Faith on Film: McFarland USA
“Faith on Film: Inside Out”
August 28, 2022 Cobleskill United Methodist Church , Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
I’m really grateful you’ve come along with us this summer on our journey through movies. We’ve covered a whole spectrum of films ranging from popular science fiction like Star Wars to cult classics like the Princess Bride to oldies like The Wizard of Oz, and children’s movies like Inside Out. We definitely know that movies by themselves don’t tell us everything we need to know about our faith, but we do know that God uses lots of ways to get through to us, including the movies we see. Stories on the big screen can sometimes bring passages of scripture to life and add new dimensions to what we already know about our life with God.
I remember way back in the beginning of the summer and I was visiting during one of our first lunches and I was trying to drum up interest in the movie showing later that week and I was sitting beside Don Bond. And I said in the peppiest voice I could find “So! We’re going to watch the Princess Bride out on the lawn this Friday. Sounds fun, right?!” And to that, Don, who is usually a very positive person replied, “You really think that’s my kind of movie?” His point was well taken. And so I realized then that we couldn’t end this summer movie series without at least one sports movie, if for no other reason than to make Don happy (which is actually all the reason we need).
It turns out the sports movie that came highly recommended to me, McFarland, USA, is a perfect kind of sports movie to talk about in church. Not only is it classic in the sense that it features the story of an underdog group of kids with a coach who was at the bottom of his career and they work hard and over comes all the odds, eventually reaching victory, but the movie does all of that against the backdrop of significant racial, class and cultural divisions. What makes it even more striking is that the movie is based on a true story.
I’m not sure if you could tell from the title of the movie or not, but McFarland is a town, located in … the USA. When Coach Jim White and his white, middle-class family first arrive in McFarland, the children look out the car windows at their new neighborhood and see Spanish words on the signs, lots of people with brown skin, and a community that looked to be in or near poverty.
After seeing all of this they ask, “Are we in Mexico?”
This was California but not the part of California with beaches and palm trees and movie stars. This was California’s central valley where more than half of all of the fruit, vegetables and nuts eaten in this country are grown. The ground is fertile, the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada irrigates the fields and the weather is warm year-round. But it’s no garden of Eden. All of that produce doesn’t harvest itself. This agricultural mecca needs huge amounts of labor and it’s hard, back-breaking work, as the coach finds out one day, where workers must bend over hours on end and move quickly picking produce, from one row to another. Every minute of picking is valuable because wages are paid not by produce picked or hours worked but by entire fields harvested.
For decades California growers have relied on the labor of migrant workers who come from Mexico and Central America because, in part, these migrants are so desperate for work they are willing to do a job that many of us would never do and on top of that, they do it at a miniscule rate of pay because they have very few other options. For this reason, McFarland, USA is one of the poorest towns in the USA.
Movies like this one are important because they bring us real human stories that capture our hearts. Stories about people and places that would otherwise be invisible to us. When we buy a cabbage at the grocery store how often do we think about where it was grown and who might have picked it and at what cost? On the other hand, when we do hear stories about migrants in the news, they are a people often labeled with stereotypes and degraded because of where they come from and how they to came to our country. Stories like the one in this movie draw us in with something as universal as competition and sport and in the process humanize a group of people who would either be invisible or despised and it shows us that they are people just like us, trying to find a way to live in this country.
The reason this movie is so meaningful is not because a rag-tag team of pickers does eventually win the California Cross Country State Championships after not even knowing what cross county was a few months earlier. The real reason this movie is meaningful is because it lets us, the viewers far enough into the lives of these migrant families that we can begin to empathize and accept that maybe they, too, are part of us; Americans like us, too.
I chose to pair this movie with the scripture from Matthew 25. This passage catches Jesus at a significant moment in his teaching. He is describing how it is that God will look at us when our lives have ended. How is it that God will take stock of us and judge us for how well we’ve lived this life. Jesus suggests God will find there are two kinds of people. People who focused their lives on others, and people who focused their lives on themselves. It's in seeing the needs of those around us and offering ourselves to stand in the gap, that we see and treat each person as though they were Jesus himself. When we do this, God is pleased with us.
