Message 13, Avatar – Are We Entitled?  3-7-10

Avatar, as most of you know, is the biggest money-making movie of all time.  In dollar values, the movie has made almost two and one-half billion dollars worldwide since its release.  72% of its gross revenues have come from the international market, thus indicating the movie has a broad appeal that transcends cultures and nationalities.  Tonight, it stands poised to win several Academy awards including, possibly, the best picture Oscar.

Our March message series over the next few weeks will take a look at a few of the Oscar nominated best picture films.  I hope this series will be a fun but thought provoking approach to looking at issues we all face in our lives.  Indeed, as much as the written word has power and resonance, films seem to touch us all the more because of their visual and audio sensory impact.

My goal, in this series, is not to present a simple retrospective of some currently popular films.  It is, instead, to use them as a means to further our Sunday morning work – to discuss and gain greater insights to ourselves and our world.  Our mission is to then think about ways to act and grow from what we learn.  Since all aspects of truth seeking have a spiritual dimension, I believe our pursuit in discussing movies and the topics they raise is not just for simple entertainment.  We will, I hope, be spiritually challenged and enlightened.

We begin this Sunday, as we saw in the previous video trailer, with the film “Avatar”.  Next Sunday, we’ll look at George Clooney’s “Up in the Air”, and conclude in two weeks with the recent Disney – Pixar animated film entitled “Up.”  In between, we will hold the first of many, I hope, Gathering movie nights here at church.  On Saturday, March 13th, starting promptly at 7 pm, we’ll watch “The Great Debaters”.  It will be free of charge and open to one and all.  Afterwards, for any who want to stay, we will enjoy an informal discussion of the movie over coffee and dessert.

James Cameron, the writer, director and producer of Avatar, conceived of the movie and wrote a brief script for it in the mid 1990’s.  He quickly shelved the project as his visions for the movie exceeded the moviemaking technology of the time.  He waited for computer graphic imagery to catch up with his big ideas.  Which they did and the final product is as much a story of amazing filmmaking technology as it is a fable for our enlightenment.  The images are stunning and so realistic that if one did not know that Cameron’s creations were fictitious, one would believe they actually exist.  Floating mountains, flying reptiles, mystic phosphorescent life forms and other amazing creations populate the film.  Most are based on actual earth creatures or landmarks – and then they are altered to appear wonderfully and beautifully alien.  He created an otherworldly Garden of Eden.  The avatars and aliens themselves are beautiful – they are ten feet tall with blue skin, long slender bodies, and cat-like faces and features.

The story is one we often have heard in other ways.  Many reviewers have likened it to the movie Dancing with Wolves or The Last Samurai in which a westerner finds himself in an alien culture only to fall in love with it.  In this case, the year is 2154 and the earth is in major ecological trouble.  Human beings therefore venture six light years away to the planet Pandora in order to mine a mineral called “unobtainium” which will solve all of the earth’s energy needs in an ecologically pure manner.  Populating Pandora are humanoid aliens called the Navi, who might best be likened to any indigenous natives here on earth.  They are intimately connected to their natural surroundings and have even evolved a bodily appendage which allows them to physically unite with various Pandora plants, animals and each other.  The Navi thus understand the plants and animals around them in ways that we humans can only aspire.

In order to calm the Navi and buy their trust, scientists develop a mutation life form which has a combination of human and Navi DNA.   These are the avatars.  They are to go and live among the Navi and convince them to give up their land.

And that is the goal of the human invaders of Pandora – to mine as much of the powerful mineral as possible and return it to earth.  The paraplegic marine, who inhabits an avatar body, finds himself increasingly sympathetic to the Navi cause.  He eventually turns against his fellow humans to defend his newfound Pandora culture that is peaceful and at one with nature.  The movie culminates in an ultimate battle scene where humans make war against the less technological Navi.

If the movie has political and ecological overtones, it was meant to have them.  James Cameron says unapologetically that such was his motive – to condemn the worship of technology, to denounce the violence perpetrated against nature and to decry the many wars which are waged for financial or material gain.  Echoes of the Iraq war, of Viet Nam, of battles against American Indians and of environmental plunders run throughout the film.  These themes are not subtle.  To use them as the basis for today’s message would be a simple task.

