Mid-week during Holy Week I went to see the new Wes Anderson film, Isle of Dogs. I was eager to see it, in part I guess, because just a couple of weeks ago I had a near-disastrous emergency with my own dog Ozzie. Plus, I am a big fan of Wes Anderson movies, and I had heard a great review on NPR. Additionally, I had a hunch that something about the film would provide inspiration for an Easter sermon.
In fact, the plot of this animated film, set in Japan, twenty years from now, tells of a corrupt and mean-spirited government that has set out to eradicate dogs from the nation, and that begins by banishing them to an island used as a trash dump, just off the coast. But a lone child - an orphaned twelve year old boy - manages to pilot a small plane to the trash-island-cum-dog-prison, where he goes in search of his own dog, Spots.
A small pack of dogs agrees to help the boy search for his own lost pet, leading him at first to a heart-breakingly bare and sun-bleached set of bones inside a tightly locked dog crate that had obviously become a death chamber for its occupant, when he could not escape its locked door. But it transpires that this set of bones is mis-identified, and the band of dogs and their boy continue their search for Spots. One of the most inspiring moments of the film takes place when the leader of the pack assures the boy, “Wherever he is, if he’s alive we’ll find your dog.”
You can see, I think, why I had suspected there would be Easter material in this film. A child travels to a dangerous island, the inhabitants of which are doomed to die. But the child brings with him the determined intention to save at least the one dog that belongs to him. The entire film is full of the promise - no, the hope - of the unlikely triumph of life over the near certainty of death, of justice over wrong-doing, of kindness over cruelty, of loyalty over self-interest, and of the truth over the kinds of lies that governments tell their people.
I went to see Isle of Dogs really wanting to fall in love with the movie, as I have with so many other Wes Anderson movies. And I did enjoy it, I will say. But I have to confess to you that as I sat there watching the credits, I was a little disappointed. I liked the film, but I had wanted to love it. I was impressed with so many aspects of it, but I wasn’t swept up and away by it. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t changed by it in any way, and I didn’t feel that I wanted to gush about it to my friends, or to a congregation full of people on Easter morning (although I certainly do think you should see it). I almost - but not quite - wanted to respond to the movie with a, “Meh...” that useful three-letter word that says so much by saying so little when there isn’t much to say.
It wasn’t until I was walking out of the theatre, that I heard someone pronounce the pun that is in the title of the film, and that I had completely missed. Isle of Dogs: isle-of-dogs: I love dogs. How could I be so stupid? How could I have missed this lovely proclamation?
Something changed when I realized that I had not even known what I was saying when I pronounced the title of the film: I love dogs... which, as a simple statement on my lips is, in fact profoundly true! I love dogs! I do love dogs! I love my dog, and I love other people’s dogs! I think everyone should have a dog or two! I love dogs! And I had just sat through a 101-minute film, the whole point of which, in a sense, is to get me to say that I love dogs - and I had missed it altogether. In fact, I had been saying exactly what the film-maker wanted me to say, and what I wanted to say... but I had not even realized what I was saying - nor how true it is: I love dogs!
Now, here is a point of congruence with Easter. We pile into church at Easter, for all the right reasons, I think, even if we don’t know what those reasons are. But we get ourselves here. And we sing the hymns, and we enjoy the flowers, and the hats, and the brass, and the pageantry. And at the beginning of the Mass, you followed the instructions, and you sang (didn’t you?) the words of the Opening Acclamation, with which we will begin every Mass for the next fifty days:
“Alleluia, Christ is risen!” I sang.
And you sang, “The Lord is risen, indeed, Alleluia!” Didn’t you?
Let’s try it again, for good measure... and for those of you who were late (you know who you are)! We can just say it this time:
- Alleluia, Christ is risen!
- The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Anyway, here’s my point. When we pronounce the Easter Acclamation, when we shout out the good news that Christ is risen, do we have any idea what we are saying? Do we even know what it means? What are the implications of these words? What does “Alleluia” even mean? Scholars will explain its Hebrew roots, but I think most likely it is a word that springs from the dialects of angels. Here you are, speaking Angelic, and do you have any idea what you are saying?!?! And do we realize that it is true? Or are we pronouncing this wonderful truth, without actually realizing what we are saying, as I did with the movie: “Isle of Dogs: it’s an island of dogs. You know? Isle. Of. Dogs. Al. Le. Lu. Yah. Yeah, the Lord is risen indeed. Sure. Meh.”