This passage is endlessly challenging. Every waking moment we are tempted to be inwardly focused… to put our own needs above the needs of others. When Coach White and his family arrived in McFarland they weren’t exactly happy to be there. Coaching football there was the only job Coach White could find after being fired from three schools after showing a bad temper. The coach jumps to familiar, stereotypical conclusions about this town and its people. It seemed unsafe; it seemed like an insult for his middle-class family to have to live in a neighborhood that felt more like a ghetto; he thought he deserved more professionally. Instead of seeing this job as an opportunity to lift up and support the community, Coach White was only thinking about himself and his family.
Fortunately for Coach White, and for us, change is possible. In an eye-opening moment during PE class, Coach White’s daughter sees the situation with fresh eyes. These kids may not be good at football, but boy, could they run. And even though Coach White has never coached running and the school has never had a running team and the kids have never run in a race before, they find common ground around this challenge and it pulls them closer together. They eventually win the state title in cross country that year. But the real story is that they learn to accept each other. The Coach shifts his perspective from trying to get out as soon as he can to one of empathizing with the plight of a migrant community that has to eke out its survival by picking produce 12 hours a day. For its part, the migrant community of McFarland embraces the coach and his family as one of their own. The coach and his family realize they’ve never lived any place in the USA that felt so much like home as McFarland.
How will our own lives be judged? Contrary to popular opinion, our faithfulness is not measured by how well we keep certain people out of our lives and our country, but by how well we refocus our attention away from our own needs and toward those in need around us.
How are we contributing to our community? Are we here just to take, to exist, to get what we need out of life and nothing more? Or are we here to put something back into the community? Do we look around see what can help us get ahead? Or are we looking intentionally for ways to help others get ahead?
These are not theoretical questions. We see these questions playing out all around us. This week when the government announced it was going to forgive some student loans to lighten the financial burden for thousands of people for whom education was not easily accessible, you would have thought people who didn’t get the debt forgiveness were actually slapped in the face by the way they reacted. Outrage and annoyed, people disparaged the thought that some people would have an easier road than they did. That it isn’t fair for some people to catch a break when you didn’t catch it yourself. Yet our scripture today doesn’t read this way: when you see someone who is hungry, only feed them if they deserve it. When we see someone’s burden our first thought shouldn’t be, “They should have to struggle as much as I did and then maybe I’ll help them.” No. You can criticize the debt forgiveness for other reasons, like maybe it didn’t forgive enough debt, but don’t pretend that forgiveness of debt isn’t a Biblical value.
Someday I hope we are good enough Christians that anytime we see someone struggling with a burden, we first empathize with them, trying to understand the circumstances around why this burden is so heavy, and then do everything we can to help lessen it. Some people are bold enough to call this a Christian nation, but we miss that mark often. What would happen if our whole society was oriented around helping one another succeed and flourish instead of being preoccupied with pulling of ourselves up by our bootstraps and looking down on everyone else who hasn’t yet been about to do that for themselves?
Jesus lived two thousand years before the USA even existed, but I imagine that if he did live in America, it would be in a community like McFarland, or standing in line for the food pantry, or as a child in the foster system, or as a young adult trying to make ends when education was not easily accessible to them. There are so many people all around us bearing heavy burdens and he would find them and stand alongside of them, defending them and helping them to hold their burden. The message is simple and also incredibly challenging: Let’s just be more like Jesus.
Let us pray.
O God, today you ask of questions that we don’t often ask ourselves enough. Who did we feed when they were hungry? Who did we visit when they were imprisoned? Who did we stand up for when they were in debt? Who did we defend when they were slandered into stereotypes? O God, help us when we are so self-focused that we can’t see the burdens others carry all around us. Help us when we try to put our own rules and parameters on the grace you try to offer. Help us in our short-sightedness when we say some people deserve help and others don’t. Help us to accept each other; to see each other; to love each other. Help us to be more like you.