Monday, July 11, 2016

Mend The Bond Torn By Pride

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Ephesians 4:25-5:2:

We continue today in our series on the gospel in Pixar looking at the movie Brave. This is the first Pixar film to star a female lead, a redheaded female at that, and it is also the first in which the entire story real centers on and focuses around two female characters, Merida and her mother Eleanor.  It is also the darkest of Pixar’s films, in that it resembles some of the fairy tales we all know, although Merida doesn’t need any gammy boy to come to her rescue, she can do things quite fine all by herself thank you very much.  Eleanor is trying to raise up Merida to be a proper princess who will be able to lead the kingdom along with her husband in strength, just as she has done. Merida, however, doesn’t want to be the person her mother wants her to be, this is another example of the sense of identity that runs throughout Pixar films. Eleanor invites the other clans and their first born sons to come and compete to claim Merida as a bride, but Merida has other plans, and first subverts the contest that is to decide who she will marry. Then she gets a witch to cast a spell to change her mother, which Merida hopes will convince her mother to change her mind on forcing Merida to get married, but instead gets her mother changed into a bear. Merida is then told that if her mother isn’t changed back to a human by sunrise of the second day that she will remain as a bear for the rest of her life. As it turns out this is not the first time this curse has been laid on the kingdom, and to overcome it, to change her fate, the witch tells Merida that she must “look inside, mend the bond torn by pride.”

I already told this story a few weeks ago, but at annual conference this year, Bishop Cynthia Feirro Harvey told a story about her husband. She kept telling him things, but he said he didn’t hear them, or was acting as if he didn’t hear them, and so, getting a little older decided to get his hearing checked out. At the end of the appointment the doctor asked him why he had come in and so he told her, and the doctor said, well you’re hearing is just fine so perhaps it’s not your hearing but your listening that’s not working. We hear but we don’t listen. Merida and her mother are encountering exactly the same problem in that instead of talking to each other, they are talking at, or around each other, or not even to each other…..  Does that seem like a familiar story? Each of them have something to say, each of them have reasons for doing what they are doing, but neither can express that to the other, perhaps because even if they do they think they won’t actually be listened to.  And there is that moment, when literally and metaphorically Merida feels like she is being stuffed into something that is too tight, that constrains her too much, that is not who she is, and for a brief moment both of them appear to let down their guards, and are going to be honest and open, but then Eleanor can’t do it, and Merida can’t do it, and they go right back to their own positions.

We do this all the time in our intimate relationships, with those we love, or like a little bit. Brenda Chapman, who was the writer and co-director based the relationship between Merida and her mother on her own relationship with her daughter.  But we even do it on bigger scales as well.  It is this lack of communication, this lack of being able to hear the other side, that is one of the things at the heart of the violence we witnessed this past week. It is police officers, and large portions of the country not being able to hear the cries of pain and concern and outright fear being offered by members of the African-American community, that feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are being targeted and they are being dealt with very differently than whites. That we don’t hear of white men being killed for the crime of a broken taillight, or jay walking or walking down the sidewalk in wearing their sweatshirt wrong. The black lives matter movement is crying out to be listened to. On the flip side are police officers, who believe that their lives are in danger every single day and live in fear of not going home to their families at the end of their shift, and who feel, rightly or wrongly that they need to fear some people more than others, and want their concerns listened to. Neither side is talking to each other; they are talking at each other, and they are not being heard, and the blanket statement that all African-Americans are threats to the police is just as wrong as the blanket statement that all cops are racists and don’t care about the communities they serve. When we talk at each other, nothing good ever comes from it, and we often end up striking out at each other, that’s why Jesus says that anger is the same as murder, even if that anger is justified, because it is anger that can lead to violence. After Merida upstages those seeking her hand be being a better archer then they are, she and her mother come face to face, literally….

No one wakes up and says “I think I am going to be unreasonable today,” or at least few people do. We all have a narrative that we tell ourselves, and that makes sense to us, even if it is completely unreasonable. So if we start by telling someone they are being unreasonable, or unfair, or out of their minds, what’s going to be the response of the other person? They are going to be defensive, because that’s not how we see ourselves. That’s when we begin to hear, but not listen. Listening starts when we begin by being open to the other person’s story, to their narrative, to the way they are seeing things. That does not mean we have to accept it, but when we reject it before they have even started then we have no way of listening, no way of meeting at common ground.  we have to start learning to talk to each other, to recognize that the other side has a story, they have a belief, they have their own ways of being and thinking.

