(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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In the story of “Les Miserables”, Fantine is a young woman who finds herself pregnant and abandoned by the child’s father. Alone, desperate and unable to raise her child in a world prejudiced more against unwed mothers than absent fathers, Fantine leaves her daughter with a couple who promise to raise the child in return for payment. She finds work in a factory and regularly sends money to support her child, who is nevertheless abused and mistreated. But Fantine is found out. She is fired by a self-righteous supervisor for being an unwed mother. In desperation to support her daughter, she turns to the one profession available to women with little skill, education or opportunity. She sells herself.
What hope does Fantine have in life? She prostitutes herself to a constant stream of men. Her worth seems to only be as a sex object, a piece of female flesh used, consumed and quickly forgotten by men who care nothing for her humanity, her suffering, or her state of mind. In an emotionally stunning performance by Anne Hathaway, one that will likely earn her an Academy Award, Fantine is played as a deeply anguished woman caught between the power of love for her child and the terrible degradation she must choose in order to survive.
But Fantine is soon redeemed. Jean Valjean, the hero of Hugo’s story, is a figure reminiscent of Jesus. Valjean learns of Fantine’s unjust firing from the factory he owns. He searches for her and finally finds her in the seedy back alleys of Paris brothels. Much like Jesus befriended prostitutes and brought them into his band of followers, so does Valjean reach out to Fantine. And, much like the compassion Jesus showed the adulterous woman caught by an angry mob of hypocritical men, Valjean shows Fantine the unconditional love she had not yet felt. Redeemed by love but pressed upon by inner demons, she cannot escape the label an uncaring society stamped upon her conscience – slut, whore, miserable, wretched. We read and watch transfixed. We see in Fantine too much of ourselves. We too cry out for redemption and forgiveness of our failures. What power on earth can save us?
(Click here to watch and listen to the video played during the service.)
Each of us lives on a razor’s edge of heaven or hell. Despite the darkness in us, we see ourselves in the hopeful light of goodness. And yet, lurking inside you and me are the sharp edges of shame, regret, fear, lost dreams and guilt. Our past lives do not measure up to our vision of purity and yet we hope, we hope, we hope to be made whole. We each pray the silent prayer that at our last breath, we will conclude a life that has mattered and is good. We cry out to eternal gods and universal forces of truth that we too loved others, that we too showed compassion, that we too changed the world for the better, that we too were kind and just! Despite our many failures, we dream a dream of absolution and ultimate, final redemption. Do we declare, like Fantine, that life has killed that dream? Or do we find somewhere, someplace, our dream fulfilled?
The sweeping story of “Les Miserables”, the film subject of my message today, leaves one breathless. It is filled with many subplots and numerous characters each fighting to make sense of a desperate and cruel world. Some find order and meaning only in law, regulation, absolute morality and strict adherence to what is supposedly right. Such people, as Hugo describes, are the self-satisfied, the wealthy, the comfortable and the moralistic prigs who cannot empathize with or understand weakness, suffering, disadvantage or lack of opportunity.
Indeed, Hugo arranges his story around a clash between two men: Inspector Javert who represents those who self-righteously insist on an absolute moral order in life, and Jean Valjean, a convicted petty thief who has experienced life from the bottom up and understands its complexity, moral ambiguity, heartache and failure. Javert is a constant tormenter of Valjean, pursuing him even to the figurative gates of hell in order to insure he is punished for his petty crimes.
Jean Valjean is an escaped prisoner, convicted as a young man for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew. He struggles to redeem his life and salve his nagging conscience through service, love and charity. He finds and rescues Fantine. When she dies, he adopts her orphaned daughter Cosette. He builds a business that employs and enriches the village where he locates it. He heroically saves from certain death a young revolutionary who had renounced his life of privilege to fight for justice and equality. Valjean even joins the ranks of street revolutionaries – those who fought against the powers of inequality and wealth that had co-opted and sold out the French Revolution. In one life, he offers unconditional love and redemption to those he meets and, in doing so, he seeks to redeem his own life of shame and regret.
