Today we come to our third in our sermon series The Gospel in Disney. We’ve already heard about the Lion King and Aladdin in the last couple of weeks. This week it is Pocahontas and next week we will end with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Each of these films has a message. They tell us stories that illustrate the human condition. As we look at them we’re going to be able to find out how the gospel message of Jesus Christ can speak to us through the messages of these stories in animated film.
Now today as we look at the film Pocahontas. Pocahontas came out in 1995 another in this series of films that came out in this decade that has been called the Disney Renaissance. As with the other films we have already looked at this film won two Oscars again for best musical score and best original song, “Colors of the Wind.” The songs were composed by Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Working and Children of Eden).
This film Pocahontas is different from most Disney movies and from all of the ones we are looking at in this series in that it is about a real live historical figures. And of course Disney took Disney’s liberties with it.
So before we get into this too far I thought you would like to know some of the historical facts that we know about Pocahontas.
First of all I think you would be interested to know that being born in 1595 and she saw her first white person in 1607 if you do the math she was probably only 12 years old when she met John Smith. You know you think she’s probably some older woman but really she was only 12 years old. And while John Smith writes in his diary about Pocahontas saving his life, there is no historical evidence that there was ever a relationship with John Smith as it is depicted in the movie. She did however seem to have a great impact on early American history.
You all may know that Pocahontas met and married a man named John Rolfe. She converted to Christianity and was baptized and christened, “Rebecca.” And we have a picture of her baptism on the screen here. That picture is actually hanging in our nation’s capital.
In 1616, Rolfe and Pocahontas and their infant son, Thomas, sailed for England where Pocahontas was honored as royalty (daughter of the great chief Powhatan). Just before her scheduled return to Virginia, at the age of 22 years old she died, probably of pneumonia.
Now once we get past the fact the movie is not good history or even good anthropology; it’s a story. Once I see that I can let the story speak.
So lets take a look at the film and its message. As the film begins it is 1607 and a ship that departed from England has sailed across the stormy Atlantic for the “new world.” On this ship captained by John Smith are settlers who were excited to find gold in the new land. On the other side of the ocean, unaware that a ship is coming, is the Powhatan tribe, which Pocahontas is a part of. And what we see in this movie is these two cultures that are colliding. When the settlers land they begin to strip the land and hunt out the Native Americans, seeing them as a threat. But along the way, John Smith and Pocahontas meet and fall in love. They hope that they can unite their two tribes.
But underneath this basic story is an internal struggle within Pocahontas. She faces a series of choices throughout the movie, that define who she is and what she believes, choices that we all must struggle with.
In the opening scenes we learn that Pocahontas has a reoccurring dream about a spinning arrow that she can’t quite understand, but knows it’s important. She feels like something is about to change just around the river bend. But while she has a sense of anticipation her father has her life all planned out for her. He says to her that he has chosen the man of her dreams. She would be married to Kokum the strongest and bravest warrior from their tribe. And Pocahontas is pretty leery of his choice. Take a look at how she wrestles with this first choice.
And so you see here she’s has a choice to make. She’s at a crossroads. She must decide which path to choose. And that leads us to the very first scripture that was read earlier. The prophet Jeremiah is writing to the people in captivity. Listen to what the prophet says. “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)
We all have moments in our lives that are crossroads. You know there are moments when we say, “Ok, do I take the time and really confront that person that hurt me or do I really take the time and really think about this new job or do I just keep going on this same path? Do I want to move to a different house; to a different city?” There are all these kinds of choices and decisions that come before us. And it can seem pretty overwhelming at times. How do you choose the right path? And that’s actually what Pocahontas was struggling with in her life. She was saying, “Is this the course that I want to follow?”
Well I want you to take a look at what Pocahontas does.
Listen! That’s pretty good advice! When we find ourselves in those crossroads moments needing direction we need to go to the source of all wisdom and guidance. And we find that not with some talking tree, but we have the One and only God Almighty of the universe. And we need to listen with our heart for the still small voice of God.
That means for me I've got to make time to hear Him. I've got to slow down, be quiet, plan it in my schedule. We schedule everything else in life -- vacations, dentist appointments, dates, homework, everything else. Do you put time for God in your schedule? Or does God just get the leftovers.
How do we listen for God’s direction; for His voice? This is the number one way God speaks. 2 Timothy 3:16, "The whole Bible was given to us by inspiration from God and is useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It is God's way of making us well prepared at every point." The Bible is not just a good collection of wonderful thoughts and ideas of men, just a nice inspired collection. It is the word of God. It can be counted on. It will guide you. It will correct you. It will comfort you. It will help you.
