God in the Movies
Sunday July 16, 2023 – The Green Pastures
Come all you people, come and praise your Maker (3X)
Come now and worship your God.
© 1986 World Council of churches. Used by permission
Acknowledging the Territory
As we begin our worship, we take a moment to acknowledge that, here in Yarmouth, we live work and worship in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Mi’kmaq people first signed with the British Crown in 1725. By acknowledging this, we commit ourselves to live in Peace, Friendship and Respect.
Lighting the Christ Candle
In the flame of the Christ Candle, we see reflected the light of Christ and we commit ourselves to live in that light and sharing it with others, wherever we go.
Call to Worship ~ Adapted from The Abingdon Worship Annual 2012
Here in this place, there are no foreigners,
for all are welcome in God’s house.
Here in this worship, there is only acceptance,
for love is the language of faith.
Here in our lives, there are no divisions,
for God dwells in each of us.
Come, let us worship in unity and love.
Mysterious God, all too often we seem to have a very limited vision of you. We see you in ways that fit our own personal ideas or need and we forget that others may see you differently. We limit you. Help us to open ourselves to see you through the eyes of others and through the many varied ways in which you are revealed to all your creation. Open our hearts and minds to embrace even those images that may make us uncomfortable so that we may truly begin to fathom your amazing diversity. Amen.
Our first Scripture reading this morning is the story of the first Pentecost after Jesus resurrection. We heard the first few verses on Pentecost Sunday this year, but today we hear the story of what the disciples did after receiving the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:1-12 (Good News Translation)
When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were Jews living in Jerusalem, religious people who had come from every country in the world. When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because all of them heard the believers talking in their own languages. In amazement and wonder they exclaimed, “These people who are talking like this are Galileans! How is it, then, that all of us hear them speaking in our own native languages? We are from Parthia, Media, and Elam; from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia; from Pontus and Asia, from Phrygia and Pamphylia, from Egypt and the regions of Libya near Cyrene. Some of us are from Rome, both Jews and Gentiles converted to Judaism, and some of us are from Crete and Arabia—yet all of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!” Amazed and confused, they kept asking each other, “What does this mean?”
Our second reading comes from the letter to the church in Galatia. In in we hear the familiar words, “there is no difference between Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, male or female, all are one in
union with Christ.”
Galatians 3:26-29 (Good News Translation)
It is through faith that all of you are God’s children in union with Christ Jesus. You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised.
Favorite Hymn Request Now Thank We All Our God VU#236
God in the Movies – The Green Pastures (1936)
Over the next 7 weeks we are going to be looking at some of the images of God as depicted in the movies. There are many representations of God covering the entire spectrum, from the sublime to the ridicules. Some of the more outlandish are Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf portraying a mean-spirited God who refuses to allow any but a select few into heaven, in a movie called Citizen Toxic. Classical Shakespearian actor Ralph Richardson, plays a wise but stern administrative God in Time Bandits. Alanis Morissette who is one of the characters who plays God in the movie Dogma and Graham Chapman gives voice to a cartoon image of God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are also several images of God portrayed in silent films.
Now don’t worry, because I have chosen not to look at any of those particular movies, but some of the movies we will be exploring are likely to challenge our ideas and images of who or perhaps what God is to us. Today we begin with one of the earliest movie images of God that I came across since the beginning of talking movies. We are going to proceed in chronological order based on the date of release beginning with a movie released in 1936.
The fact that the movie, The Green Pastures, is still available is actually rather astonishing. When it was released, it was banned in Great Britain and a number of other countries because it was considered blasphemous to depict God in human form. In the United States it was released as a comedy and was never a huge success. For whatever reason, it seemed to slip past the censors of the time and has also bypast the political correctness of more recent releases.
The Green Pastures, features an entirely black cast, and is adapted from Roark Bandford’s 1928 book titled, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun. The movie begins with these words appearing on the screen: “God appears in many forms to those who believe in Him. Thousands of Negroes in the Deep South visualize God and Heaven in terms of people and things they know in their everyday life. The Green Pasture is an attempt to portray that humble, reverent conception.”
As the first scene unfolds then encounter a white-haired pastor leading a Sunday School class. One of the children asks what God looks like and the paster responds that he has always imaged God as a fine old southern preacher. The scene then shifts to heaven, where this fine old southern preacher God, played by Rex Ingram, declares “Let the fish fry begin!”
