Sermon for January 5th, 2014
14 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: 15 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The famous reformed theologian, Karl Barth, once said that Christians should approach the world with a Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. What he was getting at was this: If we as Christians spend all of our time in study of scripture alone, we will be blind to the world around us, and will never be able to connect the gospel, the good news, to that world. To reach the world, we must also understand the world, we must be able to speak in its language. In Karl Barth's era, the newspaper was the best tool for accomplishing that. Today, I think it's the films, the movies, the blockbusters that we flock to see in the millions. Films are the great literature and storytelling of our era. Sometimes those films are good; sometimes they are bad, but always they shape and reflect our culture. Films are mirrors and magnifying glasses to who we are and what we aspire to be.
As Christians, it is our job to be aware of the places where our faith converges with the themes and stories our culture tells, and where we part company, too. As a pastor, I am a trained theologian. Trust me, I'm a professional! But seriously, it's my hope that in doing this series on faith and film, we can all learn to see the world through the lens of our faith wherever we go, to be amateur theologians, armchair theologians, connectors and interpreters of the scriptures we hold dear, and the world we live in.
With that, let's take a look at our first film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Film Clip #1
Three Minute Film Summmary
I'll try to begin each of these sermons with a three minute summary of the film. Note that I said "try." The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is actually the second film in a trilogy, based on the popular novels by Suzanne Collins. The world of the Hunger Games stories is set in a futuristic country named Panem (which incidentally is Latin for "bread"). Panem consists of a large, wealthy ruling capitol city and several poor districts which support the capitol. In order to punish the districts for a past rebellion, they are all forced each year to send one boy and one girl (ages 12-18)to compete in the Hunger Games--a sadistic and violent competition where all the children are placed in an arena and forced to fight to the death, as the entire nation watches on television. Basically, think of the whole thing as American Idol meets Roman Gladiators meets Lord of the Flies.
Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are from District 12, and are the winners of last year's hunger games. As the movie begins, they have been forced to tour all of the districts, representing the oppressive capitol which they despise. Katniss, however, has a habit of defying authority, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, and she begins to be seen by the people as a symbol of hope. She is also seen by the leaders of the capitol as a threat, and so in order to get rid of her, they come up with an "All Star" version of the Hunger Games, where the participants are all winners of previous years--forcing Katniss and Peeta back into the game again.
The actual game itself only occupies the last 20 minutes of the movie. Most of the film is spent in delicate politics of alliances, image-making, moves and counter-moves that lead up to the games. Once the games begin, however, delicate politics give way to speed, brute force, and dumb luck. Katniss and Peeta form an alliance with a handful of others that eventually begins to dominate the game. However, strange and secretive things begin to happen, plans and alliances begin to unravel, and in a dramatic climax, Katniss shoots a lightning-charged arrow into the dome of the arena itself, destroying the arena, and almost killing herself in the process. She awakens to find that the games have given way to real war: Her home district has been completely destroyed, and--inspired by her example--a new revolution in Panem is now underway.
Apocalypse & Dystopia
The world of the Hunger Games is a classic example of what's called "dystopia." It's the opposite of a utopia--a place where everything is all wrong, a hellish existence. Dystopian writing throughout history has often been a way to subtly critique society, or warn society about possible dangers that lurk in the future if left un-addressed. In Hunger Games, the stark contrast between the rich, fashionable, cruel capitol and the poor, struggling districts--and the threat of revolution--is probably intended by the writers and directors as a warning about the growing income gap, the growing disparity between rich and poor in our own time. This, of course, is a theme you'll also find on just about every page of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus, who, like Katniss Everdeen, was a friend of the poor and harsh critic of the rich and powerful.
But Hunger Games is more than just a dystopia. It also belongs to the genre of Apocalyptic writing--writing that chronicles events leading up to an apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it. And of course, in the Bible, the great work of apocalyptic literature is the book of Revelation, where we find today's scripture passage. Apocalyptic writing is usually written by those who are on the short end of the stick--those who are oppressed, those for whom no justice is possible in this world, and therefore hope is only possible when the world as we know it comes to an end. When John of Patmos wrote the Book of Revelation, this was certainly the case, as Christians--including children--were being brutally slaughtered by a Roman government, often in arenas as public sport. By the way, if you observe carefully, you'll notice that in The Hunger Games, all of the rich and powerful characters from the Capitol...have famous Roman names.
