Mercy Wild

Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2020 || Advent 4B || Luke 1:26-38

Last year, my children got really into singing Christmas carols. We had the Pentatonix Christmas albums on repeat pretty much all of Advent. The Pentatonix are a high energy a cappella group, and their version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” opens one of their albums. It’s a really catchy track and it gets stuck in your head. It got stuck in my then five-year-old son’s head a lot. And he would walk around the house singing it. But he didn’t have all the words just right. He sang the first few lines correctly; you know, “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn king.’” But then he would sing, “Peace on earth and mercy wild.”

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The Sermon Embedded in “Brave”

If any animated studio besides Pixar had made Brave, then the stitched up tapestry would have been enough. I don’t think I’m giving anything away with that sentence, but perhaps I will with this next one. Brave is a film about reconciliation. Check that. Brave is a wonderful film about reconciliation.

So many of the films that arrive at our movie theaters these days aren’t really about anything at all. They deliver pulse-pounding action or knee-slapping laughs, sure, but they are the cinematic equivalent of what MacBeth thinks of Life near the end of his Shakespearean tragedy. They are “tales told by…idiot[s], full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Perhaps we want our films to signify nothing because we don’t want to be forced to think about them when we leave. Give us enough explosions or bare flesh or bathroom jokes and we’ll be happy. But wallop us with thematic content that encourages us to reflect on our own lives? That’s the property of indie films or documentaries or — gasp — sermons.

Of course, over the last 17 years, we have come to expect more from Pixar. And the amazing thing is that the company delivers again and again. While I’ll admit that Pixar has fallen prey to some of the sequelitis that has reached epidemic proportions in Hollywood, every one of their original properties is about something more than generating revenue for Disney.

The one that started it all, Toy Story, is about unselfishness and making friends. Finding Nemo shows the values of perseverance and never giving up. The Incredibles touts the importance of family. Wall-E is a scathing indictment of the negative trends of modern society. UP teaches that letting go of grief does not mean you let go of the love that activated the grief in the first place.

I know I skipped a bunch, but I’m writing this off the top of my head and it’s been a while since I’ve seen some of the others. I will say that every Pixar movie I’ve ever seen (and I think I’ve seen them all except for Cars 2) made me reflect on some aspect of my life in a way that a good sermon does.

And that brings us back to Brave. First, the film is gorgeous. Digital animation has reached such heights that I could have sworn that Pixar just flew a helicopter around the Scottish highlands to generate their backgrounds. Wow. Second, the story is at the same time fresh and original while being one of the oldest tales in the book. It starts as a straight up story about a princess who doesn’t want to get married to one of the icky suitors. But that’s just the jumping off point. Pretty soon into the movie, the story pivots into a tale of reconciliation between an estranged mother and daughter.

In a brilliant scene near the beginning of the film, the wizards at Pixar highlight the disconnect between the mother, Elinor, and daughter, Merida. Each has one side of the same conversation, but each is speaking their dialogue to someone else. After the inevitable big blowup between the two of them, Merida turns her mother into a bear using an ambiguous spell that a less-than-evil witch/entrepreneur concocts to change the mother’s fate. Over the course of the rest of the film, Elinor can’t speak because she’s a bear (a prim, proper bear, but a bear nonetheless). This allows her to listen and learn from the daughter she is always trying to teach. And Merida realizes that all of things that Elinor has taught her, which she has rebelled against, are truly for her (Merida’s) benefit.

And still Merida hangs all her hopes on stitching up the family tapestry. She thinks that simple gesture will break the spell. But as is the case with reconciliation, the gesture is less important than the exchange of confession and forgiveness. I don’t want to spoil the end of the film, but I left the theater reveling in the awesome power of reconciliation.

Thank you Pixar for another stellar film about something, and about something important. I hope everyone finds the hour and forty minutes it will take to sit through this one because it is worth it. Perhaps at the end of the film you will reflect on a relationship in your life that has become estranged. And you’ll find that the film has bucked the Hollywood trend and helped you take a first step in healing a rift in your own life.