Reel Theology – Dunkirk

Message for February 4, 2018
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee

Scripture: John 15:12-17

When Stephen and I were choosing movies for this Reel Theology sermon series, we had to pick from movies that, for the most part, we had yet to see. We selected movies nominated Best Picture for the Golden Globes. There are two awards in the Best Picture category—best dramatic movie and best musical or comedy. We chose three from both categories. We read the synopsis and watched the trailer for each of the movies. There was much discussion whether we should include the movie “Get Out” or “Dunkirk” in our list—both being the intense, somewhat scary type of movie. It turns out, that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being that we enjoy intense, somewhat scary movies a lot and 1 being that we, in no way at all, enjoy these types of movies, it turns out that both Stephen and I are great big fat 0s on this scale. Neither of us saw “Dunkirk” when it was released last summer nor had we seen “Get Out” which was released last February. When the time came to watch the trailer for “Get Out”—which, by the way is in the comedy category—Stephen completely bailed and left the room. He had seen it once and didn’t need to see it again. We both agreed that it had all the makings of a horror movie, not a comedy. Anyway, It didn’t take us very long to choose “Dunkirk” over “Get Out” and then for him to suggest I be the one preaching on it.

I will say that I have heard very positive reviews for “Get Out” and it seems that we all should be watching it for how it portrays modern day race relations in the United States. My dear spouse has assured me that “Get Out” is well worth the effort and suggested we watch it at home, where all scary movies should be watched so I can keep an afghan close at hand to hide my face behind and he will pause it right before the really scary places and warn me about what’s about to happen. You can understand why the youth had so much fun making a minister-level of scary for the haunted house last fall. So, here we are. I ended up watching Dunkirk by myself on the Red Arrow to Edmonton. I’m sure I looked odd when I was tilting the iPad up and down and away from me during certain scenes. It was hard hold the iPad and cover my eyes with my scarf.

The movie version of “Dunkirk” is about the evacuation of some 338, 000 soldiers from the beach and harbor of Dunkirk in the north of France in 1940. Allied Belgian, British and French soldiers had been cut off and surrounded by German troops. Over a period of eight days, a rescue operation initially planned for 45,000 men grew exponentially so that seven and a half times that many were rescued. The evacuation of Dunkirk is a moment in our history that is filled with acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, miracles and unbelievable feats of sheer will and determination. The movie gives very little detail about the how and why of the decisions that brought the 400, 000 troops to the coast at Dunkirk. We are not told much of the events leading up to the evacuation nor, when the movie is finished, are we told what happened once the men are rescued. None of that matters in the telling of this event. The evacuation and rescue of that vast number of troops, who waited with incredible patience and self-control lined up from the beach into the water, day after day, is story enough. That the story is about the rescue efforts made by the British for the Allied forces will likely give cause for those of us on the victorious side of the overall war to pay attention but even if you took the reality of Allied versus Axis away, the movie would still be a riveting tale.

Dunkirk was such a massive operation, it would be hard to know where to focus over those eight days of getting troops off the beach. In a clever manner, the movie narrows the experiences of the evacuation to three story lines. We don’t know names so much as know personalities of the characters, the way they fight to survive in what became, I’m sure, felt like hell on earth. At first, there is a young soldier who emerges onto the beach which already has thousands of men. Over the course of the week he spends on the beach or in the water and water vessels trying to get away, he is joined by one and then another soldier. The three become united in their efforts to survive. There are three other men, or rather, two men, a father and son, and a teenage friend, who leave Ramsgate, England just across the English Channel, in a small pleasure boat having been requisitioned by the navy to assist with the rescue. There were 850 of these so-called little ships of Dunkirk, that could get close enough to the beach to ferry the soldiers out to the larger carriers. And, in the third storyline, there are, at first, three pilots fighting over the ocean, near Dunkirk. Three become two, and then becomes one. Each of the men, teenager included, is either trying to survive or trying to help another survive. The difference between life and death is razor thin.

It’s hard to know where God was in the Second World War. You could say that about any war, but World War II seemed especially heinous. People have trouble seeing how God was at work in the world in those years. It seems that we allow greed and fear and anger to often cloud our decision making. We know that is with us in all times and in all places, but are we always with God? So much of humankind’s folly is at odds with the peace of God’s kingdom. Truly evil things are done during war. These moments of madness make heightened the sin and brokenness of our humanity but these moments of confusion and terror also give opportunity to see more clearly the grace of God which is given to us in this world time and time again. If only we recognize it for what it is. Breaking through the mass chaos of the events in this movie, there are brief slivers of time in which God’s grace can take your breath away if you have the eyes to see and ears to hear. A stranded soldier is rescued from the middle of the English Channel by the men on the boat. He is in distress—shell-shocked and frightened. The father treats the soldier calmly and gently. Makes sure he gets a cup of tea. Makes sure he is comfortable. Grace. Later there is an accident and the teenager is badly hurt by soldier. The son, a friend to the teenager, is angry and scared at first but over the course of the day, he experiences, second-hand, the terror of having to fight for survival, and later, when the distressed soldier when asked if the boy is alright. The son reassures him. Yes, he says, he’ll be alright, even as the boys’ body is being carried off the boat by stretcher in the background. The son knows it was an accident and he knows the solider could not bear the burden of yet another tragedy. Grace. And near the end of the movie, when the evacuated soldiers are moving by train through England, they are feeling ashamed for needing to be rescued. They are afraid that the Allied world will think them cowards and hate them. The soldiers cannot bear to look up when they come into a station filled with civilians. They think the noise they hear are protests against their retreat but then they realize that the crowds are cheering for them not against them. The people waiting at home for word of their troops on the ground, are celebrating their safe return. To their surprise, the soldiers are not blamed for the military failure but rather are greeted with joy and with thanksgiving. Grace upon grace in a time of fear and desperation.

