Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sermon: "The Hunger Games: Scarcity & Abundance" (Delivered 2-24-13)

All through the month of February, as a lead up to the Academy Awards, I’ve been giving sermons inspired by notable movies of 2012.  Three weeks ago I preached on the best-picture nominee Life of Pi and last week I talked about a pair of controversial best-picture nominated films Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained.  This morning I’m going to conclude this series by talking about a film that actually wasn’t nominated for any Oscars but was one of the most commercially successful films of the past year, raking in more than $400 million at the box office.

I suppose you could ask me why I’ve chosen to talk about The Hunger Games and not one of the other six best picture nominees.  Why not Lincoln?  Why not Beasts of the Southern Wild?  Why not preach on Amour, as former UUA President John Buehrens challenged me on Facebook to do?  The answer, to be perfectly honest, is that with a new baby I don’t exactly have a lot of time to go to the movies, and I’ve only seen the films that I have through Anne’s extraordinary grace and generosity.  And, the excuse of saying, “But, Anne, this is a work obligation,” doesn’t exactly cut it.

Despite not getting any recognition from the Academy, The Hunger Games movie and the young adult novel it is based on are still worthy of attention.  The Hunger Games is the most popular book for younger readers since the Harry Potter series.  There was even an article in the UU World magazine about The Hunger Games.  (Let me dispel any rumors.  Despite the success of the Harry Potter-based Hogwarts summer religious education program that ran successfully over at All Souls for a couple years, we have no plans to offer a Hunger Games-themed summer camp to your children.)

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future in which North America is ruled by a cruel dictator named President Snow.  Under totalitarian rule, the nation is divided into twelve districts with each district slaving in poverty to produce goods for the excessive appetites of the Capital, whose residents exhibit the worst stereotypes of superficial celebrity culture.  There had once been a populist uprising against the Capital, but it was squashed and resulted in the creation of an annual tradition known as the Hunger Games, designed to punish the districts and remind them of the price of rebellion.  Each year a lottery is held and one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each district are selected to participate in the games, a cross between the obnoxiousness of reality television and the sadism of the Roman Coliseum.  I don’t watch reality TV, but I imagine The Hunger Games could be described as a combination of Survivor and Extreme Makeover, only the contestants compete to the death.  The winner of the hunger games wins a lifetime of individual, personal comfort and a year’s worth of slightly-better-than-starvation rations for his or her district.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games we meet Katniss Everdeen, a 15 year-old girl who lives with her mother and younger sister, Primrose, in District Twelve.  District Twelve’s industry is coal mining; we learn that Katniss’ father was killed in a mining accident.  Early in the movie we see that Katniss has snuck out of her sooty town in order to hunt and gather provisions for her malnourished family in a pristine wooded forest.  Such trespassing is a crime punishable by death.  One of the earliest images in the film is of scarcity in the midst of abundance.  The narrative of the film is set into motion when a lottery is held to select the tributes from each district.  Katniss’ vulnerable young sister is selected and Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  The boy selected from District Twelve is Peeta Mellark, a doughy boy who is also the son of a baker.

We find out that Peeta and Katniss have a shared past.  A few years earlier Katniss had been wandering the streets of town at night desperately searching for food for her famished family.  Seeing her, Peeta had taken pity on her and slipped his classmate an armful of bread from the bakery.  For this act of charity, Peeta had been reprimanded by his mother.  Times were tough and they had to take care of themselves first, his mother had reasoned.

The success of The Hunger Games trilogy of books as well as the movie is probably due to several factors.  The story contains the thrills of heart-pounding action.  Katniss is a compelling heroine.  At a somewhat deeper level, the story is powerfully resonant with the social pressures and identity questions of middle school and high school youth.  A member of our church’s Worship Team is also a librarian specializing in young adult literature.  She sent me an article about dystopian young adult novels in which it is argued that The Hunger Games “are a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience… The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails…  Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re… getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.”  That The Hunger Games should be so popular with adult readers may be due to the fact that for much of our adult lives we’re surrounded by people who act like they’re still in high school.   Or it is we ourselves who act like we’re still in high school.

