‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
What is it about going to the movies that we love so much? I suspect that part of it has something to do with being transported to another world. We love to leave behind our own worries and stress in order to be transported into someone else’s imagination— at least for a few hours. Sometimes, the world that we encounter there is beautiful, and leaves us with a feeling of great comfort, hope, and inspiration. Other times, however, it’s like peering into a magnifying glass at one or more of our society’s problems, and seeing how they might play out should we make different choices in our lives. We may still be left with a feeling of hope in the end, but perhaps we are also left feeling a little bit challenged to live our own lives somehow differently.
In the case of our film for today, the Hunger Games, it is more of the latter experience that we find. The world into which we are transported in the Hunger Games is much more bleak than it is hopeful at first. The dystopian future that this film depicts is one in which the United States as we know it has been destroyed due to war and environmental devastation. What remains are twelve districts—most of them quite poor— surrounding a wealthy capital city. The poorest districts are the working districts—providing food, textiles, machinery, coal and other goods to support the lavish capital lifestyle. Rebellions are quickly quelled by capital police, and districts that do not comply with demand can quickly find themselves cut off from the little aid that the capital gives them. It’s a system that depends on cycles of exploitation and poverty. The poor are kept in their place and given just enough for them to survive, but not enough to succeed or thrive. And then, to add further insult to injury, there are the Hunger Games themselves. Every year, each district is required to send two of their young people to compete in a fight-to-the-death, gladiator style competition. The capital, of course, is exempt from this brutal practice, for their children are those of the rich and powerful. But the districts are forced to participate. Once again, their very survival depends upon it. To refuse to cooperate would mean destruction by the capital.
It is in this bleak and brutal world where we meet our hero— Katniss Everdeen. In today’s scene, we see the lottery in which the two young people from her district— district twelve— are to be chosen for the Hunger Games. When the name is drawn to reveal the female contestant, it is Katniss’ worst nightmare come true— her little sister, barely 12 years old. Katniss cannot bear the thought of her little sister subjected to such evil and violence, and so she steps in and volunteers herself. Ostensibly sacrificing her life in order to save her sister.
In the world of The Hunger Games, there are two very distinct kinds of citizens. There are citizens of the capital— those who acquiesce to a violent, selfish world, thinking little of how their life exploits the suffering of others. And then, there are citizens whose allegiance lies in a greater good—those who reject the notion that some must suffer in order for others to live the good life, those who will put their lives and futures on the line in order to break the cycles of exploitation, poverty, and violence. Katniss is the epitome of this second kind of citizen. She models what it looks like to stand against empire and to sacrifice herself for the love of her family and friends. She is in fact a model for this morning’s text from the gospel of John— “no one has greater love than this,” Jesus says, "to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
In the case of the Hunger Games, the experience of watching the film is very much like putting some of the problems of our world under a magnifying glass. For we too live in a world that thrives on exploitation and empire. We too live in a world where we must choose our allegiance. Are we citizens of a “capital” lifestyle—where our comfort is the result of the exploitation of the poor, our entertainment the result of the exploitation of violence? Or are we citizens of another realm— are we willing to sacrifice ourselves—our comfort, our privilege— for the sake of justice and compassion? Do we choose to look the other way, or do we choose to confront injustice and oppression?
This is a pretty urgent question, as it turns out, because the fact is, there have always been two kingdoms, existing side by side, offering us a choice. There is the kingdom of this world—full of selfishness and greed, full of exploitation, competition, and oppression. And there is the kingdom of God— a kingdom in which the last are first, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry filled with good things, and the meek inherit the earth. There has always been a choice— from the earliest days of human history, to the culture and society in which we currently live— a choice between two kingdoms, a choice of where our allegiance will lie. And Jesus is clear, not just in our passage from John, but throughout the gospel texts— to choose the kingdom of God means sacrifice. It means giving up riches. It means reaching out to the poor. It means relinquishing control and trusting in God’s providence. It means taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to find it. To choose the kingdom of God means to sacrifice comfort and security for the well-being of the most vulnerable among us. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann put it: “those who put their hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it and to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world.”
The Hunger Games, as many of you know, existed first as a book trilogy, and became hugely popular, not just among young adults, it’s target audience, but among readers of all ages, all over the world. And then the movies were released and the popularity of the series only increased. I have a theory that the reason why stories like these are so popular and resonate with us so deeply is because we desperately want to choose the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. We desperately want to choose the heroic virtue of characters like Katniss over the evils of empire. But we are afraid. We are afraid of what that sacrifice really means. We are afraid to give up comfort and control. We are afraid of pain and suffering. We are afraid, as it turns out, of Jesus himself, and everything he demands of us. To be quite frank, if we’re NOT afraid in the face of Jesus’ demands it means we probably aren’t really listening.
It’s true that going to the movies allows us the opportunity to enter into other worlds. And sometimes, it’s a great escape from the sorrows and stress of our own lives. But sometimes, it’s more than just an escape. Sometimes, going to the movies is the opposite of safe, for it makes us think more deeply about our own choices and possibilities for our own world. In the Hunger Games, we are asked to consider what kind of kingdom we want to live in, and what kind of citizens we want to be. And we are challenged to choose what Jesus would call the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world.
And so children of God, this is our call this morning— to choose sacrifice over comfort. To choose generosity and selflessness over greed. To choose solidarity over exploitation. We are called to give up our lives, our comfort, and our security for sake of others. I can’t tell you what that will look like for you, but all of us, I’m sure of it, can think of some examples from our own lives. We can think of crosses we are called to take on, burdens that we can help others to bear, sacrifices both big and small that we can make so that the words we pray every week may become a little more of a reality— thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. On earth, as it is in the kingdom of God. May this be our choice. Amen, and may it be so.