Both Merida and her mother want the other to change, need the other to change, but neither feel the need to change themselves, and thus they are at an impasse, until Merida asks the witch to change her mother, and she receives a cake that she presents to her mother, and that’s when things start to go really bad…. What’s striking in this scene is that Merida never takes responsibility for what she has done. What does she do instead? She blames the witch. It’s not her fault it’s the witches fault. In the same vein, her mother never apologizes to Merida for throwing her bow into the fire, even though she is sorry she did so.  Now I guess the alternative to this is that Merida could have apologized to her mother, without actually meaning it. I’ve said this before, but I had a teacher whose famous statement was “are you sorry you did it, or are you sorry you got caught.” There is a big difference between those two things. Because if we are only sorry that we go caught, then there can’t ever be true forgiveness because there has never been true repentance. Repentance says we are sorry we did it, and what’s more we are going to not do it again, or at the very least true are hardest not to do it again. As Christians we are called to repentance, to turn around, to go a different way, to see things differently than we did before.

For Merida and her mother, the healing of their relationship, of the wrongs they have committed ironically begins when they can no longer talk to each other because Merida doesn’t speak bear, and so they have to truly listen to each other, and more importantly they come to see why what the other does is so important, as Eleanor has to learn to hunt and spend time in the forest, which she had been loath to do, and it was not something princesses did, and on the flip side Merida comes to see the role that her mother plays in keeping peace in the kingdom, keeping the clans together, and the strength and grace that she exhibits in doing so. That is, they come to truly listen and understand the other person’s role and what they need and want from each other. But, it still hasn’t brought healing to their relationship because one key piece is still missing. The witch tells Merida that to change her fate she must mend the bond torn by pride and so she and her mother go back to the castle to get the tapestry that Merida cut to sew it up, and the men chase Eleanor, still a bear, down to try and kill her, and Merida, who has mended the tapestry while riding to stop them, saves her mother, or at least thinks she has….

Fixing the tapestry by itself doesn’t mend the tear, because Merida has never actually said to her mother that she is sorry, because that is always the hardest part, and the thing most of us are so reluctant to do.  And we don’t want to do it because to say I’m sorry requires us to admit that we were wrong, and that can be hard, because to say we’re wrong first is to admit we are wrong, that’s hard, but it also puts us in a one down position. That is to tell someone we were wrong, which may mean they were right, although not always, puts them above us and leaves us asking them for forgiveness, for them to elevate us back up, to repair the bond torn by pride, and they don’t have to do it, which is what we also have to know about forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be demanded; it can only be freely given by the person in the position to forgive.  But the last piece of saying you’re sorry is to do so without lots of excuses at the end, lots of reasons why it happened, a series of disclaimers, without saying I’m sorry if you were offended, or upset, because when we do that it really only says we are not truly repentant. But instead we simply say “I’m sorry.” Period. Or perhaps if we need to add something “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” I know those are hard words, so we’re going to try them out here so we can learn to use them elsewhere, so say it with me, “I’m sorry.” Again. “I’m sorry.” One more time “I’m sorry.”

If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive.  If we want to receive forgiveness, we must seek forgiveness from others, and one of the things that happen when we have to seek forgiveness from someone else is that it also becomes easier to give forgiveness. Why? Because when we realize the ways we have failed, the ways we have trespassed against others, it should place us in a place of humility, and a place to see that just as we are flawed, so too are others flawed.  Seeking forgiveness causes us to give up our own sense of pride, our sense that we are always right, and therefore if others do something to us, then they are wrong. It causes us to change and to become better than we were before, more compassionate, more understanding, and maybe even better listeners. That is what happens with both Merida and her mother. But there is one other key idea presented in that last scene when Eleanor changes back from a bear. It doesn’t happen immediately after Merida actually says she’s sorry, instead when does it happen? When the sun hits the tapestry that has been mended.

Now perhaps I’m reading too much into this as a metaphor, but the producer of the film Katherine Sarafian, whose father was a minister, has talked about how much of what she does is influenced by her faith, and so when I see that it the sun, the light breaking the darkness, that is the final thing that makes true forgiveness, true reconciliation possible, I can’t help but see that as a metaphor for the role that Christ plays in our lives in giving us forgiveness with God and forgiveness with each other.  Forgiveness is a powerful thing because forgiveness frees us from carrying the burdens of the wounds that have happened to us, it gives us the freedom to live and to love just as Christ loved, and seeking forgiveness from others can bring us into right relationship with others, to move past bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, those things we are warned about in the Epesians passage, and into God’s love and into God’s forgiveness, and that happens when we learn how to say, and begin to say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” At the end of the film, Merida says “There are those who say fate is something beyond our command. That destiny is not our own, but I know better. Our fate lives within us; you only have to be brave enough to see it.”  We might also say that seeking forgiveness and giving forgiveness also lives within us, we only have to be brave enough to use it. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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