Sermon September 9, 2012

“The Hunger Games”

 The Reverend Harold E. Masback, III

September 9, 2012

 

Isaiah 55:1-3

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

John 6:32-35

Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

James 2:14-18

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:14–18, NRSV)

There’s something deeply satisfying about a good, blockbuster hero movie. Give me a nice bag of popcorn, a cold soda and, take your pick: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and I’m a happy camper. Maybe I’m just easily amused.

But I wasn’t so easily amused this past summer. Amy and I saw some lovely little movies – Salmon Fishing in Yemen, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Intouchables – but we just couldn’t quite bring ourselves to plunk down the dough for The Dark Knight or any of the other summer blockbusters. We still got our hero movie fix, but only after we decided just to make our own popcorn, pour our own soda and rent a download of last spring’s The Hunger Games.

So, if you haven’t yet seen The Hunger Games, consider this your spoiler alert, because this morning I want to explore questions The Hunger Games raises about our lives, about our faith and about our life together as a congregation this year.

The movie opens in a “District 12,” an impoverished outpost of an empire called Panem. Panem’s imperial power is overwhelming, and it uses its power to oppress its conquered subjects. The people of District 12 are hungry.

One of Panem’s cruelest domination techniques is to stage a reality show that’s a cross between Survivor:Amazon and the Roman Coliseum. Each of the 12 districts is required to select “tributes.” These young innocents are then forced into a fight to the death in a competition called “The Hunger Games.”

As the plot unfolds, a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen emerges as our hero. When her younger sister is selected as a tribute, Katniss lunges forward, volunteering to serve as the tribute to spare her. Katniss’ sacrifice is accepted, and she courageously embraces her quest, leaves her home, travels to the heart of imperial power, undergoes rigorous preparation, and then crosses over a threshold into the dark, mysterious forest for the games.

Once in the forest, Katniss faces constant danger of attacks from competing tributes, but, actually, the greatest looming threat is gnawing hunger and the risk of wasting illness.

As Katniss remains true to her calling, she receives mysterious guidance and sustenance that enable her to navigate and endure great, alternating joys and pains. In the end, she triumphs, but only after she realizes that, if she is to win the true prize, the true boon for herself and her community, she must be willing to sacrifice herself for those she loves.

If you’ve been tracking my little summary, you may be scratching your head, wondering if there isn’t a something oddly familiar about the story I’ve outlined. And of course there is. You’ll find that one variation or another on this theme undergirds Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and every version of The Quest for the Holy Grail you’ve ever seen or read.

We Christians need only reflect for a second to realize first, that the patterns of these hero stories point us straight back to the path blazed for us by Jesus, and, second, that we are each meant to follow Jesus down that path as his disciples. For Christians, the path of Jesus, the path of discipleship, is the ultimate hero’s quest – the ultimate “Hunger Games.”

Think about it. Here’s one way to boil down Jesus’ quest to its essence: Baptised by the Holy Spirit, Jesus responds to his calling, enduring great hunger as he fasts in the mysterious wilderness. As Jesus faithfully pursues his ministry of love, he contends with implacable imperial adversaries: Rome and death. Throughout his journey, he is guided and sustained through great joys and great pains by God’s mysterious Holy Spirit. In the end, Jesus sacrifices his life out of love for all humanity, is resurrected into eternal union with the God, and triumphs over the ultimate imperial oppressor: death. As he does, he calls us to follow him, promising reunion with God for us as well.

And now, I hope you can see what hero quests like Katniss Everdeen’s quest in The Hunger Games has to with Jesus’ quest in the Bible and with our lives, our faith, and our life together as a congregation this year.  First, they tell us about our life: they suggest that there is something incomplete, something missing from our lives as they are, that we each experience a restlessness, a hunger that propels us onto our own personal quests. Second, they tell us about our faith: as we respond to our calling, they promise a faith, a path, a spiritual resource to guide and sustain us through the great alternating joys and pains of life. Finally, they tell us about our congregational life this year: they tell us our purpose, our goal – what we must we do to gain the ultimate blessing for ourselves and our community.

First, the stories tell us about our life. The people of District 12 were hungry. The tributes competing in the “Hunger Games” were hungry. The people in ancient Israel were hungry. Jesus in the wilderness was hungry. You and I might not be physically hungry, but our Old Testament lesson suggests that we are all spiritually hungry. Isaiah 55 asks,

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

 

Can’t we each recognize this hunger in our hearts? Haven’t you ever hungered to be loved, but felt that you were never loved enough. Haven’t you ever yearned to be accepted, but wondered whether you really were accepted by those around you, or wondered if they would really accept you if they ever fully knew you. Haven’t you ever had a nagging feeling that you were meant for – that you hungered for something more in life, but felt bogged down and undernourished by the life you actually lead?

Isaiah stirs something inside us because we are not so very different from the people of District 12, or the tributes in the hunger games, or the Israelites struggling under Roman oppression. We, too, know something about laboring for that which does not satisfy. We too must choose whether we will settle for a hungry, half-lived life or whether we will venture out of our comfort zone on a quest for true, flourishing life. The stories tell us something about our life.

Second, the stories tell us something about our faith. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is whipsawed between alternating experiences of great joys, experiences of love and triumph, on the one hand and experiences of great pains, experiences of abandonment and threat, on the other. Her hunger is sated, and she is sustained and guided through the great joys and pains, by mysterious resources that suddenly come her way.

In the Gospels, Jesus is whipsawed between experiences of great joys and experiences of great pain. It seems that one moment he is celebrating at feasts, disciples are professing their faith, and crowds are proclaiming his kingship – and in the very next moment he is exhausted and abandoned, the disciples slip away, and the crowds demand his death. Throughout it all he is fed by his faith, sustained and guided through the joys and the pains by God’s mysterious Holy Spirit.

