Have you noticed that we’ve been reading the Book of Revelation ever since Easter? Every Sunday since Easter, the New Testament lessons have come from the Book of Revelation. You probably haven’t noticed this because we’ve only read from the few chapters that don’t sound like a cross between a science fiction movie and Dante’s Inferno.
Our schedule of readings trims down the Book of Revelation to “The Good Parts Version,” the parts that don’t make us either bewildered or squeamish. In all the bits we’ve read since Easter, not once did we hear about wars or plagues or bowls of wrath or the four horsemen. Not once did we hear about dragons with seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems on their heads or beasts with ten horns and seven heads and ten diadems on their horns.
I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection. At the last supper, he promised Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you.” He was willing to draw blood when they came to arrest Jesus in the garden. He followed Jesus all the way to the gate of the high priest’s house. And then everything fell apart. People began recognizing him and he felt afraid and in his fear he did something he never dreamed he would do, not even in his worst nightmare.
Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2019 || Easter Day C || JOHN 20:1-18
Here we are at long last: Easter Sunday, a long wait this year, two-thirds of the way through the month of April. But it could have been longer. April 25th is the latest Easter can be, but that hasn’t happened since 1943 and won’t happen again until 2038, which coincidentally is the year I’ll be eligible to retire. Unlike most holidays, which are fixed on a particular date or day of the month, the date of Easter (and the Jewish Passover) springs from something much grander – the motion of celestial bodies. We start with the vernal equinox, the day in March when the earth is tilted just so in relation to the sun to make day and night the same exact length. Then we find the next full moon, and the Sunday following is this day of Resurrection.
Sermon for Sunday, February 10, 2019 || Epiphany 5C || Luke 5:1-11
Today marks the beginning of a season of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation in the life of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. This season, which will last at least two years, was initiated by the Annual Convention of our church, as delegates from over 160 parishes and worshiping communities voted together to share in this particular piece of God’s mission. Just like Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel, God calls us to partner with God in working for healing, justice, and reconciliation across many systems that contribute to the broken state of this world. These systems of oppression and degradation overlap and intertwine, and they are all so big and entrenched into the machinery of the world that challenging them seems like an impossibility.
Sunday, September 17, 2017 || Proper 19A || Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
My best friend from seminary is a man named Bret. Back in 2005, Bret and I bonded over our shared love of both Star Trek and Jesus, and our friendship has remained solid all these years. But there’s one thing Bret and I have never agreed on. He’s a high church Anglocatholic, who loves all the smells and bells, all the pomp and circumstance he can stuff into a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. You probably know by now that I am…well…not that. I prefer simpler, unadorned worship.
Now such a difference of opinion could have led us to part ways because Bret could claim I didn’t care about the sacrament of Holy Communion. And I could claim he put so many trappings around the sacrament that its true meaning was lost.* Churches have broken away from each other for far less than this particular difference of opinion. Indeed, a few hundred years ago, people were burned at the stake for espousing one or the other viewpoint.Continue reading “Common Ground”→
Sermon for Good Friday, March 25, 2016 || John 19:25-27
The Passion narrative Stacey just read can be quite overwhelming. It is by far and away the longest reading we listen to all year, and there’s a lot going on. There’s Judas’s betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the trial with the high priest, the interview with Pilate, the frenzy of the crowd, the crucifixion, and the last words from the cross. There’s so much going on, in fact, that we can easily lose sight of the overarching story of the Gospel when we find ourselves overloaded by this painful and heart-breaking narrative. So instead of talking about the entire Passion narrative, each year I like to focus on one little moment of it that speaks to the whole story. On this Good Friday, that moment happens between the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes and Jesus drinking the sour wine.
“Meanwhile,” the Gospel tells us, “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Have you ever noticed the beauty of this moment? Have you ever noticed how succinctly these three verses sum up Christ’s mission of reconciliation? I see in my mind’s eye these two people standing apart from each other. One weeps silently for his beloved friend, and his tears wash two clean lines on his dusty, grimy face. The other has no more tears; she has cried her eyes dry, and now she just stands there counting her son’s breaths, treasuring each one in case it’s his last. She always knew this day would come, but not like this. God, not like this.
A few other women comfort Jesus’ mother, but his beloved friend remains several paces away from them, perhaps not wanting to intrude on their stunned grief. He stands there alone, wondering how it all went wrong, wondering if he had been hoodwinked or if he had just gotten caught up in messianic hysteria. No, I believe. He doesn’t mean to, but he says the words out loud. Then he adds, I just don’t understand.
That’s when he looks up at Jesus, and his friend’s lips begin to move. He’s trying to speak, but he can’t catch his breath. After all, the cross kills by suffocation, not by loss of blood. With a monumental force of will, Jesus pulls himself up, using the nails for leverage. He sucks in a ragged breath and looks down first at his friend, then at his mother. His gaze connects them, and they stumble towards each other. With fleeting breath, Jesus manages to say, “Woman, here is your son.” His mother leans her head on his friend’s shoulder. Jesus inclines his head, “Here is your mother.” His friend wraps his arm around her and squeezes.