One definition of grace is that it is the free and unmerited favour of God. Grace is our unearned help and our undeserved blessing. Grace is bestowed upon each of us by God without expectation or explanation. In our world, in our common lives, we are governed by a deep-seated understanding that we get what we earn. We get what we deserve. We work, we get paid. We borrow money and we pay interest in exchange. We receive a Christmas card and we are sure to give one in return. Our common lives is often an equation that eventually balances out. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. That is the economy upon which we structure our everyday lives. But God does not operate within the economy of credit and debt. God does not keep a tally. God’s economy leaves no one behind. In the fullness of divine love, no one is left out. That is the gift of God. That is grace.

Sometimes the witnessing of grace can feel like catching a break. The soldier caught a break in not being found guilty in the manslaughter of an innocent boy. The returning soldiers caught a break by not being blamed for the mistakes of the military leaders. But grace is so much more than that, isn’t it? For God is there, mixed up in the mess of life. The United Church’s A Song Faith states, ‘we are a community of broken but hopeful believers’. Even in the hurt and damage we do to one another—with wars, distrust, greed, fear, with the lack of love, A Song Faith reminds us that:

God transforms,

and calls us to protect the vulnerable, to pray for deliverance from evil,

to work with God for the healing of the world, that all might have abundant life.

We sing of grace.

War brings moments that are extreme and magnify what is broken about humanity and so, behaviour that is kind and compassionate that might seem insignificant in another time, are also magnified and we can catch a glimmer of God working. But I would hope that we do not need war to open our eyes and ears to recognize God’s grace. In our everyday lives, grace can the nudge from God, reminding us to extend of the courtesy of assuming good intent, or at least the absence of bad intent, on the behalf of the actions of another. Or God’s grace shows up in the unnecessary gracious of another when you’re ‘assuming good intent’ radar is not functionally properly. Like the other day when I was in the lineup for the Tim’s drive through and this guy made like he was going to cut in front of me in line. I expressed my concern for his lack of lineup etiquette. He could easily of escalated the “discussion” but he didn’t—he rolled down the passenger window and explained he was trying to get out of the way of someone backing up. Sigh. You see, I just assumed bad intent on his behalf. Thankfully I wasn’t a total jerk during the “discussion” phase of the interaction but I still felt bad. Why did I move so quickly to the negative possibility of his motives? Probably cause I was in a hurry, just like every other time I’m at Tim’s. As much as I try to allow for grace to enter in and allow me to be gracious, sometimes it’s hard when I’m in a hurry. Again, from A Song of Faith, “God tends the universe, mending the broken, reconciling the estranged.” I said sorry and bought the man his coffee when I got to the window.

Grace can be knowing, really knowing that so much of our life circumstances can be summed up with, there but for the grace of God go I. By luck or happenstance, we are in the right place at the right time when someone else is not. By the skin of our teeth, we miss a near disaster when another does not. I read a post from a clergy person in the States that I met a couple of years ago. She told of her dear friend, a young man who had lost his parents and sister to a driver who had taken too much Xanax—an anti-anxiety drug that can make you drowsy. Anyway, in the collision, the driver’s 2-year-old child was also killed. The driver had just recently been sentenced for his actions and he received what would seem to be a rather light sentence. Two reasons why the judge was somewhat lenient were that when the driver was free from jail for a short period of time, he returned to the scene of the accident and saw that small crosses had been erected—three for the young man’s family and one for his daughter. Knowing that the young man had set up the crosses and had included his daughter in the memorial, cause the driver to begin doing whatever he could do to make reconciliations for his actions. That he was actively working to make things right—as right as could be—showed the judge that he was taking responsibility for his actions and because he was and because the young man who lost his family wrote a letter stating that he believed there were extenuating circumstances to the accident, that he understood the driver did not enter onto the roadway that day with the intent to kill his family, that the driver made a mistake, the judge was lenient in the sentence. The grace of God shown by the young man, setting a cross for a child he did not know and in the writing of the letter,

God transforms what we have broken. Grace is more than mere kindness, it is God working in our world, it is the transformation of life. We need the assurance of grace when we are recovering from mistakes and need grace to sustain us if we are uncertain we are taking steps in the right direction as we make our way in life. You do not earn grace. Nor do you buy it. God’s grace is given abundantly and without reserve. God loves you and offers you grace, in the good and difficult times in your life. God offers you grace even when you may not recognize it in the moment. God offers you grace whether you believe you deserve it or not. God’s grace is not a transaction. God’s grace is for you. May you recognize it in your life this day and forevermore.

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