Sermon for January 6th, 2019
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Faith & Film VII: Green Book
Three Minute Film Summary
Green Book is a movie based on the true life friendship between two men: Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American classical pianist and musical prodigy, and Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, who went by the nickname "Tony Lip." The film takes place in 1962, with Shirley about to embark on an eight-week concert tour in the deep south. He interviews and hires Tony Lip to be his chauffeur and bodyguard on the trip, and just prior to the trip Tony is given a copy of the "Green Book" from which the film takes its name. To explain more about what the Green Book is:
Through the course of their travels, Doc Shirley and Tony Lip first learn just how different they are, and then after enduring many challenges and trials together--including much racism, violence, and a night spent in a county jail--they begin to appreciate each other, learn from each other, and ultimately see each other as family.
Who's Saving Whom?
One of the most interesting things about this film is all the controversy that it generated after its release. For a film that deals very carefully and candidly about race and discrimination, I was surprised when several prominent critics panned the film as just another "white savior" film. In case the label doesn't make it clear, a white savior film is one where a noble, enlightened white person heroically intervenes to "save" a poor, helpless black person. Yes, there are plenty of films like this, and they tend to be about as patronizing and distasteful as you would imagine.
But I can assure you, this is not that kind of film. I suspect the critics who used that label didn't really watch the film. Yes, Tony Lip protects and often "saves" Doc Shirley from danger. But throughout the film, Doc Shirley also goes out of his way to help Tony improve himself--helping him to write love letters to his wife, helping him understand classical music, and improve his diction.
Regardless of the controversy, as a pastor, whenever I hear anyone use the word "savior" (white, black, whatever) my ears perk up. Words like savior, and salvation are inherently churchy words, even when used in a negative sense. And make no mistake, this IS a film about salvation and transformation. In the end, both of the main characters are "saved" from the demons that haunt them. Their eyes are opened to a new way of seeing, and their lives are transformed for the better.
But I don't think either Doc Shirley or Tony Lip are Christ types. Instead, they remind me of two other characters from the Biblical story, who also went on a road trip together that changed their lives and opened their eyes.
On the Road to Emmaus
Our scripture passage today is the story known as the "Walk to Emmaus." Two disciples of Jesus are traveling together, when they encounter a stranger on the road. He joins them on their journey, and the two are at first astounded and offended by the stranger's ignorance of current events (mostly the recent death of Jesus). We know, of course, that the stranger is Jesus, but we are told in verse 16 that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him."
On the course of the Journey, Jesus talks with them, teaches them, and helps them to understand the scriptures in a new light. At the end of their journey, they invite the stranger into their home, and ultimately we read in verse 31 that "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"
In the film Green Book, Tony Lip and Doc Shirley begin their journey together as strangers to each other--both are frequently astounded and offended at each other's ignorance of things they each think are important. As the journey progresses, they teach each other and learn from each other and help each other to understand a new perspective, a new way of seeing, and finally their eyes are opened and their lives transformed by love.
Jesus is not physically present as a third character in the film Green Book, as he is in the Walk to Emmaus. But in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible (Genesis) we read that God created us in his own image. That means that the image of God--the image of Christ--is present in each and every one of us. Sometimes we don't recognize Jesus in the person right next to us--the person with a different skin color, a different language or manner of speaking, a different worldview or set of beliefs--but that image, that presence of Christ, is always there. And when we spend time with another person, no matter how different, when we look for the best (not the worst) in each other, our eyes too can be opened and our lives transformed, just like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and like Doc Shirley and Tony Lip.
Breaking Bread Together
Food is a big theme that runs throughout Green Book. Tony Lip has a voracious appetite and is always eating something, while Don Shirley (predictably) has more discerning tastes, but food is clearly important to both men. They share many meals together in the car, at diners, in hotels... The climax of the film occurs at a fancy restaurant in Alabama, where Shirley is supposed to perform as the main entertainment, and the last big concert of his tour. However, when he and Tony Lip enter the restaurant and ask for a table, they are informed that the restaurant is a "whites only" establishment. While they are very excited for Shirley to perform for them, he is not welcome to eat there. They attempt to seat Tony Lip, and redirect Shirley to a "colored" restaurant down the road.
I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that their "last meal" together (not separate) on the tour is a memorable and touching one. In the clip we just saw, Tony Lip quotes his father as saying "when you eat, eat like it's your last meal."
And of course, we are reminded that Jesus, too, shared a last, memorable meal with his friends and followers--one that we remember every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper. At this meal, Jesus broke bread for his disciples. A few chapters later, on the walk to Emmaus, it is precisely when the resurrected Jesus breaks bread for the two disciples that they instantly recognize him--not when he's speaking to them, walking with them, teaching them--but when he breaks bread.
I think we see each other most clearly, we recognize the image of God in each other most, when we sit down at a table across from one another and break bread together. That's why communion is so important to us. That and church potlucks.
The film ends with one more meal. Doc Shirley and Tony Lip are finally driving back home to New York, through a snow storm, trying to get Tony Lip back to his family in time for Christmas Dinner. Tony becomes tired, has to pull over, and while he's sleeping, Shirley takes the wheel and drives his chauffeur the rest of the way home. He drops Tony off in front of his house, and then returns to his lonely, empty apartment to contemplate all that has happened. Tony, now surrounded with his very large extended family around the dinner table, should be happy.
But he's not. There is one member of his family missing--the newest member, his friend, Don Shirley. When the doorbell rings, and Shirley appears with a bottle of wine in his hand, the credits begin to roll as the two embrace and take their place around the family table.
Likewise, when we gather around our family table, the Lord's table--it's just not the same when you're not here. So come to the table of the Lord. And in this breaking of bread, may we recognize the presence of Christ in each other...may our eyes and our hearts be opened to each other, and may our lives be transformed.