Message for February 11, 2018
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
Scripture: Luke 4:28-30, 22:39-43
Well, here we are, at the last in our Reel Theology sermon series. We’ve looked at a variety of movies with a wide range of themes and topics. We started with “I, Tonya” and Stephen explored how the lack of love in Tonya’s life drove her to seek love in places and people that could not offer her love in return. Then, through “Ladybird”, we explored the determination of Christine in not letting go of her plans for the future only to discover that her success going forward was built on a foundation of love from her past. Then Stephen looked at the impact of isolation and reminded us that it is in community that we find healing when he spoke about “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. With “The Greatest Showman” I spoke about how God’s love is for all people, no matter the size, shape, colour or ability. And last week, I looked at how God’s grace was portrayed in the movie “Dunkirk”. And this in last week of the series, we are looking at “The Post” starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. In December when we were choosing the movies to preach on, this is the movie I was most excited to see and to talk about. For those of you that were here last week, know that, as unwilling as I was to see the movie “Get Out”, that’s how much I wanted to see “The Post”. One of the reasons for my desire to see it is because I’m thinking we’re watching the Americans live through a similar type political upending, right now, in this modern day.
Let me tell you, my dear spouse would have been quite surprised a couple of short years ago if he heard me say that this movie out of all the ones we selected, was at the top of the list of which one I wanted to see the most—a movie with a story is primarily about political intrigue. You see, it was not all that long ago, I will admit, that I had very little interest in politics—Canadian, much less American. But then, in 2016, November 8th happened. It was a Tuesday and we had a Board Meeting. Nancy McKellar and I sat together, taking peeks at her phone, and watched with despair as Donald Trump made his way to becoming the next President of the United States. Donald Trump. President! I got home that night and threw up my hands and said, this is it, the world has gone to hell in handbasket. The 15-year-old, who was watching the poll returns, told me, it can’t be all that bad Mom, let’s see what he can do. Remember this is AFTER Trump was caught on tape talking about sexually assaulting women and had twelve women accuse him of sexual harassment, never mind all the horrible things he had said during the campaign. Anyway, November 8th resulted in me paying a lot closer attention to everything that’s happening in the States. When the time came that I could name people in Trump’s administration and those Senators who were speaking against the Muslim ban and rallying support for their version universal health care, that was about the time in our household that I realized that those that I live with had only so much patience for American politics. What I find fascinating, is that at this point over a year into his presidency, Trump and his cronies are the creators of and the participants in a modern day political train wreck. And it’s happening right before our eyes. My generation has not ever really experienced something like this. Maybe the Iran-Contra Scandal but not something that has impacted the whole country the way Trump’s policies are affecting all manner of people across his nation and, then, even into ours as travel across borders is restricted and NAFTA and the Paris Agreement no longer seem to be important to the government of the US. So, this train wreck is happening in slow motion and I can’t seem to look away.
So, I wanted to see “The Post” because I was interested to see how an earlier political scandal played out—now that I understand the structure of the American government, it’s a lot less confusing to watch these US political dramas. This movie is advertised as the struggle experienced by the Washington Post, a local Washington, DC paper, in publishing the highly controversial Pentagon Papers in 1971. Now, remember, 1971 was the year before Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began reporting about the Watergate break-in. The Pentagon Papers were thousands and thousands of documents that had researched and assembled as a history of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The Papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with the bombings of nearby Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which were reported in the mainstream media at the time. The Papers demonstrated that successive Presidential Administrations had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress. The publishing of the Papers allowed the nation to discover how deeply they had been betrayed by their government. So, that’s the basis of the movie but the story of publishing the Papers is not really the Washington Post’s story. In truth, it belongs to the New York Times, whose staff spent three months vetting and confirming facts before taking the risk of being charged with treason in making the Papers public. The Washington Post did their own reporting but, the fact of the matter is, they were quite secondary in the drama of being attacked by the White House and having to defend their First Amendment right and the right to publish.
The underlying story line of “The Post” is, I think, the more intriguing story—especially in light of the recent growing awareness of the role of women in society and the world. “The Post” can be seen as the story of a pivotal moment in the life of Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. The movie displays how Katherine grew from being rather meek and unsure in her role as Publisher of her father’s paper, to becoming a resolute and confident leader who finally takes on the mantle of the guiding force of the paper that had been in her family since 1933. Due to a poor relationship with her mother, who was distant and often away, Katherine’s lack of self-confidence was apparent well into adulthood. Despite having worked for a newspaper in San Francisco and for the Washington Post itself since 1938, her father gave control the of the paper to Katherine’s husband in 1946. When asked if that ever bothered her, she replied, “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” Katherine never planned on running the paper but the sudden death of her husband in 1963 elevated her abruptly into leadership. It might seem odd to young women today when the Prime Minister of Canada is asked why he has appointed so many women to Cabinet, his response is simply, it’s 2015 but let us remember that in 1963 women were simply a non-entity in the business world. Time and time again, we see Katherine enter into board rooms and meetings in which she is the only female amongst a dozen men. The very few women in leadership in the Sixties and the early Seventies had no female role models, mentors or examples of how the weaker sex could possibly function in rooms full of powerful men. One quotation that sums up the attitude at the time towards women being leaders over men, which seems unbelievable today and which my movie mates thought was hilarious that I was them to hear it, one of the men says behind Katherine’s back, “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not supposed to happen.” So, you can see, the mountain that Katherine had to climb in order to establish her authority as Publisher of the Washington Post.
