I’ve been told that one of my clergy predecessors here at St. Nick’s, the inimitable Gil Birney, was often given to beginning his sermons with a film review. I have no idea whether he morphed his review into the overall sermon topic or whether it was meant simply to warm folks up, but apparently it was his common practice.
So following Gil’s lead, I begin this morning with a film review, except it’s a movie that you probably don’t want to see. You see, it’s a painful movie to watch. It’s not fun. It’s not even especially entertaining, in the sense that it provides neither pleasure nor amusement. But it is a masterpiece. And, I’m willing to wager, if you can stomach it, it will be among the most important movies you’ll ever see. In fact, I would go so far as to make the very un-American assertion that every American should see it.
12 Years a Slave is adapted from the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, who had been a free black man in Saratoga, New York. A husband and father, he was a literate, working man, who also made money as a fiddler. In 1841, after being lured to Washington, D.C. with the promise of several days' lucrative work fiddling with the circus, he was kidnapped into slavery. Over the next 12 years before finally winning his freedom, he became the property of a series of plantation owners, one of whom was a drunken, randomly violent, Bible-based fanatic.
In a film with many striking images, one stands out above the rest: Northup, manacled and in chains, stands up and stumbles to the barred window in his cellar cell in a slave pen in Washington, DC. From a close up of his face in the window as he shouts for help, the camera zooms out and follows the red brick wall up and over the rooftop, where the city skyline is revealed before our eyes with the unfinished dome of the Capitol building in the distance. And therein is revealed in miniature the whole story of racism in this country.
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, the British director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the now deceased American actor), speaks of his films as being about various “elephants in the room,” not least of all slavery. He speaks about the lingering effects of slavery as being all around us:
All you've got to do is walk down the street [in any city], he says, and you see the evidence of slavery in everyday life. But there's a huge silence about it. It's a deafening silence... You know, why [is] the prison population of black males so huge? Why is poverty in that community so huge? Why is mental health, why is education so poor, why? When you ask yourself that question, it all leads down to what happened in slavery...
In the end, says McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is about love. It’s about the depth of a man’s spirit, a spirit that is somehow—gently—unbreakable. It’s a film about human dignity, a dignity that endures and survives the most unspeakable horrors. In that sense, it is a profoundly redemptive work.
And for all of us the work is ongoing: Brothers and sisters, says Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians, never tire in doing right or, in another translation, do not grow weary of doing good. The work of doing right—the work of compassion and justice--is as yet unfinished and incomplete and it is ours, and future generations, to accomplish.
This Tuesday, November 19th, marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered just ten years after Solomon Northup wrote his memoir 12 Years a Slave. In his new documentary film The Address, set to be premiered in the spring, Ken Burns tells the story of a tiny school in Putney, Vermont, the Greenwood School, where every November the students are asked to memorize, then publicly recite around the time of Lincoln’s birthday, the Gettysburg Address.
A task requiring significant effort for us, such memorization and public recital is even more challenging for the fifty boys with learning disabilities who make up the school’s student body. Burns says that the heroic challenge to recite these most stirring words ever spoken enable the boys to find the inner strength and courage to push through and achieve their goal. The results, he says, are inspiring and deeply moving.
Burns has extended the challenge to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address to all Americans—from paupers to Presidents—by making a video and uploading it to his website. He says that the words of the Gettysburg Address, as they were medicine for the souls of so many at the time of the Civil War, may be medicine for us today.
The world will little note, said Lincoln, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. That unfinished work was for Lincoln the work of justice, as a war for Union alone became as well a war of emancipation for an oppressed people.
That memorable image of the unfinished dome of the Capitol building has become for me a metaphor of our own as yet unfinished soul work, as a people and as a nation; the unfinished work of healing our hearts and the heart of this world. For we need only look deep within ourselves to find the roots of what ails us, and then beyond, to a divine wellspring of healing and hope.
The prophet Isaiah holds out a vision of the end of such work. Call it the dream of God. Call it our help in ages past and our hope for years to come. Call it, with Martin Luther King, Jr., the long moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice. Call it God’s kingdom, that kingdom that Jesus initiates and inaugurates, unfolding in our midst even now.
I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
May it be so, now and forever. AMEN
* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Year C; November 17, 2013