(c) Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, A Unitarian Universalist Community, All Rights Reserved
There are two well known stories in the Bible about fathers and sons that are often retold to teach spiritual concepts. One is from the Jewish Torah, and the other is from the New Testament. The Torah story is about Abraham who is considered the father of Judaism. After settling in the area we know as Israel, Abraham and his wife Sarah were happy and prosperous. One night, as the story goes, God spoke to Abraham and told him that he will be the patriarch of God’s chosen people – the Jews. God assures Abraham that just as there are millions of stars in the night sky, so too will be the number of his descendants – the people of Israel.
This promise from God, however, belied one aspect of Abraham’s life. He and Sarah were both at advanced ages and had been unable to conceive a child. After a number of odd twists to the story – like Abraham having a child through a servant – he and Sarah eventually do have a son – Isaac. And both knew that it will be through Isaac that the Jewish people and nation will come.
But God later tests Abraham’s faith by asking that he sacrifice – kill – Isaac on the top of a mountain. Abraham is shocked but he does not question God. He does as he is told and leads Isaac to the mountain, ties his arms and legs and raises a dagger to kill his only son – the one who represented God’s promise.
God however quickly tells Abraham to put the dagger down – that this was only a test. For Christians and Jews, the story is confirmation that Abraham was a great spiritual figure – a man who had total faith in God far beyond his love for a long desired son. To me and many other commentators, however, the story is unfathomable. If God is love, as the Bible says, then this story tells us we must honor that God by forsaking the very real love that a parent has for a child. That is cruel and inconsistent logic.
A contrasting Biblical story about a father and son is from the New Testament. It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, Jesus describes a father with two sons. One son is obedient, loyal and hard working. The other son is self-focused and a playboy. This son asks his father one day to receive his inheritance in advance – before his dad dies. The father, out of love for his son, agrees. And the son promptly takes the money, moves to the city and squanders it on wine, women and other debauchery.
This son eventually finds himself so poor that he is forced to scrounge with pigs for food scraps. As a Jew, he could not fall any lower. The son decides to return to his father and throw himself at his mercy.
As the boy is walking back to the family farm, and before he pleads for mercy, his dad recognizes him a long way off and is overjoyed. He runs to his wayward son, smothers him with tears of joy and hugs, and commands his other son to prepare a feast for the returning prodigal. Despite the impudence of a son who demanded his inheritance early, who broke one of the Ten Commandments by dishonoring a parent, who led a wastrel life, the dad did not care. His love for the boy was so great.
Jesus told this as a lesson and not as a true story. As such, I love the tale. It speaks of the kind of love most of us rarely offer another – a love so powerful that it overcomes any hurt or offense. It’s a love so pure that Jesus pointedly said that it is how God feels about us and that we are to show others. Love without prejudice. Love with forgiveness and no judgement. Love unconditionally. It’s a perfect story for Valentine’s Day.
I begin my message with these two stories because they highlight the bigger ideal I hope to convey by examining one of this year’s Oscar nominated films – part of my February series to consider Hollywood spirituality. I looked last Sunday at the Disney animated film “Inside Out” and the topic of Emotional Intelligence. Today, I look at the movie “Revenant” and the idea of redemption. For me, it is a good movie – one that also examines a father / son relationship and the idea that love is a purifying and redemptive force. Let’s take a look at the promotional trailer for the film…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoebZZ8K5N0
As you just saw, “Revenant” is cinematically beautiful but it is intense and full of violence and bloodshed. It tells the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who lived and worked in the unexplored west of the early 1800’s. After his fur trapping party was attacked by Native-Americans, Glass and a few others narrowly escaped. They were forced to walk overland to the nearest fort. While he was out hunting one day, Glass was attacked and horribly mauled by a bear. His fellow trappers must then carry him. They soon find that task impossible and decide to leave him behind with his son and two trappers who are to tend him until he is better or a rescue party can return.
One of the two trappers resented the care-taking assignment, killed Glass’ son, and then buried Glass alive in order to abandon him. But Glass survived and the majority of the movie then shows how he miraculously made his way back to civilization despite horrific injuries and lack of food or winter clothing. I won’t describe the many ordeals he endured but they are harrowing and not for the faint of heart.
The film, like the two Biblical stories I earlier related, teaches a spiritual lesson. Indeed, the word ‘revenant’ is defined as a person who returns from the dead. The film’s director, Alejandro Inarritu, intended for Glass to be a type of Jesus by his astounding ability to survive grievous wounds, being buried alive, and the ravages of nature. Lesser persons would have given up and died. Glass did not.