I believe the larger theme of this movie, however, is one that Jesus often spoke against but which has been a part of our human nature since we first evolved as a species.  I speak of the human sense of entitlement.  Almost as soon as we are born, we create a universe of our own in which we place ourselves at the very center.  All things, in our own minds, revolve around us.  It is only by the application of moral imagination and cooperation that we create an alternative universe in which we are not the center and we no longer claim for ourselves the petty demands of ego.

We see in Avatar a human race run amok.  At the beginning of the film, men and women have destroyed earth and live on the edge of extinction because of a sense of entitlement – entitlement to use at will all of the world’s natural resources and to stop at nothing, even the violent conquest of other nations, in this pursuit.  And so, having exhausted all of our resources here on earth and facing mass calamity, humans venture beyond earth to find places suitable for plunder.  Beyond all of the social and political commentary that permeates this film, lies a condemnation of human arrogance.

We have seen this attitude of entitlement throughout our history.  From the allegorical creation story of Adam and Eve, humankind could not live by the one rule set for us – to not eat of the Tree of Life.  Adam and Eve’s me first attitude symbolically reflects our own.  From Atilla the Hun, to the ancient Egyptians, to the Roman Empire, to the Spanish conquest of Peru and Mexico, to the African slave trade, to American expansion into Native American lands, to Napoleon and Hitler, to actions by our own nation to obtain oil – which some claim to be harmful to our very survival, humans have acted as if they are not just granted the basic rights of life and freedom, but that we are anointed Kings who are entitled to anything we want.  In other words, we believe we have the right to unlimited access to land, wealth and natural resources – no matter who or what stands in our way.

And this attitude is acted out not only on a national and international stage, but in smaller communities, families and within our very inner selves.  This internal mindset, that we fight every day, leads us to take for granted the blessings of life – people, other creatures and the earth itself.  I am the center of my universe and thus I am important and deserve all things and all people to serve my needs.  Of course, this attitude is not always so pronounced and evident.  We can act entitled in small ways too.  We do this in many of our relationships in little ways – like expecting to be treated in certain ways or to have the other act perfectly towards us.  We expect those whom we love to always be attentive to our needs, to never make mistakes and to always be there for us.  We also expect that we will not only have food for basic sustenance, for instance, but that it had darned well better be really good to eat.  I can think of a thousand ways in which I act entitled – I should be happy, I should be comfortable, I should not have to suffer, everything should go as planned, everybody should be nice to me, I should not have to wait very long, and on and on and on…Forgetting to think about other people first – their needs or their hurts or their reasons for acting in certain ways, I can often want only what is best for me.

There are, of course, basic needs that we should expect in a decent society – like affordable access to the essentials of life: food, shelter, clothing and healthcare.  And then there are needs that those who are born with disadvantages or afflictions deserve to be provided.  These people are not victims.  They are the sick, challenged or outcast.  As a species that does act with moral imagination, we are to care for the weakest among us.  As Jesus says in the Biblical book of Matthew, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, soothe the sick and visit the prisoner, we are doing it for the Divine.

Sociologists point to the fact, however, that we are becoming a society where almost everyone considers himself or herself a victim of some sort.  I do not mean to diminish the very real victims of abuse or hate who truly do suffer injustice.  Beyond that caution, however, we can all identify people or groups of people who regularly play the role of victim out of a sense of entitlement.  Their egos expect them to be treated in certain ways and, when that does not happen, they react with anger and hurt.  We might all think of egregious examples in this regard – the person who suffers a minor injury but then demands permanent disability status and lifetime pay from the government for not working, or the woman who was burned when she spilled hot coffee in her lap because she rested the cup between her legs while driving – and then sued McDonald’s for millions or, perhaps, any one of us who wail and moan when stuck in traffic due to an accident without ever thinking of the real accident victims.