There is a point that I want to make about The Hunger Games book and film that I think works equally well regardless of whether we take the story at face value or treat it as an allegory for young adult experience.  I want to make a point about the worldview of the dystopian future where the story is set.  It is a worldview that makes possible the very existence of the games.  It is a worldview of scarcity.  One child out of twenty four to enter the arena shall survive.  One district out of twelve will receive extra food rations.  Scarcity is the fundamental element of this worldview.  Of course the people in this dystopian future live under totalitarian rule.  Of course none of them chose this life.  But it is also true that no one really wins by playing this game.  The game is rigged.  The districts continue to sacrifice their children.  They continue to barely survive under a brutal regime.

The Hunger Games movie presents a foreshadowing of the rebellion that takes place later in the trilogy.  This uprising is sparked at the precise moment that Katniss shows compassion and concern for one of her competitors, a young girl named Rue.  Under the logic of the hunger games, under the logic of scarcity, Rue’s death means that Katniss is one step closer to winning the prize of being the one who gets to stay alive.  However, Katniss reaches beyond this scarcity worldview and honors Rue’s human worth and dignity.  This act of abundance transcends the winner-take-all nature of the hunger games and inspires the residents of Rue’s district to a larger imagination of the possibility of freedom.

This sense of scarcity exists not only between districts, but also within them.  Witness Peeta’s mother chastising him for sharing bread with Katniss.  The world in which they live is very small indeed.  Don’t give away bread to a starving child because if you do it is coming out of your mouth.  It is no surprise that it turns out that Peeta has the largest heart of any character in the book.  This incident of Peeta sharing bread with Katniss actually reminds me of one of the stories from the Gospels.

All four of the canonical Gospels contain the story of the multiplication of the fishes and the loaves.  The story goes that Jesus is preaching to a large crowd, a crowd that may have traveled quite a distance, may have had to wait longer than they had thought.  Anyways, the day wears on and the crowd begins to grumble that they are hungry.  Jesus calls for food to be brought forward and his disciples bring forth a couple of loafs of bread and a single fish.  A miracle happens.  Five thousand are fed.  There is a liberal religious interpretation of this miracle.  The interpretation goes that as the day wears on, people begin to worry about whether there will be enough to eat so they start to conceal whatever food they may have carried along with them, worried that others will see what they have and ask them to share.  Jesus’ miracle, according to this interpretation, is getting people to share freely, to partake of the abundance that exists rather than closing themselves off from one another because of a sense of scarcity.

We’re told that good dystopian literature exaggerates realities we see within our own society.  So, let’s take the mythical hunger games and compare it to a contest that is a part of our culture, the TV show Survivor.  Now, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Survivor.  But, I gather that it involves a group of people forced to live somewhere challenging and having to compete to be the last one on the island, or wherever it is they are, for which they win a lucrative cash prize.  “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” is the motto of the TV program, and from what I gather the competitiveness is fierce and the competitors can be downright mean to each other.  There is deception.  There is back-stabbing.  Alliances are temporary and self-serving.  The contestants on Survivor are competing within a scarcity scenario; there can be only one million dollar winner.  (Following the service, a person in the audience approached me and told me that her good friend had been a finalist to participate on Survivor and had been flown to Los Angeles for a final round of interviews to try to make it on the program.  Her experience had been one of suspicion.  She constantly wondered who might be already plotting against her and tried to figure out who around her would be a useful ally.)

I would just point out how different this is from an actual situation in which a dozen people found themselves having to survive in the wild.  In such a case, I would imagine, their actual survival would depend on them being able to get along, work together towards a common cause, share, cooperate, and generally work as a team.  The irony here is that the skills and attitudes that you need to win the reality TV show – selfishness, self-centeredness, and deception – are the exact opposite of the strengths and attitudes that would lead a group to survive and thrive in an actual survivor scenario.