Cindy read two passages from Luke today. The first takes place near the start of Jesus’ ministry once he returns from the desert where he was tempted by Satan. The second reading takes place at the end of his ministry, in the dark of the night in the quiet hours just before he was arrested for blasphemy. Both moments are examples when Jesus finds himself uncomfortably dealing with the outcome of his beliefs and his actions. Jesus knew what he was about. After his baptism and his time of trial in the desert, Jesus firmly believed that his role was to upend society as everyone knew it—so that the poor, the ill, the widowed would no longer suffer at the hands of those who lived by greed and fear-mongering and who remained willfully ignorant to God’s call for humanity to create a loving and peace-filled world. Jesus returns to his hometown after swinging through Galilee and being glorified by all there who heard him speak. He arrives in Nazareth and speaks at the synagogue. You can imagine that he might have been a bit nervous, speaking for the first time in front of the folks he grew up with. His words are heard but the people are not prepared to recognize his authority. Is this not Joseph’s son? they ask—as if Jesus could never be more than the son of carpenter. He holds his ground and continues to speak as one very knowledgeable of God’s ways. How dare he, this son of a carpenter, he’s no religious leader. The people who have known him his whole life rise up and kick him out of the synagogue and down the road. They kick him out. Out of his hometown! Can you imagine what he must have been feeling? But he keeps himself together and passes through their midst. He stood up and said what he knew to be true and when he was challenged, he did not capitulate. He held his ground.
The second part of the scripture reading is similar in nature, but from a different perspective. Jesus has caused trouble everywhere he went during his ministry. In-between the miracles, the healing, the preaching the Good News and modelling God’s love in his actions and his behavior, the Jewish religious leaders who worried more about their peace rather than God’s peace, have challenged him every step of the way, telling everyone who would listen exactly which societal norms and religious laws he was breaking, and they plotted to kill him. Relentlessly pushing, Jesus did not give up saying what needed to be heard so that change, real change could happen in the world. And, when he arrives in the last few free hours that he has, he knows there is no going back. His path has been set and it leads in only one direction, to the cross. He prays, asking God to take his cup—that cup that is so full of anxiety, trepidation and certainly some fear of what’s to come, it’s so full that it is nearly over-flowing—God, please take the cup. But then he says, not my will, but yours be done. Jesus knows that just as he stood up all through his ministry, he needs to keep standing now. He had been a fierce advocate for speaking truth at all times, even when it meant people would not fully understand and might be angry with him. He couldn’t speak out against complacency, against the sins of the world and against the systemic disregard for the common good in all the days leading to the Garden, and then just denounce it all and walk away.
The definition of integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, the state of being whole and undivided. One does not simply have integrity, one builds and cultivates integrity by behaving authentically in a consistent and predictable way. Brene Brown, the author of the book we are reading for this winter’s book study, Braving the Wilderness, says that for someone to fully belong to any one group, they must first belong to themselves—we must be authentic to who we are no matter the pressure from the outside world to compromise our principles, give up our beliefs or enter into moral ambiguity. We seem to be living in times in which the truth is constantly up for debate, an era of fake news. Promises are made and not lived out. In these days of the phones in our pocket, there is very little chance that what is said, even in a closed setting, can be denied. And now, more than ever, it is becoming apparent that some of our leaders will say anything to be elected only to renege later. How do we explain to our children, how do we justify to ourselves that it is okay to say one thing in once circumstance and then then say the opposite later? When Justin Trudeau campaigns on election reform and then virtually ignores the electoral reform commission’s report? Or when Trump says he loves the Dreamers and wants nothing more than their security but then holds their citizenship hostage against a variety of other political matters?
Integrity is essential for peace to reign in our world. Integrity means that speaking truth is important. When you are truthful, when you have integrity of spirit, of action, of belief, when you have integrity trust is created and built upon. Change can happen. Voices can be heard. Peace can be found. Jesus modeled integrity that came at a great cost. It is said that both faith and integrity always come at some cost—if they were free, neither of them would be much to build a foundation upon. Katherine’s integrity, the principles that she tried to live her life by, the moral compass by which she set her path, were not necessarily known because no one thought her opinion important, but when the time came, when push came to shove, when the White House was using every scare tactic in the book, when that happened, she did not back down. When her personal relationships with politicians caught up in the mess of the conspiracy could have influenced her to set aside what was good and right to do, she didn’t let their likely embarrassment sway her. It was not easy, but she stayed standing. She remained authentic to herself and by saying, do it, publish, her commitment to truth, her integrity, shone through the fear and stress of what might come.
Watching this movie in which someone, particularly a woman with all that’s happening now in our society, that this person sticks firmly to her principles and her moral character and allows for the truth to be known, is so heartening in today’s world. Those who stand for truth, whose integrity is solid, models for the rest of us of how important it is, even when we want our cup, the burden of standing strong, to be taken from us, their behaviour models how vital it is for each one of us to make known that what is right and good must always stand over what is hurtful, what is fearful, what is evil. Knowing that truth and integrity are not necessarily priorities of certain leaders today, it’s more important than ever for us to act with integrity. Which might, in turn, give another encouragement when called upon, to act themselves with integrity, to behave with honesty, to be whole and undivided in their moral principles. Let us hope and pray that it may be so. Amen.