Throughout the story, Valjean fights a battle against tyrannical forces that abuse and degrade the poor and hurting. As I said, he is a nineteenth century Jesus – a condemned criminal who reaches out to the outcasts of life – to simply love them. His is a message of encouragement and forgiveness contrasted against the fundamentalist anger of Inspector Javert who demands righteous judgment and punishment for any and all misdeeds.
Like the stage musical and like the book, the movie emotionally pierces our hearts. It asks us to consider whether seemingly miserable or bad lives can be redeemed. Can flawed people be made whole? Can they be accepted and loved for their own sake? Can the horrors of human suffering or depravity be transformed into something glorious, uplifting and good? Or, are the poor, the so-called immoral, the bad, the ugly, the dirty, the thief, the addict, the unwanted, the whore, the unbeliever – the dregs of supposedly decent society – are such people without hope of ever being found good? Should we judge them, consign them to the justice we believe they deserve and then forget them? And if we do, might we ultimately point the hand of judgment back upon ourselves with our own imperfections, flaws, and misdeeds? Where lies the hope of human redemption and how might we find it – for others and for our own imperfect selves?
“Les Miserables” provides an answer. The power that uplifts, encourages, forgives, makes whole and redeems anyone is the basic power of love. It is an unconditional and total love for others no matter their differences or character deficiencies.
Hugo challenges us to see the inherent goodness in each and every person. He asks us to consider the degrading effects of poverty on a person’s soul, often forcing one to steal or resort to prostitution merely to survive. Hugo’s Paris is a Dickensian warren of dark streets teeming with urban poor – orphans, the homeless, the disabled. The novel’s many characters present the case that criminals and so called depraved souls, they must often make a devil’s choice in life – to steal or starve, to sell your body and your soul or live to see another day.
From the comforts of our warm and secure lives we stand accused. Who are many of us, in our sanitized and safe homes, in our falsely prim and proper world, to sit in judgment of others less strong, less blessed, less happy? Who am I to condemn those born and raised in poverty, given none of the advantages of a good education or stable home, who resort to the few opportunities available to earn money – to steal, sell drugs, or compromise their ethics just to live?
We see in Hugo’s Inspector Javert a bit of ourselves. The law is the law, we say. Crime, no matter how petty, is a blight upon society. It must be stopped at all costs! I can too often walk the streets of Over-the-Rhine, ones little different from Hugo’s Paris slums, and inwardly flinch in fear when African-American teens approach or react in exasperation when the homeless ask for change. I may give them some but I often mutter to myself in doing so – “Well, you’ve just bought another beer or another drug fix.”
I can judge their place in life as I also judge them. I fail to ask the questions Hugo poses – what are the larger causes for crime and poverty and inequality? Whom do we blame – the criminal and the one caught in poverty or the ones who caused such conditions? Who are the truly miserable in life – those who live on the margins of survival, or the callous, wealthy, and judgmental?
As the symbolic representative of so-called decent society, Inspector Javert speaks the mindset of many religions as well as those who are comfortable and secure. Bad choices in life have consequences, they say – poverty, prison, poor health, drug addiction, homelessness, depression, loneliness are all matters of choice. We must uphold the law of consequences to redeem such people. We must hold them accountable and demand repayment!
Juxtaposed against such a mindset is that of Jean Valjean, himself a one-time victim of poverty. Not only should we, according to his ethics, redeem, uplift and encourage individuals through our love, we should do so for humanity as a whole. We can fight and act in behalf of the poor by our love. We can seek, by our love, better means of education, healthcare and opportunity for those born on the suffering side of life.
Hugo implicitly shows us that personal initiative like Valjean’s building a business does offer a way out. We and he intuitively know that hand-outs are not the best way to love others. People need a hand up in life – opportunities to advance, heal, learn and work.
Ultimately, Hugo and “Les Miserables” asks us to dive deep into our hearts. Love redeems the lives of most of the story’s characters – people caught between self-interest – or loving and serving others. Love is never a moral wrong according to Hugo. Love must always be the answer – from redeeming those caught in a web of poor life decisions, to standing on the barricades of change and demanding justice for those denied it.
