Lion

I hope you have seen the lovely and touching film Lion that tells the true story of a five-year-old boy from a desperately poor village in central India who through a tragic series of mishaps gets lost and separated from his family. Heroically surviving life on the streets of Calcutta, many hundreds of miles away from home, he is eventually taken to an orphanage. Before long, the boy, who is called Saroo, is adopted by an Australian couple who have him brought to them in Tasmania, where Saroo adapts well to his new country and his new family as he learns to speak English, and how to use a knife and fork, and begins to grow up on the beautiful Australian beaches.

When he is ten years old, Saroo’s Aussie family adopts a second child from the same Indian orphanage, a nine year old boy named Mantosh, who has a harder time coping with his emotions, dealing with his past, and adjusting to his new life in Australia, and who will struggle with inner turmoil as he tries to adapt to his new life.

The heart of the film is the story of Saroo’s search for his birth mother that he begins while at university, drawing on memories of his early childhood, and using Google Earth to try to identify the landscapes, landmarks, and location of his childhood village. The search took years, during which time Saroo wrestled with the emotional turmoil of knowing he had a history he could hold onto only by the fragile threads of distant childhood memory. He obsessed about the thought of his poverty-stricken family in India that he missed and loved, and that he was certain missed him and loved him too. He was confused about assimilating so easily into Australian culture, even though he knew that he belonged in a meaningful way to another culture and another world. And he was plagued by the inner conflict that comes from having a loving adoptive mother, at the same time believing that his birth mother was someplace far away in the vast expanses of India, he knew not where.

“Do you know what it’s like,” he says to his girlfriend, when he is consumed by the search, “knowing my real brother and mother spend every day of their lives looking for me? … How every day they scream my name. …And I can feel their touch. I see their faces….”[i]

Eventually, after years of maddening Internet-driven searching, Saroo locates his childhood village through Google Earth.  And with the blessing of his Australian family he travels to India to find his birth mother, who amazingly is there, has stayed put, and has not stopped hoping that her long-lost son would someday return.

There is a touching and important scene in the film, at a point when Saroo’s search for his birth family has created significant tension between him and his adoptive parents, as he struggles with questions about his own identity. Perhaps looking for an emotional wedge to separate himself from his Australian family, and knowing that his adopted brother’s struggles have caused this family heartache, he says to his Australian mother, with maybe a bit of passive aggressiveness, “I’m sorry you couldn’t have your own kids.”

He has assumed that his parents chose adoption because of their infertility. But it immediately becomes apparent that this assumption has never before been tested or discussed.

“What are you saying?” his Australian mother replies.

Saroo goes on, “I mean we weren’t blank pages, were we? Like your own would have been. You weren’t just adopting us, but our pasts as well. And I feel like we’re killing you.”

The screenplay says Saroo’s adoptive mother “smiles – still holding off the tears.” Then she says, “We could have had children. We chose not to… We wanted you two in our lives. We chose that.”[ii]

I wish she had said, or that the screenwriter had written, “We chose you.” But it’s good enough the way it is, “We wanted you two in our lives. We chose that.” 

The moment is an emotional turning point in the film, as Saroo discovers something new about who he is, by discovering that he is not and never was what he feared he might have been – a consolation prize for a couple who couldn’t have kids on their own. No, he was the chosen object of their love, which actually has nothing to do with fertility. He and his brother were the children that his parents wanted.

In the Gospel this morning we hear Jesus talking to his disciples about his relationship to them. In a pivotal and important moment, he reassures his followers with words that the King James Version of the Bible translates as “I will not leave you comfortless.”  Other common translations of the text say, “I will not leave you desolate.” Or “I will not leave you all alone.” But the translation we hear today (like many others) puts it this way, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

The remark comes amid what scholars refer to as Jesus’ farewell discourse. He has shared the Last Supper with his disciples. He has washed their feet. He has told them that one of them will betray him, and predicted Peter’s denial of him. He has spoken with them about his Father, and he is beginning to speak of the Holy Spirit. The truth of his identity is beginning to unfold, whether the disciples can perceive it or not. And the complex nature of the inter-relatedness of the persons of the triune God becomes evident as Jesus sits and teaches, and casts light at a certain angle on the truth of who he is. And as Jesus shows his disciples who he is, he is also showing them who they are. And as he is showing them who they are, he is also showing us who we are.

And although the saying might have been poignant for the disciples that evening as Jesus bade his farewell, and they wondered what would become of them, it’s easy for us to miss the poignancy of this tender moment when Jesus says, “I will not leave you comfortless,” or “I will not leave you orphaned.” It’s easy for us to miss, because it seems to be answering a question that we have not asked - what will become of us when you have gone?