In the end, he achieves a kind of spiritual epiphany and resurrection. Like the Jesus of Bible stories, Glass endures his own torture and figurative crucifixion, he’s betrayed by a friend, he’s buried in a grave and yet he not only comes back from near death, he’s redeemed in the process.
Redemption is thus a strong theme in the film much like it is in the two contrasting Bible stories I described. Redemption as a concept is one shared by many world religions and, indeed, by humans in general. For Christians, redemption is about salvation – how a person is changed from being a supposed sinner into one who is right with God through a belief in Jesus and his resurrection. For Jews, redemption speaks of salvation of them as a people – their exodus escape from Egyptian slavery, their Hanukah victory over a foreign enemy and their recent revival as a nation after the horrors of the Holocaust. For Muslims, one achieves redemption through dedication to Allah and his requirements for regular prayer, charitable gifts and other obligations. For Buddhists, a person is redeemed when they are able to let go of worldly desires and find instead peaceful contentment.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, I believe there is a path to redemption which is highlighted in the “Revenant” film and in the story of the Prodigal Son – one contrasted against religious ideas of redemption as told in the story of Abraham. And that underlines my theology and spiritual outlook.
God is not an outside force that regulates our lives and determines our eternal destiny. God is within us and is, indeed, us. God is you and god is me. We, we (!) are figurative gods and goddesses who have the ability to both redeem ourselves and redeem our world. As part of all nature, we are no more special than other forms of creation but we do have unique capabilities to grow and change, to love and nurture, to sacrifice and serve, and thus build a better world. It is in this sense that we are symbolically but not literally holy and divine.
In the Prodigal Son story, the father did not follow Scripture or religious rules to determine his loving response to a wayward son. Indeed, according to Jewish law, he should have disowned the boy for dishonoring him. He certainly should not have welcomed back a son who had become religiously unclean by his wanton life. But he loved his son despite those facts and in the process, love redeemed the boy as much as it redeemed the father. Who among us has not been a prodigal at some point in our lives and yearned for the forgiving embrace of another?
This contrasts with Abraham who followed his religion and not his heart in how he acted. Instead of acting according to love for HIS son, Abraham obeyed the commands of a cruel and manipulative God.
That contrast between following love……..or following religious belief is highlighted in the film “Revenant”. Hugh Glass was strongly motivated to survive against all odds by a love for his deceased wife whom he saw in dreams – and to memories of his beloved son. His redemptive epiphany resulted directly from that love. Indeed, he often recalled Native-American wisdom that his wife had told him: The wind cannot topple a tree with strong roots. For Hugh Glass, his strong roots were his family, his love for them, and his will to survive no matter what. The mantra for him was to endure, for the sake of their memory, as long as he had breath.
That theme of discovering what are one’s life roots is a spiritual pursuit I find compelling. Our foundation, our roots, those things that ultimately redeem us and determine our lasting legacy, they are found in how we love and forgive one another. They’re found in the teachings of Jesus, Muhammed and Buddha who encouraged people to let go of self-focused thinking and find meaning in service and compassion. Strong roots are found in how we choose to act toward fellow humans – not in whether we obey a capricious god or accept religious dogma. We are the the ones charged with building a world of forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, humility, justice and peace. These are divine and eternally good ideals we do not need a god to initiate. Only WE have the ability and the choice to practice them and make them our strong roots.
Love motivated the Prodigal Son’s father and Hugh Glass. The film “Revenant” reminds us that we live in a world of great beauty but also one of unfeeling hardship and death. We must survive against many obstacles in life and it is up to you and me not only to courageously embrace the task of living, it is also our calling to be forces of unconditional love and justice in a universe where only we can provide them. Once again, we are divine agents of change in our own lives and in those of others. We choose to live a life of love and service or one of indifference and unforgiving bitterness..
In a few minutes, we’ll sing perhaps the most famous of all Christian hymns – Amazing Grace. We’ll sing that song with lyrics I’ve altered – ones we’ve sung here before. These changed lyrics address my theology that none of us were or are lowly wretches in need of salvation – as the original words suggest. It is love received from others that sings to our hearts. It’s love we extend to the hurting, outcast, hated and discouraged that redeems us. Love is a form of grace that is given to us and a form of grace we are called to give away.
Our path to the mountain top of personal enlightenment is just that – to give away pieces of our hearts and souls to family, friend and stranger. We do that as a holy endeavor to build a better world . That’s our mission in life: to redeem ourselves and others – all through the powers of reason, growth, compassion and above all else, love without condition.
I wish you each much peace, joy and a happy Valentine’s Day…
And I welcome now your thoughts on the message topic, my message, the movie or on your special Valentine!