When I was young, my mother would often tell me that life is often not fair.  And I found myself repeating that piece of wisdom to my daughters many times over.  For whatever reasons, some people are richer, are better looking, healthier or are more intelligent than others.  They may have either worked harder to achieve such standards or, perhaps, they simply lucked into them.  But these qualities are not to be expected nor is anyone entitled to them.  The same mindset that once caused my daughters to bemoan the fact many of their friends got new cars when they turned sixteen and they didn’t (what an unfair dad I was!!!), is the mindset of entitlement that once led white slave traders to capture African men, women and children to work as slaves.  Our individual and often petty attitudes of entitlement are acted out in big ways by corporations, by nations and by the human race as a whole.

It is this very same mindset that motivates humans in the movie Avatar.  We are stronger, you have what we want and we are going to simply take it because, after all, we are entitled to continue living extravagant and wasteful lives.

If we know what our problem is, how do we fix it?  Here are my five proposals for how we can diminish or eliminate our propensity to feel entitled:

The first is a repeat of what I said earlier, life is not fair.  Even in cultures and economies where there is a deliberate effort to level the playing field for everyone, inequalities still exist.  Some people will work harder, some will be born with greater skills in certain areas, some will be born with more or less intelligence, and some will experience blind luck – either good or bad.  As a society that cares for others, we should assist those who suffer.  For those who are sick, who are disabled, who struggle with mental, emotional or physical diseases, we must be there for them.  But, for the rest of us, I believe we must realize that life is not fair and that we can either be bitter and unhappy about it or we can focus on the many, many good things we have been given.

And that leads to my second proposition.  All things in our lives should be seen as gifts – not as absolute rights.  The very air we breathe is a gift.  Life itself is to be celebrated.  Our food, clothing, relationships, family, friends, work, homes and everything else we have should be seen as blessings and enjoyed, instead of taken for granted.  This mindset will lead us to stop expecting whatever it is we don’t have.  We must focus, as the old saying goes, on the positive.  We are often abundantly fortunate and too often, I at least, act as if I deserve even more.  I confess to you that I have been far too blessed in my life.  I see so many others who hurt and suffer when I do not.  I have absolutely nothing to complain about and everything for which to be thankful.  Help me, help us I pray, to live with a grateful attitude.

My third proposition is that many goals and dreams we have in life must be achieved through work.  And even then our work does not absolutely guarantee us a right to great wealth.  I know there are many teachers and social workers in our congregation who labor to shape the future, one life at a time.  What work has greater impact?  And yet, there are some people in this world who throw a football, who act in movies or who trade stocks who amass fortunes while others, who impact our society in much more profound ways, make much less.  My point, though, is that while life is not always fair, nothing in our lives is free.  We must work for what we receive.  While we must work towards fairly paying people for their hard work, we must NOT encourage the attitude of some that they are entitled to privileges without work.

My fourth proposition is that inconveniences in life will always happen.  We can never predict what will happen the next moment.  We plan ahead but, again as the old saying goes, the best laid plans often go awry.  When we react with grace and understanding to unforeseen circumstances, we are better for it.  Instead of storing anger, resentment and bitterness, we are people of peace – within ourselves and towards others.  I have met a few people who seem to not only roll with the punches that life throws at them, but they celebrate them!  These are people who laugh, are generally happy and who often are kind and caring.  Since I have already thrown around a few clichés, let me offer another one.  These happy people are given lemons in life and, instead of complaining, make lemonade.  I want to be more like them.

My fifth and final proposition is, I believe, the most important.  It is to live an outwardly focused life.  This perspective purposefully removes me from the center of my existence and places at its center other people.  I am here to serve not my own interests but those of others.  And, I believe that just like a sense of entitlement permeates negatively downward, an outwardly focused life positively expands to influence our families, our churches, our businesses, our cities and our nations.  My ethic must be to think more of you and of other people than I do of myself.  As we have discussed in some of my previous messages, this ethic is echoed in the Golden Rule and was listed by Jesus as one of his two great commands.  We are to love and treat others at least as much – or more – as we love ourselves.

