This week we are launching a brand new sermon series entitled, "At The Movies." July happens to be one of the leanest months of the year for church attendance. It's a fact. I think it's because it's hot. I hate being hot, so I naturally apply it to most things.
July also happens to be a month when lots of people go to the movies. I actually love going to the movies. It's something you can do in July that isn't hot and won't make you sweat. Unless you're watching a naughty movie like 50 Shades of Grey, and then you're probably sweating because you're afraid you'll see someone from church in the theater with you.
Although--if you are both in the theater than... kind of a stand off.
Anyway, we thought that it would be awesome to do a sermon series that incorporated movies into the sermons--as inspiration and perhaps illustrations, too. So over the next few weeks we'll be using some popular films as themes for the various sermons that I'll be preaching.
This week: The Hunger Games
Before we dive into the meat of our sermon today, let me ask a question. Why are movies so meaningful for us? What is it about movies that speaks to us at what you might describe as a "gut" level?
The first reason why movies resonate with so many of us has to do with what Psychologists call the "mirror rule." When you have a huge screen in front of you and an actors face fills that screen, you are more likely to smile when they smile, cringe when they cringe, frown when they frown and when they scream, you feel like screaming even though you may not do it.
Consequently, you find yourself identifying with characters, feeling their joy, loss, anger, etc.
There are a host of other reasons why movies are so meaningful that are also connected to Psychology, but are exploited by filmmakers. Most suspenseful, sad and emotional moments in movies have minor key music in the their background. Minor key music makes you cry, makes you feel on edge, you name it. Movies also crank things up to 11--even though the switch only has 10 levels on it. The emotions are big, the music is loud, the explosions are enormous, everything is overpowering.
The most important reason that movies are so meaningful to us is because they tap into something universal--a truth, a feeling, passion, conflict, etc.--and we make it specific when we watch.
Throughout this sermon series we'll be practicing something that I hope you will decide to make a daily part of your life: recognizing that everything is spiritual. More specifically, we'll be learning how to find awesome Bible-based life-lessons in movies that weren't exactly created to deliver awesome Bible-based life-lessons.
Today, as I said earlier, we'll be focusing on the movie, "The Hunger Games." If you aren't familiar with the Hunger Games, here's an official synopsis of the first movie:
In what was once North America, the Capitol of Panem maintains its hold on its 12 districts by forcing them each to select a boy and a girl, called Tributes, to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Every citizen must watch as the youths fight to the death until only one remains. District 12 Tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has little to rely on, other than her hunting skills and sharp instincts, in an arena where she must weigh survival against love.You can also watch this quick movie trailer, which gives you a bit more:
The capitol of the 12 districts in Panem is a thriving, prosperous metropolis. Everyone who lives there has plenty to eat, fine clothes to wear, the best of everything. It becomes apparent as you watch the first of this series of movies that the 12 districts controlled by the capitol are filled with hungry, poor people who appear to be working their fingers to the bone just to survive.
Hunger is used as a weapon in this movie. The elite hunger for power--and they are desperate to keep it. The poor are kept hungry and hopeless. Things look bad.
The hero of the story, however, is the person who hungers for something more... Katniss knows that there is a better life beyond the misery and drudgery that is in front of her. She tries to find small pleasures, little moments of joy in the midst of fear and dread. And even when she is forced to compete in games of war--games of life and death--she uses her hunger for something more to compete and succeed without losing her soul.
What Katniss came to understand is that hunger for the right things can make all the difference in how we live, and how we die.
I thought of it like this: An appetite for what's right leads you to the light.
The fact that it rhymes makes it more awesome--you know it does.
Today we're going to be looking at Matthew chapter 5 verse 6. I know that it's only one verse, but it's a powerful one. In fact, it's one among many powerful verses within the Sermon on the Mount, which has been the source for quire a few of my sermons in the last few months.
This verse is part of what is known as the Beatitudes. They are typically read like this, Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are those who mourn... and so on. But the literal translation of the word "Blessed" is actually "Happy."
The way we are familiar with hearing Matthew 5:6 is: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled."
The literal translation is actually: "Happy are they who hunger to be just." Which is a lot different, once you start thinking about it. On the one hand, you have a translation that is a bit more abstract--to "hunger and thirst after righteousness" is an action that seems to be pointed outward toward some ideal. The literal translation to "hunger to be just" is pointed decidedly inward to very concrete ideas and actions.
Jesus' words here challenges the idea of a rich and powerful way of delivering a kingdom. It's subversive. It doesn't seem to make sense. What he's challenging his followers to adapt is a new awareness, a new consciousness about what it means to have true happiness.
This kind of teaching that turned the status quo upside down was frustrating to a lot of people who wanted a different kind of kingdom--a kingdom built on the kind of power that came from money, strength, political sway, charisma and the like.
But what Jesus says here is such good news for the poor and marginalized people who gathered to hear him. They would have been drawn to this teaching because it subverted the status quo, not because it preserved it.
Interestingly, everyone who gathered to hear Jesus speak that day was empty--whether they were rich or poor. The only difference was that the poor knew they were empty, or at least were able to admit it.
Empty people long to be filled, but they don't always respond well to their emptiness. Hunger and thirst are not the issue--we are all created with hunger and thirst. At a very basic level it's how we survive. We eat when we are hungry, we drink when we are thirsty. It's our body's way of telling us what it needs.
But how we choose to fill ourselves is up to us.