It is during this opening scene that decides to create the whole firmament and then creates Adam, also played by Ingram. The Sunday School class remembers that Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the garden, and the scene switched to Cain and Abel. After killing Able, Cain is sent out into the world.
Time goes by and God decides to go down to earth himself to see how the humans are making out. The longest portion of the movie then begins with the story of Noah. It turns out that the day God decides to visit earth to see how things are going, just happens to be a Sunday morning. The first person he meets is a young woman, playing a ukelele and singing a song that the God considers totally inappropriate for the Lord’s Day. He warns the woman that she and her beau, who shows up to join her, are headed for trouble.
Next, he encounters is a group of young men kneeling down in a circle. God is initially pleased, believing that they are gathered in a prayer circle. But as he approaches, he realizes they are actually gambling. God is very angry with them and very condemning of their actions, especially because one of the gamblers is a young boy that the others are ‘leading’ into sin”.
As God enters the town, he sees everyone is dancing, partying, and drinking. Everyone except the local preacher named Noah, who is just returning from Sunday service where absolutely no one showed up. Noah invites this stranger to lunch and God tells Noah that he is a lord of wrath and vengeance and is going to destroy the world, which he does with a mighty flood. Only Noah, his family and 2 of every kind of animal, from aardvarks to zebras, are saved.
Back in the Sunday School room, the preacher reminds the children that as soon as God looked away, the people when right back to their evil ways and God was forced to find a new holy man to lead the people back to him. After consulting Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his three favorite angels, God decides to send Moses to save the Israelites, the only good people left in the world. What follows is a very loose interpretation of the story of the exodus and the entry into the promised land.
Back in the classroom the children are reminded that even this didn’t solve the problem of evil and the movie proceeds with a very non-biblical story of Babylon which ends with God “repenting” of the people he had made and vowing to deliver them no more.
This is followed by a scene in which the people are fighting against the destruction of Jerusalem and despite his vow not to interfere, God visits the leader of the fight, asking him why he still has faith, when God has rejected the people. The man responds, “Oh that’s the God of anger and wrath you’re talking about. We have faith in the God of mercy.” Of course, it is all actually the same God, it’s just that the God got so overwhelmed by the sins of the people, that he swore not to help them any more. But now that same God had become a God of mercy. The visitors, who we know is actually God, asks how the people had learned about mercy. He is told that the only way to learn about mercy is through suffering.
Back in heaven, God is left wondering if learning about mercy through suffering means that even God must suffer? As God ponders this question, the angels, looking over the fence that surrounds heaven. They see a man, walking up a hill, carrying something very heave that he is going to be nailed to. One of the angel’s comments, “That’s a terrible burden for one man to carry.”
The camera then zooms in on God’s face, which suddenly breaks into a huge smile and he says one word. “Yes.”
As I mentioned earlier, this movie was marketed in the US as a comedy or a spoof. The image of God as a black preacher who speaks in a southern US dialect and of heaven as a continuous fish fry, was totally ridicules to the majority of the US population at that time. The truth is that for many today it would still seem just as ridicules. But the words that appear on the screen as this movie opens remind us that, “Thousands of Negroes in the Deep South visualize God and Heaven in terms of people and things they know in their everyday life.”
The reality is that the same thing is true for us today. Each of us visualizes God in terms of our own experience and understanding. Is the God you believe in the God of wrath and vengeance or the God of mercy? Or perhaps, like many people, you equate the God of the “Old Testament” as being vengeful and condemning and the God of the “Christian Scriptures” as being the God of love and mercy.
And what about the commandment to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy? Like the God of The Green Pastures, are you angered and condemning of those who do not come to church or who choose to treat Sunday as just another day or as a day to have fun and enjoy whatever worldly pleasures they choose?
What is your vision of heaven? Is it a vision of a magical place where, as the angels in this movie say, there is no sin, everyone is always happy and there is always a gathering of friends and family. You may not imagine a fish fry, but do you imagine some sort of joyous, happy reunion celebration?
There is a wonderful quote which has been restated many times in different ways, but which is originally attributed to French writer, philosopher and poet, Voltaire. “If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”
Each of us understands God only from our own perspective, our own dreams, our own vision and our own faith. We have guidelines to help us understand that vision, but we can only understand those guidelines through the things we relate to. To restate what Voltaire originally said, we have created God in our image.
