Message for January 14, 2018
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
Scripture Reading: Exodus 13:17-18, 20-22
Christopher and I saw Lady Bird in early December, before the Golden Globes were announced and so I didn’t necessarily watch it thinking I would be preaching about it this month. When it was nominated for Best Picture in a Musical or Comedy, I was not surprised. I had urged Christopher to go see the movie for three reasons. First of all, it’s the scene in the trailer in which Lady Bird opens the car door as her mom is driving and just tosses herself out of the moving vehicle. Her mom’s reaction is awesome. She is ragging on her daughter in one moment and then in the next she’s screaming at the insanity of what her daughter just did. That scene was so great. I would have paid money to see that movie for that scene alone because it’s my kind of humour. My interest in the movie was heightened when I heard a compelling interview with the movie’s writer and director, Greta Gerwig in which she described her thought process in the writing and making of this movie. And finally, I wanted to see Lady Bird even before it was on our short list of Golden Globe nominees for this Reel Theology sermon series because our son Matthew, who is attending film school has a very good understanding of which movies are worth seeing and which movies are not and said this was going to be one of the best movies of the year. Not a statement to ignore.
On Friday afternoon, I went with some friends to see The Greatest Showman – another movie we are exploring in this Reel Theology series. I enjoyed that movie so much that after Christopher and I went to it over the Christmas holidays, I went again with my friends. Just as the movie ended and we all took a breath, one friend turned to me and asked, ‘now, how are you going to turn that into theology – into a sermon?!’ As I had seen the movie before, I quickly listed the themes that I will be exploring when the time comes. But the question alone of how to pull theological themes from a movie or any other life event is not insignificant. Stephen and I did not choose movies with overtly religious story lines. As far as I know there are also no moments of glaring biblical allusions such as there was in the Superman movie, Man of Steel where Superman is up in space and he knows that he must return to earth to save the planet. He leaves the spaceship by stepping backwards from it and hangs, there suspended, because, you know, he’s Superman and can stand out in literal space with no spacesuit and he hovers there a moment and as he does, he raises his arms and hangs his head. Which recalls anyone who knows the story of Jesus to his last moments of his humanly life, his crucifixion. And then there’s the last scene of Clint Eastwood’s movie, Gran Torino, in which the main character played by Clint, has put himself in harm’s way to protect some certain others that he used to despise and had grown to care deeply about over the course of the film. Clint’s character is shot and killed, and the ending scene and the camera pans up from the ground so that we can see Clint’s character laying on the ground and he’s lying there, with his arms outstretched. Once again, recalling viewers to the cross and, if you are a believer in the notion that God sent Jesus so that that his life would be sacrificed for the sake of humanity, this moment would be quite meaningful.
When images such as these appear in films, it is easy to make connections between the story on the screen and the bible. Well, it’s easy for those who are quite familiar with the biblical stories. When I was in first year English as university, my professor told the class it was essential for us to know the Bible because so often literature has the same story arcs as the Bible. Now that I’ve lived a bit of life, I would qualify what that professor told us. It’s not so much that English literature re-imagines the themes of the Bible but that those who know the Bible find parallels between the two. If a Rabbi, a Pastor and an Imam read the same book, I’m sure they would each find connections between the story written and the teachings of their own faith tradition. This is because each of them and each us have a particular worldview through which we filter what we see, feel and hear in the world using our life experience and the knowledge that we’ve gained to help us categorize and make sense of our world.
For those who grew up in homes with family attending church and having the occasional theological discussion, regardless of which faith tradition it is, it would not be a great stretch to make connections between what is happening in the secular world and your faith. You are trained to hear things and see things that others might not recognize because they are not familiar with the story. Like having a secret language. Like when the early Christians when it was still dangerous to openly acknowledge that you were a follower of Jesus, you would greet a stranger and draw a line such as this in the sand. If the other person did not follow Jesus, it would be meaningless to them, just a random movement. But if they were a follower of the Way, the invitation would be recognized, and they would complete the symbol by drawing another line so a fish was revealed.
