Sermon for January 31st, 2016
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Faith & Film IV: The Martian
A true story: When I was interviewing for the position of pastor here at First Presbyterian Church (almost four years ago!) the chair of the pastor search committee told me in no uncertain terms, in a phone conversation, that the church was "not interested in a pastor who would stay for a few years and then move on to a bigger church somewhere else." She asked what I would do if presented with that choice? I told her I'd make a deal with her: My plan was to stay in El Paso, and there wasn't a church in Texas, the United States, or anywhere in the world where I'd rather serve as pastor. She seemed pleased with that answer, until I said, "Except..." Except? Well, I said "anywhere in the world." But if there's ever a mission to colonize Mars, and they're looking for a Presbyterian pastor to go with them and launch the First Presbtyerian Church of Mars...I would have to give it serious consideration. And I would. However, whenever I tell this story, it's usually at this point that my wife, Amy, chimes in with something like "And your NEXT wife would probably enjoy that very much!" So, I think we're safe for now, although this film certainly did remind me of that longstanding dream.
The Martian begins in the near future, with the third manned mission to Mars, known as Ares 3. The crew of Ares 3 is intended to live on the surface of Mars for a month, but has to abort the mission early when a dust storm threatens to destroy their return vehicle. In their hasty escape, one crew member, Mark Watney, is struck by a piece of heavy equipment which punctures his suit. His crew searches for him in the midst of the storm, but ultimately presumes him to be dead, enters the return vehicle, and leaves Mars behind. When news reaches earth, a funeral service is held for Watney. However, we quicly learn that Watney is not dead, merely wounded. He manages to make his way back to the space habitat, where he is able to treat his wound and recover. The rest of the film details his struggle to survive in the hostile Martian environment, to regain communication with earth and his crew, and for all of the above to find a way, against all odds, to bring him home.
What's in a Name?
Names, in literature and in film, often have meaning. The hero of this film is Mark Watney. The name Mark is certainly familiar to readers of the Bible--it's one of our four gospels. But the name is older than that. It is of Latin origin, and is derived from the name of the Roman god of war...you guessed it...Mars. Mark means Mars. But it gets better: His last name, Watney, is an Old English name that means "Water Island." So, Mark Watney is a lone island of water on the dry planet of Mars. He is water in the desert--a familiar image in both Old and New Testaments.
There's another biblical name worth mentioning here, even though it is not explicitly used in the film. Let me see if you can guess it, though. At one point in the film, Mark Watney says, "Wherever I go, I'm the first. It's a strange feeling. Step outside the Rover, first guy to be there. Climb that hill, first guy to do that. 4.5 billion years, nobody here. And now, me. I'm the first person to be alone on an entire planet."
And of course, we are reminded of Adam, the first man in the biblical story of creation. In Hebrew, Adam means "red earth" or "red dirt" which is what Mark Watney collects at the beginning of the film. He is by trade a botanist, and there's a great sequence in the film where Watney (the water in the desert) actually grows the first plants in that red earth.
- Film Clip #2: Potatoes (end of long clip)
But as much as Watney is a type of Adam, he also reminds me of another character from the Bible--one of my favorites, in fact. At the beginning of the film, Mark Watney seems to have everything going for him: He is an astronaut on a prestigious mission, a one in a million opportunity. In a bonus scene that ultimately got cut from the film, he is described as "everyone's favorite crew member." He's smart, he's handsome, he's healthy. And then disaster strikes, his friends leave him behind; he is lonely and cut off from everyone. At least he still has the habitat, which he lives in and uses to miraculously grow food. And then disaster strikes again, and he loses the habitat, and he loses his food. At his lowest point, there's a scene of Watney sitting on a pile of Martian rock, contemplating his own imminent death.
By now, we should be thinking of Job--a blessed man who has everything, and loses it all, then loses even more. The classic image of Job is one sitting on a pile of ashes, wallowing in self-pity. But neither Job nor Mark Watney wallow in self-pity for too long. Both look up to the heavens for help, and help comes. For Job, it's God appearing in a whirlwind. For Mark, it's his ship and his crew, returning to save him.
Job has an ongoing dialog with God, and contrary to his image as being "patient" he actually goes back and forth between crying out to God for help, and crying out in anger against God, who he seems to hold responsible for his predicament.
There's a similar back-and-forth between Mark Watney and God. At one point, Watney is shaving wood from a cross that one of his crew-mates left behind, because he needs the shavings to make fire. He looks at the figure of Jesus on the cross, and says to it, "I'm assuming you're okay with this, given the circumstances. I'm counting on you."
- Film Clip #3: Counting On You (middle of long clip)
Later, when his habitat blows up and he realizes that his crops, all his hard work, have been destroyed and his life is in serious jeopordy again, he lashes out at the air in teary-eyed anger saying over and over again, "God, God, God, God, God!" There is accusation and blame in his tone, just as there is in Job's words as well.
Bring Him Home
So far, we've been talking a lot about the character of Mark Watney. While he is the principal character in the film, he's really only half the story. The other half is the crew of Ares 3, all the people at NASA's mission control, and really, all the people of the world who pull together to bring Watney home.
Today's scripture passage from Luke tells the story of the lost sheep, and then the story of the lost coin. Even though it wasn't part of our reading, right after this comes the familiar story of the prodigal son--which would have been more appropriately called "the lost son." Despite their titles, though, the sheep, the coin, and the son are only half of the story. The other half of the story is the shepherd who goes out to find the sheep, leaving the other 99 behind; it's the woman who goes turns her entire house upside down looking for that lost coin. It's the father who leaves his house, his family, and his dignity in the dust behind him as he runs to meet his long-lost son.
All of these stories Jesus tells are metaphors for a loving God who seeks out his children when they are lost, and runs to us to save us from the mess we've made of things despite our best efforts to save ourselves.
Most of us get the metphor about God in these stories. Jesus makes it pretty clear. But unfortunately, I think that too often we stop there, with that warm fuzzy knowledge that, "Oh, God loves us. Yay God!" And that's why I really like The Martian--I think it takes things to the next level. The bigger point in having a God who loves us and wants to rescue us...is that by example, we in turn love each other, and rescue each other. That's the beautiful thing about humanity: When we see a fellow human being in harm's way, we don't stop to ask "Is he a good person, worthy of being rescued? Ok, in that case..." No. When we see someone suffering, we don't say "well, she probably deserves that..." No.
When someone is hurting, we help them. When someone is lost, we find them. When someone needs to be rescued, we run to them, and we don't count the cost. I believe that that kind of sacrificial love is something we, as Christians, learn from Christ, who (according to Philippians 2) "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross."
I say "we as Christians" learn this from Christ, and that's true. But it's also something universal, that transcends even religion and scripture. In the closing lines of the novel that the film is based on, Mark Watney puts it this way:
"The cost of my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother? Well, okay. I know the answer to that. Part of it might be what I represent: progress, science and the interplanetary future we've dreamed of for centuries. But really, they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it's true.
If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are [people] who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do. And that because of that, I had billions of people on my side."
There is a large church here in El Paso that has as their slogan "God is on your side." It's a nice slogan, but it doesn't go far enough. The message of hope that our community, our world needs to hear and (more importantly) needs to experience is this: God is on your side. And so are we.