There is an abundance approach to life and a scarcity approach to life.  There is also an abundance approach to faith and a scarcity approach to faith.  Scarcity religion tells us that heaven is only available to those who hold the correct theological beliefs or practice their faith in the correctly prescribed ways.  There are even some fundamentalist Christians who read an obscure passage in the Book of Revelation as saying that heaven has a maximum capacity of one hundred and forty four thousand.  So, heaven’s maximum occupancy is about twice as large as Arrowhead Stadium.  That’s scarcity faith.

A contrasting description of abundance faith is found in Forest Church’s book, God and Other Famous Liberals, in which he writes,

“Every word I can conjure for God is a synonym for liberal.  God is munificent and openhanded.  The creation is exuberant, lavish, even prodigal.  As the ground of our being, God is ample and plenteous.  As healer and comforter, God is charitable and benevolent.  As our redeemer, God is generous and forgiving.  And, as I said, God has a bleeding heart that simply never stops.  Liberal images such as these spring from every page of creation’s text.”

We’ve traveled far afield of the world of The Hunger Games.  However, I would say that one of lessons that we can take away from this film is that a world shaped by an idea of scarcity is dysfunctional.  In such a world, people are suspicious of one another, always seeking our own advantage.  It is a world where otherness is a threat to our survival.  It is a world where many are harmed by the failure to find common cause.  It is a world where our humanity is diminished.

Contrast this world with the idea of a world shaped by an idea of abundance, where the betterment of others results in our own betterment.  In this world, our ability to see past our own smallness and find common cause with others is what saves us.  This abundance is what sustains our humanity.

Liberal religion – whether it proclaims the idea of a heaven without a maximum capacity, or a God whose nature is munificent and lavish, or a sense of expansive sisterhood and brotherhood here on earth – always sides with the side of abundance.  We need to do this if we are to survive.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sermon: "Theodore, Quentin, and Kathryn Walk Into a Bar" (Delivered 2-17-13)

Last week we welcomed Marlin Lavanhar, the minister of the largest church in our denomination, as our distinguished visiting minister.  This morning I want to tell you about what may have been the largest Unitarian church ever.  In the mid-19th century, some wealthy supporters of a controversial Boston minister named Theodore Parker decided to start their own congregation.  They rented a theater in Boston and invited Parker to preach a series of sermons.  A few months later, Parker’s supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society.  Parker preached a controversial theology that was so outside the mainstream of Unitarianism at the time that the Unitarian clergy of the Boston area decided to cut him off from all collegial relations.  Parker preached his own installation sermon at the 28th Congregational Society because the other Unitarian ministers boycotted the event.  In fact, relationships were so strained between Parker and the other ministers that when Parker was on his deathbed, dying of tuberculosis, the other Unitarian ministers took a vote on whether or not to send him a message of sympathy and voted against it.

As unpopular as Parker was with other ministers, he was extremely popular with the people of Boston.  His congregation soon outgrew the theater and services were moved to the Boston Music Hall, the largest venue in the city, where Parker preached to standing room only crowds of 2,000 people every Sunday.  His congregation included the best and brightest leaders of 19th century social movements including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as Louisa May Alcott and Julia Ward Howe.  It was a multiracial congregation that included free African Americans and also offered refuge and protection to fugitive slaves.

In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act which mandated that federal law enforcement officials participate in the capture of runaway slaves.  Parker’s congregation was active in resisting the Fugitive Slave Act.  They formed the Boston Vigilance Committee that helped to hide escaped slaves.  The Vigilance Committee also harassed, bullied, and obstructed slavecatchers who came into the city.  Theodore Parker gave runaway slaves sanctuary in his own home, and claimed to write his sermons with a pistol on his desk so that he might defend the liberty of those he harbored.  In the decade between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and the beginning of the Civil War, only two fugitives were returned to slavery from the city of Boston.