But the answer to the question still tells us something important, I think even if we have not asked it, and especially if we hear it in this translation, “I will not leave you orphaned.” I suppose that like Saroo, we imagine that God is stuck with us the way we come to him. And the assumption of the church for many centuries has been shaped by the often truthful assertion that the way we come to God is broken, sinful, rotten, depraved, stained, in need of major work. We are not blank pages, are we? And (God knows) we are lost.

But there is something poignantly telling in Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphaned. He is unfolding both the past and the future; he is revealing his divine identity; and he is telling us something about who we are, and who we are to him. When he says that he will not leave us orphaned, he is telling us that we are the children God wants. We are not the consolation prize that God is stuck with because things didn’t work out in the Garden of Eden. We are the children God wants. A little later in the farewell discourse, Jesus will put this more clearly still when he says to his friends, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”

I chose you.

We are the children that God wants, and always has wanted. True though it may be that we are broken, sinful, rotten, depraved, stained, and in need of major work, God wanted us in his life. He chose that. He chose us. He chose you.

The producers of the film tell us that more than 80,000 children go missing in India every year: a statistic that is so heartbreaking at so many levels that I haven’t any idea what to do with it. One particular irony in the story of Saroo, is that although he ended up in an orphanage, he was not, in fact, an orphan. His mother was alive, and if not able to search, at least praying for her son’s return.

You don’t have to be an orphan to be lost, or even to go missing. I’ve known people who have gone missing in plain sight, as their lives have become so pained or broken that they just can’t seem to keep it together.

We live in a world that buys and sells everything from weapons to children and if you can’t find a way to fit into the marketplace, you may become easily lost, discarded, or forgotten. And we live in a world that often does not consider a stable in Bethlehem, or a green hill outside Jerusalem to have anything to do with its own personal history, its past, its story, its heritage. Estranged from God, so many of us do not see ourselves as runaways, but see ourselves freed from the clutches of a controlling church whose narrative is primarily of shame and guilt, not of love and acceptance. 

Who am I, after all, to say that any of you are broken, sinful, rotten, depraved, stained, or in need of major work? Indeed, those are not my judgments to make, though at times and in many ways I believe them to be true of myself. Certainly, I know that there have been times when I am lost, without any idea which way home is.

But I hear Jesus speaking to his disciples, and I know that he is speaking to me and to you, too. “I will not leave you orphaned.” And I believe that when he says this he smiles – still holding off the tears. And I hear him say, “We wanted you in our lives. We chose that.”

And we discover that we are no consolation prize. We are the children God wanted, the children God always wanted, the chosen objects of his love. And nothing will ever separate us from that love.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

21 May 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

 

[i] “Lion” screenplay by Luke Davies, based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, page 75

[ii] Ibid., pages 86-87

Posted on May 22, 2017 .

The Place of Your Hands

When painters throughout history have depicted the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, they have chosen often to focus on the moment right before his execution begins. They paint Stephen already on the ground in the midst of a mob of angry men, who have arms raised and rocks at the ready, but who are not yet throwing. There is a somewhat standard tableau for these paintings – Stephen in the center, the mob surrounding him on all – well, really three – sides, and Saul sitting off to the side with a pile of discarded robes cascading off his lap and onto the ground. More modern painters sometimes play with the pattern of this tableau, but in the main they still choose to paint this moment of right before, this pause when the pendulum begins to swing down towards violence. One modern painter places us in the eyes of an executor, gazing down into a pit where Stephen kneels praying. Another shows us Stephen head on, slouched against a wall with rocks flying between us and him, paused eternally mid-flight. Where we stand in the painting can sometimes vary, but when we are standing is almost always the same. There is the sense that this moment is the moment, that this one moment of explosive, violent anger is the crux of Stephen’s whole story. For after this moment, nothing will be the same for Stephen, the first martyr, and nothing will be the same for Stephen’s Church.

There is another consistency in these paintings, which is that in most of them there are three types of hands. There are the hands that grip rocks, usually two-handed with fingers splayed wide open and tendons bulging. Remember, these were not skipping stones being thrown at victim, these were great, heavy blocks. Stoning is – and oh how I wish I could say “stoning was” – a brutal, bloody death. So there are the hands with the rocks, raised high overhead or pulled back like in the leather of a slingshot. Then there are the hands of Stephen, usually lifted up to heaven, although in some more restrained paintings they are folded reverently in prayer, right thumb over left, I am quite sure. And the third type of hand position is that of hands on hips. It’s a posture held sometimes by dark towering figures, men who look pleased with the way things are progressing, who look as if they may have been the ones to instigate this chaos in the first place. And it’s a posture sometimes held by Saul himself as he watches with grim satisfaction amidst his growing pile of robes.