What about us? At first, we may not recognize our lives in the dramatic reversals of a Hollywood plot or in the sharp ups and downs of the Gospel’s compact telling of Jesus’ life. But we need only pull our camera back to see that, in the sweep of our lives, we too must navigate through great joys and great pains. After all, we too will all experience our share of loves, worthy endeavors, and triumphs. And we too will ultimately see every love, every endeavor, every triumph stripped away by the remorseless dynamics of mortality.  Indeed, there will be occasions when we too will be whipsawed, dizzied by the instant succession of pains and joys. Just yesterday hundreds of us gathered leaden-hearted to listen to Ave Maria as we mourned the tragic, death of a vibrant, 24 year old son. Today, just one day later we cheerfully sing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” to kick off a new year of congregational life and beam as hundreds of our children march gaily off to Sunday School.

We too will need faith; we too will need to find some place to stand; we too will need some resource we can trust to sate our hunger, to bring us peace, to sustain and guide us through the successive joys and pains of life.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus offers his answer. In John’s Gospel he answers, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[John 6:35.] In Matthew’s Gospel he answers, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest [Matthew 11:28.] and “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This question became terribly personal for me this week, for I faced a dizzying, dislocating sequence of joy and pain of my own. On Friday, I was participating in a small, round table discussion on joy with Professor Miroslav Volf and his mentor and professor, the great Jurgen Moltmann. It was a privilege to participate, but all I could think about was how I could possibly make sense of talking about joy on Friday afternoon, walking with Bill and Peggy Jansen through their son’s memorial service on Saturday afternoon, and then preaching our Kick Off Sunday sermon on Sunday morning. Talk about whipsawed.

As you can imagine, I was praying mighty fervently that God would somehow sustain and guide me through the joy and the pain and enable me to be adequate to my responsibilities. My prayers were answered as soon as Professor Moltmann’s began to speak. I was astonished by what he said,

First, he said, Christianity is the unique religion of joy. It begins with the joy of Christmas, climaxes with the joy of Easter, and closes its festival season with the joy of Pentecost. Again and again, Christians sing of joy, proclaim joy, celebrate joy. Jesus says he comes that his joy may be in us and that his joy may be complete. Christianity is the unique religion of joy.

But, second, he added, Christianity uniquely recognizes pain: “the very symbol of Christianity is the cross, a symbol of pain, suffering and death.”

Finally, he concluded, not only is Christianity uniquely suited to acknowledge and address our joy and our pain: it does not leave them in equipoise but guides and sustains us through them to God’s blessing and resolution. Listen to Moltmann’s words, “The secret of life is love. In love we go out of ourselves and lay ourselves open.  In love we become happy and vulnerable. We are happy and we are sad, we laugh and we weep. The more deeply love draws us into life, the more alive we become, and, at the same time, the more capable of suffering. That is the dialectic of the affirmed and loved life . . . Finally we ask ourselves, which is greater, the joy or the grief, the happiness or the pain, life or death? And my answer is that existence is greater than non-existence, life is more than death, hope is above despair, and so the joy is greater than the pain.

. . . .For Christ has died but ‘how much more’ he is risen and has overcome death. So pain too will be caught up and gathered into joy, despair into hope and death into the happiness of eternal life.”

As he finished, all I could do was offer up a silent prayer of thanksgiving. Our stories, Christ’s story, teach us about our faith, how God’s Spirit will sustain and guide us through life’s joys and pains.

Finally, our stories tell us something about our congregational life this year: they tell us about our purpose, our goal – what we must do gain the promised blessing. Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, all must learn the way of their quest. They each must learn the secret to gaining the gift, the boon for themselves and their people. In Christian parlance, the jailer in chapter 16 of Acts falls to his knees to ask Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

The answer, in our movies as in our faith, is always some combination of the three “B’s”, 1) there’s something you have to believe, 2) there’s some way you have to behave, 3) and there’s something to which you must belong: the three “B’s” of every quest are believe, behave, and belong.

That said, there’s a fair degree of mystery about which “B” comes first, or which is the most important. Is it first you believe, then you align your behavior to God’s expectations, and then you belong to God’s family, God’s church? Or is it first you align your behavior, then you will come to believe, then you belong?

This mystery gets caricatured in Christian theological debates as an argument between “faith and works.” One side quotes Paul as he proclaimed justification by faith through grace and not by works of the law. The other side quotes James as he proclaimed , “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

         This debate has been going on much too long for me to resolve it today, but I want to resist the notion that it’s as simple, as the caricature of faith vs. works suggests. Our hero stories and Jesus’ teachings, for instance, suggest a more nuanced understanding. In this morning’s lesson from John, for instance, Jesus says first “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” but he then immediately continues and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

        Since 1999, our high school Quest for the Spirit program has been enacting Jesus’ teaching by walking with our kids from belonging, to behaving, to believing. We invite them first just to come, to join us, to walk with us, to belong. As they feel welcomed and comfortable, they naturally choose to align their behavior to our ethos of unconditional love and acceptance, to our practices of prayer and meditation and service. And as they do, they almost always experience the presence of the living God in their lives, and they naturally come to belief. Belong, behave, believe.

That invitation to belong, behave and believe is also the foundation of our ministry team approach this year. In the material and brochure you will receive, in our ministry fair this morning, you will invited to belong, so that you might behave, so that you might believe. . .

So, my fellow heroes, may we begin our quest this year together. And may the force, may God’s blessings of peace and joy and love be with us all. Amen!

CT Nonprofit Web Design