While dying on the cross, Jesus stitches together this new family. He creates a new relationship built on two people’s own relationships with him. Before Jesus redefined it, the cross was the ultimate symbol of domination and separation. The cross brutally demonstrated who was in charge and who was discarded, the human garbage of the empire. But even before the resurrection – even in this beautiful moment we are discussing here – Jesus is changing the meaning of those two planks of wood. No longer would they be the terrifying symbol of ruthless subjugation. Now the cross would be the symbol of the promise of eternal life, which is really the promise of eternal relationship with God.
By creating this new relationship between his mother and friend, Jesus reminds them and us that his mission is one of reconciling us to each other and all things back to God. Indeed, it’s no accident that the Gospel writer never names these two people. We know his mother’s name is Mary and tradition tells us that his beloved friend is John. But the Gospel steadfastly resists naming them as such, and does so for this purpose: So we can put ourselves in their place. So we can feel ourselves being called “beloved” by Christ. So we can feel in our relationships with Christ the unique closeness that a mother has for her child – the act of cherishing. And in feeling this intimacy with Christ, this belovedness, we might feel the call to create and engage in deep relationships with others, each one fostered by Christ’s love for all people.
This is the story of the Gospel: God came to us to bring us back into relationship with one another and with God. Good Friday marks the cliffhanger in that story, the moment when it all looks bleak. But even in this bleakest moment, even while struggling for breath on the cross, Jesus is still bringing people together, still performing miracles.
Sermon for Sunday, March 6, 2016 || Lent 4C || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We live in a broken world: broken homes, broken promises, broken government, broken ecosystems. We’re used to brokenness. We learn to live with it. We hear about another mass shooting or another intractable political standoff or another couple dissolving their marriage, and we might shake our heads for a minute and sigh and say, “Boy, I don’t know.” And then we go back to whatever we were doing. And yet, even in the midst of this listless response to brokenness, something niggles and naggles at us, unsettles us; something deep within reminds us that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.
And in that seeing, in that knowing, God invites us to participate in God’s mission to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
Did you hear that? We are ambassadors for Christ – representatives of Jesus bringing his message of reconciliation to this broken world. Reconciliation is the healing of brokenness. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is. They’ve learned to live with the brokenness, profit from it even. And so they grumble when Jesus upsets the status quo and shows them what wholeness can look like. Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.
The younger of two sons basically says to his father, “I wish you were dead so I could have my inheritance.” His father acquiesces, and the younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” At first glance, the younger son’s sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. But I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.
Instead, his major sin is the rift caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
The younger son travels back to his father’s house, prepared for the sad reality that it will never be home again. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. The young man begins his prepared speech: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
When the elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house, he learns of his brother’s return, and he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.
But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”
I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I bet their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable. But while the parable ends, Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story yet.
Both sons separate themselves from the family, but their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. Jesus continues his ministry by mirroring the action of the father in the parable. He doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. He seeks people out where they are, eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, touching the unclean, standing with the marginalized, dying with the criminals in the refuse dump on the outskirts of the city.
That’s our savior, the one who will never let any barrier or rift or division – not even death – separate us from his love. Our savior leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one that is lost. Our savior seeks out and finds the man born blind after he’s thrown out of the synagogue. Our savior reconciles Peter to him after Peter’s triple denial of ever knowing him. Our savior left his home in order to bring us to it. And we are his ambassadors.
Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. Participating in God’s mission of reconciliation begins when we listen to this deep place within, the voice of Christ our Savior telling us that we can make a difference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness not with listlessness, not with apathy, not with indifference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness with compassion, with the desire to be like the father in the parable and go out and meet our broken world head on.
It may seem like a fool’s errand, participating in God’s mission of reconciliation when the brokenness of the world is so great. It may seem insurmountable. But remember, Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
*There’s a stealthy nod to The West Wing in this sermon. First person to figure it out gets five points.
Art: Detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.
Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.
God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.
The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.
The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.
One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.
That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.
But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.
That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.
When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”
Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.
This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.
When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.
The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.
(Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2013 || Lent 4C || Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
After I finish this opening bit of the sermon, I’m going to ask for a show of hands, so please listen to see if you remember this illustration from your youth. You arrive at school one day – perhaps you are a month or two into, let’s say, the seventh grade. That morning before school, you looked in the mirror and grimaced at the half dozen new pimples, which had colonized your forehead during the night. You tried to comb your bangs over the spots, but your hair just wouldn’t stay, so you resigned yourself to the fate of being called “pizza-face” all day. So you walk into the school wishing your forehead were in a less conspicuous area of your body, but you know it’s not, so instead you concentrate on making your entire self less conspicuous.
