Friday, February 26, 2021

Movie With A Message - News Of The World - Sermon for Week ending February 27, 2021


The 2020 film News of the World, starring Tom Hanks, opened Christmas Day in theaters and is available for rent on Amazon Prime.  Hopefully, it will soon be free to watch because it is such a good movie. It takes place in Texas in 1870, before Texas was allowed to re-join the Union after the Civil War, as they had not yet agreed to outlaw slavery. It was a violent place. White Texans murdered Black, Mexican, and Indian people at will. Hank’s character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran and a printer before the war, now travels to remote outposts in Northern Texas to read the news to settlers for a 10 cent donation. Outside Witchita Falls, he comes across a young child in the woods, a victim of the wars over land between settlers and Indians. He learns that her white birth parents were killed; then her Kiowa parents were killed.  The only language she knows is Kiowa. She has Indian agency papers listing her given name and the names of her only living blood relatives, an aunt and uncle living in a German settlement 400 miles South in Castroville. When he can’t get anyone to take her there, he does it himself. I won’t give the plot away since you probably haven’t seen it yet, but their trip is fraught with danger, and they come close to dying more than once. The movie has lots of meaningful themes prejudice and white supremacy, lawlessness and violence, making sacrifices to do what is right, and the idea that if you save someone’s life, you are responsible for them. I think the primary theme is, “Where is home? And who is family?” This child was taken from one home and family and raised in another home by another family. She even has 2 names. Johanna was her given name. Cicada is her Kiowa name. Captain Kidd is taking her to a home she can’t remember and a family she has never known, whose language she doesn’t speak and whose culture is foreign to her. In what home and with what family she ends up in isn’t known by us movie watchers until the end. So where is home? And who is family to us? Is home where we feel we belong? Where we feel safe? Where our hearts are? Can we find home in more than one place in our lifetime? In the gospels, Jesus doesn’t have a permanent home. He did. And he feels at home in different places. But he’s an itinerant preacher. In the gospel of Mark, when he was told that his mother and brothers were outside the place he was preaching, and wanted to see him, he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers? “ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Jesus wasn’t rejecting his family of birth. He loved them. He was making the point that the definition of family can be broader. As he journeyed from place to place, he created a great big chosen family. Gay people all over the world who have been rejected by their birth families do the same. They create beautiful chosen families who love and understand and accept them. My other favorite theme in the movie is expressed in a conversation between Captain Kidd and Johanna, when they are teaching each other words of their language and how those words convey their religious and cultural beliefs and their view of the world and life. Johanna tells him that in Kiowa, the word Daw means God, life, spirit, and circle. And while she is saying this, she makes a circle with her arms, the circle that is sacred to Native American tribes, observed in the sun and moon and stars and seasons, turning within itself and therefore never ending. Kidd responds that to his people, life is more of a straight line. And it is best not to look back. Just to keep moving forward. We can hear bitterness in his voice when he says this, like he doesn’t think it’s a good view of life, but that he is resigned to it for now. Johanna tells him that in order to move forward, you first have to go back and remember. She circles back, physically and metaphorically, and eventually, he does too. I love the image of life as an ever-turning circle. It evokes our connection to God, the earth and all its creatures, to our ancestors, and one another. It’s a vision of unity and wholeness. But I think Captain Kidd’s straight- line image, better describes life in our western world, where we only go forward from one task to another with efficiency and purpose, like we are in a race to see how much we can achieve before we die. Too many times we don’t stop to appreciate and enjoy our surroundings or ponder the big questions about life and death like other cultures do. We just keep moving towards the finish line. I think this comes from the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Ethic most of us learned from our parents and grandparents, which values rugged individualism and ambition and achievement. But life is so much more, isn’t it? It is love and laughter and books and art and music. It is long aimless walks and stories around the fire. It’s the healing power of our natural world, and our connection to other people. To me life is humanity and spirit and God, all together, in an unfolding, eternal circle of wholeness. These themes of different kinds of home and families and different ways of viewing the world challenge us to expand our thinking from what we have been taught, what we have assumed, or what we believed in the past. To consider broader definitions of home and family and a more inclusive and unified view of life. Our new book club book, Think Again, is about this, the art of rethinking the ideologies that we have held on to, and embracing something new. And it’s what Progressive Christianity is all about, having the courage to question what we thought we knew for certain, which can bring us to a new, more meaningful relationship to God and the Bible and each other.