The second way of course is through prayer. Some people think prayer is a magic wand. We kind of wave it at something -- it's a superstitious approach -- and you get what you want. God is kind of like a genie. You rub the bottle and God comes out and you pray the request -- "My wish is your command!"
But that’s not at all how it works. You see through prayer we align ourselves with God. The more we pray the more we are able to sense and to follow God’s will for us, for His church and for the world.
“But Pastor Randy, what if I can’t hear that still small voice? What should I do?” That is when we seek out wise counsel from spiritual mothers and fathers who we know to be seeking and following the will of God in their own life. Sometimes we can become so overwhelmed that we become paralyzed, it is then we need these wise people in our lives to help us discern the paths before us.
And that’s what we see here with Pocahontas. She goes and she seeks out what she knew was one who could help her to discern. And so she talks to Grandmother Willow. And Grandmother Willow has some words that she wants to say to her about going down these different paths.
I remember a time in my life when I faced the crossroads. I was a sophomore in college at ODU. I had always thought that my path was set. I was going to become an engineer. Everything I did in high school, all the classes I took prepared me for that path. It was the easy path. I would follow my father’s footsteps and pursue that path. It was a path that I felt would lead to a great job, a big salary, lots of success.
The problem was that as I wasn’t happy. I had no peace. I began to feel that there was another path that I was being drawn toward. That path would mean even more schooling. It would mean changing my major, going to seminary. It would mean more student loan debt. It would mean disappointing my parents and the path that I thought they wanted me to take. And yet still that call was so strong.
I prayed. I read my Bible. I talked to people I knew that I trusted and I knew that loved me. And still I struggled. What path do I choose? Finally one day I was sitting at a table in the library at ODU with an engineering textbook in front of me and as I was praying (instead of studying) this verse came to me: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
I knew immediately what I had to do. The choice was clear. The path was obvious. It wasn’t the easy path but it was the right path for me. And from that point it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And there was peace. And I have never for a moment regretted that choice.
Now I don’t know where you are in your life. Maybe today you are at a crossroads. Maybe you stand at a fork in the road and there is a choice that has to be made. I don’t know. But what I do know is this: You can trust God. If you seek His guidance through Scripture and prayer and through the wise council of trusted sisters and brothers eventually the way will open up for you. And as the apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:7 “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
So let’s go on now to the second point of this message which really is a second choice that both she and John Smith must make.
As the story unfolds John Smith and the settlers begin to strip the land and hunt out the Native Americans, seeing them as a threat. At the same time Pocahontas and her people are watching from a distance with ever increasing fear and suspicion. As Pocahontas runs away from her village to try to get a closer look at these strange invaders she comes face to face with John Smith.
And that encounter forces both Pocahontas and John Smith to make a choice. How do they treat someone who is different? When they met they could have simply chosen to run away from each other and refuse to interact at all; and that’s a possibility they consider. They could have made the choice to attack each other; and they kind of think about that for a few minutes. But really what happens is very slowly the walls begin to come down. And eventually they choose to extend their hand to each other. And then they begin to have a moment when they begin to share just that moment of personal friendliness and interaction and they begin to see that there just might be something to learn from a stranger. But take a look and see how it turns out.
Hmm. Pretty clever wasn’t that come back of hers? She got it real quick that that label he had put on her, “savage” was probably not complementary. And she said to him, “It’s just because I’m not like you.”
How do you treat people who are not like you? The stranger? The foreigner? How quick are we to label those who are different? The one who’s skin is a different color? Or speaks a different language, practices a different religion, or even lives an alternate lifestyle? How does your faith in Jesus Christ change or inform your attitudes and your relationships with those who are not like you? You see we have a choice.
And what we see illustrated here in Pocahontas and John Smith are persons who ultimately willing to choose get past those labels and prejudices to break down the walls that would separate and develop a relationship that in the end brought great blessing into their lives.
At the end of that last clip you heard Pocahontas sing the opening lines of the song “Colors of the Wind.” This is the song that won the academy award. It is a beautiful and powerful song and it really has some great lyrics in it. The second verse of the song goes like this:
You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You'll learn things you never knew you never knew.
That’s exactly what’s happens to us too. When we begin to get beyond our ingrained fears and prejudices it stretches us and we begin to learn something; something that enriches our lives.
Isn’t this what we see modeled in the life and ministry of Jesus? I mean who were the ones who Jesus spent His time with? It wasn’t the ones who were just like him. No. He intentionally reached out to those who were different, those who the world labeled as undesirable, unfit, unwanted.
