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