What I failed to find in my search within these paintings were any that showed hands like this: (show hands over ears). Nowhere did I find a painter who had chosen to include this singular moment in Stephen’s story when, after hearing his remarkable statement that he can see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, the people become so infuriated, so enraged, that they cover their ears. What an unbelievable moment. They actually cover their ears. Stephen’s words have so stoked their anger, that they cannot hear one more word out of his mouth. They have to stop his sound, and the only way they can think to do that is to slap their hands over their ears. 

Stephen, of course, has said much more to them than what we hear in today’s Gospel. He has been talking to them for a while now. He’s been arrested and brought before the council, charged with blasphemy and asked to defend himself. And so he stands before them, with a face like an angel, Acts tells us, and relates the whole story of the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham. He talks and talks, tells them the story of their faith, all of which – all of which – points to the coming of the Messiah, to the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. And then Stephen says these words: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” Your hearts, he tells them, are the wrong shape, your ears are not open, and you refuse to look and see. You will not look for the fulfillment of God’s promise, you will not look up, up, where I see Jesus now at the right hand of God. Will you not look up and see the truth, the way, and the life being offered to you?

But the people are so stubborn, they are so locked into their opposition of Stephen and all that he says, that they literally cover their ears so that they no longer have to hear what he is saying. They’re so far gone into darkness that they’d rather stick their fingers in their ears and say, la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you than listen to another word out of Stephen’s mouth. They block the Word of God, stopper their ears against this divine voice that yes, challenges them and pulls them up short, but also invites them to look up and see the light. But no. They will not have it. They grit their teeth and cover their ears and let their rage burn on.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I have done exactly the same thing. How many times have I held on to anger because I felt like it was so well-justified? How many times have I refused to forgive because being hurt or righteously indignant or just right felt better? How many times have I let my own justification or my own rights get in the way of God’s justice and God’s righteousness? How many times have I stoppered up my own ears so that I wouldn’t have to listen to God telling me to let go, to be merciful, to love my neighbor as myself, to forgive and remember that I, too, am forgiven?

It’s an ugly truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless. I have at times been just as pig-headed and wrong as these angry people standing with a scowl on their faces and their fingers in their ears. And I imagine that I’m not alone in this. After all, listening and responding to the voice of God is rarely easy. Because listening to the voice of God in our lives rarely means that things get to stay exactly the same. God always speaks to us in love, but God is never going to lean in to us and say, "You know what, everything is exactly the way I envisioned it for you. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – that you need to change in your life to love me better, or to love your neighbor better. Nope. Stay right where you are. Comfortable? Great. Comfortable is my middle name."

But God is less interested in our being comfortable than in our being converted, in our being Christians. God is always trying to help us, leaning down to us from his place in the heavens to tell us exactly what we need to hear, even if it isn’t what we want to hear. Because he sent his son to be the way, to speak the truth, to show us what we need to have life, and to have it abundantly. And so he speaks to us, giving us the words we truly need: "Forgive. Remember. Have mercy. Listen. Reach out. Give. Give more. Move. Move on. Stretch. Love more, love better, love longer. Be brave for justice. Dare greatly for the Gospel. Change. Change jobs, change attitudes, change practices. Change in me, with me, through me, so that you can be the person I always have known you to be.

"Open your ears and hear my word to you this day. I want better for you than you have right now. I want more of you than you think you can give. I want more for you than you could ask or imagine. I want nothing less than the vision of the kingdom – my kingdom – for you and for every single living thing you know and see.

"For remember that it is my right hand that has made all of Creation, my right hand that brings mighty things to pass, that exalts and lifts you up. My hands are your strength and your guide. My hands pull you out of the nets that tangle your steps; my hands hold your times and your spirit. My hands prepare a place for you in my house; my hands show you the way that you are to be going.

"So put your hands down. I have better things for them to be doing. I have work for your hands. I need them to heal, to comfort, to feed, rise up against the great injustices of this world. I need your hands free for other, better things. So let me have them. Take them off of your ears, for I have words of love and salvation and purpose to speak to you today. Listen, my faithful servant, for your Lord speaks."

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

14 May 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 16, 2017 .