|4:45pm||Organ Recital: Alexander Pott, UK|
Sermon preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent (25 January 2018) by the Revd Canon Jonathan Brewster, Treasurer
In the second of our Lent Sermon Series: Reel Spirituality, Canon Jonathan Brewster explores what Garth Davis's film Lion can teach us about faith and the love of God.
You can listen to this sermon via SoundCloud, or read the text below.
As part of our Reel Spirituality series I chose Garth Davis’s film Lion which is an adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home. It tells the true and astonishing story of a five year old boy from a desperately poor village in central India who through a series of tragic misfortunes finds himself lost, thousands of miles from home.
Heroically surviving life on the streets of Calcutta, Saroo is eventually taken to an orphanage because he is unable to remember the name of his family’s village. Following adoption and relocation to the Australian coast, he attempts to find his way back home to his mother, and the film takes us on the challenging journey he faces.
St Augustine famously wrote that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” and this serves as the underlying motif of the film as the young boy navigates his way towards eventual reunion with his birth mother.
It opens beautifully with the boy, Saroo, walking among the rolling hills near his rural village in Northern India. Born into a family whose father abandoned him, along with his mother and 3 siblings, Saroo spends most of the first five years of his life impoverished and constantly hungry. One evening, five year-old Saroo followed his older brother Guddu, who he adored, and waited for him to finish at the train station. While waiting, he wandered into an empty train and fell asleep, only to awaken with the train in motion, hurtling him far away from home. Terminating more than 1,500 miles away in Calcutta, Saroo is lost in a strange, frantic city, whose language he doesn’t speak.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta has been one of the saints of the last century. But a book published after her death consisting of letters between her and her confessors over a 66 year period, reveals someone who for nearly half a century felt virtually nothing of the presence of God. She wrote:
“When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
In the chapter before our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus talking to his disciples about his relationship to them. It’s part of what scholars refer to as the farewell discourse. And then in a pivotal and important moment, he reassures his followers with words that the King James Version of the Bible translates as “I will not leave you comfortless.” Other common translations of the text say, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
For Saroo salvation comes by the hands of several acts of grace from strangers. After surviving the dreadful conditions of a Juvenile Home, Saroo has the great fortune of being chosen by the kind Mrs Sood to go to her orphanage where she and her staff are actually interested in his welfare.
Eventually he is adopted by John and Susan Brierley (played by Nicole Kidman) and taken off to Tasmania and the Australian coast. Here Saroo enters a previously unimaginable life of relative affluence and opportunity. He learns how to speak English, how to use a knife and a fork, and he becomes Australian in accent and manner, doing well at school.
The experience of losing touch with God cannot be underestimated. It’s real, it’s hard and it’s devastating for anyone who has previously found faith liberating and life-giving. And yet although there’s a well-trodden path into the darkness, there’s also a well-trodden path out of it. And Saroo’s willingness to trust again leads us to the heart of the film where Saroo begins the search for his birth mother.
One of the images used by Jesus to describe his relationship with his disciples is that of friends. I do not call you servants any longer, he says, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father. And friendship, when broken, can emerge stronger than ever, with increased honesty and understanding, particularly when one side of the friendship never changed anyway.
Saroo became obsessed by the thought of his poverty-stricken family in India that he missed and loved, and that he was certain missed him and loved him too. And he was plagued by the inner conflict that comes from having a loving adoptive mother, at the same time believing that his birth mother was somewhere far away in the vast expanses of India.
“Do you know what it’s like,” he says to his girlfriend, when he is consumed by the search, “knowing that my real brother and mother spend every day of their lives looking for me? … How every day they scream my name…And I can feel their touch. I see their faces…”
After years of internet-driven searching, Saroo locates his childhood village. And with the blessing of his Australian family, he travels to India to find his birth mother, who amazingly is there, has stayed put, and has not stopped hoping that her long-lost son would at some point return.
And there is a touching and important scene in the film, at a point when Saroo’s search for his birth family has created significant tension between himself and his adoptive parents. He had assumed that his parents chose adoption because of their infertility. But it immediately becomes apparent that this assumption has never before been tested or discussed.
It’s a turning point in the film, as Saroo discovers something new about who he is, by discovering that he is not and never was what he feared he might have been – a consolation prize for a couple who couldn’t have children on their own. No, he was the chosen object of their love, which actually has nothing to do with fertility. He and his brother were chosen; they were the children that his parents wanted.
I suppose that like Saroo, we imagine that God is stuck with us the way we come to him. And the assumption of the church for many centuries has been shaped by the often truthful assertion that the way we come to God is broken, sinful, stained, and in need of restoration. And Lent provides an opportunity for each of us to take our spiritual temperature, to re-evaluate our lives with God. From our perspective we, like Saroo, are not in fact blank pages. We come with a past, with a present and with a future that is in need of change.
But there is something poignant in Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphaned. A little later in the farewell discourse, Jesus will put this more clearly when he says to his friends, “You did not choose me, but I chose you”.
Let us remember that Christ never moves away from us. He is unfolding both the past and the future; he is revealing his divine identity; and he is telling us something about who we are, and who we are to him. When he says that he will not leave us orphaned, he is telling us that we are, in fact, the children God wants and has always wanted. And let us discover that we are not the consolation prize that God is stuck with because things didn’t work out; rather, we are the chosen object of His love. And like the love of a mother for her child, nothing will ever separate us from such love.