One of those two was Anthony Burns.  He was nabbed on the streets of Boston in 1854.  When word got out that Burns had been captured, a crowd of 5,000 Bostonians gathered at Faneuil Hall to decide what action they should take.  Theodore Parker addressed the crowd; you can also find his speech in an anthology by Howard Zinn.  Here was a portion of Parker’s speech.

“Well, gentlemen, I say there is one law—slave law; it is everywhere. There is another law… it is in your hands and your arms, and you can put that in execution just when you see fit. Gentlemen, I am a clergyman and a man of peace; I love peace. But there is a means, and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.  Now I want to ask you what you are going to do.  [At this point, a man in the audience started to yell, “Shoot.  Shoot.”  Parker modified his approach.] There are ways of managing this matter, without shooting anybody. Be sure that these men who have kidnapped a man in Boston are cowards, every mother’s son of them; and, if we stand up there resolutely, and declare that this man shall not go out of the city of Boston, without shooting a gun then he won’t go back.”

The crowd decided to return the next morning at nine o’clock to demand the release of Anthony Burns.  However, at the same time that Parker was speaking, another Unitarian minister was helping to organize another response.  That minister was ThomasWentworth Higginson.  Armed with battering rams, axes, cleavers, and revolvers, Higginson’s band led a raid on the jail where Burns was held.  In the ensuing melee a federal marshal names James Batchelder was stabbed and died.  Thomas Higginson received a cut on his chin from a saber, a scar he would wear with pride for the rest of his life.  The city of Boston was placed under martial law and the President of the United States sent marines to guard the courthouse.  The judge ruled that Burns would be returned to Virginia.  Burns, under a military escort that included a cannon, was paraded through the streets to a ship in Boston harbor bound for Virginia.  Fifty thousand Bostonians came to protest, to boo and hiss.  The streets were draped in funereal black bunting, church bells tolled, and the American flag was flown upside down.

The Boston abolitionist community continued to work for Burns’ freedom, eventually purchasing him from a slave owner in North Carolina.  Theodore Parker was indicted on charges of inciting a riot but the trial turned into a referendum on slavery and the judge dismissed the case on a technicality.  However, the story of Anthony Burns would go on to radicalize the abolitionist movement.  Abolitionist gatherings burned copies of the Constitution.  Theodore and Thomas would each go on to become members of the Secret Six who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  The conclusion they reached was that violence, even war, was preferable to slavery.

What I’d like you to do is pause and consider what you might have done had you been there a century and a half ago.  Would you have joined the mob and gone to the jail that night to free Anthony Burns from bondage?  A few years earlier, a Boston mob had walked into the courtroom during a hearing for a runaway slave named Shadrach Minkins, snatched him away from the proceedings, carried him out of the courthouse, and sent him on his way to Canada where he would live the rest of his life as a free man.  Would you have advocated the use of force, as Parker did?  Would you have dressed in black and stood by the side of the street to witness the procession as Anthony Burns’ return to slavery was enforced by the United States military?

What do you think you would have done?  What do you hope you would have done?  What was the right thing to do?  By what moral calculus do you decide?

[Musical Interlude – “Revolution” by the Beatles]

About a week and a half ago I had lunch with a group of local UU ministers, and I have to tell you that I walked away with second thoughts about the sermon this morning.  I shared with them the idea of preaching about different notable movies from 2012 in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards.  They found this idea intriguing.  Then I shared, specifically, that this week I’d be talking about two violent and controversial films, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty.  Only one other minister in the room had seen either of these two films, and several of the ministers seemed appalled that I had even seen the films, much less that I was planning to deliver a sermon about them.  As one of my colleagues put it, “I try not to expose myself to toxic things.”  Was it too late, I wondered, to get a babysitter and take Anne to see The Silver Linings Playbook?

Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are both violent and controversial films that have been condemned by some at the same time that they have received critical acclaim; each film received five Oscar nominations including for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  Django Unchained is directed by Quentin Tarantino whose films typically take the form of violent revenge fantasies.  This film, a Western set in the antebellum south, sparked controversy for its shocking violence and for the way that slavery is depicted by Tarantino, a white director.  The director Spike Lee, who hadn’t seen the film, called it disrespectful to his ancestors and asked people not to see the film.  That controversy, however, is small potatoes compared to the firestorm that surrounded Zero Dark Thirty, a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow that deals with the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Zero Dark Thirty was originally scheduled for release in October which had Republicans calling foul, concerned that the movie would be seen as a tacit endorsement of Barack Obama.  Further, it has been alleged that the CIA leaked classified information to the filmmakers.  However, most of the controversy revolves around the depiction of torture in the film, for which it has been attacked by many on the liberal left as well as by politicians of all stripes, from Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to Senator John McCain of Arizona.  Does the film tolerate, excuse, condone, or apologize for the use of torture?  Does it suggest the efficacy of torture?  If so, that’s a big problem.  The harshest critics of the film have compared Bigelow to the Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.  These are controversial films.

The backstory of Django Unchained is that Django and Broomhilda are slaves who are married to each other.  They attempted to escape slavery together but were caught, tortured, branded with an “r” on their cheek for “runaway,” and sold to separate plantations.  The story begins when Django, played by Jamie Foxx, winds up coming into the employment of a bounty hunter played by Christopher Waltz.  The bounty hunter strikes a deal.  If Django will help him earn the bounty on a gang of outlaws, he will grant Django his freedom and help him rescue Broomhilda.  It turns out that Broomhilda is now owned by the especially sadistic Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  They conjure up a plan to rescue her that involves peacefully deceiving Candie and tricking him into selling Broomhilda to them.  However, as their peaceful plan unfolds, they realize that acting peacefully requires them to witness passively as acts of grotesque violence are done to others.  Finally, the peaceful plan goes haywire but Django manages to get another opportunity to attempt to rescue Broomhilda.  This time he elects the path of direct violence, killing the bad guys and saving the good ones.

Unlike Life of Pi, the movie that I spoke about a few weeks ago, Django Unchained is not exactly a thoughtful movie whose subject matter inspires profound conversation.  However, after seeing the film, I found myself reflecting about the morality of violence and about moments in our religious history where violence was encouraged and blessed.  I thought about Theodore Parker.  Parker once officiated a wedding for a pair of fugitive slaves, William and Ellen Craft.  During the wedding ceremony, Parker presented the husband with a sword and charged him to use it if necessary to protect his freedom and his wife’s freedom.  I thought of the attempted raid to free Anthony Burns and the passive Bostonians who watched a man be marched back into slavery.  The violence in Django Unchained is gruesome, but is it justified?

I imagined placing the rough sketch of the narrative of Django Unchained in conversation with the story of the murderous mob of Theodore Parker’s Boston.  Parker quite clearly believed that there were uses of violence that were legitimate and justifiable, a pistol by his desk to protect the escaped slaves in his home.  And, I have a feeling that if Theodore Parker and Quentin Tarantino sat down and had a beer together, Quentin would say, “Exactly.  The violence I depict is justifiable as well.”  Tarantino’s motivation in his movies is to create characters so evil, so loathsome, and so irredeemable that the vengeance that is inevitably inflicted upon them seems cathartic and defensible.  Tarantino is a seducer who trades in the seductiveness of violence.  Would Parker be seduced?  I think he very well might be.

But then I imagine Kathryn Bigelow sliding up next to Quentin and Theodore at the bar and saying, “Let me say something about seduction.”  I went to go see Zero Dark Thirty last month and I think it is a movie that is hard to interpret.  That’s probably generous.  There could be two reasons for why the movie feels complex.  One reason could be that the director and writers were confused about the movie they were making and didn’t succeed in getting it to jell into a coherent narrative.  The other reason could be that the team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal decided to create a story that was intentionally impressionistic and vague.