Sacrifice: No Greater Love
Jesus tells us in John 15:13 that "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." And of course, this is exactly what Jesus does in his crucifixion. In the first Hunger Games movie, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games when her younger sister, Prim, is selected, in order to take her place and save her life. In fact, most of Katniss' actions in both the first and second films are motivated primarily by a desire to sacrifice her own well-being for the sake of others: For her family, for her childhood friend, Gale, for Peeta, and even for other competitors she meets in the games. Actually, if you look, you'll find several characters in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire who sacrifice their lives or their well-being so that others can live.
Mentoring & Discipleship
In the Great Commission, Jesus commands his followers to go into the world and make disciples. We call it discipleship. The world calls it "mentoring," and its a big theme in The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta are guided by a mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, who is a previous winner of the Hunger Games, and who (on their behalf) skillfully navigates the alliances delicate politics underlying the game. At the beginning of the film, since Katniss and Peeta are now victors of last year's games, they are expected to become mentors themselves, and this is something Katniss in particular struggles with--she has no desire to be a role model. As her sister and her friends constantly point out, however, she already is. Film Clip #2
There is a scene in which the ruthless leader of the Capitol and the main villain in the film, President Coriolanus Snow, notices (with great disapproval) that his little granddaughter has styled her hair just like Katniss Everdeen. When she watches how Katniss takes care of Peeta in the games, she tells her grandfather, "someday I want to love someone that much." I'm reminded of Jesus' words: "They will know that you are my disciples by your love." We are all mentors, and all disciples, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. And they will know that we are his disciples...by our love.
Baptism & "Catching Fire"
The movie is entitled "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" for good reason. The opening scene of the film is a field covered in snow. Throughout the first half of the movie, it snows frequently in the districts and in the capitol--a cold, gray, snow, on a cold, frozen, sleeping land. Even the name of Panem's leader, President Snow, is meant to put this imagery in our head. But Katniss Everdeen is from district 12, a district known for it's coal mining industry. Coal is black, and when representing their district, Katniss and Peeta are often dressed in black costumes--but coal is black only when it is dormant, only when it is cold, unlit. When coal "catches fire" it burns bright red and hot. Thanks to their talented and subversive fashion designer, Katniss and Peeta's outfits do the same as they ride through the Capitol in a horse-drawn processional. They literally catch fire, and of course the crowd loves it.
Perhaps the most beautiful and symbolic scene in the entire film is when Katniss goes onstage to be interviewed before the games: She wears a beautiful white dress...but then when she begins to spin around, the dress (again thanks to her talented and subversive designer) catches fire, and transforms from white to black, and then it sprouts wings like a Mockingjay--a bird that in the Hunger Games symbolizes Katniss, and revolution. For this stunt, her fashion designer is of course executed.
The symbolism of the entire film is captured in that scene--black coal catching fire to melt the snow and awaken a frozen people. The people are catching fire. Katniss herself is catching fire. She is undergoing a transformation and an awakening into a new world, a new life. In Christianity, we call that...baptism. Yes, I know we usually associate baptism with water, but consider the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11-12: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now, that may sound harsh, but remember that fire in the Bible is not always hell-fire. Often it is the refining fire that burns away the part of us that is chaff, burns away our old selves and refines us into something new, something more pure, more pleasing to God. This is work of the Holy Spirit (which, remember, is symbolized by a flame) that we call "sanctification." Baptism is also an awakening from death into new life. At the climax of the film, Katniss undergoes a sort of death and resurrection--an awakening--and the camera focuses carefully on the opening of her eyes. Film Clip #4
In our passage today from Revelation, the crime of the church at Laodicea is similar to that of the Capitol in the Hunger Games: They are rich, they have prospered, they need nothing. They no longer have any need for God. In the Hunger Games, they are frozen; in Revelation they are lukewarm, but neither one is truly "catching fire," and therefore neither one can truly last. I don't know what happened to the church at Laodicea. I'm reasonably sure I know what's going to happen to the leaders of the capitol city in the next and final installment of the Hunger Games. But the question posed by both scripture and film is the same, and it applies to each of us: When it comes to your witness, your example to others, in faith, in hope, and in love...are you hot or are you cold? Are you on fire, or are you frozen? What would it take to fan the spark of your baptism into a roaring flame?
If you've seen the Hunger Games: Catching fire, you know that the ending is a real cliff-hanger, the kind that leaves you with all sorts of unanswered questions that will have to wait until next November. So I'll leave you with a question, too, but your ending doesn't have to be a cliffhanger. You can answer this question right now, today. Just a few short verses down from our scripture passage in Revelation chapter three, Jesus says to the church in Laodicea, "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in." My question is this: Will you open the door today?