Do we believe, as appear to be the case in The Green Pastures, that life on Earth is all about suffering and that only through suffering can we come to understand mercy? Do we believe that those who have suffered the most will have the strongest faith? Do we believe that those who suffer more will receive greater reward in heaven? Do we believe that those who have suffered least have already been rewarded?
And why is the idea of a Southern, Black, preacher God, so hard for us to embrace as anything but comedy? Why is the image of a feminine God so difficult for so many people? Why have we Europeanized, not only God but Jesus, turning him into a fair skinned, brown haired, blue-eyed image of our dominate, white Anglo-Saxon heritage?
And when we truly ask ourselves these questions, there is one more question we need to ask. Why do we assume that our interpretation of the Bible and of Christian tradition, is right and other denominations or other ways of interpreting Christianity are wrong?
Although this movie offers us some very interesting and entertaining images of God, images that often play into many of the stories we were taught as children, it also offers us a huge challenge. Are we ready and able to truly accept other people’s visions of God and to honour them as just as valid as our own? Are we able, at the same time, to celebrating and embracing the images that offer us hope, comfort, and reassurance in our own faith? Perhaps The Green Pastures can help us explore these possibilities. Amen
Let’s Sing In Star and Crescent MV#159
We Offer Our Gifts
Whoever we are and whatever we bring, God welcomes us. Whatever we have and whatever we share, God accepts. Here at Beacon, we do not pass the offering plates but instead ask that, if you choose to support the work of this church with your financial contributions you place your gift on the plates in the entryway. You can also donate online or by pre-authorized remittance. And so, whatever gifts you bring, financial or not, let us offer them to God.
Offertory Response MV#191
What can I do? What can I bring? What can I say? What can I sing?
I’ll sing with joy. I’ll say a prayer. I’ll bring my love. I’ll do my share.
© Paul Rumbolt and Michele McCarthy used by permission OneLicense #A723756
All that we have comes from you, Holy One. Accept what we bring before you now, trusting that it is offered with love, with devotion and with a desire to do all that we can. Amen
We Offer Our Prayers
Minute for Mission
Prayers of the People
Divine Mystery, it is truly difficult for us to understand you or your great love and care for us. But the amazing thing is that you understand us. You know the times we struggle. You know the times we celebrate. You know the times we search, question and doubt. And you know the times when we depend on you with our whole being.
We come to you in prayer today grateful for the gift of connection, connection with you and with one another. We come to you in faith, trusting that you will not only hear our words, but also hear all the things we do not say.
As we think of the times in our own lives when we have leaned on you totally, we pray for those who cannot or will not allow themselves to do the same. We think of those whose faith has been shattered by situations or events in their own lives that they cannot overcome. We think of those whose feeling of shame, guilt or inadequacy cause them to believe that you cannot possibly love them when they cannot love themselves …
When we think of the times we celebrate, the times we enjoy the good things we have and the abundance that we are privileged to enjoy, we pray for those who have nothing. We think of those who do not have the bare essentials of life, those who have no food, no clean water, no safe shelter and no protection against all that threatens life, both natural and manmade. We think of those who are lonely and isolated, having no one to celebrate with. We think of those who are ill or dealing with ongoing health issues, physical, mental or spiritual. We think of all who have reached a point in their lives where they simply can’t see anything worth celebrating …
When we think of our own struggles, we pray for all those who struggle with so much more that we could ever imagine …
Divine Love, in all of our faith and all of our doubt, in all of our celebration and all of our struggles, we turn to you trusting that our prayers, both those we speak and those we cannot find the words to say, are heard and understood. In gratitude and awe we offer this prayer. Amen
Let’s Sing My Love Colours Outside the Lines MV#138
As the Christ candle is extinguished, the smoke rises and disperses through the air. We are reminded that as we go out from here, the light of Christ is dispersed through the world through us. So, as we go, let us take our faith with us and live it out each day, wherever we go, knowing we are not alone. God is with us, Christ’s example leads the way and the Spirit is with and within us, each step o the way. Go with God.
Choral Blessing #884
We shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace;
The mountains and the hills will break forth before you;
There’ll be shouts of joy and all the trees of the field
Will clap, will clap their hands!
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands,
The tress of the field will clap their hands,
The trees of the field will clap their hands
While we go out with joy.
© 1975 Lillenas Publishing Company used with permission OneLicense #A723756