Remember the Samaritan woman at the well. She had three strikes against her. She was a Samaritan. She was a Samaritan woman. She had had five husbands and was now living with another man who wasn’t her husband. Jesus offered her living water.
Or how about the tax collector named Zacchaeus? This is the one that when the people saw that Jesus was going to his house for dinner they began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Jesus brought salvation to this house.
Over and over again we see this lived out in the life and ministry of Jesus. And this is what he calls us to do as well.
This is what He means when he said in Matthew 25 scripture text which Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)
That’s the choice we see made in this fictionalized account of Pocahontas and John Smith. They choose not to allow the labels and the differences keep them from developing a relationship. And that is what Pocahontas actually did in real life. She held out wonderful things to the settlers. They came to Jamestown and they almost perished in that first winter. And John Smith’s diaries tell us how she came with food and she helped them understand what the real “gold” was in America was corn. And they were able to make their way through those most harsh winters.
What choice do you make?
Unfortunately all too often we see that in the world in which we live people continue to make the wrong choice. They choose the path of hatred instead of love. They choose the path of prejudice instead of understanding. They choose the path of rejection instead of acceptance.
I mean in the news this past week we saw the story of a white football player on the Philadelphia Eagles being caught on video tape using an extremely offensive racial slur.
And don’t think it doesn’t happen in the church. True story. In my last church in Danville we had established a ministry through one of the local elementary schools with some children who lived in a nearby housing project. These children could often be found having to sift through the dumpsters for food. We began to work with these children and built relationships with them. We began sending a bus to pick them up to bring them to the church on Wednesday nights to participate in what was basically equivalent to our CrossWalk meal and activity.
As that relationship grew these children also wanted to come on Sunday mornings. Eventually even their parents also started to join us as well.
One Sunday morning these children were sitting in the sanctuary with their parents for the service and afterwards I was standing at the back door, just like I do here, greeting people as they left the service. The children had gotten away from the grasp of their mother and, like all children that age, were full of energy and were playing and running around in the narthex.
Now what I didn’t tell you was that these children were African American. And I kid you not, as I was standing there in the doorway of the sanctuary, God’s house, one of the members of that congregation came up to me and said, “Why can’t those - and she used the same foul and offensive slur that football player used - take care of their own kind?”
I looked at her and said, “Ma’am, they are our own kind!”
Now in the film most of the people on both sides are unable to make that choice. And that sets up the climatic scenes of the film. Fear, anger, greed, prejudice and distrust have taken root in the hearts of both the natives and the settlers and it appears that a huge battle is about to happen.
The two young people, Pocahontas and John Smith realize that they have a chance to stop this yet. And so what they do, they try to muster up the courage to stand in front and say, “This is not right. This is not the right path. This is not the right choice. We should stay together.”
And so this next scene you’re going to see is how they are both coming to Grandmother Willow and asking about how to muster up the courage.
In this scene there are 2 powerful points that come to us. First of all the power of one. They did not realize the power within them at that point. But what Grandmother Willow was trying to say to them was if you have the courage and you take that step, what you start will ripple out. It starts with one but it has to start somewhere. And if you are willing to stand for what is right and good and true then there will come momentum and you will begin to be able to make a difference.
And then that takes us to the second point which is that the right path is not always the easy path. And so then how do you find the courage to really put yourself out there and make that difference?
As Christians as I said earlier one of the most powerful ways we find that strength and courage is through God’s Word. I want to call to your attention a great scripture text that I think really helps us find courage when we need it. It’s in the 43rd chapter of Isaiah. It says, “Do not fear, I am with you.” This particular scripture text is repeated 5 times in this chapter. And when it’s repeated, it’s important. And when you read it it will begin to form you and to transform you so that when you are ready and you have a chance to make a difference you will be able to overcome your fears. You will have a chance to call that scripture text up and be able to say, “I know God. I can do it.” God will be with you in that moment and enable you to choose the right path even when it is not easy.
And so let me show you how the movie ends.
Now we’re probably never going to have to take a bullet for anybody. But every single day of our lives we are confronted with the chance to stand up and make a difference in the world. And for them they had the chance to change history as the power of one, as Pocahontas took her turn in living out the golden rule and then John Smith took his turn and was able even then to stand in front for those who might be even called his enemy. And we see the ripple effects it has on everyone around them.
And so friends let us not forget the gospel lessons that this film points out to us:
As we face the crossroads of our lives let us be alert and be listening for God’s voice.
Let us not be afraid to extend our hand to those who are different from us. Jesus loved and cared about the stranger and the least of these. Let us go and do likewise.
And finally let us never forget the power of one. It has to start somewhere. With boldness and courage may we be willing to stand up and for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord make a difference in the world in which we live.