Jean Valjean, like Jesus, seeks out the morally weak, the hurting, the prostitute, the thief, the unwashed, the unwanted. Indeed, he is one of them. Redemption of their misery, and his own, comes from love for others. He offers no pious preaching, finger wagging or condemning attitudes. Valjean sweeps weak people into his figurative arms and offers them the absolution and redemption that comes only through love. In doing so, he finds the redemption he himself so desperately seeks.
Tennessee Williams, another great novelist and playwright, once said that, “Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself or herself aside to feel deeply for another person.” Williams speaks the language of Victor Hugo and his character Jean Valjean. He speaks the wisdom and compassion of Jesus who loved and forgave a thief crucified next to him. No matter his life of crime, such a man was worthy of Jesus’ love and redemption. Contrasted against such sentiments are the words of Inspector Javert who tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change.” The pope said much the same thing when he offered the religious perspective on life. He said, “There is no redemption from hell.”
The Pope was wrong. Victor Hugo shows us he was wrong. Each and every human intuitively knows he was wrong. In the depths of hell that we see in the streets outside our doors, in the horrible pits of struggle with addiction, illness or depression, in the jet black depths of our own inner hells of failure, doubt and fear, we know that redemption is possible. We do not give up on others or on ourselves.
We know the triumphant power of compassion, mercy and love to change lives for the better. We see how the love of a mother for her child trapped in a web of addiction never gives up. She believes in hope after hope after hope after hope. We see the acts of loving people who visit prisons and the dark corridors of death row convinced that such people are not forever lost – who act much like Jesus and his love of a thief dying next to him. We see countless acts of people who love a homeless and unwanted teen, who help a frightened and pregnant girl, who befriend a confused and lonely gay man. We see a nation that refuses to abandon its elderly, poor or immigrant workers. A nation founded on love for others, a nation that reminds itself that selfish interest is a path to greed and moral destruction, a nation that seeks the best answers to redeem and uplift others, that is a good and just nation. Such a nation tells the world that redemption of the lost, hurting and poor is and always will be possible!
I have bored many of you with my life story. I won’t do so again today. But I will report that my lifelong search for Jesus and redemption ended in the most unlikely of places. Many years ago, I thought I found him in a church of moral absolutes. I thought I found him in a fundamentalist understanding of God and the Bible. I thought that love and grace came by belief in the resurrected Jesus, and so I sought him where people spoke the most about him. But I was wrong. I did not find him there.
Instead, I found him in a miraculous place. After years spent in my own desert of despair, doubt and rejection of anything spiritual, I found Jesus in a place that often did not talk about him. I found him in the warm acceptance of me, a gay man. I found redemption in new trust placed in me, to live out my passion and calling as a Pastor. I found Jesus in the love offered to those who hurt. I found him in ideals of service and self growth. I ironically found Jesus in a church where Atheists and Buddhists and skeptics are comfortable. I found him in a place that loves everyone no matter their race, economic status or sexuality. I found him in a place much like where Jesus hung out – not in a fancy building with high ceilings and million dollar construction but in a humble place populated with the outcast, the meek, the humble, the unloved, the addict, the different. I found Jesus, and I found my own redemption……..here.
My friends, I do not place the Gathering on a high pedestal. We know our shortcomings. We know how we can often fall short – like when a recent visitor reported she felt alone and without friends in here. We too can often judge others with self-righteous certainty. We too can sometimes ignore the suffering of others. We too can reject those who act different, think different or believe differently from us. But that’s why we’re here. To get better.
We know where to plant the seeds of hope. We know that we cannot give up on our world. We know that redemption comes by love, by forgiveness and by service to others. We know that seeking and searching after insight is a path to redemption of our flaws. That is why we hunger for the wisdom of the ages, from prophets like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, from great thinkers and novelists like Victor Hugo and from the shared thoughts of each other.
We dream a dream of personal redemption from shame and failure. We dream a dream of redeeming a suffering world. We dream a dream of love for others equal to the love we have for ourselves. We dream these dreams and then we go forth to try our best to live them out…
I wish all of you, here and online, peace, love and joy.