And hunger goes much deeper than just base appetite for food. Hunger is something we feel deep within our souls. Hunger for connection to others. Hunger for meaning and purpose in life. Hunger to know God and to be known by God. Hunger for authentic relationships. And our hunger for those things is also a part of how we are created.
Again, how we choose to fill ourselves is up to us.
This is difficult stuff to put our arms around. I get that. We are exploring some very deep theological and ontological issues here. Ontology has to do with how we uncover the real meaning of things. That in itself is enough to make my head hurt. If we are being honest, a lot of this feels like we are stumbling around in the dark trying to find the light switch.
Which is why I came up with that little rhyme to illustrate my main point of this sermon: An appetite for what's right leads you to the light.
What Jesus wanted us to understand is that it's something that starts within you, and then works its way out.
First, Jesus said you are happy when you hunger to be just. People who hunger to be just live illuminating lives. You can see better next to those kinds of people. I was sitting in a Starbucks with a friend of mine recently when a homeless man walked in. He was a young guy--completely disheveled, dirty, carrying a backpack. My back was to him, but my friend saw him. Suddenly my friend stood up, interrupted our conversation and went over to the young man, who was digging through his pockets to find enough money for a cup of water. My friend ended up quietly buying the guy the biggest frappuchino on the menu, and a cup of water. He sat down a few tables from us and drank his drinks like a boss with a smile on his face.
I looked down at the young man's leg, and saw that he had written something on it. I finally figured it out. It read, "Proud To Be A Christian."
It made me wonder how many Christians overlooked this man, one of their own. It made me realize that I had done just that. But not my friend. He hungered to be just, and because he did--a bunch of us could see better that day.
Second, I think that Jesus also wanted those who heard him to hunger for God's justice. It's not enough sometimes to simply want to be a just person--even though that's a great place to begin. At some point, you need to start thinking about how you can take some justice on the road. When you begin to live an illuminating life, it helps you to shine that light in the darkness.
There are things in your own neighborhood that need some justice. In your community. In your workplace. In your school.
I was reading the story of Charlie Coons the other day and it spoke to me about how hungering for God's justice is like shining light in the darkness.
In 2008 Charlie Coons’s big brother volunteered at an orphanage in Jordan, and he returned with stories about dirt floors, children who had no shoes, and cold, cold nights. Charlie, 11 at the time, was so affected by this, she immediately decided to send them fleece blankets, creating one from a kit and inviting friends to make some, too. Soon the sixth-graders and other volunteers in her town had crafted 50 blankets to ship. The orphanage sent back a photo of a child with one of the gifts. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I made that blanket and now it’s helping someone,’?” Charlie says.
Still, she was pumped to do more. Her dad, Ron, a Rotary Club member, lined up speaking engagements in their area for Charlie so she could raise money for her new group, which she called HELP (Hope Encouragement Love Peace). Her goal: to send blankets to orphanages around the world. Ambitious, yes, but just a few years later, HELP has sent some 700 blankets to nine nations with the help of several international children’s groups. Her next goal: to establish HELP chapters in all 50 states (Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California are already members).
Sometimes all it takes is one person to start shining a light, and then before you know it there's another and another and another...
Jesus also wanted his followers to not just hunger to be just, or to experience and share God's justice--he wanted them to think bigger. He wanted them to hunger for a new, just world. This was the hope that Jesus gave to his followers--that God was doing a new thing, that the kingdom of God was breaking through all around them.
The thing is, when you hunger to be just, when you hunger for God's justice in your own neighborhood, when your light begins to shine and the darkness gets pushed back just a bit--you start to realize that the darkness doesn't have the power. The power belongs to the light. The status quo won't work for you any more once you see the world illuminated by the justice of God.
At this point many people say, "But what can I do to shine the light to world? I'm just one person. I live in Lake County Florida. What could I possibly do to end poverty, war, racism, hatred, bigotry... What could I do?
Here's the good news. God is already doing it. You just need to join God in what God is already doing. Maybe what you are being called to join God in doing is incredibly challenging--it could mean that you are being called to go there--wherever there is--in order use your gifts and talents to change the world.
I know an incredible Christian couple who were successful physicians in Chicago with great practices, making lots of money. He worked at Northwestern Hospital, teaching young doctors how to be doctors in addition to about a hundred other awesome things. She was a successful pediatrician. They gave all of it up several years ago to move their family to Africa, where they have spent the last year or so on the front lines fighting Ebola--changing the world.
The hungered to be just. They hungered for God's justice and then the realized that if they wanted to be part of God's redemptive work to make a new, just world they needed to go where their light was needed most.
You might be saying, "Yeah, well I live in Lake County Florida--and quite frankly I am just not feeling the call to Africa to go fight ebola." I'm with you. As inspiring as my friends story is, I am kind of glad that they got that call and I didn't. Although, I strongly believe that when God calls you, the barriers in your heart to accepting that call get weaker and weaker until they come down.
But maybe it's just as simple as refusing to engage in the same old tired arguments about all of the issues that are plaguing our society. Or doing your best every day to embody peace, love, joy and hope. Every single one of us can do that. Every day.
There's a line in the Hunger Games movies that is quoted by all of the rich and powerful who send the poor into the games to fight to the death. They say, "May the odds be ever in your favor."
I leave you with this bit of wisdom that helps us to reframe that a bit. For those of us who hunger to be just, who hunger for God's justice around us and all throughout this world--for those of us who believe that the best way to fill that hunger is to live by Jesus' example... The odds are already in our favor.
Evil doesn't get to win. And if you put your faith in trust in Jesus--you've already won.
Shine your light.