Someone was recently asked, in one of the innumerable year-end summaries that our news outlets are prone to do this time of year, to summarize 2010 in a sentence. She gave one word — mean. No doubt from a political perspective 2010 had plenty of meanness. Here, at the fresh start of a new year, I want to acknowledge that our hopes for a better year in 2011 arise from the obvious realization that the joy of the season just ending, often stands in stark contrast to the mean, or difficult, or just plain sad realities of the time.
I am not going to complain about 2010. But I will say about it that I’d rather have had this kind of year we just had in the church than anywhere else. Here, at least, these painful, difficult events are allowed to take on a gracefulness they might not otherwise have had. The events do not change — but the grit and determination we muster to face them find their reason in greater company.
Let me not be misunderstood. I do not hold to the idea and certainly not the experience that in the church, all pain and difficulty is wiped away. Nor do I espouse the idea that these experiences have the quality of a test and those who hold to the church pass that test and are admitted to some kind of eternal happiness apart from this world.
I am more Johannine than this. With John, I do not believe that the coming of the logos into the world is the coming of a hero arrived just to set things aright. John does not announce, in this prologue to his gospel the coming of a man-god; it is not the gospel of a hero. There was then, as now, some desire for a theos anthropos, as the Greeks called their desire to sweep away our troubles, for a hero to ride in and present God in pure revelatory splendor. Instead, John writes, at the end of his prologue that no one has ever seen God — but that God has translated God for us. This is an awkward sentence in Greek, and I have left the awkwardness to make this point — the revelation of God would be an event of interpretation, not an event of power and might.
God will come in the flesh. It will be life. It will be grace in the midst of grit.
I suppose it was my thinking about this lectionary text that made take notice of a column in the New York Times last week by a retired law professor about the movie he’d just seen called True Grit. I might not have read it except he began by noting that the movie critic Dan Gagliasso complained that this new version of True Grit destroyed the heroic climax of the old movie with John Wayne. Professor Fish agrees but does not bemoan that fact, but lauds it. I read on and then convinced Erin to go see the movie that night. Here’s what he wrote:
there is an evenness to the new movie’s treatment of its events that frustrates Gagliasso’s desire for something climactic and defining. In the movie Gagliasso wanted to see — in fact the original “True Grit” — we are told something about the nature of heroism and virtue and the relationship between the two. In the movie we have just been gifted with, there is no relationship between the two; heroism, of a physical kind, is displayed by almost everyone, “good” and “bad” alike, and the universe seems at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to its exercise. (Read the rest of the article here.)
I’d need to watch the movie again, if I were to spend the rest of the sermon reviewing it. I will say though that the movie ends with a most remarkable cinematic display of the word made flesh.
It’s a wide shot up to the top of a bare hill — bare but for one gnarled and lifeless tree and 5 or 6 gravestones and Maddie — the movie’s main character. She is now in her middle age and you can clearly see her outline missing the arm which she lost to a snakebite at the very end of the action — just at the moment you thought she would be the real invincible hero of the movie. The camera cuts to the cemetery with a few stones in the immediate foreground as Maddie walks off into the distance, saying ““Time just gets away from us” before the credits roll to the music of an old spiritual: “Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way / Leaning on the everlasting arms / Oh how bright the path goes from day to day / Leaning on the everlasting arms / What have I to dread what have I to fear / Leaning on the everlasting arms.”
John’s true grace and the movie’s true grit are inextricably mixed. At the beginning of the movie the adult Maddie narrates that nothing is free, it’s all a struggle, except for grace. And for those without grit, the grace is pale, the translation incomplete. There is no promise of peace, there is no promise of escape from the inexorable march of time — there is only the promise of grace.
Let me return at the end, back to where we began — with a glance back at the past and a prayer for the future.
For most of the 21st century, we have been fighting a war in Afghanistan. This past year has seen two terrible developments. The death toll has risen. 711 service men and women from around the world have died in 2010 in Afghanistan. The numbers are more difficult to calculate for Afghanis. The School for International Studies in Vancouver has been monitoring the Human Rights situation in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war. They estimate for the 2010 that 6 civilians are killed per day as a direct result of the war.
We could easily be Maddie walking off that hill in True Grit. The tombstones of humanity piling up behind us — recognizing that things have gotten away from us.
And here’s a brief mention of the other terrible development. Our laudable desire to rid the country of the Taliban has had no effect, either on the Taliban themselves, or on certain prominent figures who are proclaiming that they want the Taliban — that the Taliban are not so bad.
The two movies, the John Wayne’s “True Grit” and the Coen Brother’s “True Grit” offer two different visions for Afghanistan. It is time to see that John Wayne’s “Dead or Alive” grit has no grace. We are not the light shining in the darkness. True Grit calls for a different way; for a fresh realization that
we are not good enough to use violence, not pure enough to direct history through violent means. Peacemaking requires not extreme heroism, but a humble restraint in identifying enemies, and an everyday commitment to caring for members of one’s body in mundane ways: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, all of whom, Jesus says, are Jesus himself. (read the lecture in its entirety here.)
Let us start over. Let us encourage a humble restraint in all things passionate and eschew heroism. Let this new year be a year when our voices blend with grace. And may the light shine upon the people who walk in the darkness. Amen.