An outward focused life is a different paradigm from what the evangelical Pastor Rick Warren advocated in his books The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church.  In each book he proposed, like me, that people stop focusing on themselves.  He offered, however, that our purpose is to live for Christ.  While I believe God’s heart is for the betterment of people, I do not believe our primary mission in life is to worship a theistic Divine person.  We must serve others here on earth.  We must work for the creation of heaven on earth – not for us as individuals but for all people.  I believe that is the true message of Jesus.  By working to reduce poverty, homelessness, injustice and disease, we serve other people.  We can also do the same in simple, everyday interactions.  We can consider other people first.  We can live with an empathetic attitude.  What are you feeling?  How can I help?  How can I understand?  Let me listen to you.  Let me think of your needs and not my own.  To paraphrase John the Baptist from the Bible, we and our sense of entitlement must decrease and others and their needs must increase.

The hero of Avatar does exactly that.  By living as an avatar – half human and half Navi humanoid – he comes to understand and to empathize with the natural world and the population on Pandora.  He awakens to their reality and he finds himself serving their needs instead of his own.

I was reminded in this film of the book we read as one of our Book Club selections two years ago.  It has resonated with me ever since.  The book Presence encourages each of us to live outward focused lives.  It asks us to be present with other people and other life forms.  When we are figuratively present with them, we symbolically live in their shoes, we seek understanding of their opinions, needs and desires.  And the result is that we learn, grow and are happier as a result.  From this sense of presence with others comes the moral force operating in the universe.  And, as you know, I believe it is in human cooperation and goodness towards others – our moral imagination – that we find the Divine.

This call to live an outward focused life is, I hope, our purpose and our mission here at the Gathering.  So many of you truly do lead lives that are present with other people and which serve their needs.  You often lead outward focused lives.  But, I hope we can agree that we can be better.  And, our church must also act with that mindset.  The Gathering should be a place that thinks more of others than it does of itself.  We are rightly called to love each other within the congregation with kindness, gentleness and understanding.  However, in our actions, our finances and our time, my hope for the Gathering is that we continue our path to be outwardly focused.  How much time do we as a congregation spend in service to the community?  How much of our church finances do we spend for that purpose?  Many so-called church experts say that churches which remain insular, closed and serving only the needs of the congregation will never prosper and may likely cease to exist.  Churches with a passion to look outward, to serve others, and to be involved in the community, find purpose, relevance and energy.  All of these qualities exist here – it is one reason I love this congregation so very, very much – but our goal must be to move ever onward and to extend our ethic to serve.

Let us live out Paul’s words in the Bible when he encouraged the church he founded in Philippi with the following advice, and I quote from the NIV translation, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

As many of you know, we have a missions working team that will soon come to the congregation with focused ideas on how we can grow in outreach and service to others.  We have not studied or formulated all of our ideas as yet.  This group will do the investigation necessary to bring a few ideas to you for approval.  I know we will continue our work with Inter-Faith Hospitality Network and with our Christmas time charities.  But we will bring other ideas to the table too.  As your Pastor for at least one year, my goal is to extend what this congregation has already begun.  We are a place of grace and caring towards each other.  We are not going to like everyone here equally but we seek to understand, to celebrate and to embrace each other in a manner that acknowledges and promotes diversity.  At my previous church, I noted that while some people always seem to be lovable while others take more effort, the reality is that we all, on one level or another, require extra grace in order to be accepted and loved.  We understand this at the Gathering and we are moving more and more towards fully living it out.

My other goal is for us to continue our path towards also being an outwardly focused, service oriented church.  I was not here when the congregation decided to locate in Over-the-Rhine but I imagine it was done with a purpose and to make a statement.  We could isolate ourselves in some grand building in the suburbs or we could be where I think Jesus might want to worship.  I love you all dearly for having made this choice.  Indeed, I almost have to rebuke myself for reverse pride.  I think our little storefront location says a lot about what we value – people over buildings, helping others over ourselves.

As we seek to be better people by rejecting a sense of entitlement, we can help change the prevailing thinking in our cities and our nation.  As the movie Avatar points us to the ultimate horror of human arrogance and entitlement, let it be just a science fiction parable that never comes true.  Let us NOT live with a sense of entitlement in our personal, work or relationship lives.  Let us stop living as victims and start celebrating the many gifts of life we enjoy.  May we live out the ethic of care and concern for others.  Let us be present with other people and with all creation.  Let us be empathetic.  Let us be an outwardly focused people and church.