Reel Theology – The Greatest Showman

Message for January 28, 2018
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee

Scripture: Matthew 8:1-4, 15:1-11

I’m not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one will love you as you are

But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious

So, I will say right now that I love this movie. I have seen it twice and if you like it as much as I do, you might want to download the movie soundtrack to save you some money from having to see it again and again. The combination of catchy music and the funky dance moves make me feel warm and happy inside. It pretty much has everything—a love story that has mean parents getting in the way and they have class differences, success is had through grit and determination, there’s personal growth, there are precious friendships and, not only one underdog, but several folks who are down and out who overcome the odds set against them. It’s a lovely story.

The story of “The Greatest Showman” is loosely based on the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, who, in 1871, created what would become the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, which shut down for good last year. To say it is loosely based on the historical figure of PT Barnum is a bit of a stretch. There are only three essential details that connect this movie’s story to the life of PT Barnum. PT indeed marry a woman named Charity and, of course, he did create a museum of oddities which evolved into a travelling circus and, for those of you who have seen the show, he really did introduce the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to America. The rest of his story has been reinvented and reimagined for the movie. However beautiful and compelling the story, it is important to know that this movie is primarily a work of fiction. I point this out because there are relationships and moments in the movie that simply did not happen or could not have happened in the time in which PT Barnum lived and when he created the circus. But I’ll get to that later.

The movie begins with Phineas as a boy who is living in poverty with his father. As all good tales go, there is tragedy in the boy’s life and he must find a way in a world that is cruel to those born within the lower classes. Thanks to the kindness of a woman who has some sort of unknown condition that sets her apart from the rest of society—you saw her in the trailer, she was the one who gave the Phineas the boy an apple—anyway, because of her kindness Phineas survives a rather desperate time and carries on and become a self-sufficient adult. Later, in another bleak moment, Phineas is inspired to start a museum of oddities. His memory of how the somewhat deformed woman helped him when he was younger, leads him to create a new show, a circus displaying people who are, themselves, odd, who are not the normal, not usual—a bearded lady, a giant, a wolf-man, Siamese twins, a man tattooed from head to foot, stem to stern. The Circus has its opponents in those who fear the unknown, the unusual. Phineas must fight against so many cultural norms to create a home for his own family and then the family he creates with the people of his Circus. Despite his successes, he cannot escape the lower class into which he was born. The deformed and strange human oddities he befriends are thought to be the result of moral depravity and so the righteous protest his Circus along with those people who fear what they don’t understand. There are two consistent aspects to Phineas’ character in the movie—he loves his wife and children without reserve and he cares deeply for the friends he finds the creation of the Circus. Of course, there wouldn’t be a story worth watching if there wasn’t a hiccup now and then in how Phineas treats his family and his friends, but, overall, it is evident that he cares not for what society determines as acceptable—he loves regardless of what’s ‘right’.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

When Stephen and I were looking ahead to the movies we chose for this sermon series, it wasn’t hard to connect scripture with this story. The relationships Phineas developed with the people who came out from the shadows to be in his show is reminiscent of how easily Jesus approached the people of his time who had the terrible disease of leprosy. Leprosy is contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities. Leprosy still exists today but is now mainly confined to tropical Africa and Asia. I don’t think that I’ve never met or seen anyone with leprosy but I’m pretty sure that if I did, I would think twice before I would stretch out my hand and touch them as Jesus did in the scripture reading that Kim read for us this morning. Jesus did exactly what no one else would do, he reached out to the one suffering. Besides just the looking gross and inherently not wanting to get too close, Jews would not have touched a person known to be ill because it would mean they would be unclean until they could perform their ritual cleansing. And until they could be ‘clean’, they could not interact in many everyday social activities. Of course, this was in the days before germs and the miracle of soap were understood—it was important to follow the religious laws because it often meant that you stayed healthy.

When I was in grade six, I was called from class to go to the office. Being a relatively well behaved student, I was a bit confused. Once I got there, the school nurse was waiting for me. I can still remember her worried face as asked me to show her my hands and then to open my mouth. Being careful to not touch me, she took a quick look and, from the look on her face, she did not like what she saw. Turns out, a teacher had notice the spots that had recently appeared on my hands and reported my condition. I was sent home immediately with diagnoses of hand, foot and mouth disease. I felt like a pariah. While that was a relatively minor illness, I was quite impacted by being secluded because of it. A few years ago, with our first youth trip to Zambia, I had a parent who informed that her daughter would not be shaking hands with any Zambians for the fear of catching some illness of sort or another. I told the mom the youth would either shake hands or not come on the trip because greeting one another with a handshake is central in interactions in Zambia. The importance of connecting through the slapping together of hands and the unique way they have of shaking the hand that is offered cannot stressed enough. Being afraid to touch another person in Zambia is to diminish their personhood. So, neither my hand, foot and mouth disease or the hand of an everyday Zambian does not even begin to approach what leprosy must look like and yet Jesus did not hesitate. He was asked help and he could have just offered prayers of healing for the man. He could have just prayed. But he didn’t. When asked for help, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the one that no one else in that society would. And he did not rush to the mikveh, the ritual bath, to cleanse himself. He touched the man and did not then pull out his hand sanitizer. He touched him and asked God to free the man from illness, to make him clean. And he was.

