotes in the film).

The first time I saw the film, I was impressed by the beauty, the visual tapestry of it all. But I was highly skeptical of the message. Here's this young boy in a highly pluralistic culture, surrounded by competing religions (one of which is my own) and his solution is to just believe in everything. It's a common idea in our own culture: All roads lead to God, all religions are equally good, all religions are equally true. Pi's father and brother are equally skeptical in the following clip, although they are skeptical of all religion, including Christianity. {Film clip #2 - 1:12} Notice Pi's dogged determination, despite all his father has said, with his declaration "I would like to be baptized."

In my first interpretation of the film, the two stories Pi tells the writer--one with animals and one without--just prove the point. At the end of the film, Pi basically says, "which is the better story? So it is with God." The message I heard in that interpretation was: Which religion do you like best? Hinduism? Christianity? Islam? Which God do you like best? Which truth do you like best? Choose that one. Choose your own truth. This is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching. In John 14:6, Jesus says "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." This has been a cornerstone of Christian teaching for over a thousand years! We don't choose our truth, we don't choose our story. In fact, as Reformed Presbyterians, unlike many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, we don't even believe that we *choose* to be saved. Rather, in our tradition, The Story chooses us; the Truth finds us; and Jesus Christ chooses to save us. This is not a popular viewpoint in a culture that values individualism and "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." We are helpless and depraved, but God's grace is powerful and sufficient. Predestination means there is no "choose your own adventure" novel for us. And taken in that light, the message of Life of Pi seems to be a dangerous and unChristian one.

Another Interpretation

But that was the first time I saw the film. That was my first interpretation. I watched it again, and I watched some interviews with Yann Martel, the author of the story. I read reviews, sermons, and reflections by other pastors. Some condemned it, as I had started to do. But I think there is another possible interpretation, another message that is closer to the author's original intent.

As a young boy, Pi is a spiritual seeker. He's searching for God, and he happens to live in a part of the world where several different groups claim to have what he's looking for. That, of course, isn't his fault. In many ways, we live in the same sort of world. As an intelligent young man, Pi explores each option in the best way he knows how. His father pushes him to "choose one" but I think we can agree that there is at least as much danger in closing all of your doors too quickly as there is in never opening stepping through one. Pi's search appears to be honest, genuine, and it God culminates in the following clip. When you watch it, notice in particular the other-worldly or "heavenly" scenery and music {Film clip #3 - 1:32}.

"God, I give myself to you. I am your vessel. Whatever comes, I want to know. Show me." This is not a prayer "choosing" a religion or a God. It is a humble prayer of total submission to God, whomever God turns out to be. And I believe that when someone prays this prayer, the true God of Heaven and earth hears, listens, and will honor the request. It is not for me to say how or when God will answer, but I believe that he does.

The problem, of course, is that we have two versions of Pi's story. This prayer, or any mention of God for that matter, does not appear in the second version of the story. In the first story Pi tells, there are amazing things, some terrible and some wonderful. They are amazing incredible things, unbelievable things. As we watch, we laugh, we cry, we fear, we marvel. But when Pi begins to tell the second version of the story, all we see is his expressionless face and almost monotone voice against a white backdrop. This story is believable. And depressing. There are no animals. And no miracles, no mystery, no wonder, no hope, no prayer...and no God.

When we hear the second story, we are inclined to believe it is "the truth" simply because it is more believable. But let me ask you this (and I hope you'll recognize it as a familiar question, similar to the one Pi asks at the end of the film). If I told you a story about a man was born from a virgin, who healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, walked on water, fed thousands with one loaf of bread, and when he was killed, he rose again from the dead and ascended into that a "believable" story by any stretch of the imagination? And yet we, as Christians call that story "True." And we believe that a life without Jesus Christ, a life without death and resurrection, without miracles and wonders and hope and answered prayers...would be a dismal life indeed. Grim, and hardly worth living. I ask you: Which is the better story?

"Yes," you might ask, "but is it TRUE? The story with the tiger is better, but there's no sense in believing it if it isn't true." And you wouldn't be the first one to be a skeptic. In today's scripture passage from John, there is another character besides Jesus. In verse 4, Jesus says, "you know the place where I am going." And then verse 5: "Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?.'" Remember Thomas? Doubting Thomas? Thomas, who, later in John says he will not believe in the resurrected Jesus unless he touches the holes in his hands and side? Give me proof, says the skeptic, so I can believe. Jesus answers Thomas (and us) "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

We cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. If we could, it wouldn't be called "faith." Hebrews 1:1 tells us that faith is the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Pi says to the skeptical insurance agents, and the skeptical writer, "Given the fact that neither version of the story answers the question about the ship; neither story can be verified one way or the other; and neither story changes the ultimate outcome, 'which is the better story?'" He might have said, "which is the better story to LIVE by?"

In my second interpretation of Life of Pi, I don't think the options are Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam. I think the options are to live a life with God, or to live a life without God. To live a life with miracles, mysteries, hope, and wonder, or to live a life devoid of those things. I still believe that we don't choose the best story, but that the best story chooses us. I still believe Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. But I also believe that those who honestly seek him will truly, eventually find him. And whether you are a tiger or a teenager (or anything in between), I believe that a life lived with God is a beautiful, breathtaking, wonderful, terrible, hope-filled and heaven-bound journey . I hope you're all along for the ride.