Halfway through the day, everything is going fine – better than expected even. No one has mentioned your acne; you really haven’t talked to anyone all day, except your best friend at lunch. But then on the way back to class, the day takes a turn. You and your classmates are waiting outside your fourth period room when someone brings up the hot TV show that everyone’s watching. (In my day, it was Dawson’s Creek, but I’m sure you can come up with one.) The show was on last night and something terribly important and life altering happened to the main character. Everyone’s discussing the episode and you just smile and nod, hoping against hope that no one asks your opinion because your mom doesn’t let you watch that show, but your classmates don’t know that and if they did, they’d have another reason to make fun of you.
But, of course, someone does ask, and you stammer out something generic about the show, but it’s obvious you don’t watch. Your classmates start laughing, and you can feel your face getting flushed, which only makes the pimples redder. You will the teacher to open the classroom door, but she doesn’t, so you race off to the bathroom to be alone with your shame.
So don’t be ashamed to admit it – show of hands, how many of you remember a day similar to this one back when you were in that Lord of the Flies–esque jungle known as middle school? …Yeah, that’s what I thought.
You want to know the worst thing about that feeling of shame from long ago? The feeling of shame is still there; hidden perhaps, but there. The context may be different. The constellation of catalysts may be more grown-up. But the disease of shame has – from a tender age – infected each and every one of us.
You can blame Adam and Eve if you like. They are the “Patient Zero” of this disease. After they eat the fruit of the tree, they notice their nakedness, so they cover themselves up with primitive garments. When God comes to them in the cool of the evening, Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Here we have the first documented case of the disease of shame. Adam and Eve hide from God because they are ashamed of their nakedness.
Shame, then, is the feeling that prompts us to want to hide – from God, from the world, and especially from ourselves. The disease of shame invades the secret places within us and then starts whispering incessantly: you aren’t good enough. You aren’t worthy. You are defective. How could you possibly think you measure up? And the worst of all: You are a mess and a failure. How could you possibly think God or anyone else could ever love someone as shameful as you?
I’m sure these debilitating thoughts were running through the mind of the younger son as he fed the pigs. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the famous and beloved story of the young man who squanders his inheritance in a far off land. He is destitute when a famine hits, so he hires himself to a pig farmer. On those days when the hollowness of hunger is worst, he longs to eat the pigs’ slop. Jesus chose his details well, for there isn’t a much more shameful position than for a good Jewish boy to be anywhere near such unclean animals. Jews were never to eat pork, let alone touch the pig. And here is the younger son, cut off from his family, wallowing in the mud, hungry, unclean, and ashamed.
You can hear his shame whispering to him, can’t you? How could you possibly think your father will take you back as his son, you worthless swine? His shame convinces him that all of his mistakes, all of his bad choices, all of his ruinous living amount to too much for his father to forgive. Another whisper: How could you possibly be reconciled with all this disastrous baggage?
The younger son agrees with his shame and decides that his father would never bring him back into the family, but that maybe his father’s generosity would extend to hiring him on as a laborer. So he sets off for home. And then something happens that the younger son doesn’t expect, something that his shame had convinced him was impossible. When he is still a speck on the horizon, his father sees him coming and races to meet him. His father runs flat out, as if he can’t bear one more minute estranged from his son. When they meet, the son begins his prepared speech, but his father isn’t listening. He’s already preparing a welcome feast because his son was lost and is now found.
How many of us have let the voice of shame drive us into hiding? How many of us still have the disease of shame eating away at our capacity to give and to receive love? How many of us have let our shame convince us that we are unworthy of God’s attention? I’d hazard to guess that we’ve all been there, feeling like the pimply kid in seventh grade or like the younger son among the pigs.
Perhaps your shame starts whispering when you look at all your bills and realize your salary will barely cover them. Or when you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge the presence of the homeless man on the street in Boston. Or when you say something hurtful to your spouse during an argument. Or when your colleagues don’t think to invite you to lunch. Or when your date stands you up. Or when you look in the mirror.
Whatever the source of your shame, please believe that God our Father is running flat out to meet you in the midst of it. Your shame might tell you to hide. Your shame might tell you that you aren’t worthy of God’s effort. But your shame is lying to you. There is no shame big enough to scare God away. You will never be so defective that God stops desiring to repair you. You will never be so lost that God can’t find you. And when God finds you, you can participate with God in beating your shame into submission. With your shame healed, you might find you are willing to ask for help when trying to make ends meet. Or you might find yourself serving the homeless man at the Long Island Shelter. Or you might look in the mirror and see beauty rather than shame looking back at you.
So the next time your shame threatens to engulf you with its incessant negative whispering, look to the horizon. See the dawn break. See the sunlight racing toward you. And know that God has already run out to meet you in the midst of your shame. God has already enfolded you in a compassionate embrace. And God has already welcomed you back into God’s family, as a beloved child who was lost and has been found.
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.