Friday, February 19, 2021

Movies With A Message - Hotel Rwanda - Sermon for Week Ending February 20, 2021

The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda is based on the true story of a group of people trying to survive the Rwandan genocide in 1994 of over 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutu by paramilitary extremists back by the Hutu-led government. The genocide took place in 100 days, and is called “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century.” The story opens in the days before the massacre began. Paul Rusesabagina, is the house manager of a 4 star Belgian hotel in Kigali, the capital of this former Belgian colony. He is a Hutu. His wife, Tatiana is a Tutsi.  While a militia of Tutsis that had been forced from the country by the Hutus is reportedly on the outskirts of the city, ready to attack. Paul hears from his brother-in-law that the Hutu militia is planning to kill all the Tutsis, but he doesn’t believe it, because, as he says, “The UN is here. They have brokered a peace treaty. The whole world is watching.” He is shocked when the killing does begin, but he immediately focuses on keeping his wife and family safe. Soon, he is sheltering extended family, neighbors, and strangers who have heard that they could find refuge at the hotel. Paul witnessed and experienced unimaginable violence. He was ordered to shoot his family and friends or be killed himself. While going for food, he found the roads blocked by bodies that had been slaughtered by machetes and garden tools. Some were still alive. And in town, he saw Tutsi women and girls in cages being raped and murdered. After that, he begged Tatiana that if the killers ever got inside the hotel, to take their children, go to the roof, and jump off, rather than be murdered by a machete. Soon, French and Belgian soldiers arrived, but only to rescue the white foreign nationals staying at the hotel, not the Rwandans. The small UN peace-keeping force there had orders not to intervene. They even refused to take the Rwandan children who had been rescued from an orphanage, where the other children had been murdered while the Red Cross volunteer was forced to watch. Paul was only able to keep those who were inside the hotel, which quickly grew to over 1200, safe, by bribing a general to put out the word that if the hotel was attacked, the Belgian army would respond. He kept them all safe, but when the Tutsis regained power, they joined the 1.3 million primarily Hutu refugees in Tanzania and Zaire. The producer of the movie said that he made it because there was such little attention given to the genocide by the western world, with many people still being unaware that it happened. At the root of this lack of caring is racism. From the colonizers, whose interest in eugenics led them to separate Hutus and Tutsis by their physical appearance, to the western media’s depiction of the genocide as tribal warfare, as they had no understanding of Rwanda’s Colonial history, to the United States refusing to help when they knew the genocide was happening, which they most certainly would have done if it were in England or France. Paul learned that that rest of the world didn’t care from a journalist and a UN peacekeeper. While he was helping the journalist get out video of the massacre, he was so hopeful that help would come. But the journalist said to him, “I think if people see this footage, they will say, ‘Oh God, that’s horrible!’ and then go on eating their dinners.” The UN colonel said to Paul, “To the West, you are dirt, worse than dirt, because you are black.” I read a study of the lack of coverage of the genocide by the major networks in the U.S. And some of the reasons given were: that it didn’t involve US interests. (During that time they were covering Haiti because Haitian refugees were landing in Florida.)  They didn’t like covering events that didn’t focus on US acts of benevolence. And the folks at home couldn’t understand who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, so they lost interest. The primary reason for the lack of coverage was that, when the white people were evacuated from Rwanda, the journalists who were there left. As we hear in the movie, as 8,000 Rwandans were being murdered every day, the US government not only refused to send help, but their officials refused to even use the word genocide, because doing so might obligate them to intervene. There is also a lesson about how inflammatory speech incites mob violence, which we witnessed in our country recently. But the movie and the real life story of Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina also show us that no matter what unspeakable horror is happening around us, there are still good people who make enormous sacrifices to save their fellow humans. As more and more people flee to the hotel for refuge, we hear Paul say to them, “There is always room.” And he says it again when they arrive at a temporary camp just across the border, and end up taking a large group of orphaned children and the Red Cross volunteer with them to Tanzania, on what seems like a very full bus. For Paul and those who helped him, It didn’t matter if people were black or white, Hutu or Tutsi. They worked together to do as much good for as many people as they could. May we remember that there is always room, In our homes, at our table, in our schedules, in our wallets, and in our hearts for our fellow humans.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Movie With A Message - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Sermon for week ended February 13, 2021