Here is what one very positive review of the film had to say, “Getting bin Laden isn’t the cathartic triumph at the end of a hard road, but an absolute horrorshow, treated without the faintest squeak of rah-rah triumphalism.  Zero Dark Thirty isn’t meant as a stirring tribute to the men and women responsible for taking down bin Laden, though their bravery and persistence is duly respected. It’s a film about revenge and its immense costs, different from a common vigilante story because of the target, not the arc. The events of 9/11 call for a response, but from the torture scenes in the beginning to the raid on Abbottabad a decade later, Zero Dark Thirty takes the audience down a grim, terrifying path that isn’t relieved by the death of the elusive man who killed 3,000 Americans. Some demons cannot be exorcised.”

I think the point I want to make about seduction works either way here.  If Kathryn Bigelow was seduced by the CIA into taking a position that seems to condone torture, well then she was seduced.  If the film is about immense cost of pursuing vengeance and the toll that it takes, then it is still a cautionary tale about the seductiveness of violence.

And so I imagine Kathryn coming to sit next to Theodore and Quentin at the bar and warning them that the violent path is seductive and takes its toll.  I think we can debate whether Theodore Parker was right when he said that “Liberty is the end and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.”  I think that in cases of self-defense, Parker may in fact be right.  However, I don’t think we can debate the reality that violence is not cathartic and glorious and triumphant.  It is dark and destructive.  Violence does not create wholeness; it rips at the fabric of humanity, it tears apart.

At the bar, I imagine Kathryn saying, “The title of my film has at least a double meaning.  “Zero Dark Thirty” is military term for very late at night.  It refers to the fact that the mission to kill Bin Laden took place in the darkest part of the night.  The other meaning is not literal, but metaphorical.  The decade long effort to find and kill Bin Laden involved a hell of a lot of darkness.  The darkness of war in Afghanistan and the detour into war in Iraq.  The darkness of CIA black sites and torture in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay.  The darkness of children killed by bombs and the families of American servicemen and servicewomen being torn apart by death, injury, PTSD, and fathers and mothers missing seeing their children grow up.  The darkness of civil liberties infringed.  The darkness of more money than you can possibly imagine drained from health care, education, and infrastructure and instead burned up in the exploding of bombs or transferred to the coffers of the Halliburtons of the world and other war profiteering corporations.

I imagine Kathryn turning to Theodore and Quentin and saying, “By your calculus, some violence is justifiable.  Your equation is correct.  But let me also say that violence is dark as hell.  This is not a celebratory toast.  We’re drowning our sorrows.  It is a hell of a price that we’ve paid.”

The seductiveness of these films results in a conclusion that says, “Violence is the way of the world, and because it is, violence is justified.”  That, I think is Tarantino’s point.  A more moral conclusion, a more ethical conclusion, would be to remember that violence is tragic and exacts from us a measure of our humanity, which I think may be Bigelow’s point.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sermon: "Life of Pi: Letting Go" (Delivered 2-3-13)

Call to Worship
The poet Mary Oliver writes,

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

To love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

And, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

These instructions aren’t exactly easy to follow.  We’re supposed to love.  Okay check.  We’re supposed to hold on.  And, we’re supposed to let go.  Letting go may be the hard part.

It can be hard to let go of anger. 

It can be hard to let go of feelings of having been wronged. 

It can be hard to let go of worry. 

It can be hard to let go of guilt.

It can be really, really hard to let go of something you treasure or someone you love.

Love.  Hold on.  Let go.  Come this morning on a journey of discovery.

Come, let us worship together.

Time for All Ages
During the time with the children, I demonstrated the “monkey box,” a box with a hole big enough to drop a tennis ball into and a hole big enough to stick your hand into, but not so big enough that a fist holding a ball can pass through the hole.  I then shared with the children a variation of this Buddhist story.  The lesson is that sometimes we can be stubborn and hold on to something even when it isn’t good for us.

