Sermon for January 26th, 2014
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Faith & Film: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Three Minute Film Summary
Walter Mitty works for LIFE Magazine in the negative assets department--which means he is responsible for processing the negatives of photographs that appear in the magazine. He has a crush on his co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff, but is too quiet, shy and unassuming to approach her. In fact, Walter Mitty is too quiet, shy, and unassuming to do much of anything...except inside his head. Just like the James Thurber short story the movie is loosely based on, in Walter Mitty's frequent daydreams, he is a hero--bold, suave, self-confident, and full of boundless life and energy. Unfortunately, his brief escapes from reality tend to have rude awakenings, dropping him back into his less-than-remarkable life. Here's an example:
One day, Walter arrives at work to find that his place of employment, LIFE Magazine is going out of business, or rather it is downsizing and transitioning to an online magazine. A ruthless and arrogant transition manager has been brought in to decide who stays and who gets laid off. In the midst of this, LIFE Magazine must publish its last issue, and one of its best freelance photographers--Sean O'Connell--has sent in a roll of film with a photograph to be considered for the final cover. This photograph is negative 25, the "Quintessence of Life"...and Walter Mitty, the negative assets manager, is responsible for it. To his horror, it is found to be missing, cut out from the roll of film, putting his job at risk.
And so, after some encouragement from Cheryl, Walter does something he's never done before: He takes a risk, goes out on an adventure, following clues from other negatives on the roll of film that take him literally around the globe into remote, beautiful, dangerous places. He swims with sharks, narrowly escapes a volcano eruption, tracks down Afghani Warlords, and even meets his hero, Sean O'Connell, the mysterious freelance photographer, on the top of a mountain peak in the Himalayas. And in the midst of all this...life...something amazing happens. Walter Mitty starts to actually become the hero he has been in his daydreams. His confidence grows, and his relationships grow deeper, he finds new meaning and purpose to life, and toward the end of the film when he is asked if he still daydreams, he thinks about it and says..."you know, lately a little less."
The Great Commission
After the film summary, I usually delve into some of the themes of the film, but this time I'd actually like to start with our scripture passage in Matthew. It's the last words of Jesus to his followers before he ascends into heaven, and we call it "The Great Commission."
A Commission is a charge, a set of instructions or duties given to a group of people. But in this case, I also like to think of a commission as a "co" - "mission," or an opportunity, an invitation for us to participate with God and each other (co) in his great plan for the world, his mission. It is our greatest privilege and honor as Christians, our highest calling, and our greatest purpose in life. It consists of three things--listen closely to verse 19: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Three actions: Go, baptize, and make disciples.
In his last moments on earth, Jesus gave his followers three things to do; three things that are simple, profound, and encompass the entire cycle of Christian life. Our life in Christ begins not at our birth, but at our baptism. For some that's in infancy, for others it's in adulthood, but regardless of age, it is the starting point, the beginning of our journey.
In the gospel of John, after Jesus himself was baptized, we read that the very next day he begins to call his first disciples. To disciple someone is to teach them a discipline, a way of life. Most of us do not begin making disciples immediately after our baptism, but we do begin the process of becoming disciples--learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus, learning a better way to live.
Becoming a disciple is a lifelong process, but at some point in the process, Jesus tells his followers (and us) to go into the world and put into practice what we have learned. In the book of Acts, the disciples become the apostles--apostle means one who is sent, or one who "goes." When we go out into the world, we help to bring others into God's kingdom, to become baptized, to become disciples, and then we help them in turn to go out into the world and the process starts all over again.
Go. Baptize. Make Disciples. This is the cycle of the Christian life, and it is only when we are fulfilling this great purpose that we are truly alive, truly enjoying and experiencing the life that God has given to us.
Now, back to our film.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, at least as far as I can tell, was not intended by its writers and directors to be a "Christian film." But intentionally or unintentionally (and it could be said that nothing is unintentional with God) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a wonderful model and example of that Christian cycle of life I just spoke of: Go. Baptize. Make Disciples.
The Purpose of Life
The question "What is the purpose of life?" is squarely at the center of this film. Walter Mitty works at LIFE magazine, but he really has no life. At the beginning of the film, he is alive but he is not really living. He works in the negative assets department, and that's a metaphor for his life: negative assets, no assets, no life. LIFE magazine is colorful, vibrant, but Walter works in a dark room with the negatives, which are relatively colorless. At the beginning of the film, his life, his clothes, his apartments, are all pictured in shades of gray. No color. No life.
However, there is a large motto printed on the wall at LIFE magazine. It reads: "To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life." This is actually based on a real quote from Henry Luce, who was the owner of LIFE magazine in its heyday. Is this quote trying to tell us what the purpose of life is...or just the purpose of LIFE magazine? I think it's intentionally ambiguous.
Sean O'Connell, the freelance photographer that Walter Mitty secretly idolizes, also represents life, adventure, life fully lived. Walter Mitty spends about half the film looking for Sean O'Connell, and this is a metaphor: Walter Mitty is looking for life, or for more purpose in his life.
Did I say more "purpose" in his life? I might have been confused actually...maybe Walter Mitty was actually looking for more porpoise in his life. This humorous clip is called "not a porpoise."
Don't fear the porpoise. Don't fear the purpose. Unless it's a shark. Actually I don't know if you noticed, but toward the beginning of this clip, Walter jumps from a helicopter and plunges into the ocean. There's a brief scene where we see Walter submerged under the water, and the big heavy box he's carrying (not his briefcase) sinks to the bottom while Walter comes back up to the surface. This is a classic image...of baptism. As Walter goes under the water, the baggage that was weighing him down falls away, and he re-emerges as a new man, a brave new man who fights sharks. It's not part of the clip, but right after he is pulled into the life raft, he feels the face of the man who rescues him, because he wants to make sure this is real; he's not daydreaming anymore. His new life has now begun.
I also like the fact that right after his baptism into new life, he's attacked by a shark. Walter's new life is a rollercoaster ride, with mountaintop experiences (literally) as well as defeats: He loses the photograph. He loses his job. He loses Cheryl. In fact, he experiences just as much loss as gain when he starts to live. But the point here is that loss, gain, triumph, tragedy, suffering and rejoicing alike--all of this is better than not really living at all. So too, life in Christ is not safe, it's not comfortable! But it is more real, more wonderful and more amazing than stumbling through life on our own.
After baptism comes discipleship, and Walter Mitty is discipled by many people. Sean O'Connell is one of these--He beckons to Walter from within a photograph to come and follow, just like Jesus beckons to Andrew and Peter to come and follow. Walter is discipled by Todd, the eHarmony rep. who constantly calls him on the phone, encouraging him to get out and do things worthy of putting on his profile. And of course Cheryl, who tells him that life is about courage, and going into the unknown.
In turn, Walter disciples others. He disciples Cheryl's son, Rick, being kind to him and teaching him tricks on the skateboard. He disciples Hernando, his co-worker and understudy in the negative assets department.
Now, I've been using the word "disciple" loosely here, in the sense of teaching. But for us as Christians, it has a deeper meaning. It's not just teaching or befriending people (although that's definitely part of it). It's helping people to grow closer to Jesus. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not, at the end of the day, a Christian film, and so this is not part of Walter's discipleship. But I love how at so many points along the way, Walter finds himself all alone, and his journey seems to come to an end... And then he is suddenly and unexpectedly helped by friends, by family, by complete strangers and random people. Here's one of those times.
Our journey as Christian disciples is the same. It's a team effort, a church family effort, and we give thanks for all those who have helped us along the road.
Go. The last part (or really the first part!) of the great commission. There are about five different scenes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where Walter hesitates...just like the disciples in today's scripture passage where we read "but some doubted." And in every one of those scenes, someone says to Walter: Go! Go, go, go, go go! And then...Walter runs. He jumps. He flies. He goes. He goes, and he doesn't look back, and his life is forever changed.
Jesus extends the same invitation to us. Go...therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
In Mark, Jesus puts it this way: "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation."
Jesus doesn't ask us to do this because HE needs US. He doesn't even ask us to do it because the gospel somehow NEEDS to be proclaimed. In fact, in Luke, Jesus tells us that even if we remained silent, the rocks themselves would cry out and proclaim the good news.
It's not for his sake that he asks us to go. It's because only when we go...are we truly living into the purpose God has called us to. It's only when we go that we experience the fullness of joy, sorrow, love, beauty, pain, grace and wonder that life has to offer.
One last story from the movie. Towards the end of the film, the ruthless transition manager at LIFE magazine is trying to put together the last issue, but without the lost photograph from Sean O'Connell. His proposal is a black cover, with the title, "The End of Life" (that's pretty symbolic, right?).
Into this scene comes Walter Mitty--the new man, self-confident, bold, world-traveler (for real this time) and he finally has the negative to the lost photograph, which he gives to the transition manager, along with a little advice (we'll call it "tough discipleship"). Walter hasn't looked at the photograph, though, and doesn't actually see it until after the last issue is published. The photograph...the "quintessence of life" taken by Sean O'Connell, turns out to be a picture of Walter Mitty. The title of the final issue of Life Magazine is, "Life: Dedicated to Those Who Made It."
What do you want your final cover to read? The end of life?
Life: Dedicated to those who made it.
Dedicated to those who lived it.
Dedicated to those who answered when Jesus said...Go!