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play, a fictional drama about a real person, and part of a cycle of 10 plays portraying the African-American experience in different decades across the 20th century. The setting is Chicago in 1927, during the Great Migration of black people from the South to the North. Chicago and other Northern industrial cities recruited black people from the Jim Crow South to work in their factories, and as waiters and bellhops. And they left the South in droves with high hopes, as they headed to what was advertised as The Promised Land where they could find jobs and dignity. But Chicago was not much more enlightened than the South was. Newly arrived migrants lived 6 to a room in temporary housing and were only allowed permanent housing in a narrow strip on the South side. Even their presence in white areas brought protests. The director of the Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George Wolfe, said, “In the South, black people could often support themselves in their own communities. When they came north, if they wanted to achieve, they had to come into contact with the white power structure, which meant that their own power was, in essence, nullified.” The play and the film portray this loss of power with a recording session by Ma Rainey, a black, old-school southern blues singer, and her band for a white record producer.  Before ma arrives at the studio, we see the producer and ma’s white agent planning how to keep her in line, but when she does get there, kow towing to her because she is putting money in their pockets. In the south, Ma makes a great living touring as “the mother of the blues,” but in Chicago, she is seen as just another black woman. And Ma knows this. She knows they can barely stand her presence in their space. So, because she can, she makes their day as difficult as possible. She says to one of the band members after demanding that the white men send out for a coca cola for her before she will sing ,“They don’t care nuthin’ about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they are gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurts them. They are back there now, calling me all kinds of names, everything but a child of God. But they can’t do nothing else. They ain’t got what they wanted yet. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, they ain’t got no use for me.” I read an article recently that is a reminder that the exploitation of black artists continues even today. It was about Shonda Rimes, a black television producer who created and produced 5 mega-hit shows, for ABC , which is owned by Disney, making the network 2 billion dollars. But at every budget meeting, for 15 years, she says, she had to fight for the money to make her shows. And at every contract negotiation, she had to fight for fair pay. As part of her contract, she was given a 154 dollar all-inclusive pass to Disneyland. They aren’t transferable, so she asked for an additional one for her sister. Her request was passed back and forth between executives at Disney, which has a net worth of 190 billion dollars and the last one said to her, “Don’t you have enough?” So Shonda, because she could, left ABC and Disney and moved to Netflix, where her new series Bridgerton is their most watched show ever. Her critics said she was being petty, but for her, this was just the latest example of how little she was valued by a company she had done so much for. And she echoed Ma Rainey when she was asked why she left. She said, “They love to ask you for blood, but when you need a towel, it’s too much. Don’t let any employer treat valuing you as a favor.” The other main character in the play is Levee, a young trumpet player and song writer, also from the south, who witnessed more violence as a child than anyone should ,and who believes his only chance at success here is to fit in in this new world. But unlike Ma, Levee doesn’t know how to navigate the white power structure that is his gatekeeper. He thinks that his confident, cocky manner, the way he dresses, and his new style of blues and jazz will make him famous with the new migrants and cross over to white record buyers. He says, “I don’t need nobody telling me nothing. The white man will respect me when I get my band together.” But his Bravado is mostly a cover for his fear that he can’t make it in this new world. Throughout the play, we see his anger at having to live under the control of white people, just as his parents had to do in the south. In the end, after all the promises made to him by the record producer are broken, Levee comes to represent the tragedy of talented, hopeful young black people who are held back from realizing their dreams no matter how hard they try. There is much more in the play about the history of white supremacy in America, that continues today. It serves as another tool for those of us who want to educate ourselves so that we can help change that. May we always be open to what our Still-Speaking God is saying to us, through movies and books and plays and songs, so that we can become more justice-seeking and more faithful followers of the way of Jesus.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Movie With A Message - Erin Brockovich - Sermon for Week Ending February 6, 2021

