Sermon for January 3rd, 2021

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Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Hebrews 11:8-10

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Faith & Film IX - The Wizard of Oz

Three Minute Film Synopsis

How many of you have NOT ever seen the Wizard of Oz? This film routinely shows up in listings of the top three most watched movies of all time, and it received more votes from you than any other film in our survey, more than any film in ANY decade of the 20th century, so unless you've lived your entire life under a very large rock...I think a one minute film synopsis should do just fine.

Dorothy Gale is a young girl who lives on a farm in Kansas, until her house is swept away by a tornado which deposits her (and the house) in a fantasy world called Oz, full of witches, wizards, munchkins and flying monkeys. In order to find her way home, Dorothy embarks upon a journey to the Emerald City, the home of the great and powerful wizard of Oz. Along the way, she befriends a scarecrow, a tin man, and a cowardly lion, and is antagonized by the wicked witch of the west, whom she ultimately defeats with a cup of cold water. The great wizard of Oz turns out to be a bit of a fraud, but does help her three friends overcome their issues. Dorothy says goodbye to her friends, and with some help from the good witch of the North, she returns home to her family by clicking her magical ruby red slippers together and repeating the words, "there's no place like home."

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

The Wizard of Oz is a classic example of what is called "The Hero's Journey" or the "monomyth" in literature and mythology. In this kind of story, which Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung believed was the oldest kind of story, a hero is called to undertake a long journey into the unknown, receives supernatural assistance along the way as well as guidance from helpers and mentors, undergoes a profound transformation resembling a death and rebirth, and ultimately returns home full circle as a new person.

In the Wizard of Oz, all of these journey elements are present, and tied together symbolically with a very famously colored road:

In the earliest days of Christianity, the followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians. They didn't even call themselves followers of Jesus, actually. They called themselves followers of the road (Gr. ὁδός). They viewed faith itself as a long journey, which began at baptism, which involved divine (or supernatural) assistance from the Holy Spirit, assistance from helpers in the form of the faith community, and (following the example of Jesus) which culminated not in death but in resurrection to a new life and a return to our true, original home with our Creator.

The idea that this world we journey through is not our true home, but that we are all foreigners, immigrants, strangers in the land of Oz, is reflected both in our scripture passage from Hebrews, and also in the motto of First Presbyterian Church--when we say that we strive to be a church for Wonderers, Wanders, and Wisdom Seekers: Basically for those who find themselves wandering along life's "yellow brick road" taking in all the wonders around them, all the wisdom they can...but ultimately longing for a spiritual Kansas. Because there's no place like our heavenly home.

Heart, Soul & Mind

The three friends that Dorothy meets along the way--the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion--each have "deficiencies" they seek to overcome, and which they believe the Wizard of Oz can help them with if they accompany Dorothy on her journey.

The three things Dorothy's friends seem to lack are a brain, a heart, and courage. In English, a synonym for "courage" is "spirit", which is the literal Greek translation of ψυχῇ in our scripture passage from Matthew 22, where Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your spirit, and all your mind (or brain) and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Incidentally, if you pay close attention, you'll notice that throughout the film, the Scarecrow is always thinking of great ideas, the Tin Man is the most emotional of the three, and the cowardly lion is the most brave when it counts the most. Rather than lacking these attributes, they are instead teaching them to Dorothy--heart, mind, and spirit--and all of them, Dorothy included, are living out what it means to love your neighbor (in other words the stranger you meet on the road) as yourself.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Near the end of the film, having completed the task given to them by the Wizard of Oz, at great danger to themselves, the four companions make a shocking discovery about the Great and Powerful Wizard.

I love that last line: I'm a very good man--I'm just a very bad wizard. It hints at the dual nature that we want, that we expect from our divine beings. We want them to be great and powerful (good wizards, able to solve all our problems) but we also want them to be good persons (like us, relatable to us). It's a tricky balance, and many of the things (or people) we place our hope and faith in, just like the Wizard of Oz, can be one but not the other.

Dorothy says in the clip, "If you were really great and powerful you would keep your promises!" I have known so many people, that when God doesn't answer their prayers in exactly the way they hoped for, they feel like someone has pulled back the curtain, and the man behind the curtain can no longer be the God they once believed in, and so they walk away from faith altogether.

Of course, the irony here is that the Wizard--even though he's not what they thought he was, even though he does not magically take away their problems--is the one who shows them that they have always had everything they need within themselves to solve their problems. Okay, technically it's the Good Witch Glinda who points this out to Dorothy, but we'll consider her to be like an angel, a messenger of God, so it's the same idea.

We worship Jesus as the one who was fully divine, but also at the same time fully human. And our Bible teaches us, in 2nd Peter 1:3-7, that:

"His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, YOU must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love."

Like Dorothy, like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, like the Cowardly Lion--God has already given each one of you all the heart, all the brains, and all the courage you need to love your neighbors, to help strangers, to overcome evil, and find your way on the long journey that leads you over the rainbow, down the yellow brick road, beyond the emerald city, and at last to your eternal home.