Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church in Glasgow, on Sunday 20th June, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
There is something in the last two weeks gospel passages that took me back to my childhood, and reminded me of stories and films I use to watch when I was a wee boy. Last week I told you how the reading made me think about Yentl and Fiddler on the roof. This week I immediately made a connection with The Neverending Story. The Neverending Story is a well known and very popular fantasy film that came out a year after Yentl, in 1984, and it soon became a huge influence in my experience of growing up and defining who I was. We should never underestimate the power of a good story to shape who we are as human beings.
The Neverending Story is centred around a wee boy called Bastian, whose mother died and whose father is trying to stop him from day dreaming and drawing unicorns on his math book, and get his feet on the ground. On his way to school he is chased by three bullies from school, and ends up hiding in a book store. The grumpy bookseller tells him to go away, but Bastian is drawn to him and enquires about one of the books. The bookseller tells him that this book is not for him, because it is ‘not safe’. This book not only told a story, but made you a part of it as well. I wonder what kind of book like that we know in the church…
Bastian is intrigued by this book and he borrows it while the bookseller is on the phone. He runs and hides in the school attic and starts reading The Neverending Story.
The book describes Fantasia, a world of fantasy and imagination, with strange and wonderful creatures, like a Rock-Biter who loves to eat gourmet rocks, a Racing Snail, a Luck Dragon and many other fantastic characters. But this wonderful world is under threat by an evil force called the Nothing. The Nothing was destroying Fantasia, and delegates from all corners of this world were on their way to the Ivory Tower, to seek help from the Empress. But when they get there they find out that the Empress herself has fallen ill because of the Nothing and she cannot help. A young warrior named Atreyu is sent on a quest to find a cure for the Empress.
The whole story revolves around Atreyu’s quest for the cure, as he tries to understand the destructive force he is up against. Drawn in by the reading, Bastian follows him along the way, and begins to feel what Atreyu feels, cheering him on his way, identifying with his grief and joy. On his quest, after many tests and trials, Atreyu finds out that the only way to save Fantasia from destruction is to find a human child who will give a new name to the Empress. Atreyu embarks on a desperate journey to find the human child who can save Fantasia, and comes face to face with a creature of darkness, the servant of the power behind the Nothing.
The creature tells him that Fantasia is a world created by the hopes and dreams of humanity. And the Nothing is the emptiness that remains when humans lose their dreams and hopes, and they give into apathy and despair. He tells Atreyu that “people who have lost hope are easy to control.”
This is the key to the whole story. When Jesus encounters the demon possessed man in Gerasenes, he asks him his name. In other words: “Who are you? What is your identity?” But the man did not have an identity. He had no name. He had no hopes and dreams. He had no home, no dignity, no family.
He lived his life outside of the city in the darkness of the cemetery. He answered Jesus that his name was ‘Legion’. But that was not a name. It was an indication of the thousands of voices who had taken over his own voice. A Roman Legion was a military division of 6000 soldiers. Imagine six thousand voices screaming in his mind, marching constantly on a quest to completely destroy who he was. He had become a void, a Nothing which had been overtaken by a legion of demonic voices.
This is not a foreign experience for us today. This gospel passage speaks of our own quest to finding our voice among the many strident voices in the world. Human beings are torn apart by thousands of voices telling them who they should be, what they should do, how they must think, and what they must feel.
If we take a close look at the way our society is designed, you will notice that having a name and a unique identity is not a priority. Our names have been replaced by National Insurance Numbers, and Customer Numbers, and Reference Numbers. We have become percentages, statistics, and averages. Our individual stories and our unique identities are becoming less and less important to society.
There are many voices in the world talking about poverty and the poor, but we rarely hear the voices of those who live in poverty. This is why the Poverty Truth Commission was set up: to give a voice to the voiceless.
From very early on, and as we grow up and develop, we are torn in all directions by the many expectations placed on us by others.
There are very few who ask us what our hopes and dreams are. But there are many voices telling us what needs to be done.
There are very few who ask us what makes us unique as individuals. But there are many voices telling us what labels we must accept and conform to.
We all have the experience of being torn in all directions by the roles we are expected to fulfil. We are children, brothers, sisters, parents, employers, employees, citizens, tax payers, church members, club members, drivers, gardeners, and so on, and so forth. It is so easy to allow all these roles and expectations to take over our identity, as we become trapped in all the activities that these roles demand.
During my last Probationers Conference last week we were told that after ordination our names will become irrelevant. People will no longer call me Daniel, but Minister. “Good morning, Minister.” “Good morning. My name is Daniel.” “Of course, Minister… Good bye, Minister.” And don’t laugh, this can happen to you!
In all the hustle and bustle of this world, we can so easily lose ourselves. We can all soon discover that what we are doing does not come from who we are as human beings, from our dreams and hopes, but from what others decide we must be and do.
But when we come here to worship God, we are all faced with the question Jesus asked the man from Gerasenes: “What is your name?” In other words: What are YOU about? What is YOUR story? What are YOUR hopes and dreams? Jesus is deeply interested and involved in the uniqueness of our lives. People may be treating us like a percentage or a number, but to Jesus we are all unique. We each have our own identity, our own story and experience, our own set of gifts and talents.
The community that Jesus established in his church is not based on eliminating the uniqueness of who we are, but rather it is an environment in which our uniqueness is confirmed, enhanced and celebrated.
When Jesus healed the man who was possessed by the legion of demons, he helped him to find his own voice. He gave a voice to the voiceless. The man was able to return to his city with a new name and a new purpose for his life.
Towards the end of the film, while the Nothing is destroying Fantasia piece by piece, the Empress pleads with Bastian to give her a new name. Finally, Bastian opens the window to the attic and cries out “Moonchild!” – his mother’s name. He then comes face to face with the Empress who hands him a grain of sand – all that was left of Fantasia.
But there is still hope. Starting from the new name of the Empress, Bastian can restore all of Fantasia by simply making as many wishes as his imagination can come up with. Through his own imagination, his own hopes and dreams Fantasia is restored. All the characters that had been eliminated by the Nothing reappear and cheer him on as he rides on the back of the Luck Dragon.
Sometimes it takes a story like that to remind us how important our own hopes and dreams, and how much they are a part of who we are as human beings.
When we give into apathy and despair, our own voices are lost, and other voices take over our lives. In Jesus we can all find our own voice and be whole again, as we rediscover who we are and what we can become. And we are not alone. Jesus himself joins us on our journey to reaching our unique potential given to each and every one of us by God.
May his name be praised forever! Amen.