At the church auction in November, Jim purchased the right to select a sermon topic for a church service this year.  A few weeks after the auction he sent me an email suggesting a fascinating and challenging idea for a sermon.  I wrote him back to tell him that his suggestion was great, and then he wrote back, saying, “Here’s another idea.  I just saw the movie Life of Pi, and there is a quote at the end about ‘letting go’ that I think would make for a good sermon topic.”  Jim, I replied, you don’t need to purchase a sermon to send me great ideas.  Great ideas are always welcomed.

The month of February ends with the Oscars and each of the three sermons I give this month will find their inspiration in ideas and concepts that come out of notable films from this past year.  This morning’s service is inspired by Life of Pi, one of the films nominated for Best Picture.  Following next weekend’s dedication festivities, I will deliver a sermon inspired by two controversial and violent films, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, that both received Best Picture nominations. Then, at the end of the month, I’ll be giving a sermon inspired by the film The Hunger Games that wasn’t nominated for any awards but was one of the highest grossing films of 2012.

A few more notes on this month’s worship services:  First, you don’t need to have seen any of these films to participate in worship.  Second, I’m going to try not to give any spoilers.  I don’t want to ruin the movie for you.  Third, I’m not recommending these movies.  You may decide that you have moral qualms about seeing Zero Dark Thirty or you may think Quentin Tarantino films are exploitative trash.  You can still participate fully in the service even if you have no intention of seeing these films.  Finally, what I’m modeling here is theological reflection, not film criticism.  I’m less interested in critiquing cinematography than I am in reflecting religiously on the ideas, issues, and themes these movies contain.

The movie Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, is up for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, best director, cinematography, best original score, best original song, and virtually every technical category.  Life of Pi was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Yann Martel.  I read the book when it first came out in paperback in 2003; it is one of my favorite novels of all time.  The film tells the story of an Indian boy known by the nickname Pi.  The son of a zookeeper, Pi is deeply interested in religion and the search for meaning.  As a youth he explores the religious traditions of India and takes up the practices of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, weaving the three religions together despite protests from those in his family who tell him that a person can’t just combine religions together.  As a teenager, his family decides to move the family zoo to Canada.  The family and all the animals set sail across the Pacific Ocean on a large tanker.  A destructive storm sinks the ship and Pi finds himself adrift in a life raft in the middle of the ocean with several animals from the zoo, including a full grown Bengal Tiger, as his only companions in the life boat.  The movie is a harrowing survival adventure in the mold of Castaway or Robinson Crusoe, and a philosophical exploration of life, nature, truth, and our place in the world.  I thought it was a very good movie.  It is a rare combination of a film that is both visually impressive and intellectually interesting.

There are a lot of things that one can do with Life of Pi from a religious point of view.  Pi’s religious development as a Hindu-Christian-Muslim is fascinating and raises questions about pluralism and hyphenated religious identity.  What does it mean to be several religions at once?  The film also raises the question of God.  At the beginning of the movie Pi claims that his story is a story that will make you believe in God.  What a bold claim!  And, I would love to talk with people who saw the film and ask them, “So, did Life of Pi make you believe in God?” and, “What do you think about the idea of God that the movie seems to suggest?”  Unfortunately, I don’t think I can go any further with this question without spoiling the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

So, this morning, I want to focus on a different aspect of the movie, a line of dialogue that appears towards the end of the film when Pi remarks, “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go.”

In the movie itself, there is an awful lot that Pi is forced to let go of.  The journey begins when Pi’s family uproots and sets sail for Canada, forcing Pi to say goodbye to his native country of India and also to say goodbye to his first girlfriend for whom he has fallen head-over-heels.  And that’s just the beginning.  The boat he is on sinks leaving him orphaned and essentially alone in the middle of the ocean, well, alone except for the tiger.  Not only is Pi forced to let go of the people he loves and the places he knows, he is also forced to let go in other ways as well.  Religiously, Pi’s circumstances require that he let go of the idea that he is in control of his life.  His relationship with the tiger, which through a clerical error has accidentally been given the name Richard Parker, requires an additional bit of letting go.  No matter how much he would like to be able to communicate with Richard Parker, no matter how much he would like to be able to train him and control his behavior, the tiger is still a tiger. 

Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker provides many lessons in letting go.  At one point Pi improvises an anchor system to turn the lifeboat perpendicular to the waves in the hopes that seasickness might break Richard Parker’s spirit and allow Pi to become the master of the lifeboat.  It doesn’t work.  These attempts humble Pi.  He is forced to let go of the idea that he is in control.

When it comes to our own lives, none of us face exactly the same situation that Pi faces.  We’ve never been shipwrecked with a tiger named Richard Parker.  However, in the most general of terms, Pi’s condition and our own might be more similar than at first glance.  Like Pi, if we go on living long enough we will all eventually lose the people we love.  We will lose our teenage crush, our parents, and our most constant companions.  The poet Mary Oliver writes, “There isn’t a place in the world that doesn’t sooner or later drown in the indigos of darkness... Of course nothing stops the cold, black, curved blade from hooking forward – of course loss is the great lesson.”  This lesson of loss is also a lesson in transience.  Things change.  Life moves on.  The world spins.  We are forced to let go.

In his book Lifelines: Holding On (and Letting Go), Forrest Church poses questions such as, “How can we make peace with our mortality and the death of those we love?  How can we accept things that cannot be changed and change the things we can?  How can we forgive ourselves and others?  How can we gather the courage to overcome our fears?...  How is it that some people manage to conquer adversity while others are consumed by it?”

Church writes, “When cast into the depths, to survive we must first let go of things that will not save us.  Then we must reach out for things that can.  Until we free ourselves from an attachment to false sources of security and let go of our illusions, we will remain in the abyss.”

The Buddhist tradition contains many stories that illustrate the concept of letting go.  In fact, the Buddhist concept of non-attachment might very well be thought of as a synonym for a kind of letting go.  In one story there are two monks who are traveling along a road when they come to a small river.  On the riverbank there is a young woman asking for assistance in order to reach the other shore.  One monk tells the woman that he is sorry, but the vows he has taken as monk does not permit him to have contact with women.  The other monk picks her up and carries her to the other side of river and sets her down on the opposite shore.  Returning, the two monks continue on the road, but the first monk is upset, criticizing and chastising his companion for having broken his vows.  Finally the other monk has had enough.  He turns to his companion and says to him, “I set the woman down on the riverbank.  Why do you insist on continuing to carry her?”

This is a lesson about letting go.  It is a lesson about letting go of anger, letting go of judgment, and letting go of self-righteousness.  It is also a lesson about letting go of religious teachings and beliefs that get in the way of living rich lives.  The Buddhist tradition may be most famous for its teachings about letting go, but it is not the only tradition that contains these lessons.

In the Gospels, there are several stories about Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath as well as doing other activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath.  Each time he is accused by religious scholars who accuse him of breaking the religious rules.  Jesus’ response is to say, “Maybe those are rules that you should let go of.”

In the Christian tradition, the Serenity Prayer reminds us of the importance of letting go.  The prayer as it was originally penned by Reinhold Niebuhr goes like this, “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things that should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Generally speaking, it has been my experience that Unitarian Universalists tend to be very, very good at having the courage to change the things that should be changed.  We like to take charge.  We even like to assume that we are the masters of our own fates. 

It is much harder for us to have the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed.  Letting go is much harder, especially when what we need to let go of is the idea that we have to be in control.

What is it that you struggle to let go of?  Is it the transience of your own life, the transience of the lives of those you love?  Is it your own sense of control?  Is it something you cling to – anger, jealousy, lack of forgiveness, blame, fear – that you reach into the monkey box to hold on to and so find yourself stuck because you refuse to let go?

Forrest Church says, “Meaning doesn’t emerge from longing for what we lack, things we have lost or likely will never find…  We should wish instead for things closer at hand.”

As Pi says, “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”  No matter the sea going vessel you are aboard, no matter the winds or the currents of the seas, no matter the beastliness of your ship’s companions, know that your journey will require some letting go.  And know that you are not alone.