The second part of the scripture reading takes place soon after Jesus healed the leper. Jesus is about to sit for supper and, again, has not done the proper ritual. He is criticized by the religious leaders. His response is basically, what does it matter if I do a certain thing, a ritual, if I then go about my life without being kind, without being compassionate? He points out that it does not matter the fuss that is put into eating or not eating from list of ‘proper’ foods if one does not offer words of love to all they meet? I can imagine this was absolutely shocking to those who heard Jesus say this. Remember, these were the days that strict food laws were in place not only to offer a sense of community and belonging to those who followed the laws but they existed also because people had discovered, over time, if they ate certain types of food or prepared some foods in certain ways, people would become ill and sometimes die. So, to disregard the food laws would have been monumental. But Jesus was not disregarding the safety of food preparation so much as he was disregarding the false sense of piety connected to them. It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you more faithful to God, it is what comes out of your mouth that lets the world know your commitment to God and God’s love for the world.

In the Book of Acts, Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, had a dream sometime after Jesus is killed. Peter and his fellow apostles had been debating about what the emerging church will look like—who can join, who can do what, etc. One point of contention was whether one had to be a Jew before becoming a Christian—remember, Jesus did not set out to start a new church, at the time the followers of Jesus were considered more a sect of Judaism rather than a stand-alone faith tradition. Anyway, one night Peter dreamed a dream in which a blanket descends from the sky, presumably from heaven, and on it were all manner of animals. Peter interprets this dream as confirmation that all animals can be mixed up together, there needs to no longer be a strict separation of certain foods from other foods. The laws of Judaism did not need to be followed if one followed Christ. Yay, they could eat bacon! This was an earth-shattering change. The social norms that had developed out of the Jewish cleanliness laws meant that one had to be careful about who they came into contact with and who they associated with. Division would have been a natural outcome of such norms and where there is division, relationships are difficult to foster. And when relationships do not foster, it becomes easier and easier to see the unusual, the odd, the strange as something scary, unpredictable, unhuman.

Another round of bullets hits my skin
Well, fire away ’cause today, I won’t let the shame sink in
We are bursting through the barricades
And reaching for the sun (we are warriors)
Yeah, that’s what we’ve become

Won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
But with Peter’s dream, the newly emerging Christians could start eating bacon and they could begin eating with the other, the outsider, those at the margins. Remember Jesus ate with all he met along the Way—with prostitutes, tax collectors. He healed the blind, drove demons out of the ill and he cured the lepers. He sat with people with illnesses and deformities. It was confusing why one person and not another would be unfortunate and become ill or be born with a deformity or to be profoundly unlucky with their life circumstances. This random selection of fortunate and unfortunate, the ancient Hebrew people turned to God and let God take responsibility for the good and the bad. And if you had something bad happen to you, if you were not what was considered normal, surely God had weighed in and found you lacking in some manner. It was in bad form to associate with those that God had clearly judged to be less-than. Their misfortune might rub off onto you. And yet Jesus did associate with the less-than. With the ill, the unfortunate, the down and outs. He did openly. And he did so while calling those who wouldn’t hypocrites. Because if anyone needed to know God’s love, it was the very people who had been rejected by society.

At some point in his life, the real PT Barnum became a politician. From one of his speeches is the line, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.” In a time when people of colour were disregarded as less than human, when those who were not normal or who suffered misfortunes in life were considered beneath the general public’s care, PT Barnum made a home for the unusual. This sentiment comes through more so in the movie than the reality of PT Barnum’s life. As I said earlier, the progressive views that the movie displays are improbable considering the time the movie was set in. Although PT Barnum advocated for an end to slavery and pushed for African-America suffrage, in his younger years he was a slave owner. The movie does depict an openly inter-racial couple but it is hard to imagine that could have been possible in the mid-1800s. But that is one of the reasons this movie is so compelling—what seems to have been impossible, becomes possible. Social barriers are broken, courage is found to stand up to what is unjust, the strong fight the good fight so that the broken, the scared, the ill, the hurt, and the unusual can come out into daylight and be seen. The movie version of PT Barnum creates an environment of welcome in which each person’s worth is recognized regardless of how there are packaged up for the world to see. He says to those who have not known any kindness from society as he tries to convince them to join his Circus: They don’t know it yet but they are going to love you.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

No matter the size, shape, colour of those in his life, he sees them fully for who they are. His actions showed his love. And that is what Jesus taught us to do so long ago with the lepers, the prostitutes, the ill and the poor. And that is what God would have us do as we leave this place of comfort, safety and love and go back out into the world to share God’s love with all we meet. To know that in the praying for healing, courage and hope, we must never forget to also reach out in love and offer a hand that is compassionate and welcoming for love is not distant. It is as close as a handshake, an arm around the shoulder, a hug, a hand held in prayer. I pray that it may be forever so. Amen.

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