I went to see “McFarland” Saturday night since I already had my sermon done. “McFarland” is the true story of something of a misfit coach who ends up teaching PE in a high school where most of the students are the children of migrant farm workers. He sees something extraordinary in these young people, namely their ability to persevere and adapt. And he forms them into a cross country team, leading them in their first year to win the California State High School championship. I recommend it to you.
It is a great story, made even more interesting because it is “true.” I say true reservedly because I’m sure Hollywood took some dramatic license, but the fact that the details may not be precisely correct does not in any way lessen that the story being told is true in the deepest sense. “McFarland” a story about human beings caring for one another, about the struggles of poverty, about believing in those around you, and most of all, about believing in yourself. It has an element of self-sacrifice. There is obvious love. There is welcome for the stranger. There is risk taking. There is hope. There is overcoming the odds. And, of course, there is resurrection.
It was one of those rare movies when people clapped at the end. No one wanted it to be over. Everyone cheered the triumph of the human spirit.
So, I left thinking, we’ve got a pretty good story, too. It is a story of liberation and freedom. It is a story of courage. It is a story of weakness confronting power. Like “McFarland,” it is a story with no small amount of self-sacrifice, love, welcome, hope, and perseverance. It, too, is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. It is, by all means, a story of resurrection.
So, I asked myself, why aren’t we telling this amazing story we have in a way that makes people stand up and cheer? Why is it that we can’t get people into our “theater” to hear the story, let alone never want to leave? Do we need to get slicker, I wondered; maybe take some artistic license with the details.
And then I made a visitation yesterday to Good Shepherd in the Bronx. A few years ago, Good Shepherd would have been doing good to have 20 people on a Sunday. Yesterday there were nearly 250. And here’s the amazing thing. They wouldn’t leave. The liturgy itself lasted nearly two hours. The announcements at the end went on a good half hour. And then there was lunch. It was for the bishop’s visitation I assumed. Nope. They do it every Sunday. It’s a McFarland story.
But here’s the main thing, I think. McFarland, you’ll remember is a true story, taking liberties with details notwithstanding. I wonder if the real difference in Hollywood and the Church has something to do with whether we believe the story we’re telling is true. Do we really believe, as Exodus says, that God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery? Do we really believe it is true that Jesus faced death out of love for us? Do we really believe it is true that God delivered Jesus from the grave? Do we really believe it is true that a ragtag and somewhat inept group of Galilean fishermen set out to change the world out of love and had the perseverance to succeed? Is it our lack of confidence in the truth of our own story that causes people not to want to stand up and cheer and never want to leave and not something that is wrong with the story itself?
And that’s what brings me back to Good Shepherd. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I think what’s going on there has something to do with a congregation that believes the story they have to tell is true. I know it’s not a perfect congregation, but I know they’re doing something quite right. Whatever they’re doing right, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with a “McFarland” approach. It has to do with telling a true story. And knowing it.