When you live and breathe something intentionally, you begin to make connections between what you know and believe with what is happening out in the world. Like when my then fourteen-year-old asked me during the month of March if the flowers in the middle of a restaurant’s dining room table were purple because it was Lent. Probably had nothing to do with Christianity but he knew it was Lent and the colour for Lent is purple, therefore he saw Lent when he saw the flowers. A Muslim would have just seen beautiful flowers. Or perhaps, purple means something for them that we Christians did not make the connection to at that moment. There was push by some Christian denominations to always keep the teachings of Jesus forefront and centre, to filter all that happened in life through biblical learnings by asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ A whole line of jewelry and rubber bracelets were created with the letters, WWJD to remind the wearer to examine the situation they were in through the lens of the Gospel. So, when my friend asked me, ‘how are you going to preach the movie?’ it was not because she didn’t believe there were biblical themes in the movie but, rather, it was because she did not watch it with an eye for what would Jesus do, what is God telling us, as she watched the story.
The Bible is a series of stories that have been told and re-told over many, many years of how the early people of our world interacted with God and began to understand the ways of the world as God’s people. These stories were eventually written down and canonized into what we know as our Bible today, which includes the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, some of which we share with Judaism, and the New Testament, the Christian Scriptures. There are some Christians who might say that the day the Canon was finalized, was the end of interpreting of what God is doing in our world. What is written in the Bible is set in stone and the teaching is either there or it is not. There is nothing new to be understood or added. This literal, fundamentalist view of the Bible is a rather modern idea, created in late 1700s, early 1800s. Unfortunately this take on the Bible does not allow for the events of today’s world to enter into the biblical stories. The Bible was not intended to be a closed, dead thing. It is the Word of God and, as we know, God is not dead. God has created and is creating. God worked then in and through Jesus and God works today, in and through us. The Bible is a living thing, ready and able to accept the innovations and actions of God’s great Creation, of God’s humanity, and inform us as to how God might want us to act and react to the history that is being made today. We just need to be paying attention.
So, here we have this movie, Lady Bird. The story begins with a young woman, just about to begin her final year of high school. She and her mother are wrapping up a tour of potential colleges for Christine, who has recently given herself the new name of Lady Bird. We quickly learn that her mother has set a rather low bar for her daughter and does not have much confidence that Lady Bird will amount to much. She is trying to keep Lady Bird’s expectations in check. State college, not an Ivy League school is likely her best case scenario. Over time we come to understand that Lady Bird’s parents have serious financial concerns. The dad struggles with depression. The mom works double shifts as nurse on the mental health floor of the hospital. The older brother’s girlfriend has moved in because of something sketchy that’s happened, possibly between her and her parents. The dad has a soft spot for Lady Bird and her ambitions. The mom is exhausted. While she empathetic and caring at the hospital, she is fiercely direct with her daughter, who seems to be flighty and not appreciative of all her parents have sacrificed for her. The movie is a love story of the relationship of these two women. One-minute fighting tooth and nail and the next being in total agreement. There is religion throughout the movie as Lady Bird’s parents have insisted that she attend a Catholic private school. As the movie moves through Lady Bird’s grade 12, the passing of time is marked by the religious holiday masses the students need to attend but, by no means will she attend a Catholic college.
The focus of Lady Bird’s life, in this last year of high school, is to get out of Sacramento, the town she has lived in, on the wrong side of the tracks, for her whole life. Her mother does not want her to go. For financial reasons and also, we come to suspect, because she doesn’t want to lose her daughter. With some deception, Lady Bird finds a way out of Sacramento for college and when this is reveled to her mother, her mother is completely devastated. Devastated at the betrayal of the deception, the betrayal of her leaving, the betrayal that Lady Bird no longer needs her mother. She refuses to speak to her daughter in the last weeks she lives at home and when she finally does go, there are no words of hope, comfort or encouragement. The last few minutes of the film shows Lady Bird in her new life. And then, in an evening when the impact of all that has occurred washes over her, she revisits and reclaims all that she thought she had left behind her. She takes back the name her parents gave her. She seeks out a church to attend mass. And she calls her mother.