As we just saw, our movie with a message this week is Erin Brockovich, the true story of the fight for clean water in the small town of Hinkley, California in 1996. The real Erin Brockovich is still active in the fight for clean water. She has a new book out called Superman is Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis, and a podcast by the same name where she interviews everyday people who are working for change in their communities. In the movie, we see the beginnings of her quest to hold accountable anyone who endangers human lives for their own profit. A single mom of three, with a high school education and a no nonsense way of communicating, Erin experienced the pain of classism at every turn in life. She couldn’t find a job that would pay enough for her to hire a babysitter for her children and still pay rent and put food on the table. When she was severely injured in a car accident that wasn’t her fault, and went to court to try to get a settlement to pay her bills, she ended up being the one put on trial, because the person who hit her was a respected doctor, and she was portrayed as just some low-life floozy trying to get money from him. When she finally did get a job as a file clerk at a law firm, she was snubbed by the other women there because they didn’t approve of the way she dressed. All of it was hurtful, but she refused to let other people’s opinions stop her from being herself, and doing what she knew was right, when she uncovered the deception by Pacific Gas and Electricity, that was making people in the community of Hinkley sick. The chromium 6 they used in their pipes to keep them from rusting was toxic, known to cause cancer and a host of other illnesses. When it seeped into the ground water in the 1950s, the company kept it a secret. And as we saw in the clip, when folks began to suspect that the water and the illnesses might be connected, PG&E sent them to company doctors, who convinced them that they weren’t. Everybody who underestimated Erin Brockovich really shouldn’t have. Her desire to make life better for people like her, who struggled financially, her tenacity, and her amazing brain (dyslexia allowed her to see patterns when reading, and she had a photographic memory) made her unstoppable. There’s a great scene I wanted to include a clip of (but I couldn’t because her language is a bit too colorful,) where the company tries to low ball them on a settlement, saying that the offer is more than any of ‘these people’ have ever dreamed of. Brockovich replies, “’These people’ might not be the most sophisticated people, but they do no how to divide, and what you are offering isn’t much split, between them. ‘These people’ don’t dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying that they’ll have to have a hysterectomy at age 20 or have their spine deteriorate. So before you come back here with another lame offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth or what you’d expect someone to pay for your uterus. Then you take out your calculator and multiply that number by a hundred. Anything less than that is a waste of our time.” Another theme is the need to work together to make change happen. Erin could communicate easily with people in this working-class town with her down-to-earth manner. She was sincere, she had faith in them, and she earned their trust. In the end, 634 residents signed on to the class action suit against PG&E.  And the payout was $333 million dollars, more than a hundred times their first offer. She still sees herself in that role. She says in the introduction to her book, “For years, I’ve been teaching one very simple concept, Superman is not coming to save you. Without water, it is literally game over for us. The time has come for us to save ourselves. No one person can fix this. It’s up to all of us. We’ve got to work together.” Of course this teaching applies to everything that needs changing in our world. It takes a village to stand up together and speak out against injustice, and it takes weeks, months, even years of hard work before we can see any progress. I think the most important thing that the movie and Erin’s work did was to bring to light the overwhelming prevalence of polluting industries in low income neighborhoods like Hinkley because they are considered the path of least resistance, since their residents have less money and less political clout to oppose it. I read a study that found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.” In my own privilege, I didn’t think much about why, when we were remodeling our home in Decatur, we had to drive 15 miles south to the county landfill. I know why now. In Flint, Michigan, every elected official and decision maker who chose, for years, to put toxic water into the bodies of their residents, 45 percent of whom live below the poverty line, should be held accountable. And, lest we think that the big payout in the movie Erin Brockovich took care of everything and everyone, the town of Hinkley, California is still contaminated with chromium 6, 25 years later. The water board predicts that it will take up to 50 years for 80 percent of the cleanup to be complete. In the meantime, it is deemed an uninsurable wasteland. This crisis is just one part of the systemic racism and classism that define our country. As people who care about justice and equality, we must rise up to fight for it, no matter how long or how much work it takes. That’s who we are. So let’s educate ourselves about the problems in our own community that cause harm and what we can do to help solve them. And then, together, let’s get to work making it happen.

New Vision and Progressive Christianity

 New Vision is a Progressive church. That doesn’t mean that you must be progressive to be a member here. It mainly means that your pastor an...