Sermon for January 7th, 2018
1 Samuel 16:6-7
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Faith & Film VI: Wonder
Today begins a seven-week series on Faith and Film--specifically we'll consider eight films that came out in the past year, spanning a wide variety of genres and styles, and we'll consider the places where those films intersect with questions of faith, spirituality, and our own Christian story.
Unfortunately, it's become popular in some churches to denounce "Hollywood" as a godless, immoral seducer of young minds, but I think that's giving Hollywood too much credit. Writers, directors, producers, actors--like storytellers of every age--are most inclined to tell the stories that people most want to see and hear.
So while a great story can make us think or inspire us to change, more often our stories are simply a reflection of what we value, what moves us and stirs us, what hopes, fears, dreams we cling to, and what's on our collective minds in any given moment.
In the 20th century, the famous Reformed theologian Karl Barth said that we should preach the gospel with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. Likewise, Jesus himself preached using parables, stories that drew from the familiar elements, customs, and events of his own culture.
If we, as 21st century people of faith, want to understand and engage with the world around us, if we want to understand ourselves and the neighbors we are called to love, then we must look to the stories of our day--the good ones, the bad ones, the great ones--not blindly and uncritically, but also not simply to judge or condemn. We look to our stories, our films to see, to recognize, and ultimately to share those places where God's story, where God's enduring themes of faith, hope and love shine through the silver screen.
With that, let us turn to our first story, "Wonder."
Three Minute Film Synopsis
Wonder is the story of August Pullman (Augie), a young boy who suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, which is a genetic disease that manifests in severe facial deformities, among other things. The film is based on a best-selling novel by the same name, and spans Augie's first year of Middle School.
The story begins from Augie's perspective, but ultimately broadens as we see the same events from the perspective of his parents, his sister, his classmates and others. We root for Augie, the main character, as he is bullied, as he struggles to make friends, and ultimately he grows, as he draws inspiration from those around him and inspires them in return. But what I love most about this film is that it treats all of its characters with dignity, sometimes reversing our expectations, pulling back the curtain to show us why people act the way they act, often surprising us with acts of vulnerability, forgiveness, sacrifice, and humanity.
There is a scene at the very end of the movie, at the closing assembly for Augie's school, where he receives his school's highest award. As the principal describes the character traits for which the award is given, we see flashbacks from the film where each of the characters--Augie's friends, his family, his classmates--have all exemplified these traits. As Augie makes his way to the stage to receive the award, his community cheers him on with a standing ovation, and we hear Augie's voice narrating the scene, saying that everyone deserves a standing ovation at some point in their lives. His triumph is everyone's triumph and vice versa.
And a Little Child Shall Lead Them
Names are important, and often have significant meaning. This is certainly true in the Bible, and in most great stories as well. In this film, our protagonist is August Pullman. August is a Roman or Latin name that means to grow, to increase (think of the related word, to "augment). I suspect that his last name, Pullman, is exactly what it sounds like. Pull man. As Augie grows through his experiences, he pulls along his fellow man, so that everyone triumphs together.
As students of the Bible, we should see some parallels with Augie's character and that of young David, in the Old Testament. David doesn't "look" the way people expect a king to look, but we are told that God judges us not by our outward appearance but rather by what's in our heart. This is a recurring theme in the movie Wonder. Augie, near the end of the film, bravely faces down a "giant" 7th grader, much as young David faces down the giant Goliath.
The relationship between Augie and his best friend Jack Wills is reminiscent of the friendship between David and Jonathan.
As David grows into a young man, he is rejected by King Saul and lives for a time in isolation as an outcast, but eventually his heart and his character draw more and more people to his side, so that when he finally enters Jerusalem in triumph, he has pulled along most of his fellow Israelites, and David's triumphs become their triumphs. That, of course, is also the plot of Wonder.
Through a Glass, Darkly
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, the Apostle Paul writes that "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." It's a great verse, because it implies that what we call "reality"--this world, here and now--may not be the true reality, but just a dim reflection of what is ultimately possible.
There's a really interesting thread that weaves through the film, where the characters move back and forth between real worlds and imagined worlds. Sometimes in the middle of a difficult situation, Chewbaca or Darth Sidious--characters from the movie Star Wars--will appear inexplicably in the scene. They are, of course figments of Augie's imagination, but when they appear, usually Augie has some kind of epiphany or moment of clarity.
When Augie and his best friend Jack have a falling out, they don't speak to each other for several weeks. Then, over the Christmas break, they encounter each other in the online video game world of Minecraft, and it is only in this imaginary world that they are finally able to reconcile with each other.
A similar reconciliation happens between Augie's sister, Via and her mother (and Via's estranged best friend, Miranda) in the context of a school production of the play, "Our Town," which is, of course, a type of imaginary world.
One more example of this: The very first, opening shot of the film is of Augie, in an imagined Astronaut costume, floating in space, with a backdrop of painted, cartoonish-looking stars. The shot cuts to the "real" scene--Augie jumping on his bed with an astronaut helmet on, and the stars are painted decorations on the wall behind him. But then in the very last scene of the movie we see Augie again floating in space, again in an astronaut costume...and this time, the stars are real.
I think the point here is an intentional blurring of the lines between what is real and what is imagined, what actually IS and what might be. Sometimes, if we're willing to see with our heart instead of our eyes... our reality can change. Augie's school principal, Mr Tushman, puts it this way:
Augie can't change the way he looks (reality); so maybe we can change the way we see (imagination). In that light, listen again to the Apostle Paul: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."
At one point in the film, Augie's mother echoes this when she tells Augie that he is not ugly. Through angry tears, he says "You have to say that because you're my mom!" She responds, "Because I'm your mom it counts the most, because I know you the most."
Perhaps the greatest and most explicit theme in the film (and the tagline on most of the movie posters) comes early on from Augie's English teacher, Mr. Brown. Of course it's the English teacher--God's most special representatives on earth! Here's the clip:
Choose Kindness. It's the standard by which every action in this film is judged, and the goal that all of the characters are ultimately working toward.
It's also what the author of Colossians urges in today's scripture passage when he tells his readers to "get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language" and to "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience."
Of course, I need to point out that this verse, along with the 451 other places in the Bible where the word "kindness" appears do not mean that Christianity has a monopoly on kindness. It is a central tenet of our faith, but also of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and every other major world religion. Which is amazing, when you consider how hard it is for us to agree on anything that has anything to do with religious belief. Perhaps choosing kindness would be a great place to start.
But how do we do that? I think we have to hear and remember the first part of Mr. Brown's precept: "When given the choice between being right or kind..." No religion has a monopoly on kindness, but most religions (including ours) passionately believe they have a monopoly on being right. For that matter, so do most atheists I know.
There's a name for that: Orthodoxy. It's a Greek word that literally translates as "right thinking" or "right belief," and for most of the past millennium, it has been the golden standard that every denomination, every religious movement has claimed. We're orthodox. We're right. You are not.
But we are now 18 years into a new millennium, and perhaps it's time for a new standard, and new goal to strive for.
I'd like to propose one. There's a Greek word for it, too: Orthopraxy. It means "right practice," or "right action." Choosing kindness over rightness is choosing action over belief. It doesn't mean that we disregard all of our beliefs...it just means they become secondary to our actions, to being kind.
I think if we, as people of faith, get this order of things right, if we hold on to our beliefs...but even more tightly to our practice of kindness, then (like Augie Pullman), we will grow together, and we will pull all humanity upward along with us so that everyone triumphs together. That would be real wonder, wouldn't it?