I chose the scripture readings from Exodus today because I was reminded of the trust in God that the Hebrew people had in fleeing from Egypt. Of course, there was soon to be some whining and complaining about wandering in the desert, but there was also a firm belief that there was a future for their people in moving forward. They not only believed this in their hearts but they had a sign in the pillars that God provided for them. A pillar of cloud in the day to protect them from the intensity of the sun and a pillar of fire at night to light their way and give them warmth. From the very first moment we meet Lady Bird, we can see in her the strength of her belief that she was capable of more than a local college. And, while we might not have seen the pillars that were set before her to follow, we see her determination and trust in following them. I also chose the story of the Canaanite woman who insists that Jesus assist her and her daughter, despite of his dismal of her request and her need for his help. In this story of Jesus, it is one of the only times that we see Jesus be inconsiderate of another’s need. And the woman does not back down. She fights for what she needs. I saw that story played out in this movie. Lady Bird’s potential is dismissed again and again by the elders in her life but she does not back down. She keeps standing up for what she wants. For what she needs.
Now these are the biblical stories that came to mind in regards to Lady’s Bird’s commitment to something bigger than what life seemed to be offering her in Sacramento. It was her determination to keep her eye focus on what was in front of her that I best remembered when I asked myself, what biblical story does this remind me of. And I could have built on the idea of having complete faith that God is working in your life and to keep keeping on. But what I have found, that has struck me more than her commitment was her paying attention. Just as the Hebrew people had to pay attention for the sign to flee Egypt and they had to pay attention to the pillars of cloud and fire to escape without harm. And just as the Canaanite woman had to pay attention to what Jesus was saying so that she could use his own teaching in her argument that he needed to help her and her daughter. Just as the people of God need to pay attention of how God is working in their lives, Lady Bird needed to pay attention to what was good in her own life. We don’t really get the sense that Lady Bird has anything good to say about Sacramento. Or her family. But as she is writing essays for her college applications, we discover that Lady Bird knows Sacramento in and out. We see a memory of hers of her first drive through town after she gets her driver’s license and we get the sense that she suddenly has a different appreciation for the town she has long taken for granted. In her new life, she is chatted up by a fellow and, out of the blue it seems, she asks him if he believes in God. Not really, he says. Why, do you? He asks. And she realizes that she does. No longer having time marked by being enveloped within the seasons of the church, she found herself paying attention to what she believed as opposed to what she felt was imposed upon her. The fellow asks her name. Christine, she says, the name my parents gave me, she says. She has a terrible evening. And in trying to get back to her residence, she finds herself in front of a church, at the beginning of mass. And she walks in. We are not privileged to join her once she walks in but when she walks out, she does what seemed impossible just days earlier, she calls her mom. Not expecting her to answer but to let her know how much Christine appreciates her mom in her life. Lady Bird seems to have spent so much of her last year of high school trying to flee her life not realizing it was the very things she was trying to escape that gave her the strength, the courage, the hope and the determination to leave. To stay on track. To stay focused. A solid church that gave her a stable and firm grounding in the world. A foundation of a family who kept her grounded and loved her beyond measure and against all odds allowed her an education that they couldn’t really afford. A Dad who was always there. A Mom who never relented in fighting for her daughter, even if it sometimes, from Lady Bird’s teenage ego-centric view, felt as if the mom was fighting against her rather for her. But it turns out Lady Bird was paying attention all along. She noticed what was good and vital in her life. And that’s what God asks of us. To notice what’s good and vital. To pay attention.