Is it entirely possible to come to church on Easter morning, to sing the hymns, to fall on our knees, to kneel at the altar, to say the sacred words that express a profound and mysterious truth, and then to walk out the door carry on our day with a, “Meh...” as if there isn’t much to say about today; maybe even missing the the truth of the lovely proclamation we make together: the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
These few little words cost us nothing to repeat, and yet, they articulate a truth that has changed the world, and that has changed your life, whether you know it or not... by giving you the promise of new life in Jesus Christ, the Lord of Life, who makes all things new: the tired, the sinful, the broken, the inept, the warped, the disappointing, the ineffectual, the puny, the mongrel, the weak, the filthy, the washed-up, the dim, the chronic, the forgotten, the mangy, the battered, the runt, the second-rate, the sickly, the bent-out-of-shape, the mutt, the inadequate, the locked-up-and-forgotten, the maimed, the abused, the malnourished, the abandoned, the underachiever, the foolish, the mean-spirited, and the hopeless - all will be made new by the power of the Resurrection! But, do we realize that this is what we are saying when we say that the Lord is risen indeed?
Despite the fact that we live on a planet of astounding beauty, isn’t it sometimes easy to feel as if we are marooned on a Trash Island, where we are doomed to simply live out our days and then die? Have we just been dumped here to fend for ourselves amidst the vagaries of the marketplace, and some kind of social Darwinism? Will our lives amount to nothing more than a pile of bare, sun-bleached bones? These questions are the context in which we approach Easter morning.
And here is a child, whose presence among us is a mystery. He was sent to this dangerous place, the inhabitants of which are doomed to die, bringing with him the intention of salvation. And when he grew up, his life and his ministry, and even the circumstances of his execution, turned out to be full of the promise - no, the hope - of the unlikely triumph of life over the near certainty of death, of justice over wrong-doing, of kindness over cruelty, and of the actual truth over the kinds of self-serving lies that governments tell their people. And he began making all things new. And we spend, I don’t know, something like 101 minutes in church this morning, the whole point of which, is to get us to see this truth, and to say it out loud with conviction, and to know what we are saying!
But it is all too easy for us to leave here thinking, well... I did enjoy it, but in the end we have to confess we’re a little disappointed. Sure, we like Easter, but do we love it? Are we swept up and away by it. Are we changed in any way by what we hear today, by what we say and sing? Do we want to gush about it to our friends? Do we have any idea what we are saying when we proclaim that Christ is risen? And can we make this simple statement, and realize that it is profoundly true?
Yes, indeed the Lord is risen! He died for my sins and yours, and he rose from death to put an end to the burden of those sins. I love Jesus for what he did for us, for who he is! I love him, because he loved me first, and because he is love! Heck, I think everyone ought to love Jesus! My life is changed because Christ is risen! Yes, the Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
In the film, the dogs don’t realize that the boy has come to save them. Neither does he realize it, for that matter. Everyone thinks that the child has come only to find his own dog, Spots. But it will become clear that no other path is possible except for him to save them all, not just his own dog. And in the process, he will vanquish evil, and put an end to the death-driven regime that suppressed any but its own preferences, (and that also wickedly allowed cats to do whatever they please). But in the end, the dogs will discover that not only have they been saved, they have been transformed, their lives are changed, and they have become creatures far more wonderful than they imagined themselves to be.
Do you think that Jesus intends anything less for you and for me than the happy ending of a Wes Anderson film?
And do you hear the promise of this good news, that not only have our lives been saved, we have been transformed by the power of God’s love?! We are changed, and we will be changed again! By God’s grace, you are far more wonderful than you imagined yourself to be! And don’t worry, wherever you are, if you’re alive, he’ll find you.
All of which we can say, in